Decolonizing the curriculum: Creating space, resources, and dialogue

I write from a privileged position, as an academic and as a U.S. citizen. I write from the ancestral lands of the Ioway, and the traditional homeland of the Sauk and Meskwaki Nations. As an art historian specializing in “Precolumbian” art history, I have spent my adult life researching and teaching Indigenous American art created before the 15th century in Latin America. The very existence of something called Precolumbian art, its presence in art history curriculum in Iowa, and the fact it is being taught by a woman with Mexican ancestry, is already a practice in decolonizing the curriculum. We’ve come a long way, but we have much further to go.  

Khristin Montes
Khristin Montes

In my field our colonial past is present in the Western art history “canon”—what (i.e. who) has traditionally been part of it, and what (who) has not. This canon has been a space dominated by white, cisgender (one whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) male artists, writers, and researchers. Historically, non-binary individuals (gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine), women, and Black, Indigenous, and other people of color have been excluded. This trajectory is slowly changing. However, in many ways, the discipline and its curriculum is still controlled by historically dominant voices … and voices have languages, and languages have terms. 

Terminology itself can be an act of continued colonization and aggression. For example, “Precolumbian” (before Columbus) privileges a European event as a way to define a field that has nothing to do with Europe. Though slightly better, “Indigenous Art of the Americas” is also problematic. Both “Indigenous” and “American” homogenize incredibly diverse groups of people and give a name to this place never used before European contact. 

It can be overwhelming to know where to start in decolonizing our curriculum. However, we must persist in this work. In her book, “The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom,” Felicia Rose Chavez notes “too often writers of color conclude that workshops are hazardous because [students/writers of color] are not represented among the faculty, they’re not represented in the syllabus, and they’re not represented within the class cohort.” I, myself, have much work to do in decolonizing spaces of learning. However, following Chavez, I think a promising place to begin this work is in the syllabus itself. 

I’ve heard the syllabus referred to as a variety of things, as a “road-map,” as a “calendar,” as a “legal document.” I imagine it can be all of these. Can we challenge ourselves to see the syllabus less as a space of single authorship and more as a context for “braiding knowledge”? The term “braiding knowledge” is not my own. It is a Native American Anishinabe concept I borrow from my colleague Sonya Atalay, who introduces it as a way to create more equitable partnerships between community members and academic researchers. The process of braiding reflects a winding and, at moments, adaptable intertwining of different strands. One element not only comes into contact with others, but works with the others so that together they are stronger.  

I wonder, can we make similar efforts to braid more knowledge systems together in our syllabi and classrooms? If we, as faculty and staff members, represent one strand in the braid, can we waive our power to the other two strands reflected by our curriculum and our student body? Can we increase the number of LGBTQI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, queer/questioning, intersex) and Black, Indigenous, Latin@, and other people of color authors and speakers in reading lists and events? 

As many of my colleagues are already doing, can we design final projects that engage students in a manner benefiting the communities they are studying? Can we seek to invite those communities in as possible syllabi coauthors? Can we turn to our own student body as the third strand in a system of braiding knowledge? I wonder, is there a way to ask our increasingly diverse student body what is missing in terms of diversity and inclusion in our syllabi and curricula? 

I have no doubt many of us are already asking these questions and so many of my colleagues have been doing this work long before I arrived. Yet, I know we all have ways we could improve and new work we could begin. 

What does your braid look like?