Toward a better English department

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Last week, students circulated a petition calling for a boycott of classes taught by the English department that do not “engage critically with minority issues.” The petition came directly following Professor of English John Kleiner reading a quote including the N-word in class. It also includes recent criticisms of the department concerning issues with the number of positions, hiring and experiences of faculty who specialize in minoritized literature, student experiences within English classes themselves and the curriculum of the department. The petition issues three demands: a faculty search for a senior professor specializing in ethnic literature to chair the department, four tenure track searches for faculty in African American, Latinx, Native American and Asian American literature and an external investigation of the department.

The academic mission of the English department – and the College at large – is best fulfilled when it offers curricular and mentorship opportunities that support a broadly diverse student population. As such, the College must take steps to diversify the faculty and range of courses and pedagogies offered by the English department. We do not feel that as students we can recommend a specific number of searches that must take place and within which specific subfields,  as this decision involves balancing the hiring needs of the College as a whole. The College must, though, include faculty who specialize in the literature of minoritized groups among its hiring priorities for tenure-track positions. We believe that the department should ensure opportunities to study the literature of minoritized groups beyond the specific four in the petition, while prioritizing the areas specifically recognized by students at present.

Furthermore, hiring faculty is not enough; the College must take steps to ensure the inclusion and mentorship of such professors, the recognition of additional mentorship and service burdens on minority faculty and the increase in support networks to combat the  isolation of Williamstown. In light of this petition, these calls must take on even more urgency and accompany any efforts to hire faculty who specialize in the literature of minoritized groups. 

In addition to issues some faculty have dealt with in the department, students have also faced upsetting experiences in English classes. A 2019 open letter to President Maud S. Mandel regarding the confrontation between Chair and Professor of English Katie Kent ’88 and Professor of American Studies Dorothy Wang included testimonies of student experiences in English classes, and, most recently, students have recounted the Kleiner reading the N-word in one of his classes. Echoing the boycott petition, we call upon the College to solicit an external review of the English Department in order to examine faculty and student experiences as members of the department and within classes, respectively. Academic units at the College already undergo such periodic external reviews. However, given that such reviews have not addressed these problems, we believe a targeted, specific review of this particular issue is warranted, with some sort of public report to follow. Furthermore, we recommend that the College consider consulting leaders of English departments at peer institutions that have dealt with similar issues in this review, whose perspectives could help remedy concerns with the department’s current leadership. 

Lastly, the curriculum of the English major must also come under review by the department. Currently, student majors are required to fulfill a literary history requirement, which includes three courses, at least one of which must focus on literature written before 1800. Students must also take a course on literary criticism. These requirements establish a historical range of literature, particularly including literature from before 1800, and critical theory as core values in the study of English. However, the department does not require students to take a course in the literature of minoritized groups to fulfill the major, despite its encouraging students to “most fruitfully explore the broad range of genres, historical periods and national and cultural traditions that literature in English encompasses,” according to the department website. Therefore, we call upon the department to include and define a requirement that students take a course on the literature of minoritized groups, signifying its value in a well-rounded study of English.

If the College wants to pride itself on providing one of the strongest liberal arts educations in the country, it must constantly assess and strengthen its academic departments. In line with this goal, the English department must make changes to address the troubling experiences raised by some minority faculty and students within the department. Furthermore, the department must reevaluate the current course offerings and curriculum for adequate and meaningful engagement with the literature of minoritized groups, and thus the study of English at large.

The editorial represents the opinion of the majority of the Record’s editorial board.