I came to Yale two and a half years ago with a feeling that I was going to major in English. What made me sure was Readings in American Literature (ENGL 127) with Jacqueline Goldsby, which I took the spring of my freshman year.
The syllabus included Junot Díaz, Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass. Professor Goldsby discussed the personal backgrounds of the writers extensively as we read their work, including women of color like Jhumpa Lahiri. We even met United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey when she came to the Beinecke for a reading that semester, where she discussed her biracial identity.
During my sophomore year I took the required, foundational courses in English: Major English Poets (English 125 and 126). In two semesters, I read exactly one female writer between two courses. The last poet we studied in 126 was Louise Glück, whom my professor, Leslie Brisman, chose as an example of a living poet.
I greatly enjoyed reading Glück’s work, especially because I’ve taken two courses in poetry writing with her here at Yale. I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with such an influential, graceful writer. As much as I admire Louise’s voice, I was troubled that she was the single female voice reflected in the foundational courses of my major.
The study of the humanities is centered on the development of the Western canon, and Yale’s curricula are no exception. Many bemoan the fact that older, mostly heterosexual, white men dominate the literary, theatrical, and artistic canons. Even so, within discussions about gender representation in academia, the focus remains on the hard sciences.
The lack of female voices in the Western canon isn’t news to anyone. But it bothered me. It still does.
I spoke with Eve Houghton ’17 over the phone on a Friday morning. A sophomore English major in Davenport, Eve expressed her love for the Yale English Department — and Major English Poets. Eve’s literary interests lie in the Early Modern period, which 125 and 126 cover with broad strokes.
In her other courses, such as Minor English Poets taught by professor Catherine Nicholson, and her individual research, Houghton said she’s “interested in authors that are really understudied … I’m interested in thinking about people who are perhaps outside the mainstream of what would make it into Major English Poets because I’m interested in the period and a whole range of personalities and literature.”
Eve pointed out that the Yale English Department’s approach to literary analysis is varied, but that the Major English Poets courses overwhelmingly teach students to close-read. I learned midway through my junior year that the Yale English Department’s approach to analysis is influenced by New Criticism, a movement in literary theory popular throughout the mid-20th century that emphasized close reading. Close reading, as defined by New Criticism, rejects biographical or sociological concerns. Readers are supposed to derive meaning from the text as if it exists in a vacuum.
New Criticism isn’t the only approach to literary theory, but it’s the most prevalent one at Yale — something I didn’t know until well after I declared my major. Professors often laud close reading as an analytical technique, but I can’t recall New Criticism being discussed at length in any English seminar. Because this is rarely talked about, I didn’t realize that my professor Goldsby’s approach to discussion wasn’t universally accepted.
At my public charter high school in Florida, my sophomore year English teacher had a different approach to teaching. Born in Iran, he loved to repeat the phrase, “It’s all about the context.” As an underclassman, Yale English’s New Critical approach baffled me. Why weren’t we talking more extensively about the historical moments that influenced the writers? Why weren’t we talking about postcolonialism while reading work produced during the heyday of imperialism? As we read more American authors, why weren’t we talking about nationalism? How might issues of ethnicity and race be more relevant in English language texts written outside of Great Britain?
I’m also very interested in asking questions about gender and sexuality. In many of my courses in the humanities, I feel like we don’t address issues of gender as holistically relevant to the material. As someone who’s very concerned about gender, I find this to be unsettling. Last year, when I expressed distaste for a poem that discussed rape, one tenured professor leaped out of his chair and mocked me. He stood in the corner of the room and said that he could set up a punching bag on which to take out my frustrations.
After that experience, I’ve struggled with how to approach conversations in the classroom. It’s often unclear what different professors may deem relevant or appropriate questioning. This semester, in my 17th Century Literature junior seminar with John Rogers ’84 GRD ’89, we read masques by Ben Jonson. One of his masques, a text intended for a one-time performance, was written for the British royal family at the time and describes Queen Anne performing in blackface. Our discussion touched upon modern conceptions of race, though Jonson wrote his piece centuries before there existed a postcolonial understanding of ethnic identity. Rogers has encouraged his students to critically engage with the works with a broader sense of cultural context.
The English Department requires undergraduates to take three courses in English literature before 1800, one course in English literature before 1900, and only one course in American literature. According to the department’s website, the major aims to provide its students with a broad understanding of Anglophone literary history. But that history is narrowly defined, focused only on white, male, English poets. The canon’s writers are studied, but the lack of diversity among them isn’t always discussed. I feel like the department’s overall relationship with sociological context is strained.
In the first fifteen minutes of his introductory lecture in Milton last fall, Rogers cited A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf in which she argued with Milton’s patriarchal values by using his own logic from work he wrote centuries before Woolf’s birth. I didn’t enjoy reading Paradise Lost earlier that calendar year in 126, but Rogers’s approach of actively engaging with foundational feminist theory cast the text in a new light. The semester concluded with a conversation on Milton’s influence on the American Christian awakening of the 19th century, when Paradise Lost was a very popular text throughout the United States. Milton was and is still relevant, but we didn’t shy away from contextualizing his writing in Roger’s lecture course. We probed Milton’s biography and political views; we considered his academic experiences and social anxieties. We discussed him as a person.
There have been many conversations on campus about the role that gender plays in the undergraduate experience. I’ve taken to making lots of jokes with my friends about my oppression as a woman; it’s my way of dealing with the fact that one-in-four women will be assaulted by the time we graduate. It’s my way of dealing with the fact that I know literally one female engineering major. Gender is a controversial issue, and I struggle with it on campus. Figures from the Office of Institutional Research reflect a massive underrepresentation of women within STEM. This past year, Connor Szostak ’17 switched his major to English from statistics. When he started enrolling in English courses, he noticed a shift: There were more girls.
Though there may be more women taking English courses, the majority of the curricula revolve around male voices: Wordsworth, Eliot, Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc. Because classes such as 125 and 126 are mandatory for the major, students are left with the impression that canonical works are the English language’s greatest hits. There’s no question that the canon privileges male voices. Through examining this issue, I wonder if maybe the classroom privileges male voices as well.
According to the Yale Office of Institutional Research, in the 2013 — 14 academic year, there were about 100 more female upperclassmen than males majoring in the humanities. The majority of Yale students devoting their time as undergrads to the humanities are women. Yet there seems to be huge disagreement about how to approach the topic of gender in the classroom. Women have been admitted to Yale College for 45 years. Since then, has gender been a defining feature of each individual student’s academic experience? Does such questioning force us to focus too much on gender? Shouldn’t we preclude ourselves from defining one another? Should we ask these questions at all?
Some people say we should.
Victoria Hall-Palerm ’15, who majors in Ethics, Politics, and Economics, enrolled in Directed Studies during her freshman year. In the pages of the Yale Daily News and beyond, the program has drawn much criticism for its lack of diversity in terms of its authors. Directed Studies intends to provide freshmen with foundational knowledge of the greatest works and thoughts of the Western canon with courses on literature, philosophy, and history. Victoria told me that as much as she values some of the criticism aimed at Directed Studies for its lack of diversity, she feels that adding authors or thinkers to the curriculum just for the sake of diversity would be a “disservice.”
“I think that Directed Studies is trying to cover a lot of work in a short period of time, so you obviously need to narrow the focus while discussing thousands of years of history [within two semesters].” For centuries, men wrote the most discussed literary and philosophical texts. “I think my understanding of the past is that it is what it is.”
Today, Victoria feels that there are fewer excuses for male-dominated curriculum. Victoria feels that as the Directed Studies syllabus approaches texts from the 19th and 20th centuries, there’s a wealth of influential female authors from whom to draw. “We need to consider other writers now that we’re moving into the 21st century. So many of the greatest writers of the 20th [century] were women. I’d really love to see writers like Toni Morrison on a syllabus — like, God forbid, maybe we add a person of color.”
In Victoria’s experience, the lack of female representation in the canon never translated to a lack of female participation in the classroom. I asked Victoria about the transition to coed at Yale after she had attended an all-girls high school, Nightingale, in Manhattan. She said questions such as, “Is it proper or safe, to talk as a girl? That never crossed my mind.” She acknowledges that she “came in very fortunate to speak with some degree of self-assurance,” especially in a demanding program like Directed Studies.
Jennifer Lu ’16, another Nightingale alumna, expressed a similar experience. She says she has never felt silenced or inclined not to speak in her time at Yale. Jennifer’s interests lie in the humanities and literature, but she chose the literature major over English. Jennifer said, “Due to a quirk of major requirements, every English major ends up talking about the Milton class , the Shakespeare lectures and seminars, Romanticism, and a few other seemingly if not actually core English classes, all of which don’t fit my interests. There are plenty of English classes … that are more up my alley, but they’re not as talked about. I ended up associating English with those classes, while I felt like I had a broader range of choices with lit.”
For Jennifer, her decision was more about personal preferences. She was also able to count the courses she’s taken in classical Latin literature toward her major. Lit was a better fit.
Within the much smaller Lit Department, Jennifer has had mostly positive experiences. Like English, literature at Yale has more female students. When I spoke to Jennifer about this piece, she said that she’s “hesitant to draw any conclusions between the levels of engagement or discussion and gender because that has more to do with the individual qualities of each class and professor.”
Zachary Blickensderfer ’16, a computer science major, has taken a number of courses within the humanities at Yale. In his experience, he’s noticed a huge disparity between genders. The Computer Science Department is heavily male, which bothers Zach. While he’s also hesitant to make a blanket statement about gender in the classroom, he told me that, “The people who in [his] experience in seminars and lecture settings who are most aggressive in making their voice heard and making their opinion accepted tend to be men.” I asked him if he had any thoughts on why that might be.
He giggled and then said, “The patriarchy, but I can’t know for sure.” He also noted that, without exception, he generally feels more comfortable if the class is being led by a female instructor. “[My] comfort with a professor is about how good [the] teacher is. [Whether the teacher] makes you at ease with your knowledge and ignorance. If we’re not comfortable, everyone throws out their obligatory ration of waffle and then you move on, and the discussion is mediocre.”
Gary Sharp ’16 has also noticed a discrepancy between male and female behavior in the classroom. “Girls are actively trying to push the class forward or explain something, whereas when a guy does it, he’s trying to assert his opinion,” he said. I asked if he attempts to be more assertive. He said, “For sure.”
Moreover, he said that in his experience, “Girls tend to be asking questions and more likely to work through their response with a professor.” Victoria also noted that women tend to be “more open.”
Zach believes that “there are lots of different factors” that make someone more verbal in classes. He believes gender is just one of them.
I realized through my conversations that unanimously, students and professors alike have noticed that women seem less inclined to prove their opinions as correct. Of course it’s not true that women are universally diplomatic, or that all men are rude, brutish conversationalists. But along with most people I’ve spoken to, I’ve noticed that women tend to be more open. When they speak, there’s a willingness to say, “This is what I think,” instead of saying, “This is the correct way of thinking.”
I don’t think women are better classmates than men, but I do think that we need to be considerate and respectful of other people’s views. I think it’s in our hands to make our classrooms comfortable for one another. Students and instructors can work together to create spaces to talk about meaningful texts, even if that makes discussions more complicated.
My mother often gets frustrated with me because I can be very idealistic in my approach to defining gender. I want to really believe that gender is a spectrum. As much as I closely identify with feminine attributes and my own womanhood, I don’t think everyone fits precisely into prescribed cultural norms for gendered behavior. As I write this, I am listening to Taylor Swift and sitting with my legs crossed. Maybe if I were born a boy, I’d be doing the same thing.
But there’s no denying that women are underrepresented in positions of authority in our world. And because women account for 50 percent of the human experience, this is a problem.
The majority of current undergraduates in the U.S. are women. Even so, the majority of upper-level faculty in the academy at Yale is male, according to the Office of Institutional Research. A great deal of this can be explained by how many of these men are older; there were just fewer women going into academia several decades ago. We can’t just say that gender is exclusively an issue at Yale or even at the English Department when there are so many other factors that have influenced the gender imbalance within academia.
There are cultural and historical explanations for the lack of upper-level female faculty, as well as for the lack of female representation within the canon. The English Department isn’t an inherently sexist, silencing entity. The issue of gender is complex and deeply embedded in our society; we can’t easily unpack how gender affects how much authority a person may possess — whether they’re taking a class or teaching it.
According to the Yale Office of Institutional Research, the ratio of male-to-female faculty within the humanities at Yale is roughly 2:1. When so much of the canonical history is dominated by men, and so many of the influential figures within the academy are still men, how much does this affect the experience for women or individuals who don’t conform to the traditional gender binary?
Through professor Elise Morrison’s experience in performance, public speaking, and feminist theory, she’s become aware of “scrutiny of how young women voice their own authority.” In her course last semester on public speaking, she noticed that everybody had something to work on, like vocal fry and up-speak.
Up-speak, or Valley Girl Talk, has been heavily criticized, especially in academia. In the past year, The New York Times published a piece on the myth of Valley Girl talk — a manner of speaking (not at all exclusive to the West Coast), typically associated with females, in which speakers raise the pitch of their voices at the end of sentences, often making statements sound like questions.
Morrison said that many of her students used up-speak, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. We discussed our concern about the impression that this manner of speaking is gendered. What does it imply that we so often degrade Valley Girl talk? And what risk do we run by trying to “fix” it? Morrison mentioned that in film theory, there’s great discussion surrounding the gender of “voice-offs.” Voice-off is a term to describe narrative voices in film that belong to a figure not visually represented on the screen. In the majority of films, “we [the audience] respond to vocal framing of [this] male, intrepid guy.” In film, female voice isn’t prescribed as much authority.
Morrison said that she decided from the beginning of the over-enrolled course to keep the gender ratio balanced, resulting in six men and six women. All twelve had to deal with issues of body language and diction when they addressed the class. But Morrison was concerned, most of all, by how much the women in her course struggled to take up space. Female body language often includes folding: arms over the chest, legs crossed. Studies have suggested that these poses indicate less confidence. Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School, has produced a volume of work in the field of social psychology about the way that occupying space reflects one’s confidence and authority. Her work questions whether people may feel more powerful by the way they move their bodies. While teaching a course on gathering authority in public, Morrison had to address her female students much more frequently about habits that Cuddy observes in her research.
“Women are trained to take up less space,” Morrison said.
In summary: Men and women are both at Yale. Men and women are both successful at Yale and beyond. Both speak. Both are involved in the humanities. But maybe the fact that women are trained to take up less space is still reflected here. Maybe the fact is there’s something to be said about the way gender affects the way we inhabit spaces.
In 1994, a year in which many current undergraduates were born, the acclaimed and controversial literary critic Harold Bloom published The Western Canon. The Yale professor claimed that Deconstructionists and Feminists were all part of “the School of Resentment.” He said that to veer away from the canon as readers, we deprive ourselves of valuable solitude. Bloom’s criticism reveres writers such as Emerson and Thoreau: wealthy, educated, white men who find themselves in nature.
As a feminist, issues of gender and representation are close to my heart. I voraciously consume theory related to gender and ethnic identity, and outside of English and art, I’ve taken a number of courses in the WGSS department. I have very purposefully constructed an academic experience that allows me to question the Western canon as an aspiring writer and performer.
Balancing an understanding of the institutional nature of identity politics while attending a prestigious academic institution is difficult. As I worked on this piece, I constantly struggled with concerns that this wouldn’t be taken seriously, or that few people would care for my progressive views. Also, I felt hypocritical. I loved The Great Gatsby and Charles Dickens when I took AP Literature in high school. I have well-worn paperback copies of Shakespeare on my bookshelves at home. So much of my identity has revolved around the texts that I read.
This semester, in my nine-person, feminist performance seminar taught by Morrison, which includes one man of color and eight women, we’ve read texts that describe categories of race and gender as “haunting” constructs because they make people feel confined to certain aspects of their identity, whereas the majority of the cultural texts that we consume tend to portray white, straight men as more complex, nuanced individuals.
Each week, we open the class by sharing performances and events with one another. We also complain about occasions when we feel uncomfortable as performers and writers on campus. The seminar is a space where we can address the fact that gender still affects our lives here. We are safe to express how.
I’ve been engaging with feminist theory for years out of personal interest, but what about people who believe in gender equality but don’t engage with it so deeply? I can’t expect everyone to just care, but it’s so incredibly important to me. If the study of the humanities is supposedly about the human experience, I think we need to take a holistic look at what that means. What are we potentially missing if we don’t consider issues of gender as an integral component of a liberal arts education? Thinking about gender is a way of thinking about people. Gender is an inherent part of the human experience, and I think we should acknowledge that identity is essential to the cultivation of works that make meaning from life.
I’m well aware that questioning the Academy is a large task to undertake, but it seems like many students consume canonical texts without questioning why they are, in fact, canonical. When students look back on the beginning of the 21st century, what voices will they consider canonical? How can our actions today influence what will come? I’ve thought a lot about professor Morrison’s words as I consider where the study of the humanities should go: How do we talk about literature? Morrison’s thought that women are taught to take up less space continues to echoes in my mind.
This semester, in Roger’s 17th Century Literature course, I was thrilled to see three women on the syllabus. Because women exist, and women have written — a fact we need to start recognizing.
In Rebecca Schneider’s Explicit Bodies, a book on applying intersectional feminist theory to the art of theatrical text and performance, she states the following in her introduction:
“This book is about the effort of turning, with the logic of the twister. But the ultimate aim of such turning is not to arrive, as T.S. Eliot hoped, to ‘know [ourselves] for the first time,’ but to keep on turning and turning and turning again, to take, always, a second look.”
I think we need to take a second look.