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Whose Canon? Yale English Majors Reflect on the “Western Canon”

CW: This piece contains mentions of derogatory racialized imagery.

Third among the harpooneers was Daggoo, a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage, with a lion-like tread … a white man standing before him seemed a white flag come to beg truce of a fortress.*

There are many Yale undergraduates seeking an English degree who, at some point, will find themselves reading the above passage. For students enrolled in English 127: Readings in American Literature, one of the foundational courses for the English major, reading Moby-Dick is a requirement.

There are also many for whom this emphasis on the canon—the promise of becoming familiar with and mastering it—is the main draw toward the English department. Yet, there are also students who find themselves increasingly critical of the idea of the Western canon. While race often comes up in syllabi, there is no standard by which English instructors are required to discuss it.

For many English classes, when the focus remains on analyzing formal, literary choices, the intensely racialized nature of these texts becomes the elephant in the room. Taylor Adams ’22, a prospective English major, spoke on her experiences in the major as a student of color. 

“Especially in Moby-Dick…things come up that deal with race, gender, and sexuality,” Adams told The Politic. “Not to discredit the merit of the text, but, as a person of color, these are things essential to me, and I enjoy when it’s directly acknowledged in class.”

Adams’ concern, as well as the growing critical response to the Western canon itself, points to a broader issue in Yale’s English department: the question of whose literature is being studied, whose ideas are being reproduced. In 2016, a group of Yale students petitioned the English department to “decolonize” and reevaluate the major’s requirements, stating that the focus on white, male writers “actively harms all students…creat[ing] a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.” The petition specifically targeted the “Major English Poets” sequence, then an enduring requirement for the major that saw students read pre- and post-17th century poets ranging from Geoffrey Chaucer to Louise Glück. 

The petition garnered considerable media attention from both left- and right-leaning commentators, which began framing the petition as Yale students’ fight to “abolish Shakespeare.” In The Washington Examiner, Tom Rogan lamented on how much of a “tragedy” it was that Yale students were no longer required to study the Bard, whose works he deemed “the root of modern English studies.” Slate columnist and Yale alum Katy Waldman called for an end to the coddling young scholars, writing, “If you want to become well-versed in English literature, you’re going to have to hold your nose and read a lot of white male poets. Like, a lot.” For the media, the petition set the stage for a debate on the irreconcilability of identity politics with academia, or on the over-sensitivity of Gen Z-ers, surprising at an institution as rooted in tradition as Yale. 

Mark Oppenheimer, director of the Yale Journalism Initiative, commented on the media attention the petition received. “We’re in a moment of cultural skirmish where students object to the assumptions that have held sway for a generation,” Oppenheimer remarked, “but my real concern is that undergraduates think that anyone from the 1600s, 1700s, or 1800s has nothing to teach them. Not taking advantage of great literature from the past is a loss.”

***

The negro that drives the long dray of the stone-yard, steady and tall he stands pois’d on one leg on the string-piece…. I behold the picturesque giant and love him…

–Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Speaking to The Politic, Michael Warner, the current English Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS), remarked on changes to the department since the 2016 petition. He noted that the students did not bring the petition to the department initially—rather, they first sent it to media outlets—though the department has since made considerable changes in curricula reflecting student concerns. Most notably, “Major English Poets” is no longer a requirement. The two courses of the sequence are now part of the major’s foundational course requisite, which requires English majors to select three of five survey-level literature courses, including courses such as Readings in Comparative World English Literatures. Additionally, the major has now expanded to include a historical distribution requirement, seeing students take classes focusing on periods ranging from the Renaissance to the 21st century.

Warner emphasized the department’s decision to prioritize a more globalized, comprehensive approach to English literature, noting the major’s stable enrollment (compared to the steady decline in English majors across the nation).

Professor Warner defended the practice of reading and drawing dialogue from a shared canon. “We don’t read the writers of the past to decide if we fully approve of them, if we find moral or political failings,” Warner said. “We read as to understand where we came from; through writing, we see our own norms, history, and formation.”

Associate DUS Sunny Xiang, who holds an affiliate professorship in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, added that the conception of a Western canon is constantly in flux, and that contextualizing the canon—putting it in conversation with history and other texts—was more important than including (or excluding) certain authors from it.

“Part of the issue is deciding what you define as a canon,” she told The Politic. “Toni Morrison, for instance, might not be considered as part of the ‘Western canon,’ but she is a totally canonical figure. But who is in that canon is a different conversation than how you read that canon.” 

While students echoed Xiang’s aim of using the canon to create a shared dialogue, many are still discomforted by the elevation and appraisal of the Western canon. Speaking to The Politic, Janis Jin ’20 recounted her experiences in the Major English Poets sequence. Jin, a double major in English and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, had enrolled in the major at the time of the curriculum change, but had still decided to finish the sequence. 

“I actually do think it’s necessary and important to study your field’s canon,” Jin said. “But ENGL 125/126 was such a narrow set of British poets…and that particular canon seems a little archaic to me, at least for the set of questions I’m interested in. The writers I studied in ENGL 125/126—Chaucer, Donne, Shakespeare, Spenser—were fun to read, and those classes gave me a lot of formal training in literary methods. But that training is not specific to any one canon, and I could have learned it studying other texts.”

Speaking to faculty and students, it became clear that the media frenzy over the 2016 petition was also driven by a broader, cultural and political dialogue on what many feared was a growing irrelevance of “canonical texts.” In an article for The Federalist, Joy Pullmann lamented the idea that Yale students were becoming less receptive to traditionally canonized writers, such as Shakespeare and Donne.

“Students are so racist that they will not listen to the ideas of someone who had the misfortune to be born with a currently non-politically favored [white] skin color,” Pullmann wrote. “It’s prima facie preposterous to assert that someone can be considered well-educated if he has actively shunned reading Shakespeare.”

***

We have to consider the unavoidable presence of a large body of aliens, of a race widely dissimilar and in many respects inferior, whose present status is to us a social injury.

–Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem”

“Canons are bullshit,” said Sohum Pal ’20. “It implies that, if you are an educated person, or someone who is ‘well-versed’ in English letters, then you should have read these authors, which is deeply troublesome to me because it’s so paternalistic.”

In 2016, Pal wrote an article for DOWN Magazine, “Abolish Directed Studies,” that criticized Yale’s Directed Studies (DS) program—which specifically has first-year students study works traditionally included in the Western canon—for “committing violent acts of intellectual privileging against marginalized groups at Yale.” Pal’s main assertion was not that “white, male writers” should be kept off syllabi, but that equating the canon to a set of “Great Books,” as DS and other Yale programs often did, was a fallacy colored by white supremacy. 

“Greatness is not, as the canon may suppose, a fixed or universal concept,” Pal wrote. “It is a determination of arbitrary standards of taste…. there is no legitimate hierarchy relating produced knowledge.” Pal said that the article generated significant controversy among DS students. One DS faculty member even emailed Pal about the piece, attempting to schedule a “conversation.”

Pal wasn’t optimistic about the 2016 English curriculum changes. “Yale’s English department hasn’t changed in an appreciable way,” Pal told The Politic. He chiefly criticized the department for including only one course on Anglophone literature, stating that it’s “not representative of the whole world.”

“Yale basically has this influential English department that continues to perpetuate white supremacy in having these works that are dubbed ‘canonical’,” Pal said. “Instead of approaching the canon from this idea of shared cultural lineage, it might be more interesting to think about divergence from this ‘shared’ baggage.”

Students have followed Pal’s call for thinking more critically about canonization. “The English department could benefit from interdisciplinary scholars,” Jin said. She pointed to Professor Xiang as an example, whose teaching intersects with literary, cultural, and ethnic studies. Jin also pushed for doing more beyond petitioning for more diverse syllabi. “I think it’s kind of boring to slot Audre Lorde onto a syllabus without teaching the work of other scholars in Black studies, queer studies, and other fields,” she told The Politic.

Jin also pushed back on the idea that criticizing the canon was a path to abolishing major works from teaching. “No one’s saying, ‘Let’s not read Shakespeare,’” she said. “There’s a difference between being ‘sensitive’ and being critical…and isn’t critical thinking essential to a liberal arts education?”

***

The Malay – took the Pearl –

Not – I – the Earl –

I – feared the Sea – too

much

–Emily Dickinson

Some students think pushing for change only within the English department is insufficient. Daniel Yadin ’21, an English and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration double major, spoke to The Politic about the limitations of the major. He said that his experience in ER&M has led him to question how issues of “race and empire” are framed in literature courses.

“With English 128 [Readings in Comparative World English Literatures], people have got this message that they should be talking about race, but no one really has the vocabulary to talk about it,” Yadin said. “They think it’s easy to talk about all this stuff, but it’s not… people spend their lives studying it. I don’t wish all of English were doing ethnic studies.”

Even with attention focused on English syllabi, there is still a visible lack of diversity regarding students in the major. Yadin stated that the major was “overwhelmingly white…in terms of both faculty and students.” Jin added that, since many classes center students who have had previous seminar experience, and since many readings require students to allocate time outside of classes, the major can be tasking for those with demanding student jobs or financial needs, implicitly requiring a certain degree of privilege.

“The culture can be really alienating,” Jin said.

Adams recounted an uncomfortable moment at a poetry reading with students and faculty in the English department. “I walked into the room, with all the instructors sitting in the front row, and I didn’t see many people of color. It was the first time I had this realization of being part of a small minority of people in the English department,” Adams said.

In spite of this climate, students like Yadin still find agency in charting their own paths in education.

“In an English class, a professor who’s being told to have students leave the class with analytic techniques like close reading is not going to necessarily engage with thematic questions, but nothing’s keeping anyone from doing that themselves,” Yadin said. “The English department is not the one guiding my education. They’re offering things, and I can take what I want, but that doesn’t determine my overall education.”

*All quotes are taken from authors on English 127: Readings in American Literature syllabi.