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English students are missing a vital piece of the curriculum

Student suggests new requirement for non-white and non-Western literature and narratives

As Kenyon’s first Comparative World Literature Week comes to an end, I would like to ask: What does it mean to be an English major at Kenyon?

At its best, studying English can allow one to critically engage with the global world. The most thoughtful English majors use the written word to access social, physical and emotional realities that they otherwise would never see. They ask uncomfortable questions, use analytical tools to navigate the nuances of this complicated endeavor and listen before they assume. They consider their own limitations; they ask, “How can I undertake other cultures’ texts in ways that are honest, kind and fearless?” This is particularly important when it comes to the study of non-hegemonic texts, meaning texts about non-white and non-Western perspectives. It is my concern that the current structure of Kenyon’s English major does not require students to read this body of literature. I would like to remind all English majors that, at this point, it is our responsibility to choose our classes with the belief that we all miss out on a vital part of our education when we only read white, Western texts.

I am a junior sociology major. For my first three years at Kenyon, I assumed that I would eventually declare an English double major. Several weeks ago, I decided that I would only declare an English minor, because I felt limited and constrained by the major’s requirements. The requirements are as follows: one intro course, one course that covers “approaches to literary study,” two classes about pre-1700 literature, two classes about literature between 1700-1900, two classes about post-1900 literature, two electives (any English or literature-related courses) and a senior seminar. I spent the majority of my time as an intended English major scrambling to take classes in each historical period, leaving little time to think about the implications of my coursework.

There is no “cultural competency” requirement for the major. If a student does not approach the major with a preconceived, and quite determined, interest in non-white, non-Western literature, then they can easily avoid these subjects altogether. White American students majoring in English can graduate from Kenyon without ever having to think about racial or colonial power structures and the ways in which they implicate all of us.

According to professors to whom I have spoken, the major requires students to take four pre-1900 courses because, otherwise, students typically select solely post-1900 courses on American literature. The English department runs on the assumption that pre-1900 literature is worth reading and I agree. Due to the destructive nature of colonialism, however, it is difficult to retrieve non-white, non-Western voices from this time period. There is a hefty body of scholarship that attempts to do this work but, to my knowledge, it is a specialized field of study that poses its own set of intensive limitations.

I don’t propose an end to pre-1900 requirements — merely a rollback. I imagine an English major that requires only one class in each time period rather than two, leaving room for diversity requirements. Deciding what form these requirements would take would involve a long-term, thoughtful planning process.

I want to be clear: My perspective is not unique. The English department is grappling with this issue. Since I arrived at Kenyon, I have talked about this with professors across the department who support reform in some way or another. There are professors who specialize in post-colonial, African-American, South Asian, Latin@, mixed race, Native American and Arab Anglophone literature — though, I will add here, there is oftentimes only one professor who focuses in each of these topics. This creates a situation in which their departures for sabbatical or retirement result in a loss of opportunity for engagement. I trust that there are professors who share my concerns about these issues.

I deeply wish I had been more thoughtful each time registration rolled around. I wish I had chosen classes that explored literature written outside of Great Britain and America. I did not think ahead, and now I find myself — three years into what I thought was an English major — taking my first class on post-colonial literature, Arrivals and Departures taught by Professor Kathleen Fernando. I am constantly struck by the limits of my knowledge. Up to this point, I have not taken up the responsibility of getting to know the non-Western world through literature; all I can do is attempt to do so moving forward.

While I hope the English department will consider cultural competency as vital to the major’s future, I equally hope to impress this message upon my peers: Please be intentional when choosing your courses. Courses about African-American or world literature have sometimes had the lowest enrollments in the department, according to Chair of the Department of English Sara Heidt. As people who may one day make real change in society, it is our responsibility to engage with non-white, non-Western literatures and cultures.

Emily Birnbaum ’18 is a sociology major from Bethesda, Maryland. She is also a news editor for the Collegian. Contact her at birnbaume@kenyon.edu.

Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum is News Editor of the Collegian.