Moving beyond the Western literary canon: Students call for more diverse authors in syllabi

By ALYSSA WOODEN | October 12, 2017


COURTESY OF DAVID SAVELIEV Many students believe that their course readings lack diverse perspectives.

Traditionally, courses in the Writing Seminars and English departments are designed to familiarize students with the Western literary canon.

While some consider these works to be fundamental, others criticize the canon for featuring predominantly white male authors and neglecting to represent writers from different backgrounds.

Recently, these departments have placed a greater emphasis on diversity in course syllabi by creating classes that focus on texts by authors from underrepresented groups.

This semester, for example, the English department offers a new course called “Feminist Fiction: Violence, Race and Gender” to address growing conversations about feminism and the role of women in society.

Many students are happy with the class and praise it for featuring prominent female writers but believe that the University must do more to address diversity in course syllabi.

Rachel Long, a junior who is minoring in English, said that although the English faculty discuss issues such as diversity and intersectionality in their classes, they do not do enough to include underrepresented writers in  their syllabi. She added that diversity is an important part of a college education.

“The point of being in college is to learn and grow and be presented with experiences and perspectives that you’ve never heard before,” she said. “If we’re just reading primarily white authors then you’re not getting that perspective.”

Mary Favret, professor in the English department and instructor of “Feminist Fiction,” said that it is difficult to incorporate diverse authors in a subject historically dominated by white men. She encouraged students to engage in conversations with faculty about how to best include more diverse writers.

“This is great that students are feeling that they want more diversity on the syllabus, and I think they should come talk to faculty about that,” she said. “It’s a two-way street.”

Writing Seminars Professor Andrew Motion, however, said that the department has a responsibility to increase diversity.

“Good teaching in my view consists partly in recognizing what students are especially curious to know about,” he said. “But it also consists in introducing them to things that they don’t know of.”

Junior English major Sarah Linton expressed frustration with her Introduction to Literary Study class, which almost entirely featured texts from white men.

“It’s a very narrow way of thinking about the broad field of literature. We’re limiting ourselves as scholars,” she said. “There are definitely older texts - like texts that are part of the canon - that are by diverse authors that we just aren’t reading.”

Other professors agree that syllabus diversity is an important issue. Mary Jo Salter, chair of the Writing Seminars department, said that the faculty frequently discuss syllabus diversity.

“It’s really been one of our major concerns at least in the last [few] years,” she said. “I would say that 10 years ago it was not a priority.”

Motion agreed that increasing syllabus diversity is a priority in the department.

He said that the University could hire diverse faculty, bring diverse speakers to campus through the Writing Seminars Reading Series and offer classes on diverse writers.

This semester Motion is teaching a course called “Readings in Poetry: International Voices,” which features works by writers of color.

Salter said that rather than adding to or adapting currently existing syllabi, the department should focus on hiring more diverse professors.

Sophomore Writing Seminars major Kaylee Zou, who is Asian American, agreed that the best way for the University to address diversity is to hire professors who are minorities.

“So far, all of my professors have been white,” she said. “There are students in my class who are writing poems that are touching on race, and... I feel like in those discussions it’s almost like my white professors can’t provide the level of depth that perhaps someone who was of a minority background could.”

Zou believes that the University should also work to include more diverse writers in syllabi for existing classes, particularly “Introduction to Fiction and Poetry.”

“Those are intro classes that anybody can essentially take, and you’re supposed to expose [students] to such a wide range of writing,” she said.

Both faculty and students also discussed the difficulties involved in trying to diversify syllabi. Matthias Gompers, an English and Writing Seminars double major, said that there is simply a lack of relevant material from writers from minority groups.

“If you’re teaching a class on British literature pre-1865, there really isn’t a lot of diversity,” he said. “That’s just a product of the time period you’re working with.”

Gompers also suggested adding a required course that focuses specifically on diverse literature.

“Specifically African American lit, or literature of South America, some kind of requirement,” he said. “All of those... fields have incredible writers and fantastic literature.”

English and history major Adam Krieger said that while diversity is important, he is unsure whether the University needs to take such a proactive approach to diversify syllabi.

“I think there should always be an effort to hire diverse faculty, but I don’t know if they should force anything,” he said.

Lawrence Jackson, a professor in the English and history departments, also explained that the English department has a small faculty with narrow interests, resulting in a small overall course offering.

He also noted that the African American literature course he is teaching this semester is not a full class.

“[Students] don’t seem to be demanding classes that are not about traditional topics,” he said.

Krieger noted that this lack of demand may stem from the difficulty to fit non-traditional classes in students’ schedules given the requirements in the department.

Motion, however, believes students are interested in studying works by diverse writers, shown by the students in his International Voices course.

“There absolutely is deep and proper curiosity about this,” he said. “I feel very heartened by that and... their enthusiasm for this course is very encouraging to me.”

Sophomore Emily Velandia, who is Hispanic, said that she would like to see herself represented in the works she reads.

“I don’t think I’ve ever once in academia read something written by a Hispanic woman,” she said.

Velandia explained why it is important for Hopkins students in particular to be exposed to different perspectives.

“The fact that we even made it to college and get to attend such a renowned institution means that we already are sort of disconnected from the realities of the world,” she said.

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