F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

[Week 4 Talk] The Question of Decolonization: Academia’s Political and Pedagogical Limits

During their public conversation on Indigenous Studies and British Literatures – a part of an ongoing Antiracism: Research, Teaching, Public Engagement series – Robbie Richardson and Nikki Hessell espoused and interrogated the praxis and practice of decolonization both within academia and outside of it.  They raised questions about how scholars define fields, theories, peoples, and lands in colonialist/colonized ways.  Pedagogical issues arose as to the nature of citation when colonialist citation systems, which risk rendering indigenous knowledges invisible; material quandaries came to the fore in terms of the ways in which indigenous culture and material collections became part of colonialist archives; and the insufficiencies of historiographic theorizations became clear with critiques of Western understandings of periodization.  Hessell, who deliberately identifies as a Pākehā scholar (i.e., a Māori-language term for a white New Zealander), placed the academy into a larger context by comparing its structural form to that of Crown negotiations with Māori peoples wherein the indigenous peoples had to use Crown language and form – and understand Crown values and cultural investments to do so – not unlike indigenous scholars traversing academia.  Richardson, a member of the Pabineau First Nation in Canada, emphasized the fact that colonialism is itself a structure, not an event, in which the conceptualization of “survivance” necessarily undergirds indigenous metaphysics.  Their work thus of course resonated with the interrogations, methodologies, and praxes Linda Tuhiwahi Smith advances in her seminal Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples.

The meditative dénouement of the conversation, however, involved a certain uncertainty as to the praxis of decolonization.  While accessibility, diversity, and repatriation serve as the cornerstones of any decolonizing politic, Richardson and Hessell contended that perhaps, ultimately, there is no decolonizing certain institutions or nation-states.  The academy, as an example, can create coursework schema and scholars that pursue the resituation of colonized fields into indigenous studies, but in many ways, decolonization is about the preclusion of further loss.  That of course does not begin to suggest that there is not significant and important work to do and meaningful results to gain, but it does frame decolonization in a particular political light – one of limits if also of great depths.

Though digital humanities “have not [yet] escaped the traditional canon by turning to new methods of publication” (Earhart 314) – instead reinstituting the same theoretical and pedagogical mentalities that govern traditional academic work – its potential remains to pursue “the abandonment of the ideal of high [read: colonized] culture […] as a unifying force” (Bolter 233) in its democratizing and acephalous possibilities.

Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing.
     Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Earhart, Amy E. “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities
     Canon.” Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Mark K. Gold, UMN P, 2012, pp. 309-32.


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