Caveat: I am not an English major. I am not an English major for many reasons, including a fear of large departments, a freaky obsession with Russia, and “The Victorian Novel,” a course I took last semester. English 265: “The Victorian Novel” was lovely and informative. But I spent every lecture in hiding, at the back of the room, by an elderly gentleman auditing the class. I sat in the lecture hall’s shadowy recesses, and I was incapable of sitting anywhere else.
This was the problem — class felt like an alternate reality. The professor made perfect points; we took perfect notes. And even when she said, “this passage is tricky and complex,” I only ever drew a bullet point and wrote “tricky and complex.” My recollection is flawed of course, a memory warped by confirmation bias and personal mythology, but still — I don’t remember grappling with the texts. I never unpacked the words “tricky” or “complex.”
As Margaret Shultz ’16 says,“In English classes, there are just these standardized reactions to texts. And I think there should be an antagonistic approach.”
I wanted one of us to nod or gasp or faint or even blink when our professor said something controversial. And we never did.
That was my caveat.
* * *
The English department casts a long shadow, looming large over the humanities at Yale. The faculty is star-studded and prize-winning. “Daily Themes” is a class every alumnus tells you to take. And the undergraduate major is undeniably popular — about 75 students graduate with a bachelor’s in English each year.
In other words, everyone has an opinion about the department, from the English majors themselves (some of whom call their peers a “flock of sheep”) to my parents (who like to ask “Why can’t you just major in English, Jane? It’s just a lot *realer* than Literature.”)
My parents might be right. The English Department has strict, no-nonsense requirements — majors complete three courses in literature written before the nineteenth century, one in literature written before the twentieth century, and one in American literature.
And, of course, students must take the notorious English 125 and 126. Titled “Major English Poets,” the two prerequisites cover eight authors, from Chaucer to Eliot, and should be completed by the end of sophomore year.
Ruthie Prillaman ’16, an English major, has found that these courses weed out less committed students. Many take 125 and conclude they’re not cut out to keep going.
And Shultz, also an English major, said “125 and 126 do a terrible job of recognizing alternative narratives, especially regarding the total absence of women and people of color.” In other words, all eight of the major English poets are dead white men.
This, of course, can trouble or alienate students interested in more contemporary literature, literature that doesn’t quite fit into the American or British cannon.
While Professor Jessica Brantley, the major’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, acknowledged that these requirements have only “changed slightly in the direction of more student choice,” she also defended them. “The point of coming to Yale is to open your mind to new things, precisely those things that you would never have been reading unless someone asked you to.”
Most professors stand by this assertion — they’re quick to shield the requirements from attack. According to English Professor Ruth Yeazell, “students think their interests are more present-oriented than they are.” They’re surprised to find courses in Middle English, for instance, “actually cool.”
For both Prillaman and fellow English major Ariel Katz ’15, Yeazell’s assertion certainly holds true. The English requirements have been immensely rewarding, some of them blessings in disguise. “Major English Poets,” for instance, traces a particular intellectual and historical narrative that can be eye-opening to students unaccustomed to such survey classes. Katz remembered English 126 as “a class that kind of convinced me [these authors] were worth studying.”
But still, many English majors find the department “stuffy” and a little arcane. Indeed, of the 32 full-time professors, over half are white. Many have been teaching the same classes for decades.
In talking about the department’s rigidity, Shultz was unflinching. “There’s a huge problem with old, stodgy lecturers,” she said. She’d prefer “more seminars, with younger, more enthusiastic professors.”
Yeazell, for one, acknowledged that variations in age are unfortunately slight. “Too many of us are older,” she admitted. “A lot of us are in the same generational cohort.” This lack of diversity may be a consequence of the University’s tenure policy. At Yale (unlike some other research universities), faculty members must publish two books before they receive tenure. According to Palmer Rampell GRD ’17, a fourth-year graduate student in the English Department, “it’s harder for [the department] to retain talented young scholars of color” because of these regulations. Such scholars are in high demand at most universities, many of which can offer them tenure sooner than Yale can.
But Yeazell maintained that the homogeneity is temporary — many professors will be retiring in the next decade. She hopes this will encourage a new diversity of thought and opinion in the department.
To Prillaman too, the major allows for a certain academic laxity. “You could just float by without ever interacting with any professors or any other English majors,” she said with a shrug. “It’s an impersonal major.”
To a certain extent, this perceived intellectual conformism accounts for the emergence of newer majors, ones like American Studies, Humanities and Literature. These majors are often smaller than English, facilitating relationships between professors and students, and enabling a more personalized course of study.
Jingnan Peng ’15, for instance, picked Literature for its flexibility. “You can build something for yourself,” he said of his department.
And in Rampell’s experience, many students stray from the English Department while looking for a more open-ended academic experience. He has noticed that students sometimes prefer American Studies to English because it has fewer requirements.
But these majors cover completely different material, Brantley noted, and therefore should not be seen as competitors.
* * *
In my flawed recollections, memories warped by confirmation bias and personal mythology, the students in “The Victorian Novel” were clean, stylish and happy. Most had shiny hair and clear skin. The boys wore boat shoes. The girls wore makeup to look as though they weren’t wearing makeup. They seemed a homogeneous bunch, all either well-adjusted or damn good at looking well-adjusted. They took perfect notes, on Macs or in Moleskines, and I watched in awe as many transcribed the lecture verbatim, even pesky repetitions and quotations. I have no idea how these students felt or how they conceptualized literature. They might have harbored hidden doubts about readings and interpretations. But they operated so smoothly in that lecture hall, they looked so serene and attentive, that I couldn’t sit near them.
Still, some professors are unfazed by complaints of rigidity or homogeneity (even those less petty than my initial ones). They’re not bothered by a possible overrepresentation of white males in the reading. According to Professor Brantley, the department’s requirements are already “designed to guide majors towards as full and diverse an experience of Anglophone literature as is possible.”
While some professors of English 126 do eschew Eliot in favor of non-white or non-male poets, substantive curriculum reforms are not forthcoming. The department does not appear perched to add requirements or tweak the status quo.
Rampell, however, favors reform and cites a handful of professors also championing academic amendments within the department. He knows the matter is contentious. No one is quite sure how to define or delimit the English Major, he says. While this ambiguity might confuse and frustrate students, it’s ultimately essential to the major.
“It’s important to expose students to different ideas of what an English degree is supposed to do,” he said.
I suddenly felt guilty, hearing that. I thought back to “The Victorian Novel,” the boat shoes and shiny bags, the Moleskines and Macbooks. Didn’t I know that only a self-selected bunch would take a class on “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights”? Why had I extrapolated so wildly?
I thought — I’m an idiot. Of course a few students aren’t metonyms for a department. Those kids and I just have different ideas. We have different ideas of what an English class should do.
After all, when I interviewed Ruth Yeazell, she said “one doesn’t go to literature to look in the mirror.” One doesn’t go to class for that either.