English professor Stephanie Newell is no cultural genocidaire. To those who know her, she is primarily a scholar, and a fiercely passionate one. Framed by a pair of wide-rimmed glasses, she stands about 5 feet tall, but she commands warmth with her laughter, generous, booming and oft-heard echoing through Linsly-Chittenden Hall. Yet when Newell checked her email inbox on Oct. 27, she found that claim — cultural genocide — leveled against her. Carrying “Prospective student” in the subject line, the email began with a thank you for “decolonizing” Yale’s English Department:
“My brilliant high school sophomore daughter was, god knows why, actually considering Yale as one of her college picks next year. However, your recent actions concerning the English Department’s curriculum eliminated that choice for her, and my wife and I are eternally grateful. Our daughter, who reads (and treasures) all those hate-filled white demon writers, still understands and values the inestimable contributions those dead white men made to Western civilization, so there’s no need now for us to lose her to your Soviet-style cultural genocide—a manner of self-righteous, self-hating lunacy that we know is echoed throughout Yale’s various educational departments.”
In closing, it read, “We couldn’t be more grateful to you.”
In May of last year, anonymous English undergraduates penned a letter to the department administrators urging them “to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings.” The petition received over 160 signatures, sparking a debate on campus about what does and does not belong in an English curriculum.
The letter read in part, “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.”
By the time the petition had been published and circulated, the department had already begun holding its own discussions, which continued throughout the year. According to English Director of Undergraduate Studies Jessica Brantley, the department conducted a curricular review in coordination with the Committee on Majors, taking into account a wide variety of student perspectives, including those of the petition writers. The most visible product of this internal dialogue is a new class taught by Newell — English 128: “Readings in Comparative World English Literatures.”
“English 128 is one part of a larger curricular revision,” Brantley said, “designed to retain what is valuable in our curriculum while reflecting more accurately the broad interests and inclusive values of faculty and students at Yale.”
Yet outside of Yale, an entirely different demographic has fixated on the course with a fury.
Internal English department emails provided to the News show that since Newell received the accusatory email on Oct. 27, at least four other English faculty members have received abusive online communications. A police investigation and advising from the Office of Public Affairs and Communications are ongoing, and some within the department worry about further escalation. The catalyst for the current wave of hate mail appears to be an article published on Oct. 27 by English major Aryssa Damron ’18 in The Daily Fix, a right-leaning college news site. The piece, titled “Yale ‘decolonizes’ English dept. after complaints studying white authors ‘actively harms’ students,” was quickly picked up by a number of notable conservative news outlets like The Daily Wire, Washington Examiner, RT, and Drudge Report. On the day it posted Damron’s article, Drudge Report as a whole received 23.2 million global views, according to the audience measurement company Quantcast. The article has been shared over 10,000 times on Twitter and nearly 9,000 times on Facebook. On The Daily Fix website, among the article’s 1200+ comments, readers blamed Yale for waging “an attack on Western civilization,” and accused Newell of obliterating “white culture.”
Damron’s article focused on a revised set of requirements for Yale’s English major announced last year, precipitated by the petition and intradepartmental conversations detailed above. Most notably, the new course taught by Newell, English 128, became one of four foundational prerequisite courses for the major. Previous major requirements had mandated two courses—English 125 and 126, “Major English Poets I and II”—as prerequisites for the major. This hallmark poetry sequence, established since the 1960s, includes classic canonical authors like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. The sequence is still included in the major’s prerequisite courses, even after the changes, as “Readings in English Poetry I and II.” Beginning this year, English students can select three of four foundational courses, English 125, 126, 128, and 127—“Readings in American Literature”—to fulfill the major’s prerequisite requirements.
What Damron and her readers have fixated on is this new option that allows one of the four above courses to be omitted from English majors’ programs of study. In theory, students may opt out of English 125, the poetry course which features, among others, Shakespeare and Chaucer. This logic led to Damron’s subhead: “English majors no longer required to take class focused on Chaucer, Shakespeare.”
But there remains a flaw—the traditional English 125/126 sequence has always been optional. As confirmed by Brantley, before this year’s changes, any English student could circumvent the two courses with four department seminars in major English poets. The claim made by many of Damron’s readers — that the new addition erases Shakespeare and others from the English curriculum at Yale — is, in fact, a frightening misunderstanding.
I am a student in English 128. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I sit down around a crowded seminar table with Newell and 19 of my peers. When shopping period ended in September, the class was still oversubscribed. Instead of forcing some to leave, Newell disregarded seminar cap limits, telling us that anyone who wanted to take the class could. I chose to take the class not because I wanted to involve myself in a polarizing debate on culture, colonization, and the like. Frankly, I knew little about any debate surrounding the course. I took it for less interesting reasons: because I liked the syllabus, because I had heard good things about the professor. I had no intentions of eschewing Shakespeare or destroying Western culture. But I did hold one desire, perhaps just as dangerous as any other: to learn.
When I met with Newell to discuss the attention surrounding her class, she remained loyal to her shopping period ethos of inclusivity. In her view, and that of many other faculty in the English department, the addition of English 128 is not exclusionary, nor erasing, nor destructive, but inclusive.
“I have problems with using the word colonizing and decolonizing in relation to these particular changes to the curriculum … 128 is expanding and diversifying, and I’m using diversifying in a very literal sense,” Newell said. “[On the syllabus,] we have globally recognized literary greats that haven’t had a place on the curriculum until now. This course is very introductory and will hopefully excite students about the diversity of literary greatness globally, in English … it’s certainly not about exclusions.”
The course structure is chronological, and Newell said this choice was purposeful in avoiding imposing any agenda onto the texts. They are presented chronologically because they are intended to stand on their own, while also interacting with each other in fascinating ways, Newell said. The first work of the course is the oldest: “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe, published in 1719, and the last is Salmon Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” published in 1981. In between are works from two Nobel Prize laureates — Alice Munro’s “The Lives of Girls and Women,” and “Waiting for the Barbarians,” from J.M. Coetzee — and a number of writings from authors across the English speaking world, like “A Grain of Wheat” by Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
English Department Chair Langdon Hammer said the syllabus not only displays a diversity of work, but also invites a diversity of analysis methods.
“We wanted to advance [and] represent writing and culture in English in its fullest form, which means literature created not only in England or America or by Americans or British people, but by people in other parts of the world,” Hammer said. “It’s not just a matter of choosing which books you want to attend to. By introducing or foregrounding particular fields, you introduce particular methods…which are needed to begin to formulate them and come to terms with them.”
Two years ago, Rachel Calnek-Sugin ’19, a current student in 128, signed the student petition that helped bring about the course. Calnek-Sugin said the appeal came out of a desire among students for greater representation in English classrooms and a need for change in the foundational offerings of the major, specifically 125/126.
“There are plenty of debates to be had about how the English department should be teaching canonical works,” Calnek-Sugin said. “But with 125/126 being the only major requirements, it felt like a very exclusive positing that did not reflect the experiences of a lot of students. The problem wasn’t necessarily that you had to read canonical texts, but that you could be an English major at Yale by only reading works from dead white males. The hierarchy that created was really the problem.”
Echoing the themes of last year’s petition, students at Cambridge University recently called upon their English department to “decolonize” its offerings as well. In June, a student letter addressed to English faculty received heavy backlash, compelling the school to defend its students and begin a debate over its reading lists. In many ways, the department’s response at Cambridge is similar to Yale’s. Humanities Dean and English professor Amy Hungerford said that English faculty have engaged in thorough, nuanced conversation over updating the curriculum with English 128.
“In my view, committing to this course, to the faculty who can teach it, and to the students who need it for a full education in English-language literature has been a tonic for the department,” Hungerford said.
When the decision to create 128 was announced in April, many students lauded the proposed reforms. Adam D’Sa ’17, an English major, said he was glad to see that the department was “adaptable” and sensitive to the increasing diversity of literature written in English, and Tyler Bleuel ’19, a cognitive science major, viewed the changes as evidence that student activism can result in substantial change. Of 21 Yale undergraduates, graduate students and alumni interviewed by the News in April, 19 supported the proposed curriculum change.
Douglas Plume ’16, an English major and former copy editor for the News, said that when he learned of the new course, he was worried that the changes might allow students to exclude crucial works from their study of English. These might not necessarily be the ones that constitute a canon, but those that contribute to “the store of references and illusions that make up our cultural language and landscape.” This exclusion, Plume said, would damage the quality of the department, but after learning more about English 128 and the new structure of the major, Plume is confident that the department shares and understands his concerns.
“I was worried that entering Yale’s English department would end up signifying very little, because courses wouldn’t put students in conversation with texts,” Plume said. “But it sounds like that is not what’s happening.”
Among students in the inaugural semester of English 128, most were eager to participate in the new course.
Faith Vasquez ’20 took the course because she is an English major and wanted to fulfill her requirements. She said she considered taking 126, but was interested to see how 128 would contrast with the foundational English 125 course she took last year. Vasquez said her professor often spoke about the department debates in class, and after spending several weeks in 128, she is thoroughly impressed by the class and its nuance.
“My initial impression was that it was going to be a collection of different works from different parts of the world, but I didn’t really understand what the framework would look like. I’ve really enjoyed each individual text, but even more, I’ve enjoyed reading them against each other and having conversations about recurring themes about the politics of language and translations,” Vasquez said. “I especially appreciate this because, as an English major, interacting with texts is always an activity, but there are many questions about the existence of these texts that also must be asked. This class is forcing us to ask these questions.”
Unlike Vasquez, who enrolled in the class to fulfill major requirements, Timothy White ’20 said they were the last thing on his mind when he decided to enroll in the course. After a year of Directed Studies, he looked forward to reading works beyond the traditional “Western canon,” as well as using new methods of analysis to interact with texts.
“I have absolutely loved the course so far; the discussions are fun and enlightening, and Steph is a wonderful leader of the seminar,” White said. “The work has definitely been a challenge for me — I am writing papers in a different way than I have before — but I feel like I am learning so much.”
English major Dylan Hosmer-Quint ’18, who is writing a Political Science-English joint thesis under Newell’s guidance, said that the method employed in Newell’s courses challenges students to move beyond close reading and consider critical and political theories of literature. Hosmer-Quint said the inclusion of theory in 128 is an important one, as it makes theory more available to those interacting with the major for the first time.
“I don’t think it’s important that everybody takes  — I think it’s fine that people can and do focus on different things,” Hosmer-Quint said. “But I do think that it’s important that students who want to focus on critical theory and asking political questions can at the very start of their English degree.”
Whether a stream of hate mail, professors debating curricula, or a group of students gathered around the seminar table, exploring a text, the political is everywhere. Often, that confrontation is contentious — it provokes a passion and a pushback. Yet, what Newell and her class have taught me is that through this response, there is room for enrichment. Rather than lashing out, giving into the emotion, we must stop, think and read.
Ryan Gittler | email@example.com