CLAS anti-racist education initiative hosts double lecture on the decolonization of language and culture studies

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A double lecture with professors Ervin Malakaj and Terry Osborn was hosted on Tuesday February 16th, centering on the importance of decolonizing language and culture studies within curricula. Photo by NastyaSensei on Pexels.com

On Tuesday, Feb. 16, the anti-racist education initiative from the University of Connecticut College of Liberal Arts & Sciences hosted a double lecture with professors Ervin Malakaj and Terry Osborn focusing on the importance of decolonizing language and culture studies within North American curricula.  

Anke Finger, professor of German studies, media studies and comparative literary and cultural studies at UConn, said the inspiration behind the initiative is the way White German-ness has been normalized in world language education through textbooks and curriculum, despite the fact that this does not reflect the true makeup of Germany of which a fourth of the entire population has a migration background.  

Isabell Sluka, a Ph.D. candidate in German studies, introduced Dr. Malakaj before he began his lecture entitled “Seeking Just Futures: On Relational Models for Language Learning and Cultural Studies.” Dr. Malakaj referred to the book “The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study” by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten throughout his talk.  

According to Dr. Malakaj, Harney and Moten theorized that “the undercommons” of a university is seen as a place “beneath” or separate from the university infrastructure. Those that are seen as being outside of the academic norm have to rely on the undercommons for protection and socialization rather than the university itself.  

“When systems fail, mutual aid networks emerge.”

Dr. Malakaj related the idea of the undercommons to mutual aid networks by stating that the latter was a way to mobilize the former. As the co-founder of the international scholarly collective Diversity, Decolonization and the German Curriculum, Dr. Malakaj worked with colleagues to find out what help members of German studies departments needed and what members could offer support. This led to the creation of a DDGC mutual aid network. 

“When systems fail, mutual aid networks emerge,” Dr. Malakaj said. 

Dr. Malakaj finished his lecture by discussing the necessity of abolishing university colonial structures and curricula rather than simply reforming. 

Manuela Wagner, professor of German studies and applied linguistics and discourse studies at UConn, introduced Dr. Osborn, who then began his lecture entitled “Foreignness and Decolonization: On Teaching World Languages for Social Justice.” Dr. Osborn discussed the way in which conflating “foreignness” with the teaching of foreign/world languages can actually produce poorer results in terms of language retention and learning.  

In elementary and secondary education, language speakers in classroom examples never face moral dilemmas or deal with significant emotional issues, thus leaving out a lot of the human experience when teaching languages, Dr. Osborn said. A possible alternative to teaching world languages, he continued, is to use a secondary language to teach about social justice. 

“Teaching world languages with social justices combines inquiry with others in our community.”

This is easier said than done, as Dr. Osborn noted that social justice curriculum is not linear but rather discursive, the former being how most world language curricula are set up currently. 

“Teaching world languages with social justices combines inquiry with others in our community,” Dr. Osborn said. “It’s not inquiry on somebody but actually inquiring with them about understanding the oppressive structures that we see in our society.” 

Dr. Osborn finished his lecture by stating the decolonization of world language education will be a long-term generational project rather than a quick fix. 

The event moved into the Q&A portion. Dr. Osborn left the audience with a last thought in regard to a question on the difficulty of change-making within the university setting. 

“Language teaching is a political act, period,” Dr. Osborn stated. 

“We were very happy to see such a great turnout at our first double lecture of the semester, and to hear so many interesting perspectives on the topic of social justice in language education and culture studies,” Sluka said. “Hopefully, we can continue the conversation and collaborate even further to bring positive change to classrooms and curricula.” 

“Language teaching is a political act, period.”

Dr. Malakaj is the assistant professor of German studies and affiliate faculty in the Institution for European Studies at the University of British Columbia. He specializes in late 18th to 21st century German media and cultural history with a focus on 19th century literary cultures, film history, narrative theory, queer theory, critical pedagogy and language study advocacy. 

Dr. Osborn is a professor of education at the University of Southern Florida. He was previously the Interim Chancellor and Vice Chancellor of Academic and Student Affairs as well as the Dean of the College of Education. Dr. Osborn specializes in applied linguistics and critical pedagogy with a focus on foreign/world language education and interdisciplinary education.  

This double lecture and Q&A was hosted by the Decolonizing Area Studies anti-racist education initiative. The initiative was created in response to UConn CLAS issuing a call for proposals for a “NEW CLAS GRANTS INITIATIVE: Anti-Racist Scholarship, Pedagogy, and Workplace Climate” in 2020. A faculty/graduate student team made up of Finger, Sluka and Wagner within the German Studies section of the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages was awarded funding to raise awareness and implement curricular changes in order to decolonize area studies in language and culture. 

Their initiative is being implemented in three phases: awareness building, curriculum and course development and implementation and multiplication. Wednesday’s double lecture was part of a lecture series which is an integral part of phase one and will culminate in a symposium at the end of the academic year. 

The next lecture in the series will take place on March 16 and will feature Professor Nicole Coleman of Wayne State University and Professor José Aldemar Álvarez Valencia of Universidad de Valle, Cali (Colombia). To find out more on the anti-racist education initiative, visit their website

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