Yale Petition Seeks to Add Diversity to English Courses

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

A student petition circulating through Yale University seeking to “decolonize” the undergraduate curriculum for English majors has caught the attention of the English department at the school.

The petition is asking department faculty members to reevaluate the core and introductory courses for the major at the school.  Students are pushing for a complete overhaul of the “Major English Poets” survey course, which is currently a two-semester prerequisite for the major.

“It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors,” the petition states.

The description for the course mentions the study of a number of poets including Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Donne in the fall semester, while Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Eliot, and one other modern poet will be studied in the spring, writes Lizzie Crocker for The Daily Beast.

The petition goes on to suggest that spending a year “where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent” is harmful to all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender association.  It states the course is creating “a culture that is especially hostile to students of color,” causing them to feel alone and unprepared for “higher-level courses relating to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability or even to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship.”

Jill Richards, an Assistant English Professor and Associate Director of Undergraduate Students, notes that similar issues were previously brought up by undergraduate students last year, writes Anna Rhodes for Fox News.

Richards suggested the addition of 17th century British playwright and poet Aphra Behn; Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet; Victorian poet Christina Rossetti; and Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, and Derek Walcott into the English curriculum.

The purpose of the survey course is to ensure prospective English majors at the school have the skills necessary to complete higher-level courses, and Richards believes replacing some of the poets traditionally studied in the course would not change the overall course.

However, a student at the school who wishes to remain anonymous said the petition is in fact looking to put an end to the survey course altogether.  The student, an English major who helped to write the petition, called the course discriminatory, adding that considering it to be the basis for the English language or literature is hurtful because it does not represent all of the people who contributed.

She added that the one modern poet selected by the professor at the end of the second semester is the only instance where an individual who is not a white male is brought into the course for study.  “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.”

Faculty head Professor Langdon Hammer recently responded to the petition through a blog post on the faculty website, saying that while the course, which has been in use at the school since the 1920s, has not previously been in the news, “it seemed fitting” for students to be questioning the content.  According to his post, the faculty will discuss the matter with students, with a final decision on the course being made in the fall.