Yale Students are Sick of Reading Old White Authors

To anyone who has been following the news this past year, It should come as no surprise that Yale students are protesting the lack of diverse authors assigned in classes. The undergrad community at Yale has not been one to shrug off discrimination or subdue their controversial questions. Looking at the ripple of protests coming from the university this year alone, it appears they have more questions than you could fit on their perfect SAT tests. Incidents concerning a Halloween gone wrong and lingering slave symbols should ring a bell. What the two controversies boil down to — and where the school’s current social dilemma resides – is a debate between free speech and safe speech, and the weight of expression against potentially discriminative slams. But overarchingly, all this messy arguing and picket sign protesting is really about diversity and inclusion, two things many students feel the school desperately needs. How does pinning problems against one another promotes inclusion? – you got me – but Yale is vocalizing a diversity message again, this time concerning a poetry course.


Protest posters from earlier this year (Image courtesy of The Nation)


The class in dispute is an English course about “major English Poets.” The course is a program requirement that focuses on authors like William Shakespeare, John Donner, William Wordsworth, and TS Eliot. According to the course summary, the class “take(s) up questions and problems that resonate throughout the whole of English literature: the status of vernacular language, the moral promise and perils of fiction, the relationships between men and women, the nature of heroism, the riches of tradition and the yearning to make something new.” But some students are cocking their heads and furrowing their brows at this – how can these topics reach a knowledgeable depth without including the non-vernacular speech, women, the anti-hero, and the untraditional?

To look at everything the course sets out to study, which is essentially the English normative in poetics, a historically honest counterpart is required. A context for the full scope of English writing the – hairiness of literature that escapes the prim and proper realm of white male writers – is needed. Beyond a denial of a messy history, the narrow study of “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of colour, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity,” not to mention creating a “culture that is especially hostile to students of colour,” according to a petition asking the university to “decolonise” the course.


Students protesting at Yale earlier this year (Image courtesy of 971 Talk)


Rather than having the core of their English studies hinge on these major old white guys, the student-backed petition seeks to shift gears and focus on gender, race, sexuality, and ethnic literatures instead. Student Adriana Miel, a reporter for the Yale News, urges change for the department she feels “openly rejects the very legitimate scholarship, criticism and analysis that many other academic departments at Yale embrace.” Miel has also critiqued the fact that these authors – the Shakespeare’s and Chaucer’s – are taught and assumed as a reference point to critique other authors. There is no explanation of what makes them “major” forces in the canon, what their effects are, how their works and canonical embrace impacts marginalised writers, and who sits in the margins. English students rarely read minority writers, and many will never even read a female author. “This department actively contributes to the erasure of history,” Miele told the paper.

The cause has gotten a lot of hype from students and faculty alike. But others, like Yale alum Katy Waldman, who now writes for Slate magazine, are kind of fed up with the PC BS.

“The canon is what it is, and anyone who wishes to understand how it continues to flow forward needs to learn to swim around in it… I am not arguing that it is acceptable for an English major to graduate from college having only read white male authors or even 70% white male authors. But you cannot profess to be a student of English literature if you have not lingered in the slipstreams of certain foundational figures, who also happen to be (alas) both white and male.” – Katy Waldman

Much like prior disputes at the school, the course debate is a matter of expression versus sensitivity, or in this case a more specific tug of war between status quo and progressive tweaks.

On the one hand, it’s not historically inaccurate to focus on white male authors. After all, ‘English’ to some degree reigns in the ethnic diversity available. Males did indeed dominate the writing word in the eras preceding ours, and theirs were marked by an ethos very different from the modern liberal values esteemed today. Contrary to what Miele thinks, it could be seen – much like Waldman may see it – as a historical slander to shift the focus of a course on “major English poets” to the fringes where female and ethnic minorities wrote with less notoriety. To deny the writers that currently dominate the course their historical due may be just as much an “erasure of history” as refusing to acknowledge the margins. 

However, that’s not to say that women and minorities should be disregarded in English studies. They need to be studied and they need to be studied more. But, perhaps there’s room for both: old white dudes and everyone else, and an acknowledgement of the literary hierarchy of the past and appreciation for the greater diversity of the present. Rather than steering clear of a white-male dominated literary history that is still sensitive terrain for the school’s current minorities, maybe the literature can be looked at broadly without the university reinforcing old hierarchy with course titles like “major”.  Maybe it’s a matter of dismissing the hierarchy without dismissing the writers that marked eras past. New course title: ‘Old English White Dudes?’ If students are calling it like it is, maybe it’s time that Yale does the same.  


Featured imae courtesy of Yale.