English Dept. lacks faculty teaching marginalized writers

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In case you haven’t heard, the English Department is currently hiring their first tenure-track professor in a decade. With the current political climate that leaves the rights of marginalized groups in limbo, POC literature, women’s literature and queer literature are not only increasingly relevant, but also necessary in academic discourses and curricula.

However, the English Department is not hiring in any of the above areas. Instead, they’re hiring for British Romanticism. The decision to hire in British Romanticism and not, perhaps, Asian-American or disability literature—two fields in which the department desperately lacks classes and faculty—calls into question the department’s diversity and representation, or lack thereof.

The problem with diversity in the English Department begins with the faculty represented. Of the 21 faculty members listed on the website currently, only seven or exactly one-third are people of color. Additionally, despite Vassar being roughly 60 percent female, only eight faculty members are women.

The classes offered this semester are not a diverse representation, either. Of the 34 classes listed—not including fieldwork or independent studies—only 12 explicitly center topics on race, gender, sexuality or disability in the course titles or descriptions. And while other classes may mention or contain works from historically underrepresented writers, it makes a huge difference whether those writers are just being touched upon or whether they’re actually being focused upon.

However, the problems run deeper than simply representation. The logistics of which professors teach which classes are also problematic. It would seem from the course catalogue that the classes that deal with topics regarding race are only taught by professors of color. For example, this semester, the class on Black Modernism is being taught by Professor Tyrone Simpson, a black professor. Last semester, he taught a course on James Baldwin, an African-American novelist and essayist. In addition, courses that have popped up in the past on Native American literature have always been taught by Professor Molly McGlennen, who is of Anishinaabe descent.

Of course, professors are hired for their specialization, so it would be unreasonable to expect someone with expertise in Shakespeare to teach a course on the Harlem Renaissance. This is why I suspect this delegation of POC literature to professors of color is a problem. It is irresponsible to place the onus of providing “color” or “diversity” to the department’s course offerings on a limited number of women professors and professors of color. If the English Department would commit to hiring more diverse specializations, then this burden could be lifted off the shoulders of POC professors and more evenly delegated throughout the department.

Going as far back as Spring 2014, I also noticed that Asian-American Literature is only taught by Professor Hua Hsu, an Asian-American professor. As the only course on Asian-American literature in the department, it is an important topic and should be offered each year. However, when Professor Hsu was on sabbatical during Spring 2018, no other professor picked up the course, and thus the course wasn’t taught that semester. That’s a huge red flag, especially given that the Asian-American Studies Working Group brought to light how the lack of an Asian-American Studies program erases Asian-American identities. Surely Professor Hsu cannot be the only professor qualified to teach that course. What then does it say about the English Department when they choose not to offer that course at such a critical time?

If indeed the problem is that the current mostly white and mostly male faculty is incapable of teaching courses about race, gender, sexuality and disability due to their respective specializations, then the English Department clearly needs to make a larger commitment to hiring more faculty capable of teaching those courses. This needs to be done so that the department may offer critical courses about race, gender, sexuality and disability even when the “default” professor for those courses is on sabbatical.

Finally, the English Department needs to conduct a thorough examination of which writers to include in the curriculum and why. As far as literature in the English language goes, it’s no secret that the further back in time you go, the fewer women and people of color you find. During older eras, women and people of color often were not allowed to write or what they wrote was not taken seriously. Therefore, those writers need to be highlighted and centered today, even over writers who are part of the traditional canon.

For example, if I had not gone abroad, I would have never known that Queen Elizabeth I was writing during the exact same time as Shakespeare. She navigated life as a monarch of a country that was unwilling to take her status as an unmarried woman seriously, yet her writing and speeches are critical to understanding how she overcame all her obstacles. Why, then, does our English Department offer a course on Shakespeare each year, but pay little to no attention to the writings of Queen Elizabeth I?

In a time when we begin to recognize that representation matters, I fail to see myself represented in the English Department’s curriculum. As the College begins to enact sweeping changes to majors and major requirements, this is a good time for the English department to make necessary adjustments. Given the opportunity to hire more tenure-track professors in the future, the English Department should take a serious look at adding faculty to teach more courses on race, gender, sexuality and disability. Additionally, a closer look at their course offerings might help in evaluating which areas need more courses, faculty or even a syllabus revamp.

5 Comments

  1. “Why, then, does our English Department offer a course on Shakespeare each year, but pay little to no attention to the writings of Queen Elizabeth I?”

    Is…this a serious question? Because one is one of the greatest writers in the English language, whose wit, humanity, imagination, and poetic craft has inspired, and been recognized by, writers and readers of all backgrounds, all over the world, since the time he was writing.

    The other is a monarch is a monarch whose papers are surely of great historical importance.

    The suggestion that the writing of Shakespeare and and Queen Elizabeth is in any way comparable is beyond laughable and undermines your otherwise well-supported argument. In advocating for representation, we can’t lose sight of the fact that aesthetic value is real and of primary importance, in literature and every other art.

  2. Thank you for sharing her poetry – you’re right, my comment was too dismissive, but it is still absurd to compare arguable talent with genius. It doesn’t mean that her work is not worthy of attention and study – only that your question (the one I quoted in my original comment) is easily answered.

    • I’m not saying do away with Shakespeare and teach only the writings of Queen Elizabeth though, so I think the answer to my question is a little more complicated than just “Shakespeare is a genius let’s only teach him”. I’m suggesting that there’s room for both and that she be added to the curriculum. My abroad program taught both, as well as John Donne who was also arguably a genius, and I think Vassar would do well to follow suit.

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