Margaret Shultz ’16 felt dissatisfied when she submitted her senior thesis in English this spring. The road to this moment hadn’t been an easy one: She’d begun to question the value of the English curriculum as early as freshman year. By senior year, she actively avoided taking any English classes at all.
For Shultz, the disappointment came gradually. As a freshman, she expected to learn in “one of the best [English departments] in the country” — a department that featured not only renowned faculty such as Anne Fadiman and Harold Bloom GRD ’55, but also a professed commitment to a broad course of study. Even while she took the introductory Major English Poets sequence, a prerequisite for the major, and felt uncomfortable about its limited range of writers, Shultz looked forward to higher-level classes, which she assumed would showcase more variety. But as Shultz progressed through the major, she noticed a startling absence from many of her seminars.
Where were all the women authors, authors of color, LGBTQ authors?
By the time graduation approached in late May of 2016, Shultz had made up her mind. She and other discontented English students drafted an online petition highlighting what they saw as a lack of diversity in the courses offered by the English Department. In particular, the petition pushed for the abolishment of the Major English Poets series, a long-standing requirement in the English major at Yale.
“It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors,” the petition stated. “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.”
Within days, Shultz’s petition had not only circulated among Yale’s English majors, but also reached some leading news outlets, including the Guardian and The Wall Street Journal. At the heart of the controversy lies two critical questions.
What is the purpose of the Major English Poets sequence? And why should it go?
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According to Judith Schiff, a chief research archivist at Sterling Memorial Library, the Major English Poets series has been a staple of the Yale English curriculum since the 1920s. In its current form, Major English Poets is divided into two courses: ENGL 125 and ENGL 126. ENGL 125 covers pre-17th century poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare and John Donne, and ENGL 126 focuses on post-17th century poets, starting with John Milton and ending with a more modern writer such as Louise Glück.
English professor Leslie Brisman explained that ENGL 125 and ENGL 126 originated in order to instill skills crucial for understanding literature. In particular, he noted that Major English Poets emphasizes “close reading,” an age-old component of Yale’s English major that involves deep textual analysis.
“You aren’t simply studying a history of what has been written,” Brisman said. “You are studying the most intensive ways to examine literature and writing.”
According to Brisman, poetry was chosen as the focal point of the sequence because certain foundational techniques, such as detailed attention to the choice and meaning of words, are essential to understanding poetry but not necessarily prose. Brisman also argued that focusing on a few texts serves students better than examining many works, because students can familiarize themselves more deeply with both the material itself and the analytical methods taught by professors.
English professor Harold Bloom defended the limited range of authors featured in Major English Poets for their contributions to the English canon. Although he acknowledged that a majority of writers in the traditional canon were white men, he disapproved of the outright dismissal of such authors.
“They have been magnificent writers in the Western tradition who happen to have been white men,” Bloom argued. “How do you learn to think clearly and well unless you have read the great works that have formed the world’s heritage?”
In addition, Major English Poets may lay crucial groundwork for English students to rebel against the canon itself. Brisman cited Bloom’s idea of “clinamen”: in order to “swerve” from the “line” of tradition, a scholar should first and foremost know what that line is. Thus, Major English Poets could be seen as the first step to developing an informed challenge to tradition.
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Joseph Young-Perez ’20 walked into his ENGL 125 class this semester with clear expectations of what he would learn from the course.
“I imagine the ideal 125 teaching you a lot about the writers and also teaching you to be a better writer,” he said. “It’s not only understanding the writers themselves, but [also] the way they write.”
Other students concurred that the primary purpose of ENGL 125 and ENGL 126 is to develop reading and compositional ability. Eric Margolis ’18 noted that he looked forward to adapting some of the techniques he studied in class into his own creative writing.
Hayley Kolding ’17 explained that the ENGL 125 curriculum provided her with an opportunity to focus on the structural components of literature.
“For many of us, the content of these writers is on the outer stretches of relatability — but I think of this as a good thing,” she said. “It forces the earnest student to find interest in the writing itself, from tropes, symbols and plot structures to the sound and formal aspects of the language.”
According to Dhiksha Balaji ’18, Major English Poets succeeds as an introductory course because it teaches students what English professors will expect from them in the major.
“The goal of [the sequence] is for you to come out understanding what the rest of the major will be work-wise — not content-wise,” Balaji said.
Nevertheless, some students found that although Major English Poets trained them well in the mechanics of poetry, they continued to have reservations about its limited range of authors. Specifically, they worried that it fails to establish a solid foundation for studying race, gender and sexuality in more advanced English courses.
For Balaji, literature is ultimately a way for people to communicate with one another, particularly about social issues. Though she noted that some higher-level courses in the English major do address some such topics, she found the Major English Poets sequence lacking in that respect.
Hayun Cho ’17, who switched from the English major to the literature major during the fall of her sophomore year, suggested that many of the readings in ENGL 125 and ENGL 126 treat subjects like race, gender and sexuality as marginal.
“They were never central, never subject,” Cho said.
However, Brisman noted that when he taught ENGL 126, students actively spoke up about gender issues. Many of the discussions in his course revolved around the absence of female authors and its impact on the canon.
Such discussions can also be fostered by English professors who do not shy away from talking about such issues.
“I was lucky that my professor [Alastair Minnis] spoke frankly and thoughtfully,” Kolding said. “He kept us aware that they had been cemented in history as ‘major’ both because of their literary genius and because historical conditions allowed white, upper-class males almost exclusive access to writing and publishing.”
Margolis pointed out that the extent to which students are exposed to issues of identity varies among sections of Major English Poets. His own ENGL 126 class served as a good introduction to such themes, he said, because his professor addressed them with every work they read and even added more diverse authors to the syllabus.
However, Sophie Dillon ’17 distinguished studying race, gender and sexuality because of their absence in the curriculum from studying them because of their presence.
“The thesis of [many essays] about race or gender in one of these works is by omission — and that is incredibly frustrating,” Dillon said. “To be able to write a paper about women [whom] you are reading, women of color, and looking at their own work instead of their absence in other people’s texts — it’s entirely different and so valuable.”
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Such concerns about diversity in Major English Poets have greater implications beyond whether the sequence prepares students academically for the English major. Specifically, Shultz’s petition argued that ENGL 125 and ENGL 126 may drive potential students away from the major altogether.
“Because students who come into the major take Major English Poets first, I think for many people it determines how they perceive the major — whether or not they feel welcome in it, whether or not they continue,” Shultz explained. “Many people I know took ENGL 125 and were like, ‘No, never again, I’m leaving.’”
While Shultz’s point resounds with some students, other English majors expressed that the issue is far more nuanced, a push-and-pull between tradition and representation.
Balaji said that while she knew exactly what kind of authors she’d be reading when she enrolled in ENGL 125 and enjoyed reading their works, she felt disappointed that the English Department presented only these writers as the most important voices to be heard.
“I just don’t think it should be put forward as the thing you need to know before you move on to the rest of the English language,” she said.
Still, Major English Poets does not have to be students’ first encounter with the English major. Introductory courses in the English Department are available that feature more diverse readings than ENGL 125 and ENGL 126.
“If starting out with diversity-rich readings will provide a more welcome — and more stimulating — first experience in the major, freshmen should be aware that lectures and seminars alike, from Amy Hungerford’s American Novel to Joseph North’s Poetry & Political Sensibility, feature marginalized voices prominently in their syllabi and are open without prerequisite,” Kolding said.
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Several students said they consider the canon an important component of Yale’s English major, in part because its writers shaped English literature as we know it. Micah Mingo ’18, for instance, explained that because she wants to pursue a career in academia, studying writers of the traditional canon is a critical facet of her education.
“They made impact with their work and that’s why they’ve persisted for so long,” Alex* ’18 said. “If you’re an English major who doesn’t know of them, then you [haven’t] had the full education an English major should.”
Kolding believes a foundation in the early works of the English canon is necessary for contextually informed analysis of later works.
“By studying the early (and admittedly white and male) voices of the English literary tradition, we equip ourselves to explore how subsequent writers have chosen to navigate, follow, build on or subvert that tradition,” Kolding said. “I am happy to have a foundation ‘from Chaucer to Eliot,’ happier still to have built off that foundation in exploration of later major writers who run the gamut of race and gender.”
Although the petition pushed to abolish Major English Poets, Shultz clarified that she doesn’t believe the authors featured in the sequence are necessarily less valuable. Instead, she sought to change how they are presented to students: not as a collection of “perfect, brilliant writers,” but as a framework for how the canon is constructed and what it means to study the canon itself.
One possibility for revising the Major English Poets series is changing its syllabus. In particular, diversifying the material covered in the two courses would be a crucial next step.
“I think it’s important that we do read them, but we have to somehow correct for the fact that there were so many people who weren’t even allowed to have that opportunity,” Balaji argued. “We are asking to broaden the canon, not erase it altogether.”
English professor Sunny Xiang suggested that Major English Poets could look toward ENGL 127: Readings in American Literature for an example of a diverse syllabus.
Another option would be to introduce flexibility in the English major prerequisites. For instance, Gabriella Borter ’18 suggested the department could take the literature major as a model, with a list of courses that students can choose from. Some of the courses could cover global literature written originally in English, while other courses could cover the same material as Major English Poets.
Though Brisman is open to adding more diversity to the English curriculum, he stressed that the Major English Poets sequence should remain untouched. Simply adding diverse authors into the ENGL 125 and ENGL 126 curriculum presents its own share of problems, he noted.
“If you want to study them, you should study them in [context],” Brisman said. “You don’t want to take them out of their historical setting and just deal with them as though they were dropped down from heaven as the representative texts — it’s not fair to them.”
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Although news of the petition traveled quickly among media outlets, members of the English Department noted that they did not receive a copy of the petition formally.
English Director of Undergraduate Studies Jessica Brantley said she learned about the petition from her colleagues, who had been contacted by the press. Similarly, Department Chair Langdon Hammer said he first received notice about the petition from an article posted on Slate and was later contacted by a News reporter to give a statement.
By the time the petition had been released, the English Department had already stopped meeting, in preparation for the summer.
“A petition is a fine thing to do, but it needs an author, it needs signature and it needs formal presentation,” Brisman said. “To just come out with something in the public media — that’s not right.”
Shultz explained that the petition’s anonymity was partly out of principle and partly because of the limitations of the online form: She and her collaborators wanted to frame the petition as a general sentiment expressed by students. And those who signed the petition online were able to see the list of signatures afterward.
To promote the online petition, Shultz emailed the panlist of students in the English major, sent the online petition to several graduate student networks and posted on social media.
“It hasn’t been presented formally,” Shultz admitted. “But I don’t know what a formal presentation would look like.”
Balaji also raised the question of whether there are formal channels within the English Department for students to voice their opinions. She said that although the English Department seems willing to listen, she has little idea whom to contact besides her professors and the director of undergraduate studies.
According to Brantley, the English Department does have formal avenues by which to raise concerns about the curriculum. The English Student Advisory Committee, for example, handles a broad spectrum of student issues ranging from academic to social, presenting concerns to the English Department.
While, in theory, English students can approach members of ESAC with suggestions, Hammer observed that the English Department and ESAC itself have a responsibility to make themselves accessible.
Beyond ESAC, the Undergraduate Studies Committee is comprised of English Department faculty and chaired by the director of undergraduate studies. Each year, the USC reviews issues involving the undergraduate curriculum, including concerns raised by ESAC. Brantley recalled that when the English Department considered adding Shakespeare to the ENGL 125 curriculum, the USC formed a subcommittee that examined the issue and its implications before presenting it to the department for a faculty vote.
“We did a lot of reading and thinking and looked at what other departments of English did around the country,” Brantley said. “We thought about what our students had said to us in our evaluations, what students who have graduated had said about the course.”
Hammer also suggested that students could approach him with concerns about the English prerequisites or the English curriculum as a whole. He emphasized that diversity is an important component of the study of English literature and should be reflected in the English Department.
In addition, Hammer highlighted the importance of communicating with professors, given the relative autonomy they have in structuring their courses. Similarly, Brantley encouraged students to continue pursuing informal channels of dialogue. Talking to professors is an excellent way to start, she said.
“In the case of courses like 125/126 that are multisection, local decisions about what and how to teach are usually made by the staff,” Hammer said. “Talking to professors has sway.”
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According to Brantley, the English Department has already begun an internal review of the undergraduate curriculum, including the Major English Poets sequence. In particular, she said the department is examining how to preserve its strengths while expanding into new areas.
“It’s going to be an exciting year,” she said.
Assistant Professor of English and Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies Jill Richards said she was pleased to hear that faculty members will discuss the future of the English curriculum this fall. Thinking critically about the canon has become an important aspect of studying English, she said, and she praised students for raising issues of diversity in English classes.
“I’m grateful to anyone who is willing to contribute, in whatever fashion, to making the department and the major better for everyone,” Associate English professor Catherine Nicholson said. “I think we’re all committed to giving the conversation the time and space and thought it deserves, and I am eager to hear and learn from all students about their experiences in the English Department.”
Balaji looks forward to more transparency from the department this coming year. She proposed that it could hold a joint meeting with English majors and professors to discuss pertinent issues of the major, including the Major English Poets sequence.
“We all need to talk about what the definition of English language and literature is, and then try to design an introductory course that reflects that,” Balaji said. “We have a lot at stake in this major too — it’s what we’ll claim as our own when we leave.”