Decolonize your head In a bold experiment, a Monterey professor and students try shifting the center of classroom power


By Julie Reynolds Martínez

| READ THE REPORT: Decolonizing Knowledge, Curriculum, Pedagogy

People talk about decolonizing everything these days, from health care to art to office spaces. (My version involves studying the benefits of decolonized diets, as taught by notable Indigenous chefs of the Americas.)

And it makes sense: as more people of color around the world speak up about historic injustice, there’s a growing movement to openly acknowledge that power is held by “people who have privileges that arise from the historic and ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples,” as Potawatomi environmental justice advocate and writer Kyle Powys Whyte puts it.

Today, there’s even talk of decolonizing the decolonization movement.

But what does the word actually mean? And can this state ever be achieved?

In the spirit of such inquiry, a professor and a group of students at Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey took on the task of trying to decolonize their classroom — and even knowledge itself — in an online graduate class that ended in July.

The experiment meant the students would have as much responsibility for their class as their teacher, professor Pushpa Iyer, founder of the Center for Conflict Studies at MIIS.

Surprisingly — to me, anyway — the class didn’t radically re-invent the post-graduate classroom. As their report describes, the students created grading guidelines, designed the course’s syllabus, made presentations, and put together surveys to check their progress. In this sense, they pretty much followed standard academic patterns.

But what shifted was the classroom’s center of power, in ways both unsettling and inspiring.

Their experiences, findings and recommendations are included in “Decolonizing Knowledge, Curriculum, Pedagogy: A Classroom Experiment at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies,” written jointly by Iyer and students Ellen King, Christina Guerrero, Chanel Leonard and Alicia Clark.


As the report makes clear, students didn’t know what to expect. “I was curious if ‘decolonization’ referred to a reversal of the colonial process, if it meant breaking down the colonial era’s barriers, or something in between,” Clark said, noting that “we were still embarking on this adventure within a traditional graduate school institution that does require a final grade report.”

To Leonard, the experiment was “an excellent way to slowly adjust to the idea of decolonization, since not everyone may be used to expressing their problems or concerns with the whole class. We didn’t want to rush the process, but instead take it one step at a time.”

Overall, despite some heel-digging, students said the experiment was successful in teaching them how to become leaders “in the center,” as Iyer describes it.

One student wrote in a classroom survey that the experiment was a “challenging experience for me. The course has encouraged me to peel back more and more of the overlapping layers of colonization in my own life and in my past and current experiences.”

To learn more about the process and what it might mean for anyone trying to create a more equitable society, Voices recently sat down with Iyer. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

JRM: Start with giving me a definition of “decolonization” at its most basic. What is it?

PI: A definition for decolonization is really hard, because a lot of people define it in different ways. But the way I think about decolonization is that it’s a process. It’s not a goal. And it’s not something that is the reverse of colonization. A lot of people misunderstand it as critiquing colonization, being anti-colonial or post-colonial. That’s not decolonization.

The way I can explain it is to think about a center. What’s in the center and what’s in the periphery? The goal of decolonization is to expand that center so that more and more people, institutions, ideas, knowledge — everything from the periphery — can come into the center space. As the center grows, it gets wider. That’s the way I think about decolonization.

JRM: How is that different from equality or inclusion?

PI: It is much, much more than all of those things. For example, science tells us how thunder or lightning happens, but there are also beliefs that people have which are termed “superstitious” in a derogatory way.

But it could also be how people make sense and meaning of things: “God is angry with the way things are happening in the universe. Lightning and thunder are a way of showing us the anger that God has towards what we are doing on the planet,” is a set of beliefs that we don’t necessarily put on that equal level. There are all these different sources of knowledge.

JRM: This experiment didn’t start with asking why decolonizing even matters. I’m curious, does it matter to you personally? And did anyone in the class disagree with the basic assumption that it is important to try to decolonize?

PI: That is a fascinating question, which is really saying, “Why should we decolonize?”

I think in some ways it’s become a buzzword. But the reason it was so important to me is that we’re talking about decolonizing knowledge, which means to look at different sources of knowledge, how we disseminate that knowledge, and how we manage that knowledge. And it seems like the Western classroom, with a teacher in the center of the room, is a very colonized way of talking about knowledge.

This is the way I would like to run all my classes, but we are going against the education system, and that’s really hard, very tough. Yet it felt like, in this class with a topic like decolonization of knowledge, you could not possibly run it in the most colonized way. So I think that’s where it came from and that’s how I explained it to the students. And they seemed to agree, all of them.

JRM: Did having the class online affect the process?

PI: It was a little tough. We missed all the hallway chatter, the ability to look at each other in person, to sit down and to have that. But I think in terms of decolonizing the classroom, where the virtual might have gotten in the way was in the fact that we needed to spend more time building trust and building community.

JRM:  Right. Yet students did take the lead, teaching the classes and keeping track of assignments, even coming up with their own grades. But not everyone participated fully. What happens when someone is an introvert and they need to lead a class? Where does this process leave the shy, introverted or traumatized students?

PI: Different ways of communicating from different cultures, different backgrounds, can very much affect this process. It’s no different from any other classroom that I lead, because I always encourage participation. If you’re too shy, you can come and talk to me alone in my office.

But I couldn’t do that anymore, because I’m not leading the thing. So those became certain hindrances, that there wasn’t a way to go and say, “I’m feeling very shy, I don’t want to talk there, I want to talk just to you.” That said, I made myself available to all of them in preparation for their class.

There can be other ways, other platforms — even if it was not coming to me. For example, we used Slack (an online communication tool). The only thing is I couldn’t push people on this. I would have reached out to people who are quiet, and I would have said, “Hey, how about talking to me here?”

I don’t know if it was the right thing in decolonization for me to have withdrawn so much. But this was our first time doing it, our first experiment, and I thought I shouldn’t be reaching out to them and pushing them, so I didn’t. The result was that some people stayed quiet.

JRM: I mean, you do have years of experience that maybe they don’t have. It kind of pushes that out and doesn’t allow it into the process. Is that a mistake to not defer to that experience?

PI:  That’s definitely an issue. I’ve been doing this for 15 years. I know how to develop a syllabus. I know how to develop a grading policy. I know what are some of the things to think about, or how to lead a class. They’ve had no experience doing any of these things, so it was really a steep learning curve for them on how to lead a class.

How could I have done something more? The answer to that is you couldn’t possibly run a course on this subject, as well as try to decolonize the classroom, without giving extra time for the process of decolonization. A suggestion that came from one of the students is something I believe very strongly: an extra two hours a week should be required as a way of training people on how to do this.

“Okay, are you challenged by the participation?” “What are the modes of participation?” “How do we know if people are actually reading?” For all those kinds of conversations, I think we needed an extra period.

A very strong recommendation from us is that if anybody’s doing this, they should devote extra time to that problem. Some students even suggested a prerequisite class, just about how to decolonize the classroom. Decolonization cannot happen without responsibility, and students are used to not taking responsibility. So then if you’ve done that (prerequisite), you can come to this decolonizing classroom.

JRM: It’s fascinating to me that they very quickly fell into tradition: having assignments, having homework, having readings. This was an opportunity to be radical, like maybe sit in a circle talking around a virtual fire, to do things differently. And yet they went to a pretty traditional graduate class format. Did that surprise you?

PI: Very much so. I was really struck by it.

JRM: It’s almost like you’re teaching two classes. They have the subject matter they’re talking about — giving presentations on decolonizing physical beauty or things like that, which is a whole class on its own. Then there’s the process of decolonizing a classroom.

So now that you’ve gone through it, would you use the process in other classes on other subjects? Do you think this is where education should be headed?

PI: Definitely, definitely. I think this is the way to go. I think we have to stop looking at one person as a source of knowledge, wherever you are.

If you’re truly committed to decolonization, it doesn’t mean I can’t recognize that I have certain expertise. Maybe it’s simply because of the fact that I’ve done this for a longer period of time, by the fact that I’ve lived on this planet for more time, and I’ve read more, or I’ve done things to prepare them to get to this step.

In a way we are training our students not just to become experts on the knowledge topic, but also how to be those leaders in the center, how to be the kinds of leaders that bring in other people from the periphery. I definitely plan on continuing doing that.

JRM: So can these concepts be applied to other arenas of society? Like, say, journalism?

PI: Absolutely. In a way, we use the classroom as a metaphor. Which is exactly what some decolonization scholars say: people say, “Let’s decolonize the classroom, let’s decolonize our house.” People use it just as a buzzword, but it’s also a metaphor. It doesn’t matter where,  because what you’re really doing is decolonizing your mind. Whether you’re in journalism or whatever field, you’re looking at how to decolonize your mind: “What does it mean for me not to be the center? Let’s create that thing together and see what we do.”

In journalism, too, you’re not just reporting on an incident: through interviews, you bring in other people’s ideas. But there’s also the centrality of the one journalist who says, “I know the rules,” or “I know the law.” So it’s digging deeper than that. How do you interpret the law? How are you making meaning of this world? Things like that expand a field like the one you are in.

As I told the students, you can’t talk about decolonizing anything until you talk about decolonizing the mind.

This experiment taught us a lot about what we need to do to be leaders. If we want to be in the center —we all want to be in the center —you have to be that person with all those responsibilities who will bring in other people.

Everybody wants to be in the center. Whether you’re Black, whether you’re a person of color, whether you’re an LGBTQI person, you want to be in the center just like the white person, just like the heterosexual. But we also have responsibilities.

And the people who are already in the center need to learn how to share, how to communicate. It’s a two-way street that needs to happen.

That’s my message: it’s a two-way street.

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Julie Reynolds Martínez

About Julie Reynolds Martínez

Julie Reynolds Martínez is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Nation, NPR, PBS, the NewsGuild and other outlets. She is a co-founder of Voices of Monterey Bay.