The English department at one of the world’s most prestigious universities has addressed a student campaign seeking to “decolonise” a reading list deemed too white.
Professor Langdon Hammer, head of the department at Yale University in Connecticut, the US, acknowledged how the almost 100-year-old ‘major English poets’ module has been “a prerequisite” course for English majors for decades, adding that “it’s never been in the news before.”
Students studying the course had launched a petition saying Yale risked “losing out” on young talent, and that it was “unacceptable” a Yale student considering studying English literature “might read only white, male authors.”
According to the course’s requirements, students spend two semesters “in the company of major English poets,” including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and T. S. Eliot.
The campaigners, though, insisted that a lack of works by women, people of colour, and “queer folk harms all students,” regardless of their identity.
The students further argued the module is “especially hostile to students of colour,” and said, when they are “made to feel so alienated that they get up and leave the room, something is wrong.”
Professor Hammer, though, said the course introduces students to a particular literary tradition, and has the status of a tradition. He added: “The thing about literary traditions is they are always being upended and remade. That is the history of English poetry from Chaucer to Eliot. So, it seems fitting for students and faculty to raise questions about the course and its role in the major.”
Encouraging a wider conversation among the student body and faculty, he said: “The questions on my mind about [this course] are: How can this course be made better? What is its relationship to the rest of the English department curriculum? What should and shouldn’t the faculty require of its majors? What does a strong education in the discipline of English look like today? And what should it look like tomorrow?
“The English department faculty is charged with asking those questions about all of our courses. We ask them in formal and informal ways every year, and we will again next year. We’ll be in conversation with our students who have a range of views. And we’ll make decisions about what we teach and what we ask of students that seem appropriate to us.”
Despite the petition and queries over the reading list, Yale Daily News reports the English department itself has “made strides” in recent years, particularly with a more diversified faculty.
The Yale campaign echoes a similar one in the UK which was launched earlier this year by students and staff at The Forest Academy in Ilford who said women and ethnic minorities must be fairly represented on the GCSE and A-levels curriculum, having found current reading lists are weighted in favour of “white, deceased, male writers.”
One of the teachers behind the campaign, Olivia Eaton, said: “It’s important students are able to recognise themselves and their heritage in some of the texts they study, and that they’re exposed to a variety of authors and backgrounds to gain a better understanding of the society they live in.”
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