Decolonising the Curriculum in the Department of Organizational Psychology

Dr Susan Kahn shares how colleagues in her Department are addressing inequality in the curriculum, the progress that’s been made this year and the work that’s still to be done.

The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 sent shockwaves through our university community as it did the world. In our Department, this tragic reminder of how far we still have to go to achieve equality prompted us to take action on our curriculum and ensure we were doing our small part to redress the balance.

Asking questions about race feels risky. We worry that we will offend or leave the most important questions unasked. Yet this is the very issue that allows things to carry on without change. In the supportive and curious environment of our Department, I opened a discussion on what has changed for staff in relation to the curriculum since George Floyd’s murder and what we would like to see happen next to continue moving towards racial justice.

Educating ourselves

As individuals and educators, we recognise the importance of educating ourselves on issues of race. There is a sense of shame around ignorance, which we can address by beginning to ask difficult questions. Following George Floyd’s murder, our Department published a guide of ‘first stop’ resources to help individuals understand institutional racism, the role of activism and to provide some strategies to cope with the trauma individuals have witnessed.

We engaged with debates on how business schools can become part of the solution to create fairer workplaces and a more democratic society and created and published our anti-racism statement [accessible to Organizational Psychology students only].

Above all, if it was not there before, we now bring a heightened focus around social justice to the act of critiquing, challenging and discussing the research, work and practice of ourselves and others.

We are aware that our work is just beginning and that the conversation about structural racism and White privilege must continue.

Introducing new perspectives

Colleagues in our Department examined the syllabi of their programmes to ensure inclusion of diverse voices and perspectives. This concept of ‘inclusion’ is in itself problematic, as it implies ‘including’ representation of Black voices in ‘our’ curriculum. Instead, we are trying to build a curriculum that better reflects all scholars and learners across the world. In doing so, we hope to begin normalising debate around ethical justice in our classrooms, making this a natural area to question for our students.

Diversifying course content was met with varying levels of success: where modules provide an introductory overview, or are largely statistics focused, ways to introduce new voices are not easily found. Part of the problem may well be us not knowing where to look to find alternative perspectives, reminding us that this work is not a quick fix and that complacency is one of our greatest enemies through this process. At minimum we are now able to acknowledge where teaching references are predicated on White, Western perspectives.

In other areas, we were able to make more meaningful change. For our Work and Wellbeing module, we revised the structure to include discussion of social inequality on a national and global scale. On topics such as Emotion at Work, Discrimination and Exclusion and Leadership, we have included more scholarship by Black, Asian and minority ethnic authors. We are reflecting more deeply on intersectionality and have broadened reading lists to include essays which critique concepts and deconstruct positions which are deeply problematic in our field. We also look to understand cultural appropriation of concepts such as mindfulness. We are aware that this action does not end with reading lists and are also committed to ensuring our invited speakers are representative of our wider society.

Learning from our students

While we hope to offer a broad and critical learning experience, we appreciate the way our students continue to challenge us to take into account international perspectives and not take anything that we have in the UK, or even our small area of London, for granted. One of our Coaching Psychology students, KK Harris, discussed her perspective as a Black, American woman in a BBK connections conversation.

In our student evaluations, we now ask for feedback on the extent to which our modules took diversity into consideration in its content. We know that we are by no means perfect, but the positive responses we have received from this suggest that our students notice – and appreciate – the efforts we have made so far.

What next?

As a Department, we do not want these efforts to be the work of one Summer and then forgotten. We will continue to pay attention to the material that we teach, where it comes from and who produces knowledge. The process will be an incremental change rather than a revolution and one thing we can do is make students aware of the limitations of our knowledge base.

I feel the paradox of both shame and pride.  I am ashamed of how much we have taken for granted in the past, that racism is a challenge in our own field, that it is present in the research we draw on and the institutions we work in. But I am proud to be part of a Department with an openness and honesty that makes these discussions possible, and that this engagement has enabled us to grow as leaders and role models for our students.

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Today is happiness day, but could greater happiness be a permanent reality?

David TrossThis post was contributed by David Tross, associate lecturer at Birkbeck. David is running a series of workshops on happiness and wellbeing as part of Birkbeck’s Pop-up University in Willesden Green, which is running until the end of May.

The 20 March is the UN International Day of Happiness, recognizing, it says, ‘the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives’. If you visit the UN’s observance day website, happy images include Ban Ki Moon dancing ‘gangnam style’ with puffy South Korean popster Psy, though paradoxically its text also recommends marking the occasion ‘in an appropriate manner, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.’ If this doesn’t sound particularly joyful, the UK organisation Action for happiness suggests a range of everyday activities to increase your happiness and those around you. If hugging strangers on the street sounds more dangerous than life-enhancing, then other ideas, including mindfulness meditation and keeping gratitude journals, are in keeping with older, eastern and western philosophical notions of how to live a good life.

What’s new is the shift in the claims made about the efficacy of these methods, with many contemporary scholars hailing happiness as a ‘new science’ on the basis of developments in measuring happiness that can be applied not just to individuals but to whole countries. The latest World Happiness Report, taking measures of self-reported life satisfaction and mood data from 156 countries, has proclaimed Denmark as the happiest country in the world, with fellow Scandinavian countries following close behind. (The UK is in 22nd place). Forget the bleakness and bad weather of popular scandi-noir TV shows, the research suggests. Denmark’s secret? Social equality, socialising across social classes, generous childcare policies, realistic personal expectations and a cozy spirit of togetherness the Danes call ‘hygge’ ( the closest translation might be the Irish ‘craic’). Although the scientific validity of these measures have been questioned, particularly  in terms  of cross-country comparisons, the findings are supported by claims brought to the public’s attention in 2008 with the publication of The Spirit Level, that the most unequal countries perform worst across a range of wellbeing indicators including trust, mental health, drug addiction, obesity and literacy.

This is the happiness paradox in action: after basic needs have been met, increased wealth has not produced greater happiness in rich countries, the gains made in life expectancy and income cancelled out by the personal and social stresses of a competitive, materialistic society. If happiness and wellbeing provides an alternative measure of social progress to economic growth then surely we should be encouraged by the enthusiasm of politicians, with David Cameron’s commissioning of an ONS-led UK happiness index the latest in a series of government-backed initiatives in France, Canada and the original happiness pioneers, the tiny nation of Bhutan. But some are suspicious. Government-backed happiness is the dystopian vision of Huxley’s Brave New World, where everybody feels good and nobody is free. And if the number of people relying on food banks to survive has tripled over the last year, why are we wasting our time on happiness when there are more pressing concerns? As the philosopher Julian Baggini has noted, ‘If you look at the countries that do best in surveys of wellbeing, they haven’t got there by having these indices. They’ve got there by agreeing what priorities should be”.

Such concerns are understandable in the context of recent ONS data suggesting the UK has become happier from 2012 to 2013; instead of an antidote, happiness measures could be used to legitimise austerity economics and increasing inequality.

The British economist Richard Layard declares that ‘happiness must be the business of government’. yet his policy recommendations, including spending to alleviate unemployment and poverty, sound almost socialist. Could it be that the happiness agenda could be a way of sneaking the politically taboo concepts of social justice and greater income equality in through the back door? Should you eliminate poverty because it makes people (including the rich) unhappy, or because it is the right thing to do? The answer might be to create the wider social and economic conditions conducive to individual fulfilment and not micro-manage the personal paths. But paradoxically, happiness is serious. Scroll along from the dancing UN secretary general on the UN website and you get a caption celebrating ten years of peace in Liberia. No disrespect to Psy, but that’s the kind of happiness many more would get behind.

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