Including Marginalized Authors in English Classes Expands Canon

Kiley Petersen, Managing Editor

A recent discussion in my Women and Politics course got me thinking about the intricacies of accessibility and oppression in academia. When asked about potential concerns for the course, a student commented on the whiteness of our class. Someone else suggested that our demographics might be the result of a conflicting African American Studies class, African American Women’s History, which also meets on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. This might cause some students to prioritize an aspect of their education or identity — race, gender or class, for example — when choosing between two courses they might be interested in.

While not an intentional transgression on the professors’ parts — class time slots are chosen by individual professors to fit their schedules — departmental or institutional oversight in what classes overlap and how that might affect schedules is severely lacking. For a campus as radically left-leaning as Oberlin, individual classes or professors may be progressive and inclusive of students’ needs, but the department or institution in which those centers of learning are situated is generally much more conservative, hierarchical or conventional. I’m sure there was a student who was interested in both Women and Politics and African American Women’s History — or better yet, Black women’s involvement in politics — yet was forced to choose a class because of major constraints or other graduation requirements, such as fulfilling a Cultural Diversity requirement.

I understand that we have a CD requirement because not every class explicitly offers diverse course content, nor is it possible for some classes — especially STEM-based courses — to incorporate those requirements in empirical learning environments. But many classes, especially in the humanities and social sciences, can embrace more varied content. This is part of a larger discussion about the need for our Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies and East Asian Studies departments, among others — which I still think are necessary for specialized study. Yet the CD requirement often results in students taking language, anthropology, literature or history courses for a few semesters, while the rest of their learning still centers around traditional Westernized, whitewashed subjects. Diversity should be built into the institution itself, not exist merely as a three-credit requirement.

Take the English department, for example. I’m an intended major, so I sincerely hope my critiques of the department identify flaws in a larger system of organization and pedagogy, not individual professors or their areas of study. Despite students consistently bringing up issues of privilege, oppression and identity, course syllabi — especially in intro-level courses — still feature canonical white European or American male authors.

In the study of literature, it is necessary to examine those authors and their historical context, but not to focus on them. Obviously the English department is centered around English literature — Comparative Literature is a whole different ballgame that I highly recommend pursuing. But by limiting the discourse in these intro-level classes to the traditional Eurocentric literature and theories, students are missing a huge wealth of literature written by women, people of color, LGBTQ folks and other marginalized identities, which can provide context for the discussion of a literary movement or ideology. These neglected authors have expanded the range and scope of literary theory by applying it to previously ignored identities and areas of the world.

Europe’s literature had the vast impact it did because of the power of colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy. But those traditions and ideologies, such as Romanticism or Modernism, have been taken from their origin point and expanded into world literature that has either been written in or translated into English. I think examining these concepts in introductory literature courses would be less alienating for potential majors that are turned off by the same European authors they read in high school.

I’m not saying that the wonderful CD courses I have taken have not been rewarding or that we should remove all specialized courses from the department in favor of every course receiving CD standing. But I urge the department to incorporate more theory and literature from marginalized communities into introductory courses especially.

The texts are out there, and the students are asking for them. It’s up to the English department, as well as every department at Oberlin, to push the boundaries of their classrooms by making cultural diversity a standard of both content and discussion.