Last week, three students at the College sent what they have titled “An Open Letter to the Williams College English Department Or, Uncomfortable Learning at Williams” to the faculty of the English department. In the missive, the three student co-authors charge the department with “racist [and] misogynist teaching practices” and critique the department based on a series of personal instances in which they have experienced discomfort in their interactions with this specific division of the professoriate at the College.
The letter addresses common pressure to address feminist and anti-racist critiques in class, but also criticizes the department for mishandling this pressure in a tangential, and therefore ineffective way. The authors address concerns regarding a pervasive system, where power structures in effect create an environment that could endanger students’ well-being, as well as hinder their ability to learn.
The authors of the letter insist that members of the department “cannot afford to ignore the problems festering … in your classrooms and in your colleagues’ classrooms,” and mention that accountability should change “out of a sustained consideration of the classroom environments [professors] create.” They claim that cited incidences of oppressive behavior by professors are not isolated instances, but rather “a pattern of behaviors that together form a remarkably coherent whole.”
Furthermore, the authors of the letter also entreat the members of the department to take a critical look at the presence and expected role of women and people of color in English classrooms, claiming their silences in the classroom as a result of a problematic and entrenched pedagogy.
The English department responded to the letter by conveying a knowledge of the issues that were raised and a promise to engage in further dialogue.
“The English department takes the letter from the three students seriously,” Chair and John J. Gibson Professor of English John Limon said. “A few colleagues and I are meeting with two of them to discuss it, and soon we are meeting as a department to address the large issues it raises. Some of their aspirations for the department are actually our own, and some we have already acted on; we are hopeful that something productive will result from this new occasion for thinking through our values and practices.”
The authors of the letter were not available for comment.