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The English major is dominated by white authors

editors' note

I love being an English major to the point that I paid for a shirt that says “I put the lit in literature.” But the constant focus on white male authorship makes me want to drop the major for good. “Literature and the Pursuit of Happiness” was going to be my favorite class this semester; it fulfilled a core requirement for the English major, and I was taking it with my best friend. And happiness seemed like such a broad topic—what new, emotionally tumultuous, deeply introspective novels would we be studying that would ultimately bring us to a wide and profound meaning of what it means to be happy? Then I read the syllabus. We wouldn’t be reading works from any authors of color until mid-April—the last two weeks of class. What we were focusing on were Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby. I’ve read all of these pieces a minimum of three times, and so has every other English major. I dropped the class.

Every spring, around 1,600 Duke sophomores declare a major. In an email response to my inquiry, the English Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies said that around 89 students per year, or roughly 6% of sophomores, declare a major or double-major in English. This is an extremely low proportion of students, especially since more and more Duke students are declaring majors across disciplines. But this low enrollment number for English majors isn’t specific to Duke; across all US colleges, the proportion of English majors is down by 25.5 percent

One possible reason is the common perception that majoring in English is a one-way trip to unemployment after college. And I empathize with parents—why pay thousands of dollars per year for your kid to read books they could get for free from the public library? Why spend 20+ years investing in them getting a good education for them to end up living in your house again, still trying to put Tide Pods where the liquid detergent goes in the washing machine and refusing to eat vegetables? This fear has become so widespread that there are actually more studies now defending the English major from this reputation than confirming it. 

But English major enrollment numbers aren’t decreasing just because of a rise in “interest” in STEM. Enrollment is decreasing because, in an increasingly multicultural and engaged world society where 35 percent of young people identify more as a global citizen than as a citizen of their home country, English degree programs remain extremely Eurocentric. The requirements for Duke’s English major, according to the department website, are broken up by time period in which the authors lived or the books were written (ex. Medieval, 18th/19th Century). Students must take a designated number of courses from each time period, but of the 246 courses that could be offered, only 10 courses (four percent) are specifically dedicated to minority groups or authors by course title.

Toni Morrison passed away in August 2019. There could not have been a more perfect time for Duke to offer an English class in her honor, and we clearly have professors at Duke qualified to teach her work—the Religious Studies department offers a class on her work that is not cross-listed with English. Professor emerita Karla Holloway has studied Morrison’s work in-depth. Instead, we continue to offer a “special topics” course on Bob Dylan that has been offered for multiple semesters. While Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature award is certainly worth discussion, he won the prize four years ago in 2016. 

Meanwhile, these are notable accomplishments of authors of color/women in the past year: director Domee Shi won an Oscar for best animated short for the Pixar short, Bao. James Forman Jr. won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for his book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Women of color win American Book Awards nearly every year. The lack of variation in special topics courses, to me, seems to reflect a broader trend of studying and honoring notable male directors and writers when there are women and people of color who are of equal or even higher caliber.  Books and films are an opportunity to see the world from another person’s perspective. They are an irreplaceable resource for looking at an event, an era in history, the concept of family or freedom, from the eyes of people of color or people of other marginalized experiences who choose to share their stories. We cannot expect to be an empathetic, globally-minded society if all of our required reading was written by white men.

Duke wants their professors to be on the cutting edge of knowledge in their fields, as demonstrated by the emphasis on research done by the new faculty they hired in 2019. New books, just like new scientific discoveries, are published every day. The curriculum and courses offered in the English department do not reflect the breadth of new, award-winning literature and media that arguably deserve just as much attention as Shakespeare, and that are extremely relevant to social and personal battles people are fighting in 21st century America. 

I don’t want this piece to seem like a criticism targeted at English professors or faculty—my English professors have prompted discussions and revelations I never would have arrived at without their nuanced, critical lectures. Their consistent willingness to talk through ideas with me outside of class, to ponder over minute details in the text, or to re-think theses have made me a more equipped and confident reader, writer and researcher.

But being an English major shouldn’t just mean we know how to read Shakespeare—we should be equipped with a deep understanding of the diverse set of human experiences through memoirs, be able to see flaws in our own communities and thought patterns through satire and fictional dystopia. The required reading should help us understand what it is like to be a child growing up in Iran, or a black man on death row--stories we may not experience or hear on our own. Within the major requirement, make a new requirement called “Perspectives”—classes that focus on literature from different regions of the world. And I mean the whole world. Hire more faculty who have expertise in Latin American literature, works in translation and how social issues are presented through novels. Clearly, low English major enrollment isn’t because of a lack of interest in books—my friends are starting book clubs, discussion groups and asking for book recommendations for summer break. Tech companies are now saying they prefer hiring students with backgrounds in the humanities—breathe easy, parents! The draw that English could have is being smothered by an overrepresentation of white authors with whom readers are finding it harder and harder to connect.

Victoria Priester is a Trinity junior and a Managing Editor of the Opinion section. The Editors’ Note typically runs on alternate Thursdays.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that there were an average of 21-22 students who major in English per year, which is the number of double majors per year. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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