Literature So White?: Yale Students Petition to End ‘Oppressive’ Curriculum That Focuses on Literature from White, Male Authors

The Sterling Library at Yale University. Photo courtesy of Alamy

The Sterling Library at Yale University. Photo courtesy of Alamy

Throughout high school and the early years of college, it’s not uncommon for students to study the fathers of English literature — William Shakespeare, TS Elliot, Geoffrey Chaucer, etc. But a group of undergrads at Yale University are fed up with a bulk of their curriculum being solely dedicated to the study of works by old, white men.

According to the Yale Daily News, students in the university’s English department have authored a petition urging faculty to “decolonize” the department’s introductory curriculum. In the petition, students criticize the department’s “Major English Poets” sequence, which requires “each of our majors to spend two semesters in the company of…Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne in the fall; John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and T. S. Eliot or another modern poet in the spring.”

Per the department’s website, the required curriculum is designed to give students a “generous introduction” to the basic themes and concepts of English literature. Students disagree.

“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 petition reads. “The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color. 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.”

The petition garnered about 160 signatures in late May, the Yale Daily News reports.

The students’ request for a diversified English curriculum comes at the end of a tumultuous semester marked by protests over the naming of a well-known campus building and the school’s general lack of diversity. According to Atlanta Black Star, students pushed Yale president, Peter Salovey, to remove the name of self-professed racist John C. Calhoun from a residential college Hall. Salovey ultimately opted to retain the name.

Since its circulation, the undergraduates’ petition has garnered mixed reactions from fellow student’s and staff.

“It is unacceptable that the two semester requirement for all majors routinely covers the work of eight white, male poets,” English professor and Associate Director of Undergraduate Students Jill Richards told the Yale Daily News.

Adriana Miele, a recent graduate who majored in English, recalled her “horrifying” experience with the department, giving insight on why things need to change.

“The English Department was not my intellectual home, and that’s because it openly rejects the very legitimate scholarship, criticism and analysis that many other academic departments at Yale embrace,” Miele explained. “In my four years as an English major, I primarily was lectured by old, white men about rape, about violence, about death, about colonialism, about genocide, and I was repeatedly told by many of my professors that these evils were necessary or even related to spiritual enrichment. This was horrifying.”

Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale, Harold Bloom, gave a much more brusque response when asked about the recent petition.

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

According to its online course list, the Department of English does offer a few diverse courses, like Black Literature and U.S. Liberalism (ENGL 945), African Urban Cultures: Mediations of the City (ENGL 937), American Artists and the African American Book (ENGL 952), etc. There’s one course that focuses on female authors “from the Restoration to Romanticism,” but no class focusing on queer writers.

“It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings,” the petition’s author wrote. “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.”

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