Undergraduates at Yale University have launched a petition calling on the English department to abolish a core course requirement to study canonical writers including Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, saying that “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors”.
The prestigious Connecticut university requires its English majors to spend two semesters studying a selection of authors it labels the “major English poets” : “Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne in the fall; John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and TS Eliot or another modern poet in the spring”.
Its intention, the university says, “is to provide all students with a generous introduction to the abiding formal and thematic concerns of the English literary tradition”. The poems the students read, it adds, “take up questions and problems that resonate throughout the whole of English literature: the status of vernacular language, the moral promise and perils of fiction, the relationships between men and women, the nature of heroism, the riches of tradition and the yearning to make something new”.
Many students do not read a single female author in the two foundational courses for the major.
Adriana Miele, student
But students have launched a petition calling on Yale to “decolonise” the course. They want the university to abolish the major English poets requirement, and to refocus the course’s pre-1800/1900 requirements “to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity”.
The petition says that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of colour, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity”, and that the course “creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of colour”.
According to the Yale Daily News, the petition has at least 160 signatories. One student, Adriana Miele, told the student newspaper that change was needed in the English department “because it openly rejects the very legitimate scholarship, criticism and analysis that many other academic departments at Yale embrace”.
In April, Miele wrote a column in the Yale Daily News in which she criticised the course because while students “are taught how to analyse canonical literature works”, they “are not taught to question why it is canonical, or the implications of canonical works that actively oppress and marginalise non-white, non-male, trans and queer people … It is possible to graduate with a degree in English language and literature by exclusively reading the works of (mostly wealthy) white men. Many students do not read a single female author in the two foundational courses for the major. This department actively contributes to the erasure of history,” Miele wrote.
Some members of Yale’s English faculty welcomed the student activism – Professor Jill Richards told the Yale Daily News that “it is unacceptable that the two-semester requirement for all majors routinely covers the work of eight white, male poets”. But the petition drew criticism from former members of the university.
Slate writer Katy Waldman, who studied English literature at Yale, advised students that “if you want to become well-versed in English literature, you’re going to have to hold your nose and read a lot of white male poets. Like, a lot. More than eight.”
“The canon is what it is, and anyone who wishes to understand how it continues to flow forward needs to learn to swim around in it,” writes Waldman. “I am not arguing that it is acceptable for an English major to graduate from college having only read white male authors or even 70% white male authors. But you cannot profess to be a student of English literature if you have not lingered in the slipstreams of certain foundational figures, who also happen to be (alas) both white and male.”
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