Learning

Is Yale’s English Course Really Too ‘White’?

A petition from Yale students demands a ‘decolonized’ undergraduate curriculum for English majors, which could mean the chop for Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Donne.

Harold Bloom, one of America’s foremost literary scholars and Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale, provided a terse response when asked about the latest student protests to grip the university.

“I am too weary to comment again on this nonsense,” he wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.

Capping off a year of political unrest and student protests at Yale University, English department faculty emerged from their final meeting of the semester to a petition from students hoping to return next fall to a refurbished, “decolonized” undergraduate curriculum for English majors.

The petition calls on department faculty to reassess the English major’s core and introductory courses, and demands that the “Major English Poets” survey course—a two-semester prerequisite for the major—be overhauled entirely.

“It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors,” the petition states, referring to the poets studied in the course: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Donne in the fall semester; Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Eliot, and one other modern poet in the spring semester, according to the course description.

The petition argues that “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.”

It also insists that the introductory course creates “a culture that is especially hostile to students of color,” alienating talented prospective majors and failing to prepare them for “higher-level courses relating to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability or even to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship.

Inspired by the activism that has roiled campus this past year, the petition’s anonymous authors demand that the English department “decolonize—not diversify—its course offerings.”

Similar issues were raised last fall by undergraduate students, according to Jill Richards, Assistant English Professor and Associate Director of Undergraduate Students.

Richards applauded the student activism Yale has seen this past year and is “cheered that the University has responded in part to some of their demands,” she told The Daily Beast, adding that she hopes the English department will do the same when it comes to the latest petition.

“I think it’s time to revisit our understanding of what is foundational to an English major,” Richards said.

When asked what authors she’d include to diversify the Major English Poets prerequisite and other introductory courses in the major, Richards cited 17th century British playwright and poet Aphra Behn; Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet; Victorian poet Christina Rossetti; Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, and Derek Walcott.

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Richards admitted that she’s relatively new at Yale, where the Major English Poets course is a longstanding tradition within the department. But diversifying the canon is “not really a controversial stance in wider academia,” she said.

While Yale’s introductory survey course is designed to give prospective English majors a set of skills to use in higher-level major courses—providing “a generous introduction to the abiding formal and thematic concerns of the literary tradition,” according to the course description—Richards believes replacing one or two white male poets wouldn’t preclude the development of those skills.

Yet one anonymous student—an English major and rising junior at Yale who helped draft the petition—said its aim was to abolish the introductory survey altogether.

“The survey is discriminatory and not representative of all the people who contributed to English language and literature, so to suggest that is the basis for English language or literature or that these are the most important voices discounts a huge narrative,” she said.

With the exception of a modern poet selected by the professor each semester, the course “mostly avoids queer people or people of color,” she added. “We’re living in a new time in which we’re trying to account for everyone’s perspective. Throughout history a lot of people’s voices were erased, and this course suggests that’s OK.”

In an April op-ed for the Yale Daily News, graduating senior and English major Ariana Miele wrote that the department had “belittled, frustrated, and disappointed me.”

She didn’t single out any faculty members for making her feel this way, but the material she studied and her lack of exposure to “feminist theory or post-structuralism or post-colonial theory.”

Her argument is aligned with that of students at elite schools who have petitioned for trigger warnings in their course syllabi, from Ovid’s Metamorphosis to Antigone.

“We read Chaucer, but we are told to view his misogyny with an ‘objective’ lens,” Miele writes, “a daunting task for the one in three female students who have experienced sexual violence.”

Miele also highlights a discomfiting statistic: of 98 faculty members in Yale’s English Department, only seven identity as nonwhite.

But Richards isn’t the only faculty member in the department who sympathizes with Miele’s concerns.

“I think it’s critically important to teach literature in a way that recognizes the genius, brilliance, virtuosity, and world-transforming power of writers of color and women writers, and doesn’t seem to relegate them to a minor role,” Briallen Hopper, a Lecturer in English at Yale, wrote in an email to The Daily Beast, expressing her gratitude to the students who signed the petition.

“From their first year in the department, English majors need to have a sense of how vast and varied and complicated and contested the world of literature in English is.”

Professor David Bromwich, who has taught the Major Poets course 13 times during his 28-year tenure in Yale’s English department, quietly defended the curriculum as it stands.

“In my experience, graduates of the English major commonly cite it as their favorite course,” he said, stressing that common choices for modern poets in the course’s second semester include Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath.

Leslie Brisman, a professor in the department for more than 45 years, was more forthcoming in his personal rejection of the latest student petition.

“I’ve seen this petition in the ’60s, the ’70s, and many times since then, and we have in fact already responded to petitions like this by creating a Comparative Literature major,” he said, because the department “realized that some students are more interested in studying literature from the perspective of how it influences society as a whole.”

Indeed, the Comparative Literature undergraduate major was established in 1972 with emphasis on cross-cultural course material.

The English major at Yale has since been modified “in more responsible ways,” Brisman said, noting that prospective Comparative Literature Majors are not required to take Major English Poets.

Langdon Hammer, Professor of English & Department Chair, did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast, but a source within the department indicated that students and faculty would address the matter in the fall.