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English department seeks greater diversity in curriculum, establishes anti-racism committee

It has been more than a year since Chronicle Opinion Managing Editor Victoria Priester, then a junior, wrote an opinion piece for The Chronicle detailing her thoughts on the lack of diversity she saw in the Duke English department. 

The piece sparked a debate among students and faculty and resulted in a response column at the time from English Department Chair Robert Mitchell and Aarthi Vadde, then the director of undergraduate studies for the department, outlining ways English majors could engage with diverse authors.

The issues raised by this dialogue have remained at the forefront of the department's agenda, according to Mitchell. During the last summer, the department held multiple faculty meetings on this topic.

“The unequal toll of the pandemic underscored the importance of providing more venues for minority voices,” Mitchell wrote in an email. 

The department also established a ad-hoc Committee on Anti-Racism, which “has set up a series of workshops this spring on issues of race and academic fields, and will bring recommendations for concrete action items” to the English faculty later in the spring semester, Mitchell wrote. 

Associate Professor of English Tsitsi Jaji, who is chair of the Committee on Anti-Racism, wrote that she is glad that the issue of diversity remains important to Duke students.

“Because of the nature of structural racism, not just at Duke, but across the country, this is a long-standing challenge and the work to address it will never end,” Jaji wrote. “For me, that is a good thing, because it means that our intellectual lives will never come to rest, nor will the necessity for imaginative approaches to social justice.”

She also noted that a new diversity requirement has been added to the English major. Mitchell noted that only two departments of English at peer institutions have a comparable requirement.

“It is now written into the structure of our major that no student majoring in English will graduate without serious study of writers of color and/or literary methods imbued with anti-racism,” Jaji wrote.

Beginning this fall, all courses fulfilling the diversity requirement will be flagged in the course listings.

While University rules mean that the new diversity requirement will only become official for students who matriculate to Duke beginning next fall, Mitchell wrote that he encourages all students to enroll in these courses.

On the hiring front, the department was in the final stages of competing for an opportunity to hire a new specialist in African studies when the op-ed was published last year. They recently hired Associate Professor of English Grace Musila, who is a specialist in Southern African, East African, and global Black studies.

Musila will join the faculty in the 2021-22 academic year, helping to expand the course offerings.

In light of the decision made by certain colleges, including Cornell University and Bryn Mawr College, to change the names of their English departments, Jaji noted that she is excited to see departments around the world seek to make clear the broad scope of the discipline.

“At Duke, however, it would be difficult to come up with a department name that detailed the range of courses we offer,” Jaji wrote.

Indeed, course offerings that regularly appear in the syllabus include a rich variety of subjects, from Chaucer to 9th Wonder, from manuscripts to cinema, from writing fiction to analyzing musical settings of poetry and from English translations of isiZulu works to texts in Arabic.

“For now, Duke’s departmental name, English, serves as a familiar ‘place-holder’ to invite students to delve into all these materials and more,” Jaji wrote. “I believe English will continue to introduce students to the close study of discourse—what language can do, where, how, why.”

Corina Stan, the current director of undergraduate studies for the English department, also stressed the “rich constellation of authors” that students were able to study in the department this academic year. These include the gateway course Living with Others, seminars such as African Diaspora Literature and advanced courses such as one on Zora Neale Hurston.

Jaji added that the arrival of Trinity College’s new hires in Latinx and Asian American studies presents an exciting opportunity for collaboration.

However, the faculty recognize that there are still gaps that need to be addressed. 

Jaji noted that existing Black and post-colonial courses, as well as courses that address race and gender, rarely fill up. She wrote that the department would like to see enrollment in those courses grow.

“We are committed to continuing to build the department, and just as this work began long before currently enrolled undergraduate students arrived, so too, it will continue long beyond  your time here, and across all of the English department’s constituencies,” Jaji wrote. 

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