TRU Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

Month: March 2022

Decolonize This!

University building with text "Decolonize This" overlaying it

UC Berkeley Sather Clock Tower Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By John Churchley, Education

Long ago I was an international student. I was a Canadian doing my doctorate at a university in the UK – an English speaker studying in England. I was one of only a couple English-first-language speakers in my program. Just like my multi-lingual classmates, I struggled to read the primary source literature in our philosophy of research course and worked hard to write erudite papers. I was impressed and humbled by their skill in reading/writing in an additional language. Years later I became a graduate instructor working with international students and marking their written work. It seemed to me that their English wasn’t as good as my UK classmates and I spent a lot of time critiquing, editing, and basically micromanaging their writing so that it looked like my writing. I thought I was doing them a favour by coaching them in the right way to write English. I now realize that I wasn’t – I was continuing the unworthy tradition of linguistic imperialism.

Linguistic imperialism is a type of colonization where a language (usually English, but others as well) is used to establish power and control over another people (Phillipson, 1998). This is not just a 19th century phenomenon in the far-flung British Empire. It is recent and ongoing. It happened in my lifetime in my city with Indigenous children being forced to go to residential schools and use English – being punished for using their traditional languages. It happens in our classes every day, as folks mock and belittle apparent English language errors or unfamiliar accents, and mispronounce non-English names.

Academic publishing, the ultimate goal of academics, can also be an extension of linguistic imperialism as it requires a very specific type of English which typically reflects a North American/UK origin and a significant level of academic privilege (Trahar et al., 2019). This disenfranchises several groups of people: those that learned English as an additional language and haven’t the experience in this type of English (I call it IELTS level 99); those that learned English as a first language, but in a cultural context other than entitled white UK/North America which includes different versions/dialects/accents of English; and those that didn’t grow up in a situation where privileged academic English was used. Think of Susan in Educating Rita or Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion as a couple of genteel examples from fiction – but it’s a much more serious issue for first-generation university students trying to find a place to belong, thrive, and succeed.

Decolonizing academic writing means not privileging academic North American/UK English above other Englishes. It means focusing on the depth of intellectual connections and the support of those connections with evidence, not on language usage or grammar.

I grew up as a Faculty child in the third generation of a family where both parents had a minimum of one university degree. On top of that, my home and school were in a high-income community that claimed to be “more English than England”. …And then I did my doctorate in England. I was a little upset that EU students got a better tuition deal than I did as a Commonwealth national, who even shared the same Queen! These opportunities and colonial attitude were part of my unearned privilege. I acknowledge that privilege and attitude. I am committed to shifting my thinking, to decolonize courses that I teach and to respect equity, diversity, and inclusion so that all my students have the opportunity to learn and succeed.

This is my goal: to ensure the students I teach are doing graduate level work while still honouring their English(es). They are smart people and my responsibility is to provide them with learning opportunities and assessment according to the course learning outcomes – not to judge and micromanage their English usage. I expect from them a depth of thought (application, analysis and higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy). I also expect evidence to support their statements and claims. Students as writers have a responsibility to communicate the depth and sources of their learning to an audience. As a reader of their work I also have a responsibility – to understand what they are saying and the voice they are using to express it. Understanding is a two-way street.

This song is my letter to these students to express my commitment to decolonizing academic writing in our classroom:



Phillipson, Robert (1992), Linguistic Imperialism, Oxford University Press.

Trahar, S., Juntrasook, A., Burford, J., von Kotze, A., & Wildemeersch, D. (2019). Hovering on the periphery? ‘Decolonising’ writing for academic journals. Compare: A Journal of Comparative & International Education49(1), 149–167.

“Be kind, be calm, be safe.” –Dr. Bonnie Henry, ‘20

Statement "Be kind, be calm, be safe" painted on the wall

Photo provided by author

A woman wearing a mask

Photo provided by the author

By Jacqueline Kampman, Associate Teaching Professor, Psychology

Walking down the hallway of the first floor in Old Main, this quotation on the wall catches my eye as I pass by. I can’t help but reflect:  How am I being kind, calm and safe? What leadership do I provide my students as they each navigate their own COVID-19 circumstances? How does my teaching promote their kindness, calmness and safety as well as their understanding of and concern for others with differing levels of safety and calmness from themselves?

Coming back to in-person classes in September 2021 was both exciting and anxiety-provoking. There were varying degrees of eagerness to get back to in-person classes for both students and teaching faculty. We expressed varying degrees of uncertainty and hesitancy as well. How would I navigate and accommodate these differences in perceived levels of safety, calmness and even kindness? How would I help students navigate the different expectations for in-person vs. on-line attendance and assessments that they would potentially experience as their teachers were not all “on the same page” with respect to perceptions of safe learning practices for themselves and their students?

As I planned and navigated my return to in-person classes, safety became my primary focus – both physical and mental health safety. My definition of safety included considerations of the kindness and calmness that Bonnie Henry had advised. A consideration of physical safety was perhaps the easiest in my mind to convey. I reviewed safety mandates both in-person and on-line: I aimed to be respectful, calm and kind and in turn expected the same from my students. However, dilemmas inevitably arose: Do I remove my own mask to speak or not? I do have the physical distancing to do so; it will help my students to more clearly hear me. But how might students’ sense of comfort and safety be impacted? Ultimately, I decided to remove my mask when I was in a physically safe zone to do so. I clarified that I would keep my mask on if even one person expressed discomfort. Students could do this anonymously. Rules were easily established regarding closer contact and mandatory mask-wearing.

A more time-consuming consideration was how to best promote mental health safety. Prior to the pandemic, I did not use Moodle. Returning to campus in September 2021, my initial motivation to continue using Moodle alongside in-person teaching had more to do with the perceived uncertainties regarding class attendance. Not only would students be more comfortable in navigating this on-line space should cancellation of classes be necessary, but individual students who missed classes would be supported. All lecture outlines and resources were posted; classroom participation was assessed in on-line forums; and assignments completed using various Moodle tools. This resulted in a level of calmness amongst my students as they were assured that they would have on-going access to class participation via Moodle if necessary for themselves and they were being acquainted with the types of Moodle tools that would be essential if a complete return to on-line classes were necessary. I assured my students that we were in this together: we could make this work even if circumstances were to suddenly change. We would protect and support each other. Our learning would continue.

Continuing to use the available Moodle resources has supported my students’ well-being in a variety of additional ways. For instance, I have observed an increased preparation for and participation in my in-person classroom. Student confidence in expressing ideas in-person has been enhanced by requiring completion of on-line forums: Students are receiving a greater exposure to differences in their thought and perspectives; they can see other students’ perspectives in written form as well as hear these in oral form. They encounter good (and poor) models of forum answers; they can self-correct through their reading of on-line comments as well as their in-class participation; they are able to learn from their errors in a “low stake” way. Overall, they feel (and are) more prepared for class; their anxiety regarding class participation is reduced. Some students have commented that they had “forgotten” how to have in-person discussions due to their past year of being isolated. They value the regained opportunity to have such discussions with the support of the required online forum preparation.

In my reflections on mental health safety, I have come to realize that my needs as a teacher in addition to those of my students should be considered. Being kind, calm, and safe should extend to myself as well. I am teaching on campus: There is a limit to the amount of time I should spend preparing on-line resources in addition to in-class course delivery and teaching. My mental well-being is important and is supported by a healthy work-home life balance.

As new challenges have arisen along with the Omicron variant and its impact on our current Winter 2022 term, I continue to reflect on how to best “immunize” my students. The needs of our students (and ourselves) as we “survive” this pandemic are extensive and varied.  What will be the new reality of teaching and learning as we “recover”? How can we best prepare?

Even though some restrictions have been lifted and others will be soon, I encourage you all to continue to “Be kind, be calm, be safe” as you continue to navigate this changing reality for yourselves and your students.

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