Students assemble to discuss English Deparment

Concerned about the offering and placement of minority literature within the English department, about 20 students and six faculty members gathered to discuss possible curriculum changes.

Royce Smith ’01, an initiator of the February 15 gathering, presented the agenda. Many students, especially within the Black Student Union (BSU), are unsatisfied with the representation of minority literatures in the English Department. They gathered to “examine and analyze” the problem and to “discuss the pros and cons” of possible solutions.

Students expressed strong discontent with the structure of the English major. “I end up picking the lesser evil when I’m picking English courses [to fill the major],” commented one student. Another added, “[The department] seems to be saying that the only [courses] that are important are the pre-1800,” and other requirements.

Smith briefly explained the current structure and requirements of the English major. According to the course catalogue, “the English major is designed to encourage familiarity with a broad range of literature from the Middle Ages to the present day, to afford acquaintance with representative contexts in which one can appreciate literary works, and to foster an understanding of the nature of literary study.”

Majors must fill nine requirements: English 101 (if exempted, an elective), at least 3 courses focusing on literature dating before 1800, a course focusing on literature written between 1800 and 1900, a “criticism” course, any one of which can also be taken to fulfill the seventh requirement, and the major seminar. Students choose at least two electives to complete the major.

The curriculum committee is seriously considering a movement towards progression in course offerings. Abandoning the present English 101 system, the department could design a set of 100 level courses with individual listings covering a variety of topics. The 200 level courses would provide a gateway into upper-level 300 courses, generating more progression within each student’s program.

Other issues proposed at the discussion include a tracking system similar to that of the History Department. Smith suggested that this would provide more freedom and possibly more “equity of course value,” but that the system could not be integrated easily into the current chronological categories.

Another option proposed was an American Literature Requirement, which American minority literature could fulfill, and would provide an alternative to “Euro-domination.” It would not include Caribbean literature, however, which was among the goals of the discussion. A People and Cultures requirement within the major was suggested, which would give minority literature a place in the major requirements, but might marginalize the literature.

A fourth possibility Smith brought to the floor was a system of clusters or a concentration, like “Ethnic Literature.”

Tamaan Osbourne-Roberts ’99 led the discussion, which focused on the placement of minority literature within the department and the means of diversifying course offerings. He first elicited the feelings of the students present.

Opening the discussion, a student asked, “Why does [the English major] exclude minority literature?”

Professor of English Karen Swann, an English Professor and member of the Department’s Curriculum Committee, noted the evolution of the department from her arrival fifteen years ago, when it taught primarily British literature, to the historical distribution system implemented 10 years ago. She commented, “In the curriculum committee, we’re feeling like it’s time to redo those requirements.” She added, “There’s a departmental sense that it doesn’t represent the literature represented in the department.”

Assistant Professor of English Grant Farred focused the discussion, asking what change the students gathered were interested in seeing within the department. One senior English major answered, “What we want is a major that doesn’t force us to read the same things over and over again. . . I want a major that reflects my interests.”

Farred voiced two veins of the discussion. First, students would like to see their own experiences reflected in the courses. He was troubled by the second, that students were interested in studying solely the literature of their own minority.

A student replied that this is not the case. She supported diverse study. She was concerned that, not only does the department not require the study of minority literature, but the structure of the major barely allows for it.

Faculty responded, “Part of what’s at issue here is what the requirement is doing.” Its purpose is to push students toward courses they would not normally take, but if “a requirement is a mark of legitimacy, then I think [the requirements] need rethinking.”

The discussion shifted to address how the department can incorporate more minority literature into courses and how to facilitate more focused study. Independent courses can focus on particular time periods or genres of minority literature, or authors can be integrated into broader courses.

English Professor Kathryn Kent and member of the Curriculum Committee, expressed concern that when minority literature is separated into independent courses, it can become marginalized further. Assistant Professor of English Kristin Carter-Sanborn, chair of the Curriculum Committee, emphasized the importance of reading course descriptions and faculty advisement when literature is incorporated into broader courses.

Osbourne-Roberts posed the question of how to increase the breadth of courses in the English Department. Farred noted, “for faculty of color, this means that we only get to teach one thing.”

Suggestions for utilizing more faculty included necessary “retraining” through team teaching and a system of course tracking that would allow more continuity within the major.

Farred asked for students to acknowledge the restraints of the department. Professor Chris Pye, chair of the English Department, suggested that faculty train one another to teach an expanded body of literature. With only one visiting professor each year and one Bolin fellow, who has recently been teaching minority literature, the primary solution lies within the permanent faculty.

Farred encouraged the type of communication afforded by discussions like Monday’s. “You’ve given us [the faculty] the ability to go to the department and say, ‘this is what the students want.’”

He encouraged students to “help us by going back and talking to each other and figuring out ‘these are our demands.’” He stressed that a discussion had been initiated, but clear suggestions need to follow.

Carter-Sanborn invited students “to seek out your professors in these courses and talk about these things early in the process,” and to advise other students about experiences within the department.”

Swann outlined the short-term goal of changing department requirements, to be addressed by the curricular committee, and the long term goal of course development targeting specific areas and literatures. She called for a stronger student, especially minority, voice on committees like the major committees.

Pye suggested a winter study project geared toward curricular development. Faculty and students could collaborate to design courses that would incorporate minority authors and issues.

Farred warned against inaction, “Inertia is a dangerous and not peculiar thing. You stand the possibility of losing, but unless you take that risk, things will remain the same.”

Osbourne-Roberts closed the discussion, calling for publicity of the issue and commitment to change.

He later commented, “The conversation went well. My concern and hope is that we see this translated into tangible action both in the immediate future and the years following.”

Alexei Greig ’02, commented that, “The best thing that came out of it was that faculty heard student’s views.” He hoped this would lead to “a better conversation between the two.”