English Department faculty voted Tuesday to change the requirements for the major in an effort to increase the curriculum’s diversity, represent more literary periods and make the major more flexible.
The department’s 30 voting faculty were “overwhelmingly in favor” of reform, according to English professor Leslie Brisman. The revised curriculum, which has yet to be finalized, places equal importance on every major historical period from medieval to contemporary, expanding upon the current requirement of three pre-1800 courses and one pre-1900 course. The long-standing “Major English Poets” sequence of English 125 and 126 will remain, but students will be able to chose other paths towards completing the major. Students will be asked to complete three courses from a suite of four, including two semesters of English poetry, one of American literature and one in global Anglophone literature, to build on close reading strengths while exploring the writers and periods covered in introductory courses, said Director of Undergraduate Studies and English professor Jessica Brantley.
The decision, which the department has not formally announced, comes nearly one year after 160 students signed a petition calling for the department to “decolonize” its course offerings.
“The solution we ended up with makes an implicit promise to students, which the department is deeply committed to honoring: that is, that students should and will encounter a broad diversity of texts, writers and traditions within every period,” English professor Catherine Nicholson said. “The form that diversity takes will vary across time, of course, which is part of the point, but no period will simply and exclusively focus on the writing representations of aristocratic white men.”
These requirements will apply to undergraduates in the class of 2021 and onward, according to acting English Department Chair Ruth Yeazell GRD ’71.
Rather than impose a “diversity requirement” or a “contemporary literature requirement,” Brisman said, the department voted to create a new English 128 course called “World Anglophone Literature,” which may have a historical breadth as well as an emphasis on contemporary literature. He explained the decision to elevate English 127 and 128 to a status equivalent to that of English 125 and 126 was intended to “tear down the barrier between canonical and noncanonical authors” while removing poetry from its “privileged position” within the Yale English Department.
Brisman said the department aims to better respond to student interest in diversity by increasing the number of courses featuring works by women and people of color, as well as authors who wrote in English but lived in non-English speaking countries. Several courses on the early histories of racial and religious differences are in the works, Nicholson said, adding that she and a colleague are discussing a cross-period course on early female writers.
Brantley said the department periodically revises the curriculum, but the past year’s conversations have taken on “added urgency” because of campus and national discussions about inclusion. She added that the new major better reflects the work and spirit of the department as well as the needs and desires of its students.
“We’ve constructed a curriculum that has inclusion as its goal, embedded in the structures of its requirements, and I’m very excited to implement and develop that curriculum further,” Brantley said.
Previously, English majors had four historical distribution requirements: three pre-1800 and one pre-1900. The revised requirements aim to make the department’s commitment to historical range better reflect its “actual sense of what’s important and why” by including every major historical period and valuing each equally, Nicholson said.
Faculty members debated between requiring students to take four out of five historical periods — medieval, Renaissance, 18th century, 19th century and 20th/21st century — or combining the 18th and 19th centuries into a unit and requiring students to take all four periods. Nicholson said the final decision to require four out of four periods reflects the fact that faculty members want students to encounter the broadest possible range of materials and writers.
“In sum, the new requirements give further guidance to students about sampling the variety of English literature of all kinds and periods, but they also allow more choice in shaping a major that suits the student’s particular interests,” Brisman said.
Though these requirements will apply to the incoming class of 2021 and later classes, Yeazell added that current English majors will be able to choose between the requirements that were in place when they arrived at Yale and the new requirements.
The new requirements will enable students to decide between several new paths to completing the major, Brisman said. For instance, students can still complete the traditional pattern of a year of European literature in English 129 and 130, followed by a year of English poetry in 125 and 126, and two upper level courses in American or Anglophone literature. Other students might choose to take 127 and 128 — which do not include the works of writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth — to fulfill introductory-level requirements and then substitute upper-level Chaucer and Shakespeare courses for English 125 or an upper-level Romantics course and a modern poetry course for English 126, he added.
The English major’s curriculum has come under fire in the last year: A student petition in May 2016 calling for the abolishment of the “Major English Poets” sequence garnered 160 signatures. Yeazell said that planning for the revision of the curriculum was already underway before the petition’s creation, adding that the department had been thinking about how to build on its strengths while taking “account of the increasing diversity of Anglophone literature.” Brisman also confirmed that the review of the curriculum was previously underway, and was not a direct response to the petition, which was not formally presented to the department.
Still, Brisman said student feedback informed the process, since faculty members acknowledged during the negotiations that requiring three pre-1800 courses and one pre-1900 course made it look as though the department valued those courses more than contemporary or diversity literature.
“We hope that the new structure of requirements will give our students a strong foundation in the history of writing in English over the millennia, while introducing them to writers and periods whose cultures and perspectives might initially seem remote from their own,” Yeazell said.
Adriana Miele ’16, one of the petition’s signatories and a former opinion columnist for the News, said her experiences as one of the few nonwhite students in the English major showed her that the department needed to broaden its approach to literature. Still, Miele said she worries that the English Department’s push for diversity may be only superficial.
“The fact that there are so few nonwhite scholars [in the department] makes me really skeptical of any advancements that can be made,” Miele said. “But it’s definitely moving in the right direction.”
English major Frances Lindemann ’19 called the change “fantastic and long overdue.” She added that it would be impossible to represent all groups of people in a semesterlong course, but requiring a single sequence and calling it “Major English Poets” falsely suggests this collection of authors is the most important and the only one worth studying. Lindemann said she would like to see the department develop a more inclusive range of prerequisite options to make students feel more welcome in the major.
Some students acknowledged that the new requirements shift attention away from poetry. Brisman said he hopes students will continue to gravitate toward classes focusing on Milton and Shakespeare, but he suspects students overall will move away from canonical authors toward other, less canonical ones.
Daniel Flesch ’19, an English major, said the works and authors in English 125 and 126 are essential to understanding English poetry, and to make them optional does a disservice, both to contemporary authors whose work requires a foundation in the English canon, and to the students themselves.
“Everybody has read these authors, and it’s a shame to allow so many students to remain in the dark, and to prevent them from gaining a deeper knowledge of other writers,” Flesch said. “I’m frankly disheartened.”
Correction, March 30: An earlier version of this story misidentified Adriana Miele ’16 as a petition author when in fact she was a signatory. It incorrectly stated that the number of required courses for the English major changed from 14 to 12, when in fact the number will remain the same, and stated that students will have the option of substituting courses in American literature and Anglophone literature for both semesters of poetry in English when in fact, the English Department has not voted to approve this. It also incorrectly stated that students in the English major must take three pre-1800 courses before taking contemporary literature courses; in fact, courses can be taken in any order.