When I think about the courses that have most influenced me at Yale, they’re mostly courses within the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies or Theater Studies departments. In hindsight, it makes little sense that I majored in English. As a sophomore I thought that Yale’s English Department would be my home — instead, it has belittled, frustrated and disappointed me.
I’m disappointed that the department remains complicit in a larger culture of literary elitism. Lee & Low, a multicultural book publisher in New York, conducted a survey of diversity in American book publishing for the year 2015. 79 percent of books published that year were written by Caucasian authors; 86 percent of publishing executives were Caucasian. While women are overrepresented in the publishing world, many other marginalized groups are underrepresented, such as people with disabilities and the queer community.
But why should you care? What should you do?
I majored in English because I’m a writer. I majored in English because in the lowest moments of my life, I have turned to poetry and theater and well-written television. I majored in English because I don’t hate reading John Milton. But the department does not cultivate a well-rounded academic experience— the department educates its students in venerating the English canon.
We are taught how to analyze canonical literature works. We are not taught to question why it is canonical, or the implications of canonical works that actively oppress and marginalize nonwhite, nonmale, trans and queer people. Instead, we are taught to close-read; we are not exposed to feminist theory or post-structuralism or post-colonial theory. The department doesn’t require engagement with literary analysis beyond New Criticism, and this is egregious. It is possible to graduate with a degree in English language & literature by exclusively reading the works of (mostly wealthy) white men. Many students do not read a single female author in the two foundational courses for the major. This department actively contributes to the erasure of history.
The limited scope of this scholarship does a disservice to Yale. It is unattractive to nonwhite, nonwealthy students, many of whom feel uncomfortable in LC seminar rooms, where visiting wealthy, white authors have encouraged students to work minimum wage jobs as fodder for nonfiction work.
Although the Department of Comparative Literature engages with more diverse methods of literary analyses in greater depth, their resources cannot rival the English Department’s. Moreover, a great deal of Lit majors at Yale complete many of their major requirements within the English department. As a result, there are limited resources for students who wish to engage critically with the literary canon. We read Chaucer, but we are told to view his misogyny with an “objective” lens, a daunting task for the one in three female students who have experienced sexual violence.
Our professors tell us that we are too easily offended by the works they venerate. These works contain a legacy of colonialism and genocide. Many blatantly condone sexual violence, such as “The Flea” by John Donne, who equates rape with religious purity. Many even committed acts of violence themselves. A close-reading-only approach means that we are often unable to reckon with the harsh realities in which so-called great works of literature were created. Our institution routinely fails to grapple with historical context.
Institutional choices are not made within a sociological vacuum. The Yale Corporation and President Peter Salovey are questioning whether to continue honoring the name of a man who advocated the enslavement of black Americans. Yale has just begun divesting from fossil fuels. These decisions are made and influenced by the world we inhabit. The English Department needs to become more cognizant of this truth.
The Yale English Department has 98 faculty members. Only seven identify as nonwhite. There isn’t a single indigenous or Hispanic person on the faculty. Out of the 17 faculty members in Creative Writing, only three identify as nonwhite; one of them is leaving at the end of this year explicitly due to a culture of racism. If we wish to expand the department’s scholarship and maintain its integrity, the department must hire more nonwhite faculty. But more than this, it must question its core values.
Yale’s English department needs an existential makeover. The faculty need to leave the fourth floor of LC and look around at our multicultural world.
In an essay called “On Pandering,” Claire Vaye Watkins criticizes the overtly masculine culture of contemporary American literature. Her piece calls for the deconstruction of the canon: she says, “Let’s burn this motherf***ing system to the ground and build something together.” Yale students need to do just that.
Adriana Miele is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .