University of Exeter professors ready to rebel over request to use tweets not textbooks

·3-min read
University of Exeter - Jay Williams
University of Exeter - Jay Williams

Professors at the University of Exeter have threatened a rebellion over advice to use tweets not textbooks because archives are biased.

The top-flight Russell Group institution has advised lecturers how to “decolonise your reading list”, and claims “UK university reading lists are often predominately authored by white, male and Eurocentric authors”.

New guidance takes aim at historical archives, which have "marginalised, misrepresented or excluded" black, Asian and minority ethnic voices and form part of “a growing understanding of systemic racism”.

The move has infuriated professors at the university, who branded it an “erosion of standards”, accusing senior leaders of pursuing a “wokefinder general” attitude that has created a culture of fear on campus.

"It is important to remember that archives are not neutral," says the decolonising manual, produced by the university’s library.

"The archives you will encounter in archive repositories today exist due to decisions made in the past about their historical value by recordkeepers or archivists, who as a profession are still predominantly white and middle class.

"These decisions were often based on colonial structures and influenced by the dominant historical narratives of the time, which in the UK have largely centred around the white, middle class British experience."

Use 'grey literature'

Instead, tutors are advised to scour search engines for “grey literature” to make reading lists more “diverse”, described as works published outside of traditional publishing channels. Suggested examples include tweets and blog posts.

Jeremy Black, emeritus professor of history at Exeter University, told The Telegraph: “The argument that history and archives is some kind of white, middle class male project is not only inaccurate but is also actually quite dangerously divisive.

“People ought to be able to look at the past without thinking that archival sources are in some way only valid because they're produced by groups you approve of.”

He said the recommendation to include tweets “represents an erosion of standards”, adding: “This material is very likely to have had no process of individual scholarly scrutiny beyond the individual author, so this is deeply problematic.

The Telegraph understands that more than 40 academics at the university have privately expressed anger at the decolonising drive.

Not going public yet

The academics have considered writing a letter of protest to the vice-chancellor, but would rather wait for the Government’s new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to come into force to avoid risking their careers by going public with their concerns now.

This will create more safeguards for academic freedom and allow students and lecturers to sue if they feel unfairly silenced.

Another Exeter professor, who wished to remain anonymous, said the push to decolonise archives was “extraordinarily patronising” to academics, suggesting “we are incapable of having enough intellectual capacity to judge the past”.

“Loads of people [at the university] have emailed me. A rebellion is brewing but the atmosphere is so toxic. There’s a massive chilling effect because this woke ideology comes from the very top.”

The guidance also says lecturers should "think beyond the academic textbook...written by authors in the Global North" and look out for any "absent voices" in archives.

It says decolonising is not about removing authors but “question[ing] where we assign epistemic authority and ensure diverse voices are heard”, with links to alternative journals, books and a digital archive of African American authors.

Robert Tombs, emeritus professor of history at the University of Cambridge, said History Reclaimed, a new campaign group of anti-woke scholars he helped found, would be “casting a very critical eye” on policies such as Exeter’s.

The University of Exeter said the guidance aimed to “ensure learning resources are inclusive of a plurality of perspectives”.

A spokesman added: “In response to staff requests for support and advice, it has been posted online for academics to read and use if they wish, and they will make their own decisions about the texts they wish to include in their courses.”

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