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The English major welcomes all

guest column

We thank Victoria Priester for her opinion piece in the Chronicle and for making her voice heard on issues of great importance to this campus. We value all our undergraduate majors and minors and take their perceptions of the Duke English Department very seriously. 

That is why we are responding to Ms. Priester’s article in print. We were puzzled and saddened by Ms. Priester’s initial representation of Duke English, not only because it contained inaccurate factual claims, but also because the correct version of those facts suggests that the Duke English major is flexible enough to meet the demands Ms. Priester makes of it. 

To consider the facts first, there are currently 80 English majors and double majors and 67 English minors, for a total of 147 majors and minors. Even more important, though Ms. Priester is correct that the number of English majors at other institutions has declined in recent years, this is happily not the case at Duke, for our number of majors, double-majors, and minors has increased substantially over the past several years. (Since fall 2016, for example, we have seen a nearly 40% growth in majors and double majors.) And as both the Alumni section of our departmental webpage and recent strong representation of Duke English alumni among the DEMAN keynote speakers make clear, Duke English majors are extremely successful in finding rewarding (and financially remunerative) jobs once they graduate.

We think that our major has grown in recent years in large part because Duke English enables precisely that wide breadth of study of works produced in English for which Ms. Priester calls. The Duke English major indeed allows students interested in Shakespeare, to take Ms. Priester’s example, to enroll in multiple courses on that author. But the Duke English major also enables students interested primarily in more recent, non-European, non-male authors to focus on those writers. 

For example, the following trajectory within the major, which emphasizes women and writers of color across the centuries, fulfills the 10 required courses of our major: ENG 101 (e.g., “Living with Others”); “Languages and Society”; “Queens of Antiquity”; “Classics of World Literature”; “Emily Dickinson”; “African Diaspora Literature”; “Asian American Gender & Sexuality”; “Remembering the Middle Passage”; “Black Feminism”; and “Contemporary Black South.” All of these courses were taught within the last year and a half. 

This semester, seven English originated or cross-listed courses focus exclusively on, or feature multiple, authors of color. In addition, students may propose Independent Studies on topics of interest and such courses can fulfill major requirements.

We are also in the process of creating a “Best Practices for Navigating the Major” webpage, which will explicitly advise students to take literature courses that expose them to the diverse communities and continents that have produced some of the best literature in the English language. We offer courses in African, Asian, Caribbean, diasporic, and minority literatures and we firmly believe that English is a global language. Each of our majors is assigned a faculty advisor who can help a student navigate these many possibilities of the English major.  

Our commitment to a global approach to literature written in English is underscored by our commitment to the African Studies initiative, which—if our bid for a faculty line is approved—will allow us to build on, while also expanding, an existing strength within the department, and in this way offer not only breadth but also even more depth for students interested in African and African-American diasporic literatures. 

Our commitment to featuring minority perspectives is also exemplified by upcoming artist residencies and visits (e.g., Caryl Phillips, later this month, and Asian-American writer Gina Apostol, in March); our long-running Representing Migration Lab; our Toni Morrison tribute last fall (and a cross-listed undergraduate course on Toni Morrison three years ago); and many, many course offerings including “Modernism in the Arts,” “The Contemporary Novel,” “The Art of the Slam,” and “Zora Neale Hurston” just to name four. Should Ms. Priester elect to remain an English major—and we very much hope that she will!—we look forward to helping her to fulfill the major requirements by means of precisely those kinds of course for which she calls.

Robert Mitchell is the Chair of the Department of English. Aarthi Vadde is the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of English.

Editor’s note: Priester’s figures were supplied by the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies for the English Department.  

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