Yale students want to remake the English Major requirements, but there’s no escaping white male poets in the canon.

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46 Responses

  1. Avatar Will H. says:

    . . . the idea that the major English poets have nothing to say to students who aren’t straight, male, and white.

    This, to be true, would entail all homosexuals, women, and non-whites loathing all poetry throughout all the ages, up til now.
    I see no evidence of this, unless this is one of those things such persons were actively covering up, for whatever (malignant) reason.

    The “stay in your lane” mentality that seems to undergird so much progressive discourse—only polyamorous green people really “get” the “polyamorous green experience,” and therefore only polyamorous greens should read and write about polyamorous greens, say—ignores our common humanity.

    Ignoring our common humanity is the bedrock of progressive discourse.

    I had more to say on this, but I’ve got to go now.Report

  2. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    First off, this was from Slate? Curious…

    Second, someone get these kids a dictionary and help them find the definition of “diversity”.Report

  3. Avatar veronica d says:

    This argument is getting tedious. First, I doubt we’ll eliminate Shakespeare from any major English curriculum. Sure, there will be some outré students pushing for that. They will make noise. They won’t succeed.

    That said, they will change things. The fact is, there are only so many credit hours to make a four year degree. There is only so much time in the week to spend in the library with your nose in a book. It is finite. Thus content must be selected, weighed, balanced.

    Some things will go out to make room for new things to come in. And honestly, the dull and predictable insights of dead white guys are dull and predictable as hell. Blah. People want more. They have reasons to want more. Diverse authors see things that the dead white guys could not. Things change.

    The “stay in your lane” mentality that seems to undergird so much progressive discourse—only polyamorous green people really “get” the “polyamorous green experience,” and therefore only polyamorous greens should read and write about polyamorous greens, say—ignores our common humanity.

    The thing is, it’s true in some ways. I mean, the author’s snide, dismissive tone does not help. But whatever.

    It’s complicated. It’s not all one thing, nor all another. Stories are layered. They contain much, from grand themes, which unify, to the specific contours of a detailed life. After all, the great stories are not a bulleted list of “grand themes,” itemized and arranged. Instead, they flourish in the specific.

    Try it out. Describe a scene set in a bright room, lit by sunlight cast through gauzy yellow drapes. Now describe the same scene, but with the sun obscured by heavy velour. Those are different scenes. It matters.

    Experience matters. Most people get this, to some degree. We understand the difference between an anecdote shared by a combat veteran, compared with the fantastical imagination of a young man stupidly hungry for war. The first has seen. The second has not seen. This matters.

    Cliché is a copy of a copy. It is smug Hollywood writers, writing about the military, but they never served. Instead they copy what they have seen in other films, written by the last set of writers, who never served, but who copied what they saw in films written by the set before, who never served…

    Rinse, repeat, and once again.

    Cliché sets in. It embeds itself in our culture. And sure, it probably does no harm that large number of people believe that crime scene investigators outline the position of a dead body in tape, when in fact they do not do that. Blah. Whatever. But what kinds of important details are missed by those who have no idea what details are remotely true and what are copies of copies of copies of copies?

    How many people believe wildly false things about PTSD survivors or black culture or the lives of sex workers based on the false clichés spread by hack TV writers? How much nonsense does the cis public believe about women like me?

    What is it like to be transgender?

    I dream the same as you dream. I long for things, as all people do. I struggle (sometimes), succeed (often), climb and fall and then climb again, just the same as you. I can find meaning in a Shakespeare play, as can anyone else.

    But to know about my life is to know of the first time I wore high heels. I was already middle aged, about four months into hormone therapy, wanting to look good, trying on the shoes, stomping around the apartment, feeling amazing. That night I wore them out dancing.

    People were surprised that I could just suddenly walk in heels. The thing is, I had spend a few years training in a Muay Thai gym. In Thai boxing, you spend a great deal of time on your toes. In my classes, our coach had us do long drills, the entire time on our toes. Always on our toes, until my calves felt like rubber.

    For me walking in heels the first time was easy.

    It’s not that a cis writer could not learn details such as these and collect them together into a story. But still, there is a unity to an entire life, beyond a collection of anecdotes. In a big enough story, a writer must find so many details. Some will be subtle. Some will be “what it’s like to be” things. The point is, as the story unfolds, a transgender person will have a deep well of experience from which to draw. A cis person will have a shallow pool of gathered anecdote.

    Of course, the cis person has their own deep well, formed of their own life experience. How does that work out?

    Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a magnificent play. It is smart, funny, crass, and gorgeous. I love it. You should watch it, if you have not.

    The thing is, it is not shallow. It says stuff, things about life, about love, and about gender. In the latter case, the things it says about gender, they ring deeply false to many transgender people, but they are presented through the story of an (arguably) transgender woman. This is disappointing.

    My diagnosis is simple. The author of the play drew from his own deep well of life experience, of complex gendered feelings shaped by his gayness, to find what he wanted to say through Hedwig’s mouth. When I watch the play, I can feel the strength of what he is saying, but I also find it alienating, because they are not things that I feel. I understand them, inasmuch as I see how gender works among many gay men that I know. But trans women are different.

    (Please note, I am not saying we are uniform. It’s not about uniformity, but a different center around which we cluster.)

    Blah.

    You’re allowed to like Hedwig. I love the music. I have it downloaded on my phone, so in case of emergency I can blast Midnight Radio and get lost in a dream.

    But what is it like to be transgender? Do you want to know?Report

    • Avatar Morat20 says:

      Cliché is a copy of a copy. It is smug Hollywood writers, writing about the military, but they never served. Instead they copy what they have seen in other films, written by the last set of writers, who never served, but who copied what they saw in films written by the set before, who never served…

      Rather randomly, I vaguely recall the Stargate SG-1 TV show having gotten an award from the Air Force, because they paid for a few Air Force people to come in and do stuff like “Get the cast to salute properly” and “Use the correct forms of address” and even make sure the medals and awards on a character’s dress uniform fit the character. And the writers, costumers, and cast more or less listened. (I mean you don’t let reality get in the way of your story, but why not make it realistic or authentic when you can? Buys you more suspension of disbelief later).

      I think most of that slid to the wayside as the show continued on, but I always like to applaud when TVs or movies bring in actual advisers and actually listen.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Most bigger Hwood movies have been brining in military advisors for quite while now. Dale Dye has made a career out of being a mil advisor and running actors through boot camps before the movie. At least since Saving Private Ryan this had been a thing.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        @morat20 — Yeah, that stuff is important. But at the same time, they are only the visible side of the things I am talking about. Which, it is certainly nice to see directors and writers get the details correct. But on the other hand, I think there is another level, which only comes out during the long slog of writing. It is a matter of creative scope, patterns of theme.

        I cannot easily put it into words, because of course that is the whole point. This is the stuff that makes literature “serious.” It is the sublime. You cannot hold the lightning in a bottle.

        I mean, I don’t want to sound precious. This can emerge in a punk-as-fuck pulp novel. Or not. Whatever.

        I dunno. I can tell when a story about a transgender woman was written by “one of us,” as opposed to when cis people write about us. I won’t try to summarize all the reasons why. It’s not as if I have a simple decision tree with clear rules. I cannot “sum up,” anymore than a skilled basketball player can articulate how he passes the ball without looking, but still gets it into a teammate’s hands more often than not. These are things in our brains, but they are complicated.

        Specifically on the trans issue, Casey Plett wrote about a minor trend of “gender novels,” which focus on transgender characters, but are written by cisgender writers. It is here: http://thewalrus.ca/rise-of-the-gender-novel/

        To get it out of the way: the Gender Novels fail to communicate what it’s actually like to transition. Their portrayals of gender-identity struggles are ham-fisted, and despite the authors’ apparently good intentions they often rehash stale, demeaning tropes: a coy mix-and-match of pronouns; descriptions of trans women as fake and mannish; the equation of gender with genitalia and surgery; a fixation on rare intersex conditions that allow for tacked-on, unrealistic transition narratives. [emphasis mine] (Many intersex people, those born with atypical sexual or reproductive characteristics, don’t transition from one gender to another; as well, Wayne’s self-impregnation—a major plot point in Annabel—is a medical impossibility.)

        […]

        These novels aren’t just clichéd by the standards of transgender literature—they’re clichéd by any standard. Meanwhile, the sections of these books that don’t deal with gender variance are often vivid and fully realized, particularly in Middlesex and Moving Forward. It’s not that Fu, Winter, Mootoo, and Eugenides aren’t talented writers. So what does it say that four very different authors set out to write four very different people—and came up with the same non-person? And why are cisgender readers so moved by such one-dimensional characters?

        […]

        Books by writers who have actually transitioned, on the other hand, are quite different; their characters are free to be flawed. Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, published in 2013, is about a broke post-transition woman who, among other things, blows her savings on heroin and gets fired for being late to work. Nevada does not end with uplift. It is searing and funny; upon missing an estrogen injection, the protagonist says, “Not giving yourself your shot is like slamming your fingers in a car door over and over, or forcing yourself to drown a kitten every morning or something. Totally unproductive.” Trans critic Katherine Cross notes this in Bitch magazine, in an article discussing Nevada and Janet Mock’s superb memoir, Redefining Realness. “What Binnie’s novel gives us, as surely as Mock’s memoir does in its loftier register, is a portrait of the trans woman as human,” Cross writes. “Not inspiration porn, not a feel-good story of triumph over lone bigots, not lurid medical examinations, but a decidedly human story.”

        Focus on the bit in the first paragraph that I highlighted. Okay, why do cis writers do this? Certainly they mean well. These are “good liberals” who no doubt think of themselves as on the “correct side.” Which, I’m certain they are. I have no doubt they don’t mind which toilet I use, or want me to struggle to update my state issued ID card. But still, when they try to “immerse” into a trans woman, what do they find —

        — they find things inside themselves, things constructed, which are alien to us.

        I don’t have a fix for this. As a reader you have to decide what you want to read. Certainly cis readers don’t seem to notice. So far as they can tell, these portrayals are “accurate enough.” Certainly they are entertained.

        As an aside, when I began to watch Jessica Jones, I just kind of assumed it had a male writer. I assumed this cuz, well, television. Of course it has a male writer. I was expecting a “strong female character” in the Buffy-mold, but with maybe darker sensibilities. About halfway through the series, I realized something was different. I said, “A woman wrote this.” I went to the Internet and looked it up. Okay, so men wrote the original comic. But for the series, the creator and showrunner is Melissa Anne Rosenberg, a woman. I could just tell. There was stuff, so much stuff, that just registered. I cannot explain.

        Anyway, my bigger point is, I doubt this is a unique situation for transgender women (or in the case of Jessica Jones, for women in general). I take in on faith that other minorities experience similar things. I am certain that black people do, because they tell us.Report

  4. Avatar Alan Scott says:

    I certainly don’t disagree with the idea that anyone getting an English degree ought to read some dead white poets.

    Except… I also don’t see any evidence that yale students disagree. That’s certainly not what the petition calls for.

    In particular, we oppose the continued existence of the Major English Poets sequence as the primary prerequisite for further study. It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors. 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. The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.

    When students are made to feel so alienated that they get up and leave the room, or get up and leave the major, something is wrong. The English department loses out when talented students engaged in literary and cultural analysis are driven away from the major. Students who continue on after taking the introductory sequence are ill-prepared to take higher-level courses relating to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability, or even to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship. We ask that Major English Poets be abolished, and that the pre-1800/1900 requirements be refocused to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.

    (emphasis mine). Seems like, their concern isn’t including old white guys in the curriculum–but letting those old white guys define the curriculum, framing everything else as a departure. That’s a pretty reasonable stance.

    Being taught that maleness, whiteness, and straightness are default is, frankly a impediment to cultivating the sort of sharp mind that a college education is supposed to give you. And we actually see a pretty good example of how that works in the rhetoric from all parties talking about how these classes involve straight, white, male poets.

    Like, the people in this class are literally going to be reading a bunch of sonnets about how the Earl of Southhampton gives Shakespeare a hard-on, and everyone is saying that all of these works are by straight authors. Heterosexuality is such an abundant feature of “the Canon” that it’s assumed. Maleness is assumed Whiteness is assumed. It is a god-damned crime that I read the Count of Monte Cristo in 9th grade and didn’t learn that Dumas was the grandson of a Hatian slave until I was 25. In retrospect, the themes of Monte Cristo reflect Dumas’s heritage, but that’s not something you’re going to know or understand if nobody ever trains you to pay attention to it. That’s what a good education does, or is supposed to do–and in order to provide that education, schools and teachers need to consider how they’re presenting the curriculum. Petitions like this one can be a valuable tool in that regard.Report

    • Avatar Plinko says:

      It seems to me the students here are asking the wrong thing, like they seem to want a Literature course of study that isn’t expressly an English Literature one. I have no idea what falls into or out of the English Literature vs. other cultural/literature departments at Yale.

      Maybe the issue is the only way you can build a degree around any sort of literature is to go through the English Lit curriculum. If so, I can totally see where they are coming from.
      On the other hand, if this is but one of many offerings and this curriculum is the one specifically for getting a degree in English Literature, then they seem way off base to me.

      When I studied English as an undergrad it kind of worked like this:
      1st year – Some general surveys and low level electives in the sub 300 level. These usually covered mostly modern-ish and contemporary topics and writings, lots of diversity.
      2nd year – In-Depth foundational work on “the Canon” through 1800 or so, your Shakespeare and something else pre-1600. This is the required dead white male year, though most professors liked to find ways to incorporate diversity where possible – often by discussing contemporary critiques from non-white and/or males.
      3rd and 4th years – Required courses fitting your track (novels, creative writing, poetry, feminist literature, American Lit, whatever) and whatever other electives at 500 level or higher you wanted. You could go as heavy dead white male or light as you wanted from there.

      The Slate piece author is pretty much right, it’s not really reasonable to study modern and later literature without the foundations of the canon stuff, not because those musty old dudes were so much better (well, Shakespeare was, but he’s the exception), but because pretty much everyone writing in English afterward is building off that tradition.
      Not spending a lot of time on it is like suggesting you could properly study American history with only topics and events that happened after 1960. Some really important stuff happened before then!
      It is completely possible to learn about those events, just like it is possible to read the English canon, while completely aware of the social/political contexts that modernity can provide. Maybe the stuffy faculty at Yale don’t want to get into that. If so, there’s the problem, not Chaucer or Milton.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Really. How much of Harris’ work can you understand, at all, by reference to Ye Olde English Tradition? You’d do better to reference the Brothers Grimm, and them only imperfectly.

        And Harris’ work (regarding Brer Rabbit and friends) is well old enough to be thrown into “Dead White Guys” cannon.

        We got black authors back to the 1700’s, writing in English in America. Why not use them?? Women authors date that far back as well.

        Diversity can be critical, sure… but you can use your sources where you got ’em.Report

        • Avatar Will H. says:

          Ayn Rand, or something by Terry Bradshaw?

          Excuse me, but I’ll take the Bradshaw please.
          He’s not dead yet, but I’m willing to overlook that part.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        How much of the old dead guys do you need to understand Pulp Fiction? (not the movie). I’d say very little. I don’t think it would change much if the author had never read Joyce, or Wordsworth, or Blake.

        Not everyone’s T.S. Elliot — whose writing really does require an english degree (lol, I kid, but still! layers upon layers)Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott says:

        So, it sounds like you took “how to take an English class” type classes your freshman year that focused on modern and diverse authors, then classes focusing on the traditional canon in your second year.

        At Yale, the “how to take an English class” stuff seems to be attached to the traditional canon (and specifically, the poetry canon) and serve as an unofficial prerequisite to every other English class. Sounds like the Yale students are advocating for a major structured much more like the one you took.

        I think it should also be noted that Yale College doesn’t offer a communications major or a journalism major, which means that the English major seems to be it’s best offering for someone whose primary educational goal is to become an effective communicator in written English. I could see a focus on Chaucer and Milton to be particularly chafing to students looking for a practical education in English-language communication, rather than English literature.Report

        • Avatar KenB says:

          Alan Scott: I could see a focus on Chaucer and Milton to be particularly chafing to students looking for a practical education in English-language communication, rather than English literature.

          If that’s what you’re looking for, why go to Yale? And consider this from Yale’s POV, especially the English department’s — how would it reflect on them if they’re churning out English Lit grads whose response to a question on Chaucer or Milton is “who?”Report

          • Avatar Kim says:

            There have been master craftsmen, master storytellers, and master editors without knowledge of either of them.

            besides, they’re asking for them to be studied later, not never.Report

          • Avatar Alan Scott says:

            KenB: If that’s what you’re looking for, why go to Yale?

            Because you want to be a nationally influential journalist? Or a respected legal orator? Or speechwriter to the president? Or just President?

            How many people who go to Yale will go on to get JDs or MBAs or MAs in journalism or some other practical but powerful humanities field? How many of those people are served by centering their education around Chaucer and Milton instead of around a more modern and diverse selection of writers?Report

            • Avatar KenB says:

              But I mean, you know going in that Yale doesn’t have a journalism or communications degree, so any major you do pick is going to be an imperfect fit.

              OTOH I was just looking at the department website and they do mention all these careers outside of English Lit proper, so you probably have a point — they can’t eat their cake and have it too.Report

            • Avatar Kim says:

              “How many people who go to Yale will go on to get JDs or MBAs or MAs in journalism or some other practical but powerful humanities field? ”

              this question has a very crude answer.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              Because you want to be a nationally influential journalist? Or a respected legal orator? Or speechwriter to the president? Or just President?

              Well, if that’s the case, why would a student CARE what they’re studying?

              On the other hand, maybe being steeped in those traditions is what makes the degree a credible one.Report

          • Avatar Will H. says:

            Little Milton.

            Every Yale grad should have this one memorized.Report

        • Avatar Plinko says:

          Yeah, if that’s how it’s structured, I totally see their point and have a lot more sympathy than I would otherwise.

          I think it’s entirely possible to be apprehensive about the canon as ‘The Canon’, take the required courses and develop your education in a way that works for you anyway, but just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it works best for everyone. Especially if it’s forced in on undergrads who actually have a very different educational goal than “English” Literature, but take it as it’s the only thing on offer.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Plinko,

        Yeah. What you said.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      I don’t disagree. I just wonder about rebuilding the ship at sea. If kids want a degree in English because of what that degree imparts to themselves and others in terms of status or future opportunities, then that expectation is built on a tradition which includes emphasis on the canon. If they want to change the emphasis of the degree to intentionally and consciously include lit from non-straightwhitemales, they’re trying to rebuild that particular ship at sea.

      Why not just build a new ship?Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    A big issue with these debates is who gets to choose who represents diversity and who is a dead white guy or at least a white guy with nothing important or only evil to say. These things are usually obvious but there is my usually favorite special case, the Jews, where debates get harried. Jewish authors were excluded from the canon for centuries along with all the other minorities mentioned. Now Jewish authors are apparently considered white and not counting for diversity. This strikes me as particular unjust and unfair. A slight advantage to sticking to the canon even though it seems like an act of exclusion to many is that you have avoid blood drenched fights on who counts for diversity.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      If we’re reading dead white English literature, what Jews are getting read?
      Seriously.

      You’re probably reading more gay people than Jews, because I’ll be damned if anyone does American poetry and leaves out Walt Whitman.Report

  6. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I think one reason why many educators like to focus on STEM over the humanities is that STEM subjects are seen, maybe naively, as inherently less political than history, literature, and other subjects of the minorities. Evolution and climate change science might cause some big cultural war arguments but other STEM areas do not. When your dealing with history and literature than your going to get into arguments on what should be taught and why? Bellow the college level, parents are going to have tremendously strong opinions about this. Conservative parents might want to emphasize a more patriotic history than liberal parents who might favor a warts and all approach.

    I think another problem is that this argument about diversity always carries on air because you are x than you have nothing useful to say at all and your prose or poetry sucks. For fans of the dead, white male authors this seems grueling. They might argue that Kipling or Poe should be read because of y. Its an endless debate.Report

    • Avatar InMD says:

      I think you’re right that there are always value judgments being made when setting a curriculum. What I don’t understand is why the students feel they’re entitled to any say in that process. I majored in history for undergrad and I remember there was a particular class on modern Japanese history which I (unfortunately) had to drop for reasons related to my job.

      That particular professor required a far heavier and more diverse array of reading assignments than any other upper level history course I took and would test on what, in my mind, were obscure points of the most peripheral material. To me this was a poor way to teach the subject but it never would have dawned on me to challenge her pedagogy or ask her to cater to my opinions about the content.

      Though the complaints discussed in the article are painted as far left I think there is an even stronger element of narcissistic consumerism at play. If there is a pedagogical reason to alter the content of the specific courses then by all means the professors ought to have the ability to do it. But are changes related to fleeting political trends among a certain subset of the student body really consistent with successfully educating people? I’m just not so sure about that.Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott says:

        Because (and I am being perfectly serious here) If college students don’t have some say in what they’re learning, I don’t think there’s a point to college. Especially not elite colleges like Yale.

        I’m not a current or former Yale student. So I, frankly, have no idea whether the changes suggested by this position would strengthen or weaken the English major. But I would be fool to suggest that the students taking those classes don’t have a better idea about it than I do–and the professors at Yale would be fools to dismiss these kinds of student criticisms out-of-hand. I think these ideas deserve serious engagement–even if the end result of that engagement is a decision that the present model is superior and should be continued.

        We’re having huge debates in our society (and at OT in particular) about the conflict between a model that views Colleges as institutions that serve society by producing educated students and institutions that serve student customers by producing educational experiences. And while that latter view has gotten a lot of flak, I think the seriousness we give in ought to reflect exactly what it is those student are asking for. Anyone who works in a service job know that “The customer is always right” is often bullshit. But anyone who’s been working in those jobs long enough, or who manages service businesses know that sometimes the customer is so right that if you don’t address their concerns, the business is going to fail–and the trick is knowing which is which.

        I’m in the process of becoming an educator, and the idea that what students want shouldn’t affect my teaching is a complete anathema to me. Obviously if a bunch of students give me a petition about how they don’t want to be learning circle angle theorems and instead I should put on cat videos, then I’m justified in telling them to fish off and finish their classwork. If they give me a petition about how they don’t want to be learning circle angle theorems because memorizing a bunch of googleable rules doens’t seem productive and they’d rather be using their class time to understanding how to write mathematical proofs, each one is getting a gold star and I’m re-writing tomorrow’s lesson plan. Students thinking about the learning process and what aspects of learning are valuable to them isn’t something to complain about. It’s a dream that many teachers would kill for.Report

        • Avatar InMD says:

          I appreciate the insight (no sarcasm intended) and i didn’t mean to imply that there shouldn’t be any engagement. That said I think it’s very telling that you used math in your hypothetical as opposed to the liberal arts. As noted in the rest of the thread, math at the level the vast majority of people will ever learn it isn’t subjective and certainly isn’t political. It’s learning processes and equations and how to apply them to different problems.

          The way I read these sorts of demands isn’t ‘we don’t want to read and discuss x dead white poet because we already understand it and want to work harder on what we don’t understand.’ The demand is ‘x dead white poet does not reinforce my political opinions and therefore we should replace the reading with something that does.’Report

          • Avatar Alan Scott says:

            I picked math because it’s my teaching subject.

            And, oh how I wish it wasn’t political. We’re having an intense debate about math education in this country, and it actually centers around the same kinds of questions that are being explored here: What is the canon? When should students be exposed to it and what should our approach to teaching it be?

            Stub out Milton and Chaucer for standard method arithmetic and first graders for college freshmen, and you’ve got the common core math fight.

            That’s probably why my mind went to journalism and communications in my exchange with Plinko and KenB upthread. I favor math education as exposing students to ways of thinking and giving them tools they can use to address problems, as opposed to the memorization of math facts and rote procedures. A class on the major English poets isn’t necessarily going to be just memorizing “English facts”, but it’s easier for a class like that to fall into such a trap.

            I think “Dead white poet does not reinforce my political opinions” is definitely something that deserves to be explored. I think it’s absolutely incumbent that people in college have their opinions challenged and not reinforced by the material they are exposed to. A danger there, though, is that not every student has their opinions challenged by the same material. If all the stuff that challenges minority students is going to be in the freshmen level classes and all the stuff that challenges rich white men waits until junior year, that’s a potential problem. And I think that’s one of the things that the original petition is getting at when it says “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. The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.” and “Students who continue on after taking the introductory sequence are ill-prepared to take higher-level courses relating to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability, or even to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship.”Report

            • Avatar Kim says:

              Betcha you’d love to meet the dude who got to college before learning algebra, and wound up learning to do arithmetic with 2’s complement.Report

            • Avatar InMD says:

              Well I defer to your expertise on the politics of math class (even typing that makes me shudder). It isn’t something I have any kind of experience with or expertise on.

              I agree that college should be challenging and force people to confront new ideas. Maybe I’m wrong but my contention here is that the students at Yale seem to be demanding exactly the opposite. They are demanding perspectives that reinforce ideas they already have about race, gender, and sexuality arising from a very particular political viewpoint. It isn’t included in this instance but a regular refrain from movements of this sort isn’t that they want a challenge, it’s that they want validation.

              Now my view is that all types of ideas should have a place at the university but I can’t help but find the idea that minorities and women are being ‘harmed’ (the students’ term) by starting off with the standard Western canon to be absurd. Even if its true, it is a contention that I think requires a lot of proving before being accepted.

              What if the professors say ‘look, we will get to numerous critiques of the traditional Western perspective but first students need to have a basic foundation of what that perspective is that they usually don’t get here with.’ My suspicion is that the students would not accept that answer, and while I’m rarely one to defer to authority, I bet the professors on the whole tend to know better about how to approach these topics than a bunch of people right out of high school.Report

              • Avatar Alan Scott says:

                Aye, there’s the rub.

                If diversity means “I want voices like mine in addition to the voices dominant in the existing paradigm”, then that’s something I support. If it means “I want voices like mine instead of the voices dominant in the existing paradigm”, then that’s much less defensible.

                But on the flip side, if the only diversity you get is “numerous critiques of the traditional Western perspective”, then you’re ignoring works by authors that never felt a particular need to engage with traditional perspectives at all. I don’t know enough about what that kind of thinking means when it comes to poetry, but i know that when it comes to math it gives you a bunch of kids who do fine as long as they can memorize a formula and then are lost when formulas stop being enough.Report

              • Avatar InMD says:

                I think we’re largely in agreement. I guess I have trouble believing that there aren’t plenty of classes with diverse viewpoints available for students. I was never anywhere close to ivy league material but when I was in college there were diversity credit requirements for graduation. Even students in more technical fields were required to take them.Report

              • Avatar Guy says:

                Why the assumption that the people behind the petition are freshmen? It’s a freshman class, but the petition could very easily be “we took this class and realized it was crap” rather than “this class kind of looks like crap and we’d rather not take it”. In fact, just based on my experience as a college student, it seems way more likely that the petition is from older students, probably juniors, who have gone in some “nonstandard” direction with their English degree and want that supported from a lower level.

                Also – there are a lot of terrible classes offered by all sorts of departments; some of them are even in-major requirements (looking at you, Modern Physics). There are also lots of professors who are just bad at teaching, because it is not their primary job. Sometimes, they wind up with a class that is in some sense “theirs”, and that just becomes a class to avoid. If that class some how winds up on the fixed list of major requirements…Report

              • Avatar InMD says:

                If that’s the case then they should make that argument, not an argument about people suffering some intangible harm that can’t be quantified.Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                But they did make an argument. And regarding “quantifying” harm, well how do you do that, for every possible type of harm?

                Which, I think if you pour through the body of social science, you’ll find many people attempting to quantify harm, but you’ll also find much disarray. Studies fail to replicate. The political biases of researchers are always in question. The point is, it’s really hard. But that cuts both ways. Conservatives are certainly keen on a large body of non-quantifiable positions.

                The point is, we get to question the defaults. Why should “well keep the whitebread cannon that makes my whitebread ass happy” be the standard response? Or something something tradition, blah blah blah.

                The point is, you cannot “quantify” things either. You can ask self-satisfied white professors, whose bias is no less evident than the Jamaican lesbian woman pushing for change. But so what? That white professor sees what he can see, just as the Jamaican lesbian sees what she can see.

                That’s the whole point. It turns out they see different stuff. We can explain why this happens, if you care to listen.

                #####

                I cannot quantify what representation means in my life, except to say, it mattered a lot, in ways I cannot easily summarize. But it is a weight that I feel, every time I turn on the TV and see ignorant people running their mouths about transgender issues, which they learned to think about by watching and reading stuff written by cis people. But more, I watched that stuff. I grew up on it. I learned about trans stuff by ignorant shit that cis people said. This happened because trans folks were largely voiceless.

                This took so much from me I cannot explain. I’m an empiricist, a computer scientist. “Quantifying” things is something I do in my day-to-day, big software solving huge problems with extreme precision. But I cannot quantify this. It doesn’t work that way.

                As I said before, I assume that other minorities experience something similar. They certainly say that it happens, just as I say that it happens.

                How do you “quantify” broad social trends, along with second- and third-order effects? You can look at poverty rates. You can look at medical issues, unemployment, you can look at many things. But will more people reading black authors change that? Can you quantify the effects of a black girl walking in to class and being handed a book by someone like her? What about the white students who read it also?

                Is that worth three units of utility, or seven units of utility?

                Show your work!

                Prove that it will matter, and how much, or prove that it won’t, or perhaps accept that no one gets to set an arbitrary burden of proof.

                Do not ask others to quantify what you cannot quantify. Do not demand rigor that you cannot provide.Report

              • Avatar InMD says:

                I’ve never said there aren’t value judgments made, though I’m guessing most professors would come up with something a bit more convincing than ‘it makes my white ass happy’ if asked to justify the content of their courses.

                Regarding quantifying harm, I don’t believe the professors are the ones saying they’re being harmed. If they were it would make sense to ask if that harm can be quantified but that’s not what’s going on here.

                If someone is truly being harmed in some manner by taking a poetry class there are an abundance of ways to deal with that, starting with finding a different major more suited to them and their interests.Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                But you’re not answering their argument at all. Which fine. You’re not obligated to, but neither are you part of the conversation. Saying, “Poetry class hurt me waaaa!” is a very unfair characterization of what they are saying, at least as bad as “my whitebread ass likes this.” That’s my point. The issue of representation is a big topic, and the “let’s keep the canon just the way it is” crowd also has to justify their position.

                Short version: if talented students are leaving your program because you are behind the times, you might want to catch up. But how would you discover that you are behind the times, if you’re not the sort who looks out of your window? — which, no one is unaware of the debates about representation. Nothing these students are claiming is new. You demand they make an argument, when probably 394832094809350980945909 words have been written on the topic already. The argument is out there. Everyone close to the topic already knows the stakes.

                Some of it I’ve presented here. I linked to at least one article on the topic. There are many.

                Blah blah blah. The “harm” is that the school can do better. The “harm” is this: saying, “take it or leave it” means that plenty may “leave it,” which means different schools with better programs and smarter students who produce more. It’s a lost opportunity to maintain excellence.

                Cuz demographic changes are coming and the fuddy-duddy old-white-men won’t hold power forever, not in the same degree they do now, and in the academy it looks like changes are coming faster, AND GOOD!

                Diversity is not just about reading that one novel written by a black dude. It is also about the distribution of social influence, and indeed social power. It’s a big topic with subtle contours. It’s about the kind of people you attract.

                The canon is always political, even if it didn’t feel political. Cuz it damn well felt political to someone else.

                And that is the new unifying principle.Report

              • Avatar InMD says:

                If people are really going to give up the value of a degree from Yale over something like this then I’d say they’ve lost perspective but that’s of course their right. My answer to their argument is if you want to study, say, black literature, then take a black literature course. Maybe even major in African American Studies. If this was 30 or 40 years ago and that wasn’t an option I would see your point but we now live in a world where programs focused on women and various minority groups are widely available. Overall I think that’s a good thing.

                What I don’t think is a good thing is demanding that a traditional program be repurposed, not for pedagogical reasons, but to validate currently prevailing political views on campus. Like I said to Alan above, I don’t think they’re asking to be challenged or to expand the canon. If that were the case then I would be agreeing with them. What they’re asking is for someone to tell them that everything they already know is true and that all information is presented through the lense of intersectionality, regardless of relevance. I mean, are we really at a point where we expect a class about literature written in a European language by Europeans in Europe to focus on non-European perspectives? I’m not saying there should never be a class on that subject but that’s a different course than the one being discussed.Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                What I don’t think is a good thing is demanding that a traditional program be repurposed, not for pedagogical reasons, but to validate currently prevailing political views on campus. Like I said to Alan above, I don’t think they’re asking to be challenged or to expand the canon. If that were the case then I would be agreeing with them. What they’re asking is for someone to tell them that everything they already know is true and that all information is presented through the lense of intersectionality, regardless of relevance. I mean, are we really at a point where we expect a class about literature written in a European language by Europeans in Europe to focus on non-European perspectives? I’m not saying there should never be a class on that subject but that’s a different course than the one being discussed.

                This is your error. Your assume the current situation is politically neutral, when it is not. Furthermore, dead white poets are not the only people producing English-language literature, nor is an English degree strictly about that anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time. The question is, of course, should we define this program around “European language by Europeans in Europe”? But why?

                “It just is,” isn’t actually an answer.

                Let us actually read (again) the petition:

                We, undergraduate students in the Yale English Department, write to urge the faculty to reevaluate the undergraduate curriculum. We ask the department to reconsider the current core requirements and the introductory courses for the major.

                In particular, we oppose the continued existence of the Major English Poets sequence as the primary prerequisite for further study [emphasis mine]. It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors. 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. The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.

                When students are made to feel so alienated that they get up and leave the room, or get up and leave the major, something is wrong. The English department loses out when talented students engaged in literary and cultural analysis are driven away from the major. Students who continue on after taking the introductory sequence are ill-prepared to take higher-level courses relating to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability, or even to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship. We ask that Major English Poets be abolished, and that the pre-1800/1900 requirements be refocused to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.

                It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings. 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.

                It is our understanding that the faculty must vote in order to reconsider the major’s requirements — considering the concerns expressed here and elsewhere by undergraduate students, we believe it would be unethical for any member of the faculty, no matter their stance on these issues, to vote against beginning the reevaluation process. It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices. We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.

                They’re asking for a re-evaluation, not of the content of the course, but the requirement that this specific course form the foundational requirement. They are not suggesting non-English language literature be taught, but instead that it not focus exclusively on this cross-section of canon. These are reasonable requests. They speak specifically of women, LGBTQ, and minority writers. Again, women, LGBTQ people, and people of color have been part of the English language tradition from at least the eighteenth century (and of course before). This is not turning from the English language tradition. It is turning away from a very artificial version of canon, one created by-and-for white men.

                The student body has long ago stopped being primarily white men, nor should their perspectives be automatically, uncritically centered. These things have changed. Schools should keep up.

                That said, it is unlikely the students will get all they ask for, but that is not the same as saying the status quo is ideal. Certainly the faculty will take up this proposal. Some will favor it, some will oppose is, and we’ll see another proxy-skirmish in the culture war — but don’t act like you’re not a participant in this, nor that the professors are above politics or dumb ideology. Some professors might claim that they merely represent “pedagogy” in an uncomplicated, non-political way. But that is never actually true. There is always received politics. At best it might be unexamined, but part of critical, challenging thoughts is to examine these things.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                Goober. Taboo. Redskin. How european is English, again?

                i can do grammar too, if you’re not convinced.Report

              • Avatar Guy says:

                It’s possible they feared reprisals from the professor, especially if that professor is influential in the department (which, again, is not likely to reflect his/her teaching skill), or if they teach a different required class. Alternately, well, this style of argument seems to work on English departments in a way that “you are bad at teaching” tends to slide off.Report

            • Avatar veronica d says:

              Set theory is of the devil!Report