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  • Ivan Provisoire

Diversifying the curriculum

Mariama Sheriff has been involved in work to diversify the curriculum at Oxford Brookes University since 2015. As part of that, she put together a resource of cross-disciplinary teaching materials. They can be used to engage students in critical thinking, focusing in particular on non-Western influences in knowledge. One example is the Cyrus Cylinder from 539 BCE, recognised as the first charter of human rights.

The Cyrus Cylinder is currently held in the British Museum

Developing critical awareness of the complexity of diverse perspectives, cultures and values is central in the university's understanding of Global / Active Citizenship. This means, for example, that it is important for lecturers to consider if the references and examples they use actually represent voices from across the world. When I met Mariama, she explained to me that when educators highlight what interests them most, they pass on what is familiar to them. This can lead to a one-sided emphasis on knowledge produced through the master narratives in the Western context, as well as the continued invisibility of the contributions of BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) subjects and figures in the same Western context. Not only could it leave students from these backgrounds feeling that there is little they can identify with, it means that all students miss out on a richer understanding of their subject.

To counter this problem, Mariama developed a range of resources that help those teaching in higher education to diversify their curriculum and to reflect on unconscious bias based on background, cultural environment and personal experiences. It includes a list of learning materials that can be used across different subjects, which can be found here. Particularly relevant to those working in Global Citizenship Education is the example of the Cyrus Cylinder. Created in what is now Iran in 539 BCE, it can be seen as a predecessor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was established in 1948. As Neil MacGregor, director of The British Museum, puts it:

"It's the first expression of a dream, of an ideal of how you can run a society. It's the first record we have of somebody reflecting or acting on how you hold together a society of different ethnicities, different faiths, different languages, of how you govern diversity. ... Objects like the Cyrus Cylinder allow us to imagine the world from another point of view."

Engaging with the content and context of the Cyrus Cylinder can increase appreciation of the legacy of other cultures in what we might usually think of as modern, Western achievements.

Whilst I was impressed by the depth and practical applicability of Mariama's work, it is telling that during my four years of teaching at the university I wasn't aware of its existence. Building bridges between different disciplines and sub-groups remains one of the main challenges in a big institution, especially when it comes to raising awareness about questions and issues relevant to all. In an earlier post, I mentioned the five Graduate Attributes as one of the few cross-disciplinary elements of teaching and learning at the university - Global / Active Citizenship being one of them. Instead of just seeing them as another box to tick, Mariama wrote her own interpretation of these attributes, linking them to the endeavour of diversifying the curriculum. It would be wonderful if there could be more such initiatives, where staff get proper time and space to find their own way of relating to such frameworks. It would bring life to larger questions of teaching and learning that, despite being important, tend to fall off the bottom of the agenda in the busyness of everyday working situations.

Mariama's interpretation of the five core attributes

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