Opinions

In response to “Decolonizing the Curriculum: The Problem of Underrepresentation in the Humanities”

Sahar Bazzaz

Professor and Chair, Department of History

Recently, The Spire published an article entitled “Decolonizing the Curriculum: The Problem of Underrepresentation in the Humanities (10/8/2021),” which took up very important and timely questions about under-representation of diverse perspectives and voices in the humanities.  As the new history department chair, I welcome these discussions as they present an opportunity to look at key questions: What is history? How do we study it? How is that changing? And how do we find new ways to share our work and that of our colleagues with new generations of students with their own concerns and interests?  

I think that the most interesting avenues of inquiry in history right now are related to but a bit different from Anna Lee’s question about students of color and non-U.S. students finding themselves “reflected” in history courses. A more helpful line of inquiry asks how historians at Holy Cross study and teach history, reflecting the importance of all people, and especially those who have contested power and challenged injustice over millenia including those who continue to do so today? For history is not a static mirror in which to see ourselves reflected, or a straight line leading to today’s world, but a series of contestations and negotiations among many, many actors of all backgrounds, which could have led to a variety of outcomes – and still could. 

The current Holy Cross history curriculum is the result of fifteen years of concerted effort to diversify our curriculum and introduce cutting edge methodologies. It has involved hiring faculty who teach fields with diverse geographic and temporal focus, introducing new ways of approaching primary source materials, and engaging in public-facing forms of history through digital humanities and other projects. Within the bounds of an undergraduate liberal arts college, our history curriculum today is robust in both it’s reach and scope. For example, in the Fall of 2021, the history department is offering twenty-seven different courses. Twelve of them cover Africa, Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. We are the only undergraduate liberal arts college among comparable colleges that can proudly boast two tenured historians of Africa among our history faculty. Furthermore, we are bolstering our Latin American history offerings by hiring a second historian of Latin America with a focus on indigeneity and imperial contact. This also distinguishes the Holy Cross history department among  our peer institutions. Besides an array of courses ranging from introductory level themes to upper-level seminars focused on Africa, Latin America, and these regions’ transnational histories, our faculty teach numerous classes on South Asian and East Asian history, on Middle Eastern history, and on U.S. Native American history. 

But geographical diversity is not the only hallmark of a strong and vibrant history curriculum. Innovative methodologies that allow us and our students to analyze and interpret the past are equally important. Historians in the Holy Cross history department, for example, interrogate colonial structures of exploitation as well as other forms of hierarchical domination including analysis of the various ideologies which emerge from these systems. One way they do so  is by analyzing primary sources in ways that ‘read against the grain’ in order to recover silenced voices from the historical record.  Indeed, this is a method developed by historians of medieval Europe, among others, over the past thirty years. Another way is to ask questions about how territorial expansion and empire-building–whether British, German, Soviet, Japanese, or Ottoman (to name a few)– shaped not only those at the receiving end of imperial expansion but also those who were members conquering states and societies. 

Our U.S. history faculty offer courses examining social movements such as the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Red Power movement, LGBTQ+ empowerment, the Women’s movement and the struggles between capital and labor and between colonizer and colonized. “Slavery, Industry, Empire,”—a course Anna Lee cited as an example of the few non-Western history courses offered in Fall 2021–is, in fact, a U.S. history course! 

History as an academic discipline as it was constituted in the late 19th century, generally meant History with a capital ‘H’ by which I mean the history of nation-states. Yet more and more, we are understanding our work in terms of ‘histories’ rather than the grand narratives in which the birth of the nation-state represents the end point or telos of history. Little histories open new possibilities for new narratives, voices, and perspectives to emerge. So instead of studying history “in order to avoid the mistakes of the past”, we engage in a praxis and methodology, which helps us and our students remember that the ground is always shifting under the feet of the present. This means that histories never end but rather, that human societies constantly negotiate and contest power in all its forms—be it social, economic, ethnic/racial, gender or cultural power. This perspective centers possibilities for democratic citizenship. How we as individuals, communities, and national groups navigate the shifting ground is indeed the essence of what we in the history department seek to demonstrate whether that be in the context of the United States, Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa or the Middle East. I welcome any student interested in these questions to look closely at the broad, deep,and inclusive course offerings of our history department – and the rich scholarship of our team, which you can view through our publications, talks, and more. 

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