After months of advocacy and a department vote, the Board of Trustees approved renaming the Department of English to the Department of Literatures in English.
English professors Carole Boyce-Davies and Derrick Spires said the department’s new name represents the current diversity of courses and research, and better indicates the faculty’s goal of building a more equitable future.
The department’s former name inaccurately conflated the English language with literature, according to Boyce-Davies.
“We want to diversify, equalize and decolonize,” Boyce-Davies said. “The structures of the academy and the humanities have still been very much skewed towards Western European understandings of the world.”
In a letter sent in September to Dean Ray Jayawardhana of the College of Arts and Sciences, English department chair Prof. Caroline Levine described the renaming effort as central to the department’s anti-racist values and equity at Cornell.
“I am delighted at the name change,” Prof. Kate McCullough wrote in an email to the Sun. “It more accurately describes the work that we in the department read, teach, and write about.”
According to McCullough, the chair of the committee reviewing the undergraduate curriculum, the department’s name change and curriculum share a similar rationale.
“The name change and the review of the requirements for the undergraduate major share a desire to more accurately represent literatures as they have been and as they continue to be written, as well as to reflect the literatures we study in the department,” McCoullough wrote.
According to Boyce-Davies, Spires and Prof. Mukoma Wa Ngugi, the change garnered support from their peers in the English department.
“Our colleagues embraced it and supported it right away,” said Boyce-Davies. She expressed appreciation for the chair’s support in this historic moment.
According to Boyce-Davies, the efforts of literature departments at the University of Nairobi, the University of the West Indies and other institutions inspired Cornell’s renaming choice. She hoped that Cornell would become an example for other universities in the United States.
“A number of departments in the United States are considering it right now,” Boyce-Davies said. “This is a wave, and we are pleased to be at the front of it.”
Wa Ngugi said the goal of the renaming is not to eliminate the study of British literature altogether — but instead to more fully represent the literature written in English from around the world.
“I think there is a misconception in some conservative corners that we are getting rid of English literature, that we are doing away with Shakespeare, for example,” Wa Ngugi wrote in a statement to the Sun. “That could not be further from the truth. We are simply calling for a more democratic relationship between the different literatures in English.”
Boyce-Davies, Spires and Wa Ngugi want the name change to be the beginning of content changes in the department.
“I hope to see a diverse and robust department where faculty in different fields co-teach and learn from one another, and students in different fields have the language to debate each other,” Wa Ngugi wrote. “The name change gives us a chance to fall in love with literature all over again.”
Spires expressed concern that pushing for change may grow more challenging as time passes. As reform pressures that arose from the killing of George Floyd and the presidential election year fade, some may wish to go back to business as usual.
But Spires is hopeful. He plans to continue advocating for curriculum change, for the needs of diverse students and for resources for teaching in fields such as American Indian Studies, African American and African diaspora studies and Latinx studies.
“I think we are headed in a good direction,” Spires said. “The name change is one starting point.”
Correction, Feb. 18, 11:17 a.m.: A previous version of this article misstated that the department’s former name inaccurately conflated the English language with nationality, not literature. This post has since been updated.