A curriculum of white men isn’t enough

The row at Cambridge highlights issues at Lancaster and throughout Brexit Britain.

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Image by Ruth Walbank

As a Literature student, I’ve noticed ‘patriarchy’, and ‘feminism’ seem to be two major buzzwords in seminars so far this year, and it’s easy to see why. In reading ageing texts, current English literature students are forced to face the nature and limitations of a past patriarchal society. However, this past patriarchy is not as far in the past as we would like to think.

In light of the recent open letter published by a group of students at Cambridge University, the dominant presence of white, male writers in the literary canon has been at the forefront of media attention. Students asked for a more equal representation of female, black, and post-colonial writers as well as the opportunity to look at a more diverse range of literary criticism. Following the letter, Lola Olufemi, the Women’s Officer at Cambridge University’s Students’ Union who led the campaign, received abuse on social media, and some national newspapers the accused her of enticing contempt rather than equality. Given the mixed views on this issue, the next question asks what does this debate mean for Lancaster?

At a glance, the English Literature modules at Lancaster seem to be diverse enough. However, a closer look at the reading lists says otherwise. There are only 4 women out of 15 core writers on the reading list for ENGL100 this year, and only one of those women is black. Even the first year World Literature module, designed to offer a more diverse selection, only contains 3 women out of 21 core writers, and only 6 writers on that list are non-European. That is a staggering average of 80% white male writers on the first year reading list alone.

While these statistics only look at the first year reading lists and excludes poetry anthologies, they imply the presence of a more extensive problem in English Literature degrees. And as a female literature student, this worries me, as I notice a larger proportion of women on my course with a lesser representation in the texts we study. It seems that dead white men continue to dictate our readings and opinions about what counts as canonical literature, and while no one can deny the importance of Shakespeare and Milton, it is clear that they are not alone in the realm of great literature.

Maybe the issue then lies in the Englishness of ‘English Literature’. As an academic culture, there is an obsessional focus on literature native to our country, continuing an almost colonial approach in assuming that works within the English language are naturally superior. Why? Is it because our culture allows for a large number of white men to have nothing better to do than to sit around and contemplate great literary questions? There’s surely more to it than this. Within our age, the literary canon and community face the same crisis our country does in Brexit, and the world faces as a collective. In striving for the individual, the voice of one country and culture above the rest, we risk excluding the global society and the diversity that includes.

In studying the Renaissance as a period of literature, for example, do we not exclude the eastern narratives happening at the same time, of the Ming dynasty and its cultural significance?

As writer Lindsey Johns states, ‘the literary canon should not be the preserve of any one race… This denies us our shared humanity across racial divides.’ From this angle, the open letter from Cambridge students has touched upon a much more wide-spread issue, a cultural identity crisis about what it means to be a part of the human race within the modern, interconnected age. As Johns argued, rather than preserving a single voice, race or country, there should be a widening focus from the individual nation, and on the literature we read.

In this defence against rising individualism, the question then turns to what can be done, if anything, about the nature of the literary canon and its writers. Catherine Spooner from the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster stated
‘Diversity is an issue that many lecturers in the English Department feel passionately about. We know that there is always more to be done and we are always keen to listen to the latest debates. The first year courses are a particular challenge as you have to teach the canon before you can teach how women, BAME, queer, working-class and intersectional authors challenge the canon. So you need to have read Conrad, for example, before you can understand how postcolonial authors write back to and challenge the colonial narrative.’

She also went on to add that changes have been made this year in the second year course, including the additions of black writers to the Romanticism module, and that their Athena Swan Committee is looking at issues of diversity in the department.

Lindsey Moore, a lecturer on Contemporary Middle Eastern Literature also added that ‘The Department has taken proactive steps lately to diversify the curriculum, and I can see a distinct change of outlook in my final-year students this year. But yes, there is more to be done.’ It is clear then that the administration at Lancaster is taking these matters head-on, and while there is a higher diversity of literature finding its way onto the course, there must be more we can do. If the previous speculation proves to be right, and there is a more prominent underlying cultural identity crisis, then surely as a student body we too have a role to take.

Maybe it is then our responsibility as students to become more proactive in our approach. Regardless of the subject (as similar issues apply to other courses such as philosophy and history), we have voices within seminars and peer groups to introduce alternative criticisms, to look at material from a post-colonial context, or to find a link to a female writer where one is not present. If this is a cultural issue that goes beyond the university course, then the only way to progress is through discussion and debate, through bringing these issues into the open, to question them with open minds. If ‘patriarchy’ and ‘feminism’ are already buzzwords, then maybe it’s time to start asking why they have to be buzzwords in the first place.