‘It can’t stop at the syllabus’: English professors and students reflect on syllabi diversity in foundational courses
Steven Orientale, Contributing Photographer
Four years ago, English department faculty voted to change the major’s requirements by including two foundational courses — now called “American Literature” and “Readings in Comparative World English Literatures” — to increase diversity within the curriculum.
“American Literature” and “Readings in Comparative World English Literatures,” English 127 and English 128 respectively, are two of four foundational course offerings. The other two courses, English 125 and English 126, complete the “Readings in English Poetry” sequence. Before 2017, English 125 and English 126 were the foundational courses undergraduates were required to complete for the major. But after student calls to “decolonize” the curriculum in 2016, the department revised its curriculum to include multiple pathways towards completing the major.
A data analysis by the News found that the vast majority of the syllabi for the English foundational courses for the 2020-21 academic year use the same authors across sections. For example, John Milton was read in all three English 125 sections last fall, and Herman Melville is being read in all six English 127 sections this spring. But there are a number of “unique” authors — an author not present on each section syllabi — in each foundational course. For example, English 127 has the most “unique” authors, with its 28 writers in that category including poet Natasha Tretheway and novelist James Baldwin. On the other end of the spectrum, English 125 has only six “unique” authors, including poets Jos Charles and Terrance Hayes.
From this data, the News also concluded that sometimes professors choose different texts or collections written by the same authors, but this rarely happens.
“The new courses have been a big success; in the past couple of years, our American Literature introduction (127) has been the most popular of the foundation courses — no doubt reflecting the sense that our country is going through a major reckoning with its past and present,” Director of Undergraduate Studies for the English Department Stefanie Markovits wrote in an email. “But I want to stress that all of the foundation courses include a conscious effort to consider diverse perspectives — even 125, a course on early British poetry, has been revised to include more female and minority voices.”
Markovits, who was appointed DUS in July 2020, wrote that the department reflected on diversity when the 2017 changes were announced, but also hoped to “offer both flexibility and rigor” for the new major requirements. Currently, English majors must take three of the four foundational courses, with substitutions — including combinations of other introductory courses or a full year of Directed Studies — for one foundational course permitted with the permission of the DUS.
Markovits said that foundational course faculty convene together to “discuss which unique elements they plan to include” before the start of each semester. She said they take into account continuity and “particular conditions” of the given academic year, such as if an author is available for a talk on campus. Markovits added that this spring, English 126 and English 127 syllabi listed Natasha Tretheway’s poetry in part because she would be giving the “Foundational Course” lecture in April.
But Markovits emphasized that even when teaching works by “‘canonical’ male writers,” faculty are thinking about how the authors “both contribute to a dominant ideology and challenge it.” Markovits also said that professors want students to “recognize when a later writer is either piggybacking on these texts or trying to write against them.”
“I always teach women writers, queer writers, and writers of color in [English] 125, and have found that doing so [is] hugely enriching, not only in terms of allowing us to read a wider range of texts, but also in changing and refocusing our engagment with the traditional texts,” Director of Graduate Studies for the English Department Catherine Nicholson wrote to the News.
Nicholson is the course director — an administrator for each foundational course — for English 125 this year. She said that there may be more overlap in English 125 than the newer foundational courses, such as English 127, partly because the faculty tend to teach fewer authors for longer units. But reflecting on her own syllabi from year to year, Nicholson said the trend has shown “greater variability” and “greater diversity with regards to race, gender and sexuality.”
Avery Mitchell ’23, who took English 127 in fall 2019 and English 125 in spring 2020 with Nicholson, said that the English 127 syllabi “had more diversity,” but said that class discussions in English 125 also added a variety of perspectives to the class.
“The ‘main texts’ of 125 were written by exclusively white men, but Professor Nicholson mentioned this constantly during class and lots of our discussion focused on dismantling this one-sided narrative,” Mitchell wrote in an email to the News.
Mitchell, who is currently studying abroad at St. Catherine’s College at Oxford University, said that her English classes at Oxford “heavily relied” on her “knowledge of this ‘western canon’” and that her tutors assumed she had read authors like Milton and Chaucer, who were on every syllabus for English 125 last fall and who Mitchell had not encountered prior to taking the class with Nicholson.
She said for both institutions — Yale and Oxford — she hoped that more credit would be given to “the global influences on English literature.”
Irene Vazquez ’21, who took English 126, said that it matters which professor you get for the foundational courses because they have flexibility in their syllabi.
“For Marta’s [Figlerowicz] class, every author besides required ones like Pope and Wordsworth was a Black woman,” Vazquez told the News. “I loved Marta’s section so much … I really noticed the active choice Marta made to put those authors on the syllabus.”
Vazquez said taking the class with Figlerowicz, who is an associate professor of comparative literature, showed how “dynamic” the foundational course could be when professors were intentional about which texts to put on the syllabi outside of the requirement.
Professor of English Stephanie Newell, who teaches English 128, spoke to the News about her foundational course, specifically highlighting diversity and decolonization within her syllabus.
“When we talk about diversification, we do need to talk about decolonization as well,” Newell told the News in an interview. “I think there’s two topics that sit side by side here, there’s a really necessary diversification of the curriculum in the syllabus, right, but there’s decolonization as well, which is a far harder task.”
Newell, whose research focuses on African literature, said that faculty gatherings to discuss English 128 syllabi begin with four to five agreed-upon texts, and then faculty bring in other texts based on their regional specializations.
She added that deciding to exclude a text from English 128 syllabi is also done amongst the faculty group. Newell mentioned one text, “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe, that initially headed the English 128 syllabi. She said that it was dropped this year, both for her own political reasons and a broader practical reason.
“This year we did agree that we wouldn’t teach Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, and actually there was quite a practical reason for that as well, for me there was a political reason around Black Lives Matter, but a practical reason is that it’s about 600 pages long,” Newell told the News. “Teaching during a global pandemic on Zoom with the sort of pressures that students are under … we just thought it was asking too much to start the course with Robinson Crusoe.”
Newell said that some colleagues had taken the novel off their syllabi already. For herself, Newell said that she did not want the students in her section to be introduced to slavery with a text where “the protagonist becomes a millionaire from an unquestioning … slave trade in South America.”
She acknowledged that it was a canonical text, but said she and her colleagues decided to start with “The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself” by Mary Prince, an account of Prince’s treatment at the hands of multiple slave owners in the Caribbean, instead.
“At least in our [English 128] conversations, the discussions we have in class, you know, they’re really great,” Kadiatou Keita ’22 told the News. “I personally was surprised.”
Keita, who is taking English 128 with Newell, said that she was hesitant to become an English major because she did not want to “relearn white European history.” She said that in Newell’s class, they talk about different diasporic narratives and coming-of-age stories, including African literature.
But she said that the foundational courses, and more broadly courses within the department, could be improved beyond the content. Keita said the foundational courses could do more to “find out the impacts and implications of what we’re learning.”
Vazquez echoed Keita’s sentiments. As a Black poet, Vazquez said that an English syllabus can be great, but more work must be done to encourage fruitful conversations about the material.
“It can’t stop at the syllabus,” Vazquez said.
The Foundational Course Reading Series, in conjunction with the Schlesinger Series, will host Natasha Tretheway for a lecture on April 7 at 5 p.m.
Data analysis by Zach Auster. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zaporah Price | email@example.com