Updated: May 27, 2016
Following a tumultuous academic year during which the diversity of scholarship and academia has come to the forefront of campus discussion, undergraduates in the English department have authored a petition to “decolonize” the department’s introductory curriculum.
The petition urges English department faculty to reevaluate the undergraduate curriculum, as well as reconsider the current core requirements and introductory courses. It particularly criticizes the Major English Poets sequence, a longtime prerequisite for the major and “perhaps the most distinctive element of English at Yale,” according to the department’s website. The petition calls for the abolishment of this prerequisite and for the pre-1800/1900 requirements to refocus and include literature relating to gender, race and sexuality. According to an author of the petition, who requested to remain anonymous, the petition has gathered 160 signatures as of Thursday night.
“A year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity,” the petition reads. “The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color. When students are made to feel so alienated that they get up and leave the room, or get up and leave the major, something is wrong.”
The petition claims it is “unacceptable” for prospective English literature majors to study only white male authors in the Major English Poets sequence, adding that the lack of diversity in the curriculum drives away talented students. Furthermore, the petition writes that the white male-centric introductory courses do not adequately prepare students to take higher level courses relating to race, gender and ethnicity or to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship.
“It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings,” the petition reads. “A 21st century education is a diverse education: we write to you today inspired by student activism across the university, and to make sure that you know that the English department is not immune from the collective call to action.”
This past year, student activists have protested systemic racism in college campuses across the nation; at Yale, these discussions have centered on the naming of Calhoun College, the lack of faculty and curriculum diversity and the insufficient support for the University’s four cultural centers. During an April town hall with students following the Corporation’s decision to retain the name of Calhoun College, University President Peter Salovey called the lack of faculty diversity Yale’s “single biggest problem.”
Margaret Shultz ’16, who majored in English, said she supports the request to abolish the Major English Poets sequence. She added that while there are many great courses in the department that relate to race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality, they are mainly upper-level courses that are not emphasized as the “core curriculum.”
Adriana Miele ’16, another recent graduate who majored in English, cited her experience in the major as evidence of the need for change in the department.
“The English Department was not my intellectual home, and that’s because it openly rejects the very legitimate scholarship, criticism and analysis that many other academic departments at Yale embrace,” Miele said. “In my four years as an English major, I primarily was lectured by old, white men about rape, about violence, about death, about colonialism, about genocide, and I was repeatedly told by many of my professors that these evils were necessary or even related to spiritual enrichment. This was horrifying.”
English Professor and Associate Director of Undergraduate Students Jill Richards said she is proud of these student activists and hopes their demands for a diversified curriculum are heard in the wider English department.
“It is unacceptable that the two semester requirement for all majors routinely covers the work of eight white, male poets,” Richards said.
She added that although the later half of the series allows professors to choose one additional poet, who might contribute to the diversity of the course, this elective addition is not always taken, nor does it necessarily depart from the entirely white male tradition that came before.
English Professor Catherine Nicholson, who teaches the Major English Poets sequence English 125/126 said she welcomes the discussion about the course and its curriculum, though she said her own views are more conflicted.
“The question of English 125/126, and its privileged place in the major, is an important one, and I don’t have easy answers — though I am personally eager to participate in a more open conversation about it,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson added that she has taught either English 125 or 126 nearly every semester since she came to Yale and loves the “deep beauty in the poems.” She added that the close reading skills taught in the courses are not tools of exclusion or oppression, and can be an “exercise in resistance and liberation.” However, she said she understands why the sequence alienates students and why these students may question why the sequence is the required gateway to the study of English literature.
Nicholson herself has taught a course “Minor English Poets” to tackle the “unspoken assumptions and biases of the required course head on.” In the course, Nicholson said she and her students asked questions such as what makes a poet minor in readers’ eyes and how assessments of minority relate to issues of gender, class, education and disability.
Regarding the petition’s other request to refocus the 1800/1900 requirements, Nicholson professed enthusiasm.
“I love the idea of decolonizing our early period courses: as the authors of the petition rightly suggest, there is no reason why classes in pre-1800 literature shouldn’t be spaces for thinking and learning about the histories of race, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and ability–indeed, there’s something especially illuminating about studying such issues in the context of a period whose frames of reference are often radically different from our own,” Nicholson said.
While it is unclear how much traction the petition has gained from undergraduates, it has garnered attention outside of Yale. Katy Waldman ’10, an English Language and Literature major at Yale, published a think piece in Slate on Tuesday in response to the petition. While Waldman praised the petition’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity, she suggested that the tradition canon, comprised of mostly white male poets, is an essential area of study.
“If you want to become well-versed in English literature, you’re going to have to hold your nose and read a lot of white male poets. Like, a lot,” Waldman wrote. “I want to gently push back, too, against the idea that the major English poets have nothing to say to students who aren’t straight, male, and white.”
Despite the petition calling for greater diversity in the undergraduate curriculum, the English department has made strides in recent years to diversify, starting with its faculty.
Yale’s English Department has become very “forward-looking” and recognizes that the field can no longer just be Euro-centric, English and African American Studies Professor Jacqueline Goldsby told the News in March.
She added that the department is intellectually and institutionally in a “very healthy and exciting place.” She added that following an external review in 2008, the department is in a long range planning cycle to diversify its faculty and scholarship.
“Both at junior and senior levels, we are very mindful about how to deliberately diversify our faculty,” Goldsby said. “It’s a relief for me that I do not have to carry that banner alone. My colleagues are right there with me doing this important work.”
The external review also included a comprehensive evaluation of the department’s curriculum, particularly English 125, according to professors interviewed. The evaluation of the course from students and alumnae was largely positive.
In April, the department also announced the expected arrival of renowned African American poet Claudia Rankine, to much fanfare.
Rankine, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the author of the critically acclaimed book “Citizen: An American Lyric” will serve as an adjunct professor of English and African American Studies and told the News that she will be teaching a course on “whiteness” in the coming academic year.
Students must take 14 related courses to complete the English major.