Imagine an economics seminar in which there is only one woman. You do not have to stretch your imagination particularly far. Simply flipping through the online facebook will tell you that more men than women take economics classes. Now imagine that the professor of this economics seminar, who is a man, says that he likes having the girl in the class because when the men get carried away and start talking too much about violence and war, she reels them in with her feminine presence. This circumstance seems far less likely. And yet it is exactly parallel to what English professor Stefanie Markovits said in the Sept. 29 article titled “In English Seminars, where are all the men?”
Speaking of the one man in her Jane Austen seminar, Markovits said: “He provided a much-needed male presence on those few occasions when the women would start using the word ‘cute’ too often.” She did say those occasions were few. And she did say she liked him also because of his confident and self-possessed attitude in a female-dominated class. But she implied in a surprisingly overt manner that men make a class more serious. She is not concerned that the class will suffer from lack of diversity of opinion, but rather that the class with suffer from some kind of overload of women and female insight. Self-consciously admitting that Jane Austen is sometimes grouped together with “girly books,” she seeks male approval in order to legitimize Jane Austen and the class.
But at least Markovits is trying to attract men in order to change their ideas about literature written by women. Annabel Patterson has no such ambition, saying in the article, “Women always outnumber men in any English department course — try changing society.” So why is Patterson tinkering with the gender balance in her class? According to a student quoted in the article, on the first day of her seminar “Doomed Love in the Western World,” Patterson immediately accepted all the men who had come, and then subjected the women to further criteria, eliminating them if they had not read “Anna Karenina.” She effectively created affirmative action for men.
Affirmative action for minority groups aims to promote diversity, but it has the equally important purpose of compensating for disparity in opportunity. Certainly the men of Yale are not lacking for advantages. (The fact that the paucity of men in the English Department is news is also annoying because the paucity of women in departments like Math and Economics is not news.)
Quotations from male professors are markedly absent from the article, possibly because a male professor who admitted students to his class as Patterson did might fear an accusation of sexism. And he would be right to fear. While some might argue that the female professors have more license to favor men, I argue quite the opposite.
Imagine a black professor immediately accepting all the white students in an overcrowded African-American literature class. Or a gay professor favoring straight students for acceptance into a seminar. All marginalized groups face the fear of appearing insular and irrelevant when studying their own histories. But there is something different about these female professors in the English Department.
In other minority groups, people have had voices within their own societies even when mainstream Western culture has oppressed them. Feminism gives a voice to a group that historically has had no voice, even within its own society. We are all so used to the dominance of the male voice in English literature that when we walk into a classroom and find it dominated by women, we feel as though there is something wrong. It does not have to be like this, but it will be until professors like Markovits and Patterson stop marginalizing the voices of their female students.
Lucy Teitler is a junior in Pierson College.