We, undergraduate students in the Yale English Department, write to urge the faculty to reevaluate the undergraduate curriculum. We ask the department to reconsider the current core requirements and the introductory courses for the major.
In particular, we oppose the continued existence of the Major English Poets sequence as the primary prerequisite for further study. It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors. 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. The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color. (Um, white males are who wrote English literature for quote some time. I wonder what they would say if I started demanding the inclusion of white authors in a study of African literature.)
When students are made to feel so alienated that they get up and leave the room, or get up and leave the major, something is wrong. (Yes, something is wrong. They are not mature enough to engage in critical thinking.) The English department loses out when talented students engaged in literary and cultural analysis are driven away from the major. Students who continue on after taking the introductory sequence are ill-prepared to take higher-level courses relating to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability, or even to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship. We ask that Major English Poets be abolished, and that the pre-1800/1900 requirements be refocused to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity. (Many students have begged to be saved from Shakespeare and Chaucer. They just didn't use this angle.)
It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings. 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.
It is our understanding that the faculty must vote in order to reconsider the major’s requirements — considering the concerns expressed here and elsewhere by undergraduate students, we believe it would be unethical for any member of the faculty, no matter their stance on these issues, to vote against beginning the reevaluation process. It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices. We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.
National Review got it right in its coverage of these snowflakes:
It’s as if chemistry students objected to learning the periodic table or math students rose up against the teaching of differential calculus....
It takes a deeply impoverished imagination to read Shakespeare and regard him simply as an agent of the patriarchy. It is safe to say that the bard is better at expressing what it is like to be a teenage girl in love, or a woman disguised as a man who falls for a man, or a bloody tyrant than almost every actual teenage girl in love, woman disguised as a man, or bloody tyrant.
The poet Maya Angelou said in a lecture once that as a child she thought, “Shakespeare must be a black girl.” It was because, growing up in the Jim Crow South, a victim of unspeakable abuse, Sonnet 29 spoke so powerfully to her. (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, / I all alone beweep my outcast state, / And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, / And look upon myself and curse my fate.”)
Yale’s petitioners must consider Toni Morrison a traitor to her race and gender. She had an argument with a theater director years ago in which she defended Othello, and she went on to write a production based on Desdemona, the play’s doomed female character. Or how about Derek Walcott, whom a Yale professor sympathetic to the petitioners suggests adding to the required course? He told The Guardian newspaper a few years ago that it would be absurd to say, “Don’t read Shakespeare because he was white.”(Or actor Lawrence Fishburne when he participated in the movie version of Othello. He said he changed his mind on Shakespeare after reciting his lines.)
Anyone reading widely in the English canon will encounter supremely talented female, black, and gay writers. In fact, many other Yale courses feature them. But the creative stream began with so-called dead white males. It is their genius that their words transcend their time and place and have given us phrases, characters, and stories that are still vital today.
An official description of the Major English Poets seminar says the classes seek to create a heightened “curiosity about the way language works,” as well as “a confidence in engaging with historically and formally diverse literary texts.” This is a reasonable enough academic goal — unless the students involved are willfully incapable of curiosity or confidence.
Make it stop.