Diversifying and decolonising the curriculum with open knowledge

What a little bird told me about making higher education more inclusive

Illustration of McCown’s Longspur, a small brown and grey bird
The common English name of 𝘙𝘩𝘺𝘯𝘤𝘩𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘦𝘴 𝘮𝘤𝘤𝘰𝘸𝘯𝘪𝘪 is controversial and has sparked a change of policy for the American Ornithological Society. What can we learn from this in relation to higher education and open knowledge? (Illustration: Andrew Tilsley, used with permission)


In this post, I will discuss several proposed demands and requirements on collections, catalogues and curriculums across higher education, from the perspective of an individual practitioner and at a systemic or institutional level. There is evidence of instances in many disciplines where cultural views, experiences, traditions (and current activities) have received inappropriate, inaccurate or inadequate representation. In particular, ‘items’ relating to people from Black, Asian or other ethnic backgrounds which are a minority in Europe and North America continue to be overlooked or dismissed, as do ‘items’ relating to people who identify as LGBTQ+ or are disabled or neurodivergent. I use the term ‘items’ here to collectively refer to cataloguing practices, objects within archives, research output and publications, and the choice of language used when describing people, places and animals. Sometimes, the use of these specific names or words is offensive to people who have been affected by the historical actions of colonialism and continuing systemic discrimination across society.

My intention is to look at discussions and decisions behind processes involving the implementation of decolonisation. Concurrently, I will refer to open knowledge practices, comparing actions both within and outside of higher education. Further, I shall look at the wider momentum for decolonising within business schools and other institutions, providing examples and identifying commonalities between disciplines. Examples will include controversial names — in this case, a bird and a business school — and how these have sparked policy changes within their respective fields. I will attempt to link everything back to my initial topic of openness and integrity in archival practices. Finally, I shall use my informed opinions to make suggestions for continuing these efforts, through my role in a higher education establishment.

Archivists play a fundamental role in supporting a diversity-positive higher education curriculum

Archivists and cataloguers work with historical content which may include records or catalogues created at any time between the production of the content and the present day. It is necessary to make decisions as part of the curation of these archives, such as:

  • What is to be kept or restored?
  • What is most relevant or interesting to the creator or to the researcher?
  • What will be a priority now and in the future?

Another major area of decision making is around classification and choice of language. Lianne Smith wrote in her OKHE1 post about the personal dimension of open practice. She says that it is not uncommon for archivists to be working with material and records which contain opinions and terminology which they may find outdated and/or offensive. She continues to explain that sharing digitised content online highlights the visibility of the decisions made — the “interplay” between the personal and professional identity of the creators of the records and of the archivist — and the necessity for individual practitioners to consider their personal openness.

Choice of language may have unexpected negative impact (which could have been avoided)

Labels and names given to objects in catalogues and museums may be created with the writer’s bias, which may be unconscious or due to lack of care. For example, an exhibition at the Pequot Society Gallery contained wall text to describe the objects chosen to represent life for Pequot American Indians. The design firm was given primary source material about the tribe’s history to research and produce the wall text, yet they produced a biased narrative which misrepresented the primary source authors, by imposing Christian notions of the finality of death. A committee was able to make corrections, such as changing the “final journey” of death and the afterlife to the “journey” as a continuation of one’s earthly experience. The committee had access to a framework of knowledge which greatly aided them to make accurate and informed improvements, to the satisfaction of those concerned.

Histories may be lost due to prejudice or unfamiliarity

Portrait of Anne Lister
Portrait of Anne Lister (1791–1840), by Joshua Horner, ca. 1830 (image: public domain). An excerpt from her journal, written in her private code, dated 28 June 1818 (from West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale, document reference SH:7/ML/E/2, used with permission).

Entire collections can be hidden or destroyed because of bias. Anne Lister (1791–1840) of Shibden Hall, Halifax, has a legacy as a scholar, traveller and business woman. Much of what we know about Lister today is taken from her extensive diaries, where the more intimate sections were written in a private code. She described using this crypt as a “comfort” to write “all as it really is” and it is from these sections that we could learn about her sexuality and gender non-conformity. In the 1890s, her code was cracked and the holder of the diaries was subsequently advised to “burn all 26 volumes”. Fortunately, he did not, yet the first works to reveal Lister’s sexuality would not be published until nearly 100 years later in 1988. Even after that, the next author to examine the diaries commented that the passages in crypt were largely “of no historical interest whatsoever”. However, since then, Anne Lister has been made internationally famous, and referred to as the “first modern lesbian”. Her story is complex and fascinating, offering unique insight, only possible as a result of interpreting her coded diary passages.

Working within optimistic yet realistic bounds

It is understood within archiving that we cannot keep everything: there are practical reasons to prioritise and select works for cataloguing or digitising. However, being open about decisions that have made allows others to come back later and look again. A lot is being done now to improve practices as part of the decolonising and diversifying movement, with widespread work to address bias. This is enabling us to reveal works from authors from a variety of backgrounds, and to hear voices often previously overlooked.

Similar diversity and decolonising discussions are happening inside and beyond higher education

Two proposals to change a problematic bird name

Comparable issues are being raised in unrelated disciplines such as ornithology. A small, relatively obscure bird known scientifically as Rhynchophanes mccownii has been at the centre of a minor controversy related to decolonisation. Up until very recently, this bird, which inhabits shortgrass prairies of North America, has usually been known by the common English name of McCown’s Longspur. It is not uncommon for a bird, or other biological species, to be given an eponym or an ‘honorific’ for a name, rather than one which describes its appearance or behaviour. However, in this instance, the name in question is widely considered to hold little honour today. The McCown referred to in the longspur’s name is John P. McCown (1815–1879), a man who “fought for years to maintain the right to keep slaves, and also fought against multiple Native tribes”.

In 2019, a proposal was made to change the English name of McCown’s Longspur to one which does not cause offence in its arguably celebratory reminder of human rights atrocities. At the time, the North American Classification Committee of the American Ornithological Society (AOS) rejected the proposal, largely based on the lack of a general policy for deciding such matters leading to further discussions in the community. Some months later, the Committee developed and published new guidelines that specifically addressed potentially offensive names. Pleasingly, in the time I have been researching this issue, a new proposal has been submitted and quickly accepted. The impact from the Black Lives Matter movement is clearly visible here, and this little bird shall henceforth be known as the Thick-billed Longspur.

Wider implications of sharing knowledge

The community discussions relating to name changes are available for anyone to view, as are the minutes of the AOS committee meetings and all policy guidelines. By keeping this knowledge available and open, it can be reused across other disciplines or fields when the same types of arguments come up again. Nevertheless, the wisdom of decolonising scientific nomenclature has been called into question.

Opposing viewpoints have been given voice: “You would have to really dig hard to link the name McCown’s Longspur to slavery and support of slavery. You would almost have to be looking to be offended.” However, it is no longer an obscure reference, it is now in the minds of ornithologists and anyone reading up on the topic, so if we are to make knowledge inviting to everyone without invoking and celebrating disturbing associations, we cannot “un-discover” or otherwise “forget” what has now been revealed.

What is happening with business schools?

Bringing the focus back to higher education, there are many who are working on diversifying and decolonising their activities, identities and curriculums. I have worked within library and business school environments for the last ten years, and I have witnessed significant developments and changes in cultural attitudes and perceptions. Much decolonising activity has centred around humanities, social sciences, libraries, galleries and museums, but business schools are no exception and their experience from research in the field of corporate social responsibility can provide additional insight.

A webinar on decolonising the business school

Decolonising action has been a major topic at City Business School and many others this year.

A recent webinar about decolonising the business school was hosted by ETHOS: The Centre for Responsible Enterprise at City, University of London. It included 182 participants on Zoom, with many followers on Twitter including live-tweets by Caroline Ball and members of the Business Librarians Association. (The recording is available on YouTube.)

One of the live-tweets from the webinar on decolonising the business school, July 2020.

Some of the key points raised concerned the structures in which business schools sit and operate, in summary:

  • The origin, legacy and language of business schools is firmly rooted in imperialism and Western capitalism.
  • There is an essential need to extend the conversation beyond a traditional academic audience to non-academic university staff, students, publishers and business leaders.
  • Decolonisation cannot utilise the violent, destructive processes of colonisation; it must be about unity and reconnecting.
  • Colonisation history needs to be taught, acknowledged and made transparent.

Another name change, one with wide visibility

The importance of language as a decolonising tool cannot be underestimated regardless of the scale of implementation. Sometimes the application of language has a wider reach and is visible to more people. One such example concerns City, University of London’s Business School which will no longer be known as Cass, as of July 2020. The wealth of Sir John Cass (1666–1718) was obtained through his links with the slave trade. An educational charity, the Sir John Cass Foundation, was posthumously established in 1748 and funds deriving from this foundation — and thus from slavery — eventually led to the creation of the business school. The decision to change the name was taken by the University following a petition from staff and students within the institution as well as external influence and pressure.

Extending decolonisation into the public domain

The significance of the decolonisation movement is not limited to academic and scientific spheres. Decolonising principles are also appearing to the general public in television entertainment shows, although not necessarily using such terminology. On a recent episode of the BBC television show QI (Series R, “Roaming”, accessed via Learning on Screen), the prepared script stated that the concept of a welfare system had not existed before the Romans. There was a challenge that similar concepts existed earlier in African villages, but were missed by Western scholars because much of African history has been recorded orally without written records. The host acknowledged that the show’s research had been biased. In this instance, as with many others, there was no intention to exclude cultures from other parts of the world, but there may not have been due diligence when researching, unfortunate for a broadcast which prides itself on presenting accurate and detailed knowledge. I believe that such admission and acknowledgement would not have been kept in the broadcast edit of a television show were it not for recent wider social movements. It may be plausible that the interaction in this episode of QI was staged, at least partly, to make the BBC appear more supportive of diversity; nevertheless, it will have made many viewers question the show’s previous output and sparked discussions in people’s homes.

What should happen next?

There is momentum for diversifying and decolonising across higher education, and openness is a great facilitating factor. Work in one area can inspire work in other areas. People do not necessarily have to become familiar with the details, simply having headline knowledge can be enough. Nevertheless, the details may be very useful when it comes to drawing up policies.

I suggest that anyone seeking to make changes to improve inclusivity in higher education should keep pushing, keep sharing, and make the time to take action. It may also be necessary to re-evaluate priorities where appropriate to see the benefits. I am part of a group looking to “decolonise the curriculum” at The University of Manchester Library, particularly its special collections. Whilst previously, there had been considerable talk about how we’d like to do things at some point in the future, we have now begun to make time in our busy schedules to hold regular workshops. At these events, we reflect on relevant reading and form real action plans.

For my most recent action, I have decided to follow on from Carlene Barton’s OKHE2 post about creating inclusive open educational resources. I will suggest a new set of guidelines for any teaching materials created in the library, so they consider principles learned from our diversity and decolonising work. This may be to ensure that writers from a variety of backgrounds are considered, or that topics do not feature a Global North-bias. For example, Sierra Leone and Liberia have overcome civil wars and established democracy, without major Western interventions. These success stories are not widely reported in our media; we hold on to the image of tropical Africa being corrupt or impoverished, blinding us to recent achievements. We can choose to use articles relating to these or similar topics in workshops such as Critical Reading as a form of active inclusivity.

Finally, my advice is to keep conversations going and to keep listening to all kinds of voices. If you come across someone who demonstrates a frustrating viewpoint, do your best to give them patience and a polite opportunity to learn more; wouldn’t you want them to do the same for you?




Exploring themes of open knowledge in higher education.

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Phil Reed

Phil Reed

Librarian Data Specialist, The University of Manchester. Supporting teaching, learning and research with financial databases, digital skills and scholarship.

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