22 Jun 2016

Upending Literary Tradition at Yale

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Shakespeare: Male, White, Christian, Married with Children, Get Over it.

Last month, 160 students in Yale’s (once first in the nation) English Department signed a petition demanding that the department “reevaluate the undergraduate curriculum, as well as reconsider the current core requirements and introductory courses… particularly .. the Major English Poets sequence, a longtime prerequisite for the major and “perhaps the most distinctive element of English at Yale.” The petition called for the removal of this prerequisite for the English major and for requirements “to refocus and include literature relating to gender, race and sexuality.” (Yale Daily News, May 26)

It appears that Yale’s current English Department Chairman, Langdon Hammer (a specialist in the likes of James Merrill and Hart Crane; Finalist, Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir/Biography, 2016; Larry Kramer Initiative for Gay and Lesbian Studies at Yale, 2003) intends to cave, while denying that that is what he is doing.

Professor Hammer (appropriately named like a character in a satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh) announced recently via the English Department news:

English 125/6 is a course that introduces students to a particular literary tradition, and the course itself has the status of a tradition. The thing about literary traditions is, they are always being upended and remade. That is the history of English poetry from Chaucer to Eliot (or to Hughes or Stein or Bishop or Walcott or Glück, who were all taught this spring in one or another section of this multi-section course). So it seems fitting for students and faculty to raise questions about the course and its role in the major.

The questions on my mind about English 125/6 are: How can this course be made better? What is its relationship to the rest of the English Department curriculum? What should and shouldn’t the faculty require of its majors? What does a strong education in the discipline of English look like today? And what should it look like tomorrow?

The English Department faculty is charged with asking those questions about all of our courses. We ask them in formal and informal ways every year, and we will again next year. We’ll be in conversation with our students, who have a range of views. And we’ll make decisions about what we teach and what we ask of students that seem appropriate to us.

The invertebrates in charge at Yale these days are always “having conversations” with the barbarians of the Left over insane and insolent demands delivered by the latter. These conversatione invariably amount to duplicitous attempts to save face and avoid the wrath of reactionary alumni by surrendering as little as possible to appease all the little Calibans they have intentionally admitted via extraordinary efforts and indulgences to the magic island. But there is always a surrender.

The sound you hear, in the distance, is all the great English professors of the past spinning in their graves as Langston Hughes replaces Milton and Dereck Walcott replaces Chaucer in Yale’s version of the canon.

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Invertebrates is an apt word to describe most of “those not really in charge of anything” at Yale. If you are supposed to be managing any organization of any type and the people you are supposed to manage observe that every time they do X you capitulate to whatever they want, they will repeat that behavior over and over. Which means they’re really in charge, not you.


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