To Be or Not To Be(loved)
Although minority and female authors have found a place on many English departments’ reading lists, the debate over the benefits of a diverse curriculum still linger.
By Sophia N. Kellman
In the past few decades, English literature departments have added more women and minority writers to their course listings. Thanks to literary scholars who argued successfully for their inclusion, diverse writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker find themselves on the syllabi at a variety of colleges and universities.
Yet, for some, the need for a diverse English curriculum is still up for debate. A recent report by the National Association of Scholars, a group that is considered conservative, argues that the expanded focus has resulted in a fragmented curriculum soliciting cause for alarm. For the NAS, by including more female and minority writers in their courses, “English departments have abandoned their true purpose.”
For many in the English profession the issue is a familiar one.
“Debates over what should be taught or read go back to the 18th century,” says Dr. Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the Modern Language Association. “Generation after generation has argued whether one should read the ancient or the modern, and those debates continue to go on in our time.”
“These kinds of things are going to be out there,” says Dr. Dellita Martin-Ogunsola, president of the College Language Association. In fact, such sentiment led to the founding of the organization in 1937 by a group of Black scholars and educators.
The NAS report released in May 2000, “Losing the Big Picture: The Fragmentation of the English Major Since 1964,” based its findings on the curriculum at the top 25 liberal arts colleges. The schools were chosen based on a 1989 U.S. News and World Report ranking.
Among the report’s specific findings: a reduction in required courses and course clusters; an increase in electives; increasing focus on identity politics and “academic exotica” and “preoccupation with postmodern theory and race, gender, and class scholarship”; de-emphasis of classic British and Irish authors such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Wordsworth and others.
Franklin counters the idea that traditional authors are no longer prominent. “MLA studies of curriculum development strongly indicate that English department curriculum reflects a combination of traditional and contemporary works,” says Franklin. “Our studies show that the curriculum remains pretty stable — traditional authors continue to be taught.”
“There is nothing new about that argument — ‘we are losing ground; we are not the center anymore,'” says Dr. Shirley Logan, Chair of the Conference on Composition and Communication and English professor at the University of Maryland College Park. “But if you look at the students that teachers are facing in the classroom, we have to be aware of the need to represent other perspectives.”
Responding to a Need
Based on NAS methodology the three most cited living authors are Morrison, Walker and the Chinese American novelist Maxine Hong Kingston. Morrison’s 70 citations in the study put her ahead of every American writer in the top 25 in 1964 and most British ones.
Still, the NAS suggests that writers such as Morrison are chosen because they represent the “correct sex or hue.” And that these authors are likely to soon fade in appeal.
For Dr. Nathaniel Strout, associate professor and chair of the English department at Hamilton College, one of the schools included in the study, the selection of authors is a much more complex process.
“The intellectual contribution of a text drives the book selection process, and each individual professor selects books based on the value of a book to the aims of a course,” Strout says.
“They rationally consider whether it is intellectually responsible to include women authors. It is not plausible that faculty choose authors on political grounds only. Even specialty courses are hinged on a background.” He adds, “Morrison’s literature is responding to a need.”
Dr. Michele Barale, chair of the English department at Amherst College, has a similar take on the process of book selection. In selecting texts for a given course, English professors “take seriously the demand that they offer intellectually stimulating and even in a way intellectually ambiguous texts,” she says.
While the NAS contends that some books are just trendy, faculty members such as Dr. Jacquelyn McLendon, associate chair of the English department at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, another school included in the study, does not agree. She says that keeping abreast of the trends and changes will only make faculty better teachers. McLendon maintains that experimenting with different texts is not intended to be trendy, but is part of a process which benefits faculty, their departments and the students. In her opinion, including certain writers and cultures is part of the learning process “and is healthy.”
Dr. Kathryn Lynch, chair of the English department at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, was also reluctant to call certain works or authors trendy.
“I think Toni Morrison could last but it’s hard to be sure,” Lynch says. “While in graduate school, Thomas Pynchon was a hot writer; John Fowles was taught in contemporary literature. I can see people falling in and out, but of the modern writers, Toni Morrison is most likely to stay.”
Dr. Marilyn Mobley McKenzie, professor of English and African American studies at George Mason University in Virginia and president of the Toni Morrison Society, says she does not view English departments as trying to be trendy.
“I wouldn’t want to be in an English department that privileged popular culture only and nothing else,” says McKenzie. “But I do think it’s very important to have some combination of what has at one point been called the canon and newer texts that are being produced and giving students the opportunity to read both because it makes them cultural readers. It makes them better readers of their own moment. Surely we need somebody who can stand back and analyze the moment that we’re in.”
From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf
Dr. Christina Zwarg, chair of the English department at Haverford College, however, admits that English departments are struggling with offering students a balance in modern versus classic literature. “We try to expose the canon to the students, but we also want students to re-imagine how to situate some of the so-called foundational authors. It’s very hard. It’s not easy to do. Something has to be given up to open up.”
It is this idea that “something has to be given up” that concerns the NAS. Although Gary Crosby Brasor, NAS associate director, maintains that the report is “just an encouragement for people to revisit the mission of English departments,” his concern is that English departments “seem to be going in several directions at once.” “They don’t seem to be giving students a solid background, or they are not requiring it of them, even if it is provided,” he says.
Dr. Anne Lake Prescott, acting chair of the English Department at Barnard College, agrees that students need to read classics in English “because (talking about literature) is comparable to listening in on the telephone; unless you know what the conversation is about, you won’t get it.” However, Prescott adds that the English major must have balanced nutrition, rather than relying on “a steady diet of Chaucer and Shakespeare.” And the English department should “expose (students) to a sizable percentage of what has been written from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf and beyond,” she says.
McKenzie agrees that English majors should read Shakespeare, but not Shakespeare alone.
“If you want the title of English major, you need to know who Shakespeare is. You need to read him, you need to know what people have said and thought about him, you need to know why he was valued, even if, after you have read him, you personally don’t value him,” she says. “But the idea that if you talk about literature, you have to talk about Shakespeare or you haven’t really talked about literature — I got cured of that at Barnard.”
McKenzie says as a student at Barnard College she read the canonical American and British authors, but it was reading literature written by authors of color such as Zora Neale Hurston that opened up a whole new world for her.
“Suddenly I wanted to know, what other Black women writers are out there? What other Black writers are there, period?”
Dr. Peter Schmidt, professor of English at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, questions the NAS’ notion of a predetermined “great body of classics.”
“The canon as a list of writers that everyone should read has changed very much over the years. Shakespeare is still very central but American, British and Caribbean authors have changed. …We cannot just keep the old canon and add on new writers because new writers change how we view older writers. This invigorates both and causes the canon to be constantly growing and changing,” Schmidt says.
“The great and traditional (writers) are not fixed or agreed upon. It’s similar to arguments over history — there is usually not a consensus on how to think of ‘great’ moments in history.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com