Some Yale University students are demanding changes to the English Department curriculum: specifically, they don't think it should feature so many English poets who were straight, white, wealthy, and male.
"It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices," the students wrote in a petition to the faculty. "We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention."
The "Major English Poets" sequence, a mandatory two-course commitment for English majors, is particularly problematic, according to the students. These classes cover Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and T.S. Eliot. It's not the most diverse line up, to be sure, but it's the one that best reflects history the way it actually happened. Inarguably, these are the most influential poets in the English language.
But students think this sequence "creates a culture that is hostile to students of color." They write:
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 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.
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.
There's nothing wrong with providing a greater variety of courses for students, and if students want to read more female and minority authors, the English Department is welcome to oblige. But there's only so much that can be done. There just aren't that many early modern writers who were gay or transgender.
Students should feel comfortable challenging the notion that a Shakespeare or a Milton deserves his place in the canon: in fact, that sounds like an excellent subject for a classroom discussion facilitated by a professor. But professors need to actually teach students about these pivotal figures before those discussions can be had.
In a brilliant piece for Slate, Katy Waldman eviscerates the idea that non-white students have nothing to learn from dead white poets:
I want to gently push back, too, against the idea that the major English poets have nothing to say to students who aren't straight, male, and white. For all the ways in which their particular identities shaped their work, these writers tried to represent the entire human condition, not just their clan. A great artist possesses both empathy and imagination: Many of Shakespeare's female characters are as complexly nuanced as any in circulation today, Othello takes on racial prejudice directly, and Twelfth Nightcontains enough gender-bending identity shenanigans to fuel multiple drag shows and occupy legions of queer scholars. The "stay in your lane" mentality that seems to undergird so much progressive discourse—only polyamorous green people really "get" the "polyamorous green experience," and therefore only polyamorous greens should read and write about polyamorous greens, say—ignores our common humanity.
But even if you disagree, there's no getting around the facts. Although you've written that the English department "actively contributes to the erasure of history," what it really does is accurately reflect the tainted history we have—one in which straight white cis-men dominated art-making for centuries—rather than the woke history we want and fantasize about. There are few (arguably no) female poets writing in Chaucer's time who rival Chaucer in wit, transgressiveness, texture, or psychological insight. The lack of equal opportunity was a tremendous injustice stemming from oppressive social norms, but we can't reverse it by willing brilliant female wordsmiths into the past.