Toward a more inclusive English major

Cameron Pugh

When I came to the College, I was determined to not major in English. My mom was an English major, my English teacher in high school wrote my letter of recommendation for college, and I grew up surrounded by books. It seemed too easy and straightforward to follow a seemingly predetermined path at an institution that encourages exploration as much as Williams. 

But once I began taking classes in the English department at the College, I changed my mind. The faculty here seemed animated about reading and writing in a way that I had never encountered before, and their passion made me realize that there is no area of study I love more. 

It was a class on European Renaissance literature that made me realize I wanted to be an English major, but classes on Black literature made me want to stay an English major. Reading the works of writers like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde spoke to me in a way that nothing else did. I felt seen and represented. For the first time, my experiences, and those of my parents and grandparents, felt equally as important as my white peers’ and worth learning about. These classes gave me language that I didn’t know I needed. 

It saddens me, then, to think that the English department does not fully recognize the value of these learning experiences and opportunities. The department mandates that majors fulfill a literary history requirement consisting of at least three courses, including one focusing on literature written before 1800. The arrangement of this requirement, however, means that students can fulfill it by taking three courses in this time period and no others — thereby reinforcing a white, heteronormative literary canon. 

Much of the English literature from before 1800 was authored by white men, and this is reflected in course offerings. The reality is that many of the BIPOC writers that we now celebrate, from Zora Neale Hurston to Gloria Anzaldúa, were writing long after 1800. Many professors make admirable efforts to diversify pre-1800s classes by reading older works alongside newer material from writers of color, pointing out the limited scope of white authors’ writings, and including white women in their syllabi. But we should not expect that these efforts will fill the silences left by the literary history requirement’s primary focus on heterosexual white men. Only a concrete commitment to studying marginalized literature has any chance of doing that.

It is not unreasonable to require that literature students take a class focusing on works written before 1800. These writings are foundational and important, and I have had some of my most generative academic experiences reading Shakespeare and Spenser. But when the department tells us that we may complete the major having only engaged with literature before 1800 — literature that was written almost entirely by white men — it also tells us which types of work it assigns the most value. And, implicitly, it tells us which types of literature it views as neither thematically important nor academically relevant. 

The department has classes focusing on marginalized writers — stellar faculty already teach courses on topics such as feminist poetry, Latinx literature, and Black literature, and they provide students with indispensable analytical skills and instruction. When the department singularly reifies the writings of white men, then, it is making a choice: It is deciding that writers, students, and faculty of color do not matter enough for their experiences and art to be deemed pedagogically necessary. 

If the English department — and indeed, the College — is to hold itself up as a leader in liberal and literary thought, then there can be no question as to the necessity of integrating more diverse literature as an essential and required part of the curriculum. Anything less than that is a failure — to the students who study here, to the faculty who teach here, and to the wider communities we all inhabit. 

Marginalized students have a right and a need to learn the literature of our cultures, to critically consider and analyze a canon besides the one that has, for all our lifetimes, told us that our stories, writings, and voices do not matter. For the college and academic discipline in which we have chosen to spend four years of our lives to tell us the same is especially painful. It is ill-conceived for a department that has in recent years faced accusations of institutional racism and struggled to retain faculty of color, to leave unaltered a policy that devalues the rich and varied contributions that BIPOC, woman-identifying, and queer writers have made to English literature.

Many students would likely take these courses whether the department mandated them or not. But this does not mean that these requirements would not have value. Requiring instruction in literature written by those other than heterosexual white men would be a laudable way to show marginalized students and faculty that the department values their experiences and is ready to change to reflect that. It would concretize the department’s commitment to uplifting marginalized voices, to cultivating an environment where all students can readily and eagerly engage with literary representations of their own lives. 

For those students who would not otherwise seek out these courses, the department does them a disservice by allowing them to skirt by without engaging with the full diversity of perspectives that English literature has to offer. If given the push to do so, many such students may discover that they have a genuine passion for literature extending beyond the typical canon. Exploring perspectives besides your own should be the point of any rigorous liberal arts curriculum. And as K-12 schools throughout the country continue to censor books by marginalized writers, teaching these works in colleges and universities has never been more necessary.

I leave the precise calculus on how to make these changes up to faculty and administrators, who are more qualified than I am to craft curricula and manage an academic unit. Rethinking the literary history requirement, adding a requirement on marginalized literature, or some combination of the two, may be places to start. Hiring more faculty of color and more faculty specializing in the literature of marginalized peoples is another essential step toward building an English department that truly reflects the world in which we live and the students it claims to serve. And still, these steps should be the beginning, not the end, of honest efforts to make the English department more inclusive. 

I write this piece because I care deeply about this department, its faculty and staff, and its students. Studying English at the College has greatly deepened my love for literature and art and given me skills that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. But at a predominantly white institution that is deeply imbricated in pushing some of us to the margins, creating inclusive courses of study is an ideal that must constantly be actualized through honest self-scrutiny and tangible action.

Engaging with literature that is meaningful and representative, that is grounded in familiar experiences, and that provides language for otherwise indescribable truths is a necessity, not a privilege or luxury. Toni Morrison once said that, “Literature allows us — no, demands of us — to experience ourselves as multidimensional persons. And in so doing is far more necessary than it has ever been.”

I learned this, of course, in an English class.

Cameron Pugh ’23 is an English major and Africana studies concentrator from Port Saint Lucie, Fla.