Postcolonial Studies and the British Academy


by

Laura Chrisman and Lawrence Phillips

The University Of Sussex


Copyright © 1999 by Laura Chrisman and Lawrence Phillips, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the authors.


  1. The following two short essays are revised versions of related papers delivered by us at the 1998 MLA convention as part of the panel, 'Postcolonial Pedagogies: Problems of Contexts and close Readings,' presided over by Professor Larry N. Landrum of Michigan State University. Our aim is to outline some key issues that arise from the experience of MA postcolonial studies within the British academy as a spur for further debate. Laura extrapolates from her experience as a professor, and Lawrence from his own experience as an MA student a few years ago. Laura's discussion focuses on the ways in which the postcolonial academic industry has affected teacher agency, student written work and classroom discussion, whereas Lawrence centres on close reading, its theoretical implications and practical problems within the live dynamics of a multiracial and multinational student body.

  2. The essays also reflect our involvement in an ongoing research project conducted at our home institution, the University of Sussex; Laura is the project's principal and Lawrence her current research assistant. This research is designed to explore ways to enhance the experience of students travelling to the UK to study English Literature at the MA level, with particular focus on the new programme in Colonial and Postcolonial Cultures, and to examine ways to foster a constructive and reflective relationship between theories of race, difference and power encountered in the syllabi of taught courses in English literature.

  3. Our concerns may seem to reflect a certain parochialism with their focus on the particulars of teaching and learning within British institutions, particularly the heavy emphasis placed on student-centred teaching through the medium of the small (up to ten students) seminar group. However, we are both interested in the consequences of the rapid institutionalisation of postcolonial studies, a phenomenon scarcely restricted to Britain alone. From our different perspectives we question how current teaching practices work to produce a normative postcolonial subject through which the socio-political status-quo is reinforced rather than challenged, a burning issue which confronts postcolonial studies as a discipline world-wide. We both suggest ways in which a postcolonial pedagogy can think of moving beyond this status quo to contribute to a project of social emancipation.

  4. Over the last 10 years postcolonial cultural studies in the British academy has grown more rapidly than any other humanities field. The field has grown equally at undergraduate and graduate degree levels. British universities now offer a large, competitive choice of MA programmes in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies. I want to argue that postcolonial studies in the UK is marked by neo-colonialism of a special kind. The field clearly holds a radical potential. It is often the first occasion for English departments to recognise the relevance of imperialism, race and ethnicity for the analysis of British literature. As such, postcolonial studies may provide the only sanctioned opportunity for students to interrogate racial and national identity production within a British and comparative Anglophone literary context.

  5. For tutors and students working within the historical Heart of Empire, British postcolonial studies thus carries with it a subjective burden of political self-interrogation, even as it carries the academic injunction to explore the meanings of British metropolitanism and overseas expansionism. However radical this situational particularity may be, it is contradicted by its own institutional circumstances, namely, the centripetal force of 'English Literature,' and the global currency of English language and literature as means and end of international value. A neocolonial irony is never far from the phenomenon of overseas students coming to England to specialise in Colonial and Postcolonial literary study. The metropolitan 'centre' is sustained thereby as the source of international postcolonial as well as academic and professional value.

  6. This neocolonial tension of postcolonial studies at Sussex University is augmented by the current operations of the metropolitan postcolonial theoretical industry. I am referring here to the restrictive ways in which the theorisations of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha have been commercialised by a textbook industry (evident for instance in the books by Robert Young, Bart Moore-Gilbert and Leela Gandhi). The net result of this commodification is that it encourages my students to absorb a highly teleological approach which as an individual professor I find difficult to counteract. The teleology situates post-structuralism as the highest or the only theory appropriate to postcolonial analysis. This means that students are frequently predisposed to view anti-colonial liberationist thought of Amilcar Cabral, C.L.R. James, Aimé Césaire, for example, as not properly theoretical and therefore unworthy of their serious critical engagement. It means too that openly anti-colonial literature of Sol Plaatje, Joseph Casely-Hayford, Sembene Ousmane, Miriam Tlali, for instance, is neglected in favour of more contemporary and metropolitan writers like Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. I rarely receive MA term papers on such non-canonical writers and theorists, although they occupy as much space within my curriculum as Said, Spivak and Bhabha. Almost without exception students choose to focus their term papers on a single, canonical writer, and to pursue a non-materialist close reading.

  7. I think that the conservatism of the University of Sussex examination procedures contributes to this voluntary narrowing of intellectual writing opportunity by students. Assessment of written work takes place within an inflexible and authoritarian system, which is common within the UK. The university administration and not the professor decide on the writing requirements of all courses, which are in the case of the MA standardised at a single term paper of 5,000 words. Each paper is marked by two anonymous faculty, who agree on its grade. This obviously militates against student willingness to experiment with choice of topic and approach.

  8. At the same time, the liberalism of the institution also can work to reinforce student conservatism in postcolonial studies. The university's commitment to a student-centred mode of learning means that weekly seminar discussions are initiated by one or two student presentations and that the tutor is a non-interventionist facilitator of the student agenda. This can result in a further hegemonisation of the postcolonial theoretical industry, operating through student consensus. The established assumption that postcolonial cultural studies is really, properly 'about' the difficult post-structuralist primary texts of Said, Spivak and Bhabha means that whatever the seminar topic and set readings of the week, those students with a confident grasp of these--and other--poststructuralist thinkers are those who carry the general authority of their peers and can lead the discussion back towards the canon.

  9. So far I have outlined as factors in the production of a narrow normative postcolonial subject the metropolitan textbook publishing industry, the conservative international status of the British university, and both the authoritarian assessment modes and the liberal student-centred pedagogical ideology of Sussex as an institution. Another factor in the contraction of postcolonial radicalism at Sussex is perhaps cultural. The willingness and ability to publicly disclose and discuss subject positioning--something integral to postcolonial studies--does not come easily, I have found, to literature students at Sussex of any nationality other than American. Classroom reticence does not extend to written work; when invited to students in my postcolonial courses usually eagerly seize the opportunity to compose non-assessed written analyses of their subject-positioning and how it relates to the field of study. Within the classroom discussion, however, such disclosures are rare, and this means that discussions of cultural difference, of subalternity and dominance can remain at a fairly 'safe' level of abstraction, a theoretical discourse commanded by the most comfortably metropolitan students.

  10. What I think is called for is some serious reshuffling of core concepts. The radical pedagogy approach of the USA (e.g., Henry Giroux), predicated on a classroom validation of cultural differences and dialogue, seems not to have much practical application to the University of Sussex situation. There seems little to prevent it from working, like the postcolonial textbook industry, or the liberalism of Sussex's student-centredness, to produce a normative postcolonial subject which reinforces rather than challenges the status-quo. If however we attempt to sideline concepts of 'cultural difference' and 'the Other,' and instead to pronounce concepts of 'political struggle,' of 'social and economic inequality' as the conceptual core of postcolonial cultural studies at Sussex, then perhaps the hierarchies I have outlined might themselves be pushed into the sidelines. And the postcolonial task of critical analysis might turn towards the material 'contexts' that make cultural production possible.

  11. The following observations concerning the practical problems of close reading in a postcolonial classroom derive directly from my experiences as an MA student at the University of Sussex, and my membership of an international student group that remained largely intact through two English Literature courses taught by Dr. Laura Chrisman. The international diversity of this student group was exceptional; members from Sweden, the United States, South Korea, Pakistan, Brazil, Denmark--and British participants in the group--reflected multiple ethnicities. Such diversity would seem to be the ideal forum through which to explore our respective subject positions in relation to colonialism with the minimum of Eurocentric bias, which we, as students of postcolonialism, held as our ideal. Moreover, our tutor actively encouraged such a project. Our diversity, however, was no match for the institutional and pedagogical constraints which form an academic discipline.

  12. The most visible barrier to open and free discussion was language. Whilst this may not at first sight appear to be an institutional issue, the heavy emphasis on student-based teaching in humanities classes and its principal expression in supervised seminar debate within British universities place those who must mentally translate the discussion into a frustrating position. Both the Swedish man and the South Korean woman had good conversational English and very good written English, but they experienced problems with the speed of seminar discussion and the examination of textual nuance and ambiguity when spontaneous close reading was required. The Brazilian man was an accomplished English speaker, but still experienced some difficulty. As a consequence of this 'translation delay,' each experienced a certain marginality to group discussions and were effectively silenced. The South Korean woman also experienced a rather acute cultural problem in relation to asserting herself in debates. In Korea, she informed me, it is seen as a breach of etiquette to assert oneself whilst others are talking. Interrupting another speaker a characteristic of even the best chaired discussion was consequently extremely difficult for her. Ironically, such marginalisation in the classroom can be seen as an uncomfortable re-inscription of the academic marginalisation the so-called first world fosters at the expense of its others.

  13. It is clear that it is not sufficient to acknowledge difference and to clear a discursive space for formerly silenced histories and traditions, if pedagogical methods entrenched within the academy are not changed to encourage their expression and thence to create a truly postcolonial learning environment. One obvious place to start would be to develop one aspect of our existing pedagogical repertoire--an increase of unassessed written work based on close reading exercises, whether based on literary or on theoretical texts. At the University of Sussex, English MA seminars are structured to incorporate such exercises through student presentations: one or more students are set tasks to present to their class. The increase in such content should theoretically enable students who may be marginalised by the open debate situation to express their views more fully. Enough presentational 'space' could be allowed so that a clear position could be enunciated from a written paper and subsequent questions carefully chaired by the tutor.

  14. But this approach also has its dangers. What would be lost is the spontaneity and the interrogation of positions that open discussion and debate encourage. It would also necessitate greater control and intervention by the tutor which, especially at postgraduate level, may be considered enervating or too didactic. There is also a risk that reliance on written responses in the classroom would stifle the expression of differences, because written work would be influenced by formalised writing by which such utterances gain academic authority and thence recognition. In such an environment, the postcolonial, as Ania Loomba suggests, "functions in increasingly formulaic or reductive terms that are abstracted from concrete situations."

  15. My experiences within this group are also particularly relevant to the question of contextualising close reading. When recently approached over the utility of close reading in remedying the problems she experienced, the South Korean student observed that more close reading would have helped to defuse the aggressive debate, although she was less certain that more would have been gained in learning terms. This raises some important questions in relation to close reading as a pedagogical tool. Part of the value--or at least the hope--of the greater internationalisation of student intake is the possibility of collectively confronting the cultural products and theoretical approaches of various traditions. The experience of learning and teaching together, of understanding what each reads and look for in a text, provides the opportunity to address potential misunderstandings which can arise from the contemplation of written commentaries alone.

  16. However, close reading by its very nature is strongly focused on the text; as its history as a critical methodology demonstrates, it has tended to privilege the aesthetic at the expense of the material and historical. The risk in the postcolonial classroom, I would argue, is less to exclude the expression of cultural differences within and of a given text, but more to view them abstractly rather than as the consequence of a history and an experience. Close reading then becomes interchangeable with discourse analysis in this respect, which can also become excessively fixated on the abstract 'play' of discursive structures as opposed to the histories they have mutilated and the material reality they exclude--as Homi Bhabha's work perhaps best exemplifies. As Terry Eagleton and Ella Shohat both caution, what can result is a celebration of abstracted cultural difference at the expense of discussions of geopolitical and economic imbalances.

  17. A related problem arises from the authority vested in the tutor in leading class reading exercises, both as leader of the reading group and as a director of written work. Like many supposedly objective methods, close reading does not of itself betray its relation to academic and institutional authority. However, it is the specific context of such authority within the Western academy which should be most in question in postcolonial debates. Close reading is itself one of those contexts, as my South Korean co-student recognised. While the tutor's redirection of class discussion to close reading placed some limits upon the often furious debate which excluded the South Korean student, at the same time this return to close reading also asserts the tutor's authority and his/her determination of acceptable readings of the text another form of exclusion.

  18. The invitation to refocus on close reading urges students to take up an abstract position from which to look in on the text. In the best Western Enlightenment tradition, such abstractions generally hide very specific ideological determinants under a cloak of neutrality. The problem here is that discussions focused around close reading invariably lead towards consensus under the tutors guidance, since without such guidance one might meet with a number of seemingly aberrant readings (which is the lesson of I. A. Richard's Practical Criticism) unacceptable from an institutional/disciplinary perspective. It is telling that whilst Richards' condemnation of the 'errors' of free interpretation that emerged from his 'experiment' with close reading without tutor control has been roundly criticised, his methodology of tutor-led close reading is still the prevailing classroom model. Rather than allowing a multiplicity of social realities to be considered on an equal footing, an abstract, unlived, position is created.

  19. To borrow a phrase from Foucault, close reading begins to resemble a 'ritual of truth'. A 'truth' which is untroubled by material experience, yet is itself a discourse which conditions which 'truths' may be validated. Of most concern here is that in teaching students a methodology like close reading, one merely transmits to them a series of rules by which they may constitute the 'truth' within the disciplinary constraints of literary studies. This has less to do with admitting a multiplicity of voices as the premise of postcolonialism demands, but more to do with assumptions about authority, legitimacy and power within the Western academy. One might ask is close reading, by its very nature, at odds with the postcolonial project?

  20. What we hope our two papers point towards is that the representation of postcolonial studies in the academy is shaped both by the academic traditions (including dominant teaching practices) and national history of the host country. This is manifested in teaching methodologies and practices that can have very specific ideological consequences which are perhaps most apparent when teaching students from another country and academic tradition, as both our essays suggest. Postcolonial Studies is, by its very premise, committed to the constitution of an international forum for the exchange of ideas and mutual understanding, and those of us participating in that debate can participate in this community through our published work and conferences from multiple approaches and viewpoints. What we would like to ask is how this community is affected by the institutional and pedagogical traditions of our academies, and do we turn an international field into something rather more parochial and perhaps nationalist for our students? Such an examination, we would suggest, is long overdue.

  21. We would therefore urge readers to take up the opportunity to respond to these papers in the forum generously provided by Jouvert, both by commenting on our observations but also by contributing your own observations about teaching practices in postcolonial classes both in you own institution and country, but also your perception of postcolonial pedagogy elsewhere. We are not seeking to encourage damning critiques of your own academies or attacks upon other institutions, but to ask you how Postcolonial Studies is shaped at the point of delivery. We look forward to reading the debate.


    To respond to issues raised in this article, post a messge to the Jouvert Forum: Post a Message

    To view the responses go to the Jouvert Forum: Discussion Page


    Back to Contents Page || Back to Jouvert Mainpage