Interviews with Academics #7: Professor Jane Anna Gordon on Decolonising the Curriculum

Professor Jane Anna Gordon is a political theorist at the University of Connecticut. Her most recent work is “Statelessness and Contemporary Enslavement” (Routledge 2020). pwip spoke to her about coming to and navigating political theory and her work on creolising the canon.

pwip: How do you wish political theory had been taught differently during your studies and how? What do you do to teach it differently now?

Professor Gordon: The irony for me is that I’ve only studied political theory in a formal sense for five semesters. But formal studies don’t exhaust education. The Caribbean Philosophical Association (CPA) was actively created while I was in graduate school. I’ve always seen myself as having had dual training (in school and in the CPA). In university, my graduate training in political theory was incredibly loose. Most political science departments in the United States don’t really want to have political theory as an area within them. In a faculty of, say, 38, you may have three political theorists. They’re often kind of left on their own to teach a lot of undergraduate courses in the history of ideas. A lot of the content of their other courses is dictated by what they want to teach in a given semester. I chose my program because it was rare in not being dominated by Rawlsians and studies of liberalism. I had a faculty member who had made really important contributions to the history of American political thought through emphasizing the long history of anti-Black racism. The other person I studied with was a germanist who primarily did political economy and loved Max Weber. There was a third faculty member who was really interested in post-colonial Asian and African political thought and political thought published in Arabic. Depending on what she was interested in at any given time, that would be what she offered. At the undergrad level, what the programme taught and so what we supported faculty in teaching was very conventional. It’s worth encountering what is considered conventional literacy in political theory, especially if you lack exposure to it, as I did, but the idea that such a line-up of figures and themes exhausts what’s worth learning is ridiculous. That view drives most people who are actually interested in political theory away from studying it.

When I began teaching at the undergraduate level, I was really concerned with the idea that most undergrads in the United States who studied political theory really thought that the only people who contributed to it were fifth-century Athenians, Western Europeans and then Euro-Americans. It became clear to me that it didn’t matter how many times you said that wasn’t true; if other figures didn’t appear in the syllabus, students didn’t think you really needed to know about them. When I first started teaching, I integrated ancient Chinese thinkers, ancient Islamic thinkers, Fanon and Cabral to a course with Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Marx. I quickly realized that if you want exposure to the fuller history of political ideas, you need to give up on the idea of mastery. In many ways the priority shifts to giving students a sense of just how cacophonous the history of political ideas is. In some ways, students were almost overwhelmed with the number of names of people they could study, even if it meant handling each in a more superficial way. Ideally, they would want to know more about particular figures or themes and would follow-up in subsequent formal or informal studies. I preferred the idea of there being at least 25 men they needed to study, but they were still primarily or exclusively men.

Students would always linger after class when we had read women thinkers. They would ask : who were these people? They really didn’t think that there had been women who contributed to political theory prior to the 1960s. They were surprised in a wonderful way that such women had existed and wanted to know how they had lived their lives.

Professor Gordon

One of my fields in graduate study was education. When I was asked to create new courses, I immediately introduced a ‘Political theories of education’ class. To teach political theories of education is a completely different endeavor than the conventional intro to political theory: Just to teach it well, for students to develop literacy in the area, they need to read women thinkers. They need to read Thinkers of Colour. This is not accidental.  When many career avenues were closed to most but white men, teaching was one field that welcomed a broader swath of humanity. When I was teaching that class, I realised students would always linger after class when we had read women thinkers. They would ask : who were these people? It became very clear to me that they really didn’t think that there had been women who contributed to political theory prior to the 1960s. They were surprised in a wonderful way that such women had existed and wanted to know how they had lived their lives. It was their response that led to me beginning to teach « historical women political thinkers ». I always begin that course with the story of realising that a lot of my women students and a lot of my women colleagues didn’t know that there had been women who made important political theory and philosophical contributions prior to 1960. The whole purpose of the course is to equip them with an archive that is large and incomplete: our job is to expand it further together. The same goes for Black political thought. Until recently, many people thought that there wasn’t full-fledged Black political thought. Similarly, many people studying political theory have no idea that there’s a vital resurgence in indigenous political thought going on right now. With all of these courses, the aim was to fill massive gaps and to learn how to do that better and better as I was doing it.

There’s a way of teaching the canon that makes the canon fall apart as a coherent intellectual project. It is revealed instead as one composed through a certain set of ideological and political commitments.

Professor Gordon

These courses each focus on a particular group of people who have responded creatively to their deliberate exclusion from political life. Another approach is the one that I’d taken with the intro to political theory, which is to say that there are these figures who you need to know because familiarity with them is what constitutes literacy in the field. The focus then turns to critical readings of them and how it was that they together came to be constructed as a canon. For instance, it’s very different to read Machiavelli, the so-called Italian theorist, if you know that North African powers played a central role in shaping the world in which he wrote. In our PhD programme now, one of the PhD qualifying exams requires that students construct a graduate-level introduction to political theory course that they would teach. They must give a rationale for who’s included and who’s excluded based on a recommended reading list that the faculty composed. (To create that list each member of the political theory faculty (then four or five of us) came up with a list of 35 books that we considered indispensable to being able to do our work. Any text that appeared on two of those lists, we made highly recommended.) The way one student is designing her course, which I think is really brilliant, is that she devotes time to both learning and unlearning political theory. She couples every text that’s considered one that is supposed to appear with another one that’s in profound tension with it in one of a variety of different ways, either because they define the core concepts differently or they disagree about how it is that you best realize something that you’ve set as an ideal or they disagree about what should be prised or treated as relevant.I know other people who have to teach the history of philosophy in a very Eurocentric way that’s determined by the university. What they often do is bookend the standard line-up with texts that completely challenge all of the terms and concepts that the students are likely to encounter in between. There’s a way of teaching the canon that makes the canon fall apart as a coherent intellectual project. It is revealed instead as one composed through a certain set of ideological and political commitments.

As you explained, there is a lot to be gained from approaching canonical political thought through different processes. Could you explain what ‘creolising’ political thought entails?

At one level, creolising the canon involves taking figures who, at least now, are considered indisputably canonical and undertaking a creolising reading of them. This can mean exploring how figures in the global south engaged with that canonical thinker in ways that both borrow from and also really challenge and refashion ideas that are in their work. For instance, when people teach Rousseau, they often don’t teach Rousseau through Haitian writers. But part of the argument for creolizing the canon is, if canonical figures are to continue to be productive and worthy of study, then let’s understand the full living lineages that their work has generated. The second mode is to take figures who we think should be canonical but haven’t been treated as such until now. For instance, a figure like Édouard Glissant is completely canonical in Caribbean literature, not so much if you’re studying philosophy. So this dimension of creolizing the canon involves challenging what it is that should be canonised and really making an argument that the question of canon should always be plural : what are texts or ideas or figures you need to do your work well. The third stream of creolising consists in people who are doing their work in a creolising way. We don’t have a prescriptive account of what creolising means. We assume that the intellectual political projects that we’re undertaking can’t be addressed through one approach alone. The disciplines are helpful in the advance of some endeavors, but the world is far more multifaceted than historical disciplinary formations are. At one level, creolising is a methodological call and claim—most disciplines did not emerge to advance projects of decolonization or liberation so if our work is guided by such commitments, we to need to undertake it in new and unprecedented ways—but the other creolising claim is about the globe, that many central concepts really have been experienced in disparate ways, depending on how you occupy the globe. If we want to understand those concepts (say, class, gender, nation, freedom) in a rigorous way, it’s not enough to settle for one account as complete or exhaustive.

Following on from that, could you talk a little bit about the relationship between language and thought or philosophy in your work?

One of the biggest challenges of the Caribbean Philosophical Association (CPA) has been language. The Caribbean is a region that many different European powers tried to dominate. One consequence is that this tiny geographic region to this day is marked by linguistic divides, mainly among English, Spanish and French, but also Dutch and Brazilian Portuguese. A lot of professional intellectual organisations settle for the language divide as is. Their meetings are conducted in one of the multiple languages. We really didn’t want to do that because our whole goal is to shift the geography of reason. Why is the history of European languages in the Americas going to dictate the terms of relation and interaction?

I think we’ve been very good at making it clear that important ideas are authored in every language and that the best way to honour that is to try to be as multilingual as possible and to understand how limited one’s access to the full scope of ideas always will be.

Professor Gordon

We’ve tried different approaches to make it a vibrant, multilingual organisation. At one stage, we made sure that every panel had presenters who spoke different languages and sometimes there would be translators. We would also explicitly encourage multilingualism and organisation members trying to learn even what did not come easily as this brought home that there are worlds of intellectual life that you don’t have access to if you haven’t developed the language abilities. We’ve tried to alternate our meeting locations so that we convene in Francophone, Hispanophone, Anglophone, and Lusophone settings. I think we’ve been very good at making it clear that important ideas are authored in every language and that the best way to honour that is to try to be as multilingual as possible and to understand how limited one’s access to the full scope of ideas always will be. When I was president of CPA, one of the things that really concerned me was that many works by our English-speaking authors were being translated out of English. I thought we were really failing if we weren’t translating into English at the same rate. I realised that a lot of the work of translation is not valued enough to be remunerated as real intellectual work. At the level of our PhD training in the U.S., there’s more and more pressure for people to finish their degrees as quickly as possible because there’s very limited available funding. The view is the quicker the degree, the better, and that’s something that really discourages language learning. Unless you’ve come in as somebody who is bilingual or multilingual, it’s very hard to learn a language adequately in the U.S. in three years. It  is such an insular imperial place in terms of its sensibilities, and they’re completely reflected in relation to language. For instance, I had a graduate student who wanted to learn American Sign Language. Much of his work was about how historically silenced people find political voice and the relation of political voice to different ways of conceiving language. He realised, as a Jamaican student, that Jamaican sign language is different from American sign language. But, even with the commitment he had to learning, his fluency was really limited by just how much time he could invest in it. One of the things I find really interesting is the development of the relation between language and comparative political theory.  Unless you can bring language training to your degree, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll develop it while you’re a student, at least in the U.S. I don’t think that’s a good thing, but it’s unlikely to reverse course. Because of the absence of serious investment in undergraduate and graduate-level language learning, most of the people who are doing the most interesting work in comparative political theory are international scholars or immigrants to the U.S. who are already multilingual before they come to their graduate study. This is actually great because it means that the demography of who’s teaching is changing more rapidly, driven by linguistic skill.

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