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.

  • Muhammad Ali Kamal

    Here is more comprehensives all about undergraduates’s curriculums for english majors.

  • Ann

    Have you ever thought to study online? I study English at online school Myenglishdom and I can say the courses are good. I liked that my request was met, and the school gave me the teacher in business English. I liked the principles of teaching: the lesson is only 45 minutes and all information is presented clearly, the teacher gives all necessary materials. Teaching English in this school is at a very good level.

  • ShadrachSmith

    The King James version of the bible should be at the top of every reading list, because James I of England was very gay. I also recommend Locke, Hume, Gibbon [gay], Wilde [gay pedophile], and Bastiat to lead the reading list.

  • tribe

    Alas, with classes out of session, the News feels no obligation to cover campus issues fairly. Not one quote from a professor willing to fully defend ENGL 125/126 (and there are certainly many).

  • 4OurMissBrooks

    Well, there goes the only hope that Yale undergrads would be exposed to decent English before moving on to the horror that is SJW-speak.

  • JVW

    The clear solution here is to dumb-down the curriculum by adding more courses about hip hop song lyrics and the poetic language of texts and Tweets, so that the young Yalies of color don’t have to learn all of those hard words and complex phrases that are found in studying the poetry of dead white colonizing males.

  • Martin Adamson

    Hmm, just done a quick Google and it seems the Yale does indeed offer very many options for people who wish to escape the intellectual tyranny of white men. All the major African languages are offered – from Amharic to Zulu; all the major Asian languages; a rich selection of Middle Eastern languages, both alive and dead. OK, I grant you, Native American languages look a bit skinny, with only a summer class in Nahuatl, and not a single language from Oceania, but somehow I don’t think any of the students signing the petition will be spending much time sweating over their Shona irregular verbs.

    http://cls.yale.edu/languages-taught-yale

  • Hubert_the_Infant

    Does this mean that white male students can refuse to take courses by or about women and/or minorities? It certainly seems so to me.

  • Rod Carveth

    OK, then put forward to the English Department poets of that era who were not white males but who also had a similar impact/influence.

  • JerseyCowboy

    I minored in Japanese literature and was severely traumatized by how few white people there were in the curriculum.

  • goat10000

    The inmates are running the asylum.

  • David E Frederick

    I suggest the petitioning students transfer to more congenial, less historically concerned, college, therby making room for students desirous of a Yale education.

  • Nick Roberti ’48

    Barely out of High School, modern students appear to know something about literature that had escaped WEB DuBois

    “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm
    with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?”

    W.E.B. Du Bois –The Souls of Black Folk 1903

  • Jack Spratt

    It’s sad to watch American education go down the drain. Anti-West students should be given the option of a “diversity course” (just to shut them up) in lieu of the English poetry sequence requirement, while keeping the English poetry sequence intact, as is, for open-minded students who cherish English poetry.

  • John Wrenn

    Slouching towards mediocrity.

  • Nick Roberti ’48

    2nd try at posting this. The author, no DWM, sees what escapes kids just out of high school

    “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm
    with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with
    Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?
    Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?”

    W.E.B. Du Bois –The Souls of Black Folk 1903

  • Zalina Kirshat

    yale is in big trouble. if it doesn’t meet the demands of these bullies, they will demonstrate and scream. if it does – its curriculum will be dictated by disgruntled adolescents.

    perhaps Yale could create an ad hoc course I which to solely teach writings by the representatives of the minorities, call it “The most progressive lit” to appease the mob, and leave Shakespeare alone?

    another strategy would be to take a hard look at the admission policies, and accept students based on scholastic aptitude and ambition – and not on the skin color and poverty level.

    • Nicholas Stix

      None of Yale’s AA admits are poor.

  • matebo

    According to them science has been super colonialist as all equations we learn are written by white people. And so , according to this “logic” or thoughts, we should include more equations written by “black” people in our science programs. Good luck!
    But then i am thinking (sorry i am a scientist) how would you define the color of the writer. A minimum concentration of melanin in the skin?
    Anyway these students are super racists and they don’t realize it. But most important the ones giving more easily way to the whims of students according to their colors and origins are also very racist: basically they don’t think these students could be treated like others and that they will always need special accommodations. America has been trying to buy a better consciousness and its social peace this way …maybe it worked a little. But in the long term it is a disaster!

    • hh60

      All equations we learn were written by white people?? Maybe you should look more closely at who wrote the equations you learned.

  • Luc

    “…hold your nose and read a lot of white male poets” So melanin-ist. Let’s keep dividing by identity until we are all alienated and
    resentful.

  • Del_Varner

    If I were in a “Human Resources” position for any company that required intellect in their hires, I would exclude Yale humanities graduates from consideration.

  • Montjoie

    They’re just lowering the future value of the degrees they’re paying out the wazoo for. Not so smart.

  • http://www.miguelitosgalleria.com MichaelJ

    I really like your reference to Narcissus and social media. It is like looking in the mirror and saying “I’m so pretty” until you begin to believe it. But you can’t be all that pretty if you can’t even attract old white heterosexual males, girls.