Category Archive 'The Canon'

31 Mar 2017

Yale English Department: Out With Shakespeare, In With Toni Morrison

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Oldest College Daily:

English Department faculty voted Tuesday to change the requirements for the major in an effort to increase the curriculum’s diversity, represent more literary periods and make the major more flexible.

The department’s 30 voting faculty were “overwhelmingly in favor” of reform, according to English professor Leslie Brisman. The revised curriculum, which has yet to be finalized, places equal importance on every major historical period from medieval to contemporary, rather than requiring students to take three pre-1800 courses before studying modern literature, and cuts the number of required courses from 14 to 12. The proposed changes would also double the number of ways to fulfill the major’s central requirements, allowing students to take English 127 and 128, an American literature introductory sequence, in place of the long-standing “Major English Poets” sequence.

The decision, which the department has not formally announced, comes nearly one year after 160 students signed a petition calling for the department to “decolonize” its course offerings.

“The solution we ended up with makes an implicit promise to students, which the department is deeply committed to honoring: that is, that students should and will encounter a broad diversity of texts, writers and traditions within every period,” English professor Catherine Nicholson said. “The form that diversity takes will vary across time, of course, which is part of the point, but no period will simply and exclusively focus on the writing representations of aristocratic white men.”

These requirements will apply to undergraduates in the class of 2021 and onward, according to acting English Department Chair Ruth Yeazell GRD ’71.

Rather than impose a “diversity requirement” or a “contemporary literature requirement,” Brisman said, the department voted to create a new English 128 course called “World Anglophone Literature,” which may have a historical breadth as well as an emphasis on contemporary literature. He explained the decision to elevate English 127 and 128 to a status equivalent to that of English 125 and 126 was intended to “tear down the barrier between canonical and noncanonical authors” while removing poetry from its “privileged position” within the Yale English Department.

Brisman said the department aims to better respond to student interest in diversity by increasing the number of courses featuring works by women and people of color, as well as authors who wrote in English but lived in non-English speaking countries. Several courses on the early histories of racial and religious differences are in the works, Nicholson said, adding that she and a colleague are discussing a cross-period course on early female writers.

Director of Undergraduate Studies and English professor Jessica Brantley said the department periodically revises the curriculum, but the past year’s conversations have taken on “added urgency” because of campus and national discussions about inclusion. She added that the new major better reflects the work and spirit of the department as well as the needs and desires of its students.

“We’ve constructed a curriculum that has inclusion as its goal, embedded in the structures of its requirements, and I’m very excited to implement and develop that curriculum further,” Brantley said.

Previously, English majors had four historical distribution requirements: three pre-1800 and one pre-1900. The revised requirements aim to make the department’s commitment to historical range better reflect its “actual sense of what’s important and why” by including every major historical period and valuing each equally, Nicholson said.

Faculty members debated between requiring students to take four out of five historical periods — medieval, Renaissance, 18th century, 19th century and 20th/21st century — or combining the 18th and 19th centuries into a unit and requiring students to take all four periods. Nicholson said the final decision to require four out of four periods reflects the fact that faculty members want students to encounter the broadest possible range of materials and writers.

“In sum, the new requirements give further guidance to students about sampling the variety of English literature of all kinds and periods, but they also allow more choice in shaping a major that suits the student’s particular interests,” Brisman said. …

Brisman said student feedback informed the process, since faculty members acknowledged during the negotiations that requiring three pre-1800 courses and one pre-1900 course made it look as though the department valued those courses more than contemporary or diversity literature.

“We hope that the new structure of requirements will give our students a strong foundation in the history of writing in English over the millennia, while introducing them to writers and periods whose cultures and perspectives might initially seem remote from their own,” Yeazell said.

Adriana Miele ’16, one of the petition’s signatories and a former opinion columnist for the News, said her experiences as one of the few nonwhite students in the English major showed her that the department needed to broaden its approach to literature. Still, Miele said she worries that the English Department’s push for diversity may be only superficial.

“The fact that there are so few nonwhite scholars [in the department] makes me really skeptical of any advancements that can be made,” Miele said. “But it’s definitely moving in the right direction.”

English major Frances Lindemann ’19 called the change “fantastic and long overdue.” She added that it would be impossible to represent all groups of people in a semesterlong course, but requiring a single sequence and calling it “Major English Poets” falsely suggests this collection of authors is the most important and the only one worth studying. Lindemann said she would like to see the department develop a more inclusive range of prerequisite options to make students feel more welcome in the major.

Some students acknowledged that the new requirements shift attention away from poetry. Brisman said he hopes students will continue to gravitate toward classes focusing on Milton and Shakespeare, but he suspects students overall will move away from canonical authors toward other, less canonical ones.

Full story.

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What can one say, looking on as those specially charged with the preservation and transmission of our civilization decline to defend it and surrender spinelessly to the whims and vanity of the barbarous young?

It obviously never occurred to any of the leading faculty members of the Yale English Department (in my day universally regarded as the best in the country, possibly in the world) to quote that notable representative of diversity W.E.B. DuBois:

I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?”

What a thing it is to live in a time when those appointed to the most prestigious position in the land devoted to the study of the Canon of the English Language are not prepared to tell the ignorant young that “Yes, this collection of authors really is the most important and, by far, the most worth studying. And if you do not care to study these authors, you will not receive a degree in English from this department.”

09 Sep 2015

The Culture and the Monsters

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Beowulf_Cotton_MS_Vitellius
Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, British Library.

The Book section of the Economist describes the curious journey of a Dark Age epic to a firm position in the literary canon and in popular culture as well.

Few works of literature have intimidated readers as much as “Beowulf”, and few have been the cause of such obsession. The Anglo-Saxon epic of a mythic Scandinavian warrior and his monstrous foes is generally seen as the first great work in the English canon. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least accessible. These three thousand lines of dense, alliterative Old English are utterly incomprehensible to speakers of the modern variety, and even in translation the obscure Norse mythology is about as hospitable to the uninitiated reader as an axe to the skull. For most of its history, the poem has behaved like one of the monsters within it, scattering almost everyone in its path, to be confronted only by a handful of compulsive souls.

The poem’s history in the popular imagination is surprisingly short, given that it is set in sixth-century Scandinavia, and may have been composed around that time: it was published just 200 years ago this year. Though the oral folktale passed for generations from bard to bard, and was written down by two unknown scribes at the dawn of the last millennium, it vanished as the Dark Ages receded. The sole surviving manuscript reappeared in the 1500s, and circulated among private collectors before finding its way into the extensive archives of Sir Robert Cotton. These were damaged by a fire at the ominously named Ashburnham House in 1731. Two decades later, in 1753, the flame-singed codex was stowed in the bowels of the British Museum, lost and long forgotten. In all this time a tiny snippet of the poem appeared only once in print.

That “Beowulf” was ever brought to public attention at all was thanks to its chance rediscovery by Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin—an Icelandic antiquarian who stumbled upon it in 1786, and devoted 29 painful years to rendering it in Latin. The tale of Thorkelin (and his ill-fated edition) has something of a Dark Ages quest about it. Having been promised the prestigious role of Keeper of the Royal Privy Archives in Copenhagen, he set sail for Britain in the hope of finding Norse fragments, and chanced upon the “Beowulf” manuscript while scouting in London. As he set about dissecting the muscular Anglo-Saxon verse, he might have chuckled at the parallel with the warrior prince Beowulf, who had also travelled far from his Geatland home in search of glory—albeit of the sort gained by protecting the king of Denmark from man-eating foes.


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