Much needed English major changes due to student minority organization’s initiative

If you read last week’s article about some of the curricular changes made to the English major, you would never be aware of how some of the changes actually occurred. The Record’s readers were mislead by some of the commentary in last week’s article, including the following quote from professor of English Chris Pye: “Some students felt that the lack of a modern requirement suggested that the department didn’t view 20th century literature as ‘real literature.’” While there were certain students who expressed this sentiment, the statement completely ignores other important reasons behind the structural changes to the chronological requirements – it was an issue of breaking down an institutionalized racial hierarchy amongst the courses offered in the department.

The 20th century requirement came about, in part, because of a powerful movement within minority communities in opposition to the structure of the English major, which we found to be systematically enforcing a hierarchy within the English literary tradition, with Anglo-American and British English literature at the top and all other contributors to the literary tradition suppressed beneath.

At the time, courses covering literature before 1800 and between 1800 and 1900 were required for the major, and courses covering 20th century literature did not count towards the major unless they were criticism courses or major seminars. To my recollection there was only one course dealing with literature written by people outside of the white race that counted towards the major (for more than an elective), it was a criticism course, and it wasn’t even listed as such, so students were unaware of its status.

Through this department structure, English literature by racial minorities, the huge bulk of which has been written in the 20th century, was systematically prevented from genuinely counting towards the English major. This separation created an imbalance between the value of courses in literature produced by whites and non-whites, generating the perception of illegitimacy through the unequal status of minority literature. Black and Latino literature was fit for an elective but not fit to fulfill a legitimate major requirement.

The effects of this ranged from the general dissatisfaction of some English majors, to discouraging certain parties who might be interested in pursuing an English major that included the incorporation of minority literature.

On Monday, Feb. 21, 1999, in the living room of Rice House, maybe 30 or 35 students met with a few members of the faculty, including professors Kent, Pye, Farred, and Carter-Sanborn of the English department. From this meeting and follow up meetings, a final report was put together that outlined long-term and short-term goals for diversifying the curriculum of the English department.

Our long-term goals centered on the movement towards more inclusive course offerings, course material and major requirements – an effort to establish a system where virtually no student could leave Williams with a degree in English without extensive study in a culturally, ethnically and racially diverse range of literature, not merely a chronologically diverse range of literature from the same sources. Along with the cooperation of the English department, the Minority Curriculum Review Committee will hopefully address these goals.

Our more immediate concern was as salient as it was straightforward – to make minority literature courses count towards the major. Anything less would have compromised the entire movement. These courses did not share equal stature and value as courses focusing on Anglo-American and British literature, and it was the chronological requirements in the major that provided the institutionalized barrier against them. Again, the majority of English literature from non-white communities has been written in the 20th century, and the previous chronological divisions within the department did not require courses that would fall under that category, leaving minority literature courses to only count as electives.

As discussions continued, now with regular meetings with the English Department’s student-faculty committee, we reached the conclusion that it was necessary to introduce a 20th century requirement, which would finally elevate minority literature onto the plateau of legitimacy within English Department.

There shall no longer be an institutionalized hierarchy of English literature, with Anglo-American and British at the top and all other contributors to the literary tradition suppressed beneath. Whether intentionally or by happenstance, the imbalance across racial, cultural and ethnic lines was unacceptable. Now these courses stand on equal ground with all others, and students who have intellectual interests in minority literature do not have to bear an additional burden when fulfilling major requirements, or be discouraged from majoring in English at all.

To any student who might feel that we can not change our surroundings, to anyone who wishes to ignore the power of community and organization, to any student who is an English major and is now able to benefit and receive tangible credit for a course on Latino, African-American or any other literature from previously marginalized communities, let me make two points perfectly clear:

1) The 20th century requirement came about through of the minds, thoughts and actions of a very dedicated and determined group of students

2) And it began in the living room of Rice house, the Black Student Union.