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by Karen Schucan Bird
21st October 2021

Karen Schucan Bird and Lesley Pitman (UCL) studied the reading lists of two modules, one from science and one from social science, in a research-intensive British university in 2019. They found evidence that there is justification for concerns that university curricula are dominated by White, male and Eurocentric authors. In this Transforming Research article, we speak to Karen and address the need to decolonise the curriculum.

‘How diverse is your reading list? Exploring issues of representation and decolonisation in the UK’ by Karen Schucan Bird and Lesley Pitman is available as an Open Access article.

Has there been any improvement since the study in 2019?

Since 2019, there has been a definitive surge in interest, research and action targeting the content of reading lists in higher education in the Global North. In the UK, we have seen the development of various tools (such as the Diversity Mark Toolkit at the University of Kent) and new methods (such as automated approaches to reviewing reading lists at Imperial College London) to assist us in interrogating reading lists. Yet, it is difficult to gauge the impact of these initiatives.

Recent publications suggest that male White authors, primarily based in the Global North, continue to dominate our reading lists across many disciplines. Research on reading lists in Political Science and Law found that male, White authors predominate while a study in public health reported the dominance of authors from high-income countries. A recent study spanning multiple disciplines found that female authors remain under-represented on reading lists, relative to their standing in the discipline (as published authors).

On first glance, this literature seems to point to limited improvement in the diversity of authors on our reading lists. Yet, there is a dearth of studies to inform this judgement. Research and methods focusing on reading lists are still emergent and so current studies are primarily taking stock of the reading lists in their own disciplines or institutions. Such studies are important and a necessary starting point, serving as a baseline against which to measure change.

Research that considers changes to reading lists over time is less prevalent. One such study has examined changes to reading lists (comparing reading lists in 2020 with 2018 versions), reporting only marginal changes. The report does note small but incremental changes where the later list included a greater proportion of authors from the Global South. However, as this study highlights, changes to individual reading lists are taking place within a wider context in which global inequalities remain unchallenged. The domination of global knowledge production by the Global North, for example, creates structural barriers that hinder the creation, publication and dissemination of knowledge from the Global South. Therefore, it is important to recognise that such factors continue to play a role in shaping the content of reading lists.

Why do descriptively representative reading lists matter?

First, it is helpful to acknowledge the central role played by reading lists in the architecture of teaching and learning in higher education. Most, if not all, programmes and modules at UK universities provide reading lists as a core part of the course content. Reading lists matter to both students and staff. Research tells us that staff and students value reading lists as an important tool for learning. Students expect the reading list to direct them towards the ‘main’ and ‘key’ texts of the subject area, and encompass the standard collection of works that have historically shaped disciplinary thinking.

Second, despite being central to higher education, reading lists have not been a focus for critical analysis. Up until recently, reading lists have been understood primarily as ‘a device, a tool, and an unproblematic given’. Therefore, applying the concept of ‘descriptive representation’ (where reading lists act as a vehicle for representing the wider scholarly community) raises new questions and offers critical perspectives on the role and value of reading lists. Current reading lists, as highlighted above, arguably create a skewed representation of the scholarly community by including authors that do not fully reflect the academe (or breadth of perspectives).

  • This matters because ‘descriptively representative’ reading lists would integrate authors that more closely resemble the make-up of the scholarly community. There are a number of arguments for why this is important:
  • Ensuring equality and justice: Reading lists should reflect the changing composition of the scholarly community and provide recognition of historically under-represented groups.
  • Ensuring representation of diverse perspectives and minority views: If author demographics influence research perspectives and approach then reading lists should ensure representation of the breadth of such approaches.
  • Ensuring student engagement and facilitating belonging: Reading lists have a role to play in ensuring that students can see themselves reflected in the curriculum and so inspire engagement with the field and foster feelings of belonging.

What would a ‘diverse/inclusive/decolonised’ reading list look like?

There is considerable debate in higher education about the meaning of ‘inclusive’, ‘diverse’ and ‘decolonised’ curricula and so there is no single vision for a transformed reading list. The literature on ‘inclusive’ teaching, for example, is relatively young and understands inclusion in ‘radically different ways’. Similarly, the meaning and objectives of decolonising education is keenly debated. If we look towards emerging teaching toolkits and practices, we also see a number of different understandings and approaches to reforming reading lists. The UCL Inclusive Curriculum Healthcheck promotes the integration of a diverse range of authors ‘from different ethnicities, from outside the UK and from non-academic sources where relevant’. The University of Birmingham Best Practice Guide for LGBTQ inclusivity refers to the ‘inclusion of topics, themes and readings about LGBTQ identities’ and Goldsmiths’ Liberate Our Library promotes interactive and collaborative reading lists that focus on marginalised, under-represented voices.

How do we navigate such a diffuse agenda and take steps towards diverse/inclusive/decolonised reading lists? First, we can, and should, draw on academic tools to shape and guide our attempts at reform. As outlined above, the concept of descriptive representation is one such tool. Rooting our reform in a sound rationale, and being transparent in our methods, provides a firm starting point.

Second, it is important to recognise and engage with wider challenges that inhibit the construction of diverse/inclusive/decolonised reading lists. From the inequitable nature of global knowledge production to the dearth of institutional resources to support curricula reform, several factors shape the possibilities for change. Third, ongoing and critical engagement with our reading lists is necessary. It is helpful to recognise that reading lists are not extensive, complete or static. Instead, they present a curated, partial representation of knowledge, perspectives and disciplinary boundaries. Encouraging students (and staff) to reflect on the composition of their reading lists is, therefore, an ongoing project.

Karen Schucan Bird is Associate Professor in Social and Political Science at Social Research Institute, UCL. She works with students across all levels of the university and teaches an introductory module on Politics. Her research focuses on policy-relevant systematic reviews, currently with a focus on domestic violence and abuse.

 

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