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Yale student petition: ‘Decolonize’ the English department curriculum

UPDATED

Undergraduates in Yale’s English department have started a petition to “decolonize” their introductory curriculum, noting the Major English Poets sequence omits the “contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk.”

The petition “calls for the abolishment of this prerequisite and for the pre-1800/1900 requirements to refocus and include literature relating to gender, race and sexuality.”

“A year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity,” it reads in part.

The petition goes on to state that the Major English Poets sequence is “especially hostile” to minority students and that the sense of  “alienation” causes students to leave in the middle of class.

The Yale Daily News reports:

[…] the petition writes that the white male-centric introductory courses do not adequately prepare students to take higher level courses relating to race, gender and ethnicity or to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship.

“It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings,” the petition reads. “A 21st century education is a diverse education: we write to you today inspired by student activism across the university, and to make sure that you know that the English department is not immune from the collective call to action.”

Adriana Miele ’16, another recent graduate who majored in English, cited her experience in the major as evidence of the need for change in the department.

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“The English Department was not my intellectual home, and that’s because it openly rejects the very legitimate scholarship, criticism and analysis that many other academic departments at Yale embrace,” Miele said. “In my four years as an English major, I primarily was lectured by old, white men about rape, about violence, about death, about colonialism, about genocide, and I was repeatedly told by many of my professors that these evils were necessary or even related to spiritual enrichment. This was horrifying.”

“It is unacceptable that the two semester requirement for all majors routinely covers the work of eight white, male poets,” [English Professor and Associate Director of Undergraduate Students Jill] Richards said.

However, former Yale English Language and Literature major Katy Waldman writes in a Slate article that, while “the petition’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity” is a good one, the traditional (white-male) canon “is an essential area of study”:

“For all the ways in which their particular identities shaped their work, these writers tried to represent the entire human condition, not just their clan. A great artist possesses both empathy and imagination: Many of Shakespeare’s female characters are as complexly nuanced as any in circulation today, Othello takes on racial prejudice directly, and Twelfth Night contains enough gender-bending identity shenanigans to fuel multiple drag shows and occupy legions of queer scholars.”

UPDATE: Yale Press Secretary Thomas Conroy sends along the university’s statement:

“The Department of English has received a number of inquiries about a petition created by Yale undergraduates.  The Department Chair has commented on this news story on the English Department homepage at: http://english.yale.edu/ Yale faculty regularly review Yale College courses and requirements. Changes to the curriculum in a given major follow thorough consideration and discussion by departmental faculty, who are committed to providing our undergraduate students with a curriculum that is both rigorous and intellectually engaging.”

Read the full Daily News piece.

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