Following a name change to promote inclusivity, the Department of Literatures in English resolved to alter major requirements beginning fall 2022-23 to cover courses in a wider set of content areas.
Currently, the major consists of three requirements, only one of which is content based — students must take twelve credits covering literature originally written in English before 1800. They must also take eight credits at the 4000 level or above and twelve credits for a concentration they decide.
Following the changes, students will need to meet a new set of content requirements that represent a more global set of traditions. According to Prof. Caroline Levine, literatures in English, chair of the department, the faculty hopes students will find themselves engaging more often with texts dealing with experiences wider than the scope of European and American writers.
Levine stated that this change breaks with a longstanding tradition of minimalism that has been characteric of the department at Cornell. Historically, the English department has fewer requirements than their peer institutions.
“While the freedom for students is nice,” Levine said, “It could also be a liability when it comes to the question of race. When students seek famous authors without realizing the rich literary tradition of places like Caribbean, for example, it compounds the status quo.”
Levine says the intention of the new requirements is not to limit students, but to offer them guidance in a wide variety of literary areas.
Following President Martha Pollack’s call to think about anti-racism in the wake of protests last summer, Levine reported feeling great urgency to take action and convened a faculty committee.
Levine explained that while it is not common for departments to thoroughly overhaul a major, the committee was not working blindly. Levine herself has been through the process at two other institutions, including joining a similar project to update the English major at the University of Wisconsin Madison.
Prof. Mukoma Wa Ngugi, literatures in English, was also an instrumental influence in transforming the major. His father, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, spearheaded a similar movement of decolonization at Nairobi University in the 1960s, where he challenged the English department’s practice of teaching British literature within an African country.
In addition to being personal, the question of restructuring the major was also a matter of making the major relevant for modern scholars for Ngugi.
“There is the philosophical dimension of decolonization, and there is also the pragmatics of times we are living in and what they are demanding,” Ngugi said. “We want students who are truly aware of their fields, ones that we ourselves would hire now.”
While faculty poses a large shift to the major, Ngugi expressed that it is not radical, but rather catching up to the world as it is.
Prof. Kate McCullough, literatures in English, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, expressed her opinion that the change was long overdue. As someone whose work already deals with multi-racial and multi-ethnic subject matter, she stated that this would help the department produce more well-rounded students proficient in a variety of literary customs.
“The requirements for a major send a symbolic message to the students about what’s important to know or who’s important to read,” McCullough said. “It was my opinion that the message we were sending was out of date and was wrong.”
McCullough sees the requirement change as an important step forward, allowing Cornell to highlight lesser known authors and avoid privileging a single group.
Tomás Daniel Chávez Reuning ’21, an English major, echoed McCullough’s sentiment that the changes should have taken place years ago.
As a Latin Studies minor, Reuning stated that the Black and Latinx focused courses he has taken are attended primarily by students with concentrations in those fields. In Reuning’s experience these students also tend to hold those identities themselves and are already aware of many of the issues discussed in those works.
“The people who need to take these classes aren’t in them, meanwhile we are all required to take the pre-1800s courses,” he said.
To Reuning, decolonizing means asking, “Are we learning for the sake of learning, or are we learning for the sake of production and grades?”
Jenna Fields ’23 said the nature of class discussion often depends more on the professor than the purported subject matter. In her experience, students will often take courses that are “name brand” and deal with the works of already renowned writers.
Fields has taken classes on Virgina Woolf, Beowulf and pre-1850s literature. She has found that the professors have made a conscious effort within each of these traditional courses to read critiques of the author, discuss their controversies and unscore the ties to white supremacy evident in some of these texts.
As an English and Computer Science double major, Fields said she had a great appreciation for the flexibility of the major compared to the rigid track of computer science, though she, like Levine, feels that if the goal is to encourage a more diverse understanding of literature, the change is constructive.
In the process of reworking the major, Levine has already learned a lot from her colleagues, particularly as a white person who had a very traditional literary education. Levine was a comparative literature major at Princeton University, where she did not read a single writer of color.
“I’ve had a lot to unlearn and am still very much unlearning it,” she said.