The “decolonization” of syllabi in higher education provides academic opportunities for students and professors to communicate and explore diverse topics while investigating different perspectives. Just over fifty percent of Miller and Meadows residents feel their education has lacked diversity in their curriculum.

By Ellie Lawson

Huntington University film student Braxton Barnhill had a decision to make.

While viewing the 1915 drama Birth of a Nation in class — a seminal cinematic marvel of its time — Barnhill questioned whether he should focus on the groundbreaking technical side of the film or its disburbingly racist message.

The film encouraged and advanced white supremacy ideology and glorified the re-organization of the Klu Klux Klan in America.

Sitting in his metal desk surrounded by peers and teachers who didn’t look like him, Barnhill, a black nineteen-year-old, listened as the class analyzed its technical-cinematic accomplishments, not its racist agenda.

“Some people have the privilege to not have to look at the negative aspects of that film,” Barnhill said. “I have to. Yeah, it’s a great film, but it was horrible. It was racist.”

Barnhill has uncovered something that has been going on in classrooms for years now.

But the current trend within higher education is to “decolonize” syllabi through the selection of course readings and resources. The idea of “decolonization,” in the context of academics, is professors presenting students with scholarly material that allows for a well-rounded, complete picture of the topics being discussed. These specifically uncover racial, sexual and gender identities that have been marginalized.

“To get there, we have to go back in history to figure how the power dynamics that are at play currently — where do they come from?” said Garrett Graddy-Lovelace, associate professor of global environmental and agricultural policy and politics at American University in Washington D.C.

During a phone interview, Graddy-Lovelace emphasized the importance of decolonized syllabi. In order to understand current food and agricultural policy, she said, one must look at past events, people and cultures who have shaped it.

In the first-half of her course, “Political Ecologies of Food & Agriculture,” Graddy-Lovelace has students read primary and secondary sources which address food and agricultural patterns starting from colonialism in America to slavery during the nineteenth century. This gives students the resources to analyze the past and its current impact on agri-policy.

A survey taken in Miller and Meadows halls at Huntington University reflects the presence, as well as the absence, of the trend on campus. When asked whether students felt their education has been diverse, 54 percent answered their education at HU has lacked the diversity which decolonization brings to the classroom. Forty-six percent felt their educational experience has proven to be diverse and non-exclusive.

Jeffrey Webb, professor of history at Huntington University, has made an effort to decolonize his syllabi since the 1990s by providing more diverse sources.

“When I teach about Native Americans or African-Americans or the experience of women or gay people,” Webb said, “students find the subject more fascinating and in the end more compelling.”

By reading sources such as W.E.B. Dubois’ Souls of Black Folk in U.S. History II or a book on Aimee Semple McPherson during the rise of fundamentalism and modern evangelicalism in his American Religious History course, Webb notes you can “not only tell the story more fully and more accurately, you also get the vantage of new insights.”

Huntington University 2017 graduate Gina Eisenhut attests to the positive effect of decolonization as a current law student at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

Eisenhut believes much of her success in graduate school has come from the emphasis some HU professors place on teaching multiple perspectives in the classroom. In a phone interview, Eisenhut felt by studying, for example, minority oppression, she has the power to give those minorities a voice they had not previously had.

“You cannot undo a bias with a bias,” says Eisenhut.

The 22-year-old law student consistently sees the edge she has over her peers as she studies law due to her decolonized education at HU.

“The law seems black and white,” says Eisenhut, but in reality, she has had to ask herself what in the past has made those laws clear-cut.

Well into film courses as a sophomore, Barnhill appreciates the emphasis the film department places on creating diverse stories and allowing students’ own personal stories — citing a positive overall experience at Huntington University.

Barnhill’s decision was to view Birth of A Nation as useful but insightful. He understands why professors use Birth of a Nation for its technical breakthroughs in cinematic history but views it as problematic if professors do not address different perspectives of the film, such as its racial bias and blatant white supremacy.  

Moving forward, Barnhill is eager to learn more through decolonized material in film classes so he can better tell his story in the future through film production.