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A considered defense of the english major

ways and means

For the past few weeks, the English department has been in dialogue with opinion writers. In their critiques, the columnists questioned the structure of the English major and its commitments to minority voices. I hope to reframe the debate—to be fair to the department (and its faculty)—while supporting the cause of my colleagues in diversifying the English major.

Should the English major only teach dead white men? Obviously not. In fact, no one takes the idea of locking English majors to dead white men seriously. What, then, is the complaint? I think Gretchen Wright put it best in the fear that English majors can walk through their major without ever taking a class focusing on minority voices. The proposed solution? A requirement to take classes from writers of diverse backgrounds and an increased number of classes focusing on minority voices.

I agree with both ideas! And I think that most people would, too. Although I am not sure how many English majors sleep-walk through their major plans, there are few guiding pressures pushing us towards non-white/non-male authors. If the English department requires historical depth, it should also require learning contemporary scope. At the same time, we should not disregard the value of historical background to an English literature education.

Why am I writing this piece? In my opinion, the previous authors made two critical errors: they portrayed the English department in an unfair light and were too dismissive of the historical requirements asked of English majors.

Is the English major dominated by dead white men? Both yes and no. The requirements lean towards dead white men (as shown by the other columnists), and many classes focus on those same writers (Whitman, Shakespeare, Faulkner, etc.). This is not a complete picture, however, of the department. As the author states herself, Toni Morrison was taught alongside Shakespeare in one of her courses. English courses tend to be more diverse than what the course listings suggest (or so I gather from upperclass students). This is because English professors care about representation (all of the ones I have spoken to regarding this article believed in the power of diversity); not only that, but there are different methodologies with which each class may approach “Western canon” works. Reading The Great Gatsby in relation to gender, racial, and socioeconomic divisions is a way of using work by a “dead white man” to inform perspectives on those topics.

The department does appear to have more classes focused on white authors. The difficulty here is that, unlike at other schools, our English department is not a comparative literature department. It has historically been an Anglophone department—one dedicated to “[conveying] broad historical knowledge of English, American, and other Anglophone literatures”—meaning that it is directly tied to the (white, male) tradition of literature descended from Britain. This isn’t entirely a bad thing; we have other departments at Duke that cater to interests in underrepresented voices (AAAS, AMES, and GSF, to name a few). Part of the work of the English department is to house and attend to the British/American literary tradition (a very valuable and rich one).

It is also important to note that the English Department at Duke is in a moment of flux—it is attempting to cater to student interests in global literature (the DUS herself works in 20th-21st century global literature) and underrepresented voices while also giving students a strong background in the history of English literature.

“Why are the works of Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer more important than any of the dozens, if not hundreds, of critically-acclaimed books written by authors of color?” This question misses the purpose of pushing students to read these authors. It is not that these writers are more important as a whole, but in order to understand the history of English literature, one must reach into the past (a place dominated by white males, unfortunately).

The English department uses requirements to push students where they normally wouldn’t go. One of those places is Area I (Medieval and Early Modern) literature—in the past, students have avoided taking classes in these authors. Thus, the department decided to increase the Area I requirement from one to two classes, given the importance of those authors to understanding English literature tradition(s)—not simply because they are “more important” categorically.

It should be noted, of course, that these historical periods are much longer than the modern ones. The Area I and Area II requirements cover a time span of almost six hundred years; three classes covering six hundred years (with innumerable works of literature) is a necessity to giving proper attention to the past, and surely not a sign of “unfair treatment” to the present.

But what is the purpose of learning tradition? Most writers do not work in a vacuum; contemporary authors are in dialogue with the tradition they have inherited. Gabriel Garcia Marquez learned from Faulkner, Caryl Phillips draws on Wuthering Heights and Shakespeare is omnipresent. Without a proper understanding of the history of past literature we have no foundation to understand the literature of now.

One point of Victoria Priester’s was that learning diverse perspectives helps one to become more empathetic and self-reflective. I agree with this, but there are multiple types of diversity of perspective. The perspectives of those in the past are as much the Other as is moving across racial, cultural, or gender space in authorship. It is extremely valuable to see oneself represented in stories—to validate and to understand oneself better; at the same time, it is valuable to understand how radically differently a colonized Irish—white—man lived his life (James Joyce), or what priorities in life a 17th-century poet had (John Milton), in order to understand ourselves better.

While I agree that it may be possible for a student to sleep-walk their way through the English major and not read many books by underrepresented voices, I doubt how often this occurs. And even when it does, is the responsibility not on the student themselves? In speaking with the DUS and Chair, I was informed that it has been the case that classes including minority voices are underfilled in enrollment. 

As I try to bring my ramble to a conclusion, I want to make sure I don’t absolve the department of responsibility. It is clear to me that English students feel a lack of minority authors in the department. Steps should be taken to remedy this (making a new requirement, offering more diverse courses, guiding majors to take different classes). English students also have a responsibility to take advantage of resources, to push their major to include diverse voices, and to (respectfully) prod the department (and Duke as a whole) in the direction of supporting underrepresented voices.

Akshaj Turebylu is a Trinity first-year. His column, "ways and means," usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.

He would like to thank the professors who took the time to speak to him regarding this issue, including Professors Thomas Ferraro, Tsitsi Jaji, Mesha Maren, Toril Moi, and Victor Strandberg.

A special thanks to the DUS and Chair of the English Department, Professors Aarthi Vadde and Robert Mitchell.

Also, a thank you to the handful of seniors and juniors in the English department who spoke to him regarding their experiences.

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