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Courtesy of the English Department, soon to be the Department of Literatures in English

October 15, 2020

PERATI | It’s Not Enough to Change the English Department Name

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This past month, a significant majority of the English Faculty voted to change the name of the department to “Literatures in English.” The proposed name change is awaiting approval from college administrators, but if it is approved, it would mark the first department name change in 130 years.

The study of English was introduced to Cornell in 1890 by Hiram Corson, a scholar of literature, who insisted that the only proper way to teach literature was by reading it aloud.

The proposal to shift the name of the department was spearheaded by Prof. Boyce-Davies and Prof. Mukoma Wa Ngugi, English. In response to a new reckoning with racial injustice across the U.S., Cornell English faculty felt they should encourage a shift in literary study that promotes a broader reach of literature.

In light of President Martha Pollack’s call to action for “the development of a new set of programs focusing on the history of race, racism and colonialism in the United States, designed to ensure understanding of how inherited social and historical forces have shaped our society today,” the proposed department name change, if approved, would mark one of the first permanent departmental changes aligned with Pollack’s goal.

“It’s great to see faculty initiating change, along with students, as it puts pressure on the University to take action on the steps promised in June,” said Sammi Minion ’21.

As an English major myself, I believe the proposed name change marks a positive step in moving away from anglicizing the field. As Boyce-Davies and Mukoma Wa Ngugi point out, changing our focus from “English” to “Literatures in English” allows the department to include post-colonial narratives and create space for diverse voices and histories.

Other students also reacted positively to the news of the department name change, but expressed hope for this to be the starting point for more conversation and changes.

“For this to not be just a performative change, the department should also think about applying these good intentions at a level that’s more immediate to student and faculty life,” said Priscilla Kim ’21.

In reference to actionable and immediate changes to the major, many students brought up the pre-1800 requirement, a contentious topic in the English department, which mandates that 12 out of 40 credits (30% of the major) be from courses which survey literature originally written in English that precedes the 1800s.

When looking at the pre-1800 course offerings, I am often underwhelmed by the homogeneity of these courses: it’s always Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton and maybe Beowulf. While I still covet my annotated third edition of the Norton Shakespeare from Prof. Barbara Correll’s class, and think of the class fondly as one of my favorites at Cornell, I question why there is such a strong adamance that a full 30% of the major be from Eurocentric course offerings.

Other students expressed stronger views on the requirement, even going to the extent of expressing interest in its redaction. “Rarely was the work of anyone other than white men published in English during the 17th century, so having a requirement from that era already places exhaustive limits on diversity,” Minion said. “Offer me a course to teach me the ideology of MLK Jr or Malcom X, but don’t encourage the pre-1800 date.”

Minion’s views are in line with a new push across the country and the globe to decolonize the curricula in schools and universities. Just this past September, a cohort of Cornell faculty and graduate students penned a list of demands to the University, some of which include the incorporation of  “decolonized readings” into the curriculum.

Even if all three pre-1800 courses are proved to be absolutely necessary for sufficient scholarship in the study of literatures in English (we can agree to disagree), the issue is that the English major is not supplemented by survey courses spanning non-eurocentric canons.

Yes, Cornell offers courses in subjects ranging from Black Speculative Fiction to The Future of Whiteness, but it is still entirely possible to complete an entire English major without ever having to take a course that focuses on literature from writers of color. And although the College of Arts and Sciences does have a geographical breadth requirement, one course is not enough to equip students with an adequate understanding of post-colonial narratives.

Let us set a precedent that if 30 percent of the courses that English majors take have to be from Eurocentric canons, then another 30 percent of the major should be required to comprise of courses that move us forward rather than focusing only on a historically problematic time. We should be encouraging a push in requirements to deliberately include literature that interacts with race, racism, gender, sexuality and colonialism.

While I am wary of being hypercritical of a step in the right direction, if changing the name of our department is to be more than just a facade, the course requirements and offerings should also adapt to reflect a more diverse major.

 

Shriya Perati is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at sperati@cornellsun.com. Thought Experiments runs alternate Thursdays this semester. Esat Braveboy ’22 contributed to reporting.