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English department faces a name change, an initiative led by two Cornell professors.

October 14, 2020

English Faculty Vote to Change Name to ‘Department of Literatures in English’

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During the English department’s first faculty meeting of the fall semester, faculty members of color introduced a proposal — to change the department’s name.

The new proposed name — “the department of literatures in English” — would mark a distinct change in the department’s branding, helping to eliminate what Director of Undergraduate Studies Prof. Kate McCullough, English, said was the “conflation of English as a language and English as a nationality.”

Earlier this month, a significant majority of the department approved the change, and is now awaiting approval from college administration.

The decision to demand such a change was spurred by this summer’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s death, according to Prof. Carole Boyce-Davies, English, one of the original proposal writers. As a result, the faculty felt a sense of obligation to react in their own department.

“Faculty around the country — not just faculty of color, but faculty in general — began to look at the institution to see how we can help advance a discourse that challenges structural forms of racism which get reproduced in students and in teaching over and over again,” Boyce-Davies said.

Other faculty simply recognized that it was time that the department’s title represented what it was really focused on: literature written in English.

“In part, it was also a result of an ongoing shift in literary study in this department — and others across the country — to focus on a broader reach of literature,” McCullough explained.

The sentiments slowly formed into a plan of action over the summer — led by Boyce-Davies and Prof. Mukoma Wa Ngugi, English — where they began thinking about how to broach the topic with other colleagues.

“We had a Google Doc where the proposal was available for a couple of months beforehand and people had aired their questions, so the meeting itself wasn’t a place where people had a lot of concerns,” said department chair Prof. Caroline Levine.

Boyce-Davies and Wa Ngugi first introduced the idea to the department’s faculty of color, who supported the move. Early on, they felt some anxiety about the reaction of the rest of the faculty — which was apparently unfounded.

“What surprised us was the fact that so many of the white faculty of the English department signed on — we were amazed,” Boyce-Davies said. “By the time we were ready to officially take it to the department as a whole, we had over 75 percent of the faculty signed on.”

According to Boyce-Davies, Levine “wanted to sign the proposal right away. We kept asking if she was sure because some of us thought that, as chair, she should stay neutral, but she signed it immediately.”

Many of the concerns surrounding the decision were eased by the message to faculty and students sent from President Martha E. Pollack, who wrote that Cornell should make a concerted effort to be a more inclusive environment.

The department’s name update would mark one of the first explicit and permanent changes aligned with Pollack’s call to action.

“[The message] was a big help in making us feel like this was an important part of a larger collective action,” Levine said. “Sometimes when a department tries to do something like this in isolation, there’s concerns about whether or not people will recognize and respect it. When it comes from the top, there is a sense that this is something that the whole institution should be doing in some part and it makes it easy to rally around it.”

Smaller discussions about anti-racist changes have been happening for years, according to Levine, but current circumstances gave the faculty confidence to take concrete, unified action.

“I think leadership matters,” Levine said of her stance. “This isn’t just us doing a symbolic gesture, this is in keeping with the University’s call to have us really rethink our everyday practices around racism.”

Correction, Oct. 14th, 11:10 a.m.: A previous version of this story stated that the department “as a whole” voted on the name change; in fact, only a majority did so. It has since been updated.