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POINT / COUNTERPOINT: Should SFU’s English department focus less on white male authors?

Shakespeare Illustration - Tia Young
Image Credits: Tia Young

Yes, English requirements should shift to focus on more diverse literature.

By Emily Seitz, SFU Student

On June 1, Alison Flood published an article in The Guardian exploring a petition put forth by undergraduate students at Yale University. The petition calls for an end to the English department’s course requirement of canonical white male authors such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the like. The students argued that “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors.”

The article also includes a comment by Katy Waldman, a writer for Slate, who states that “you cannot profess to be a student of English literature if you have not lingered in the slipstreams of certain foundational figures, who also happen to be (alas) both white and male.” Yes, as any English major will tell you, the literary canon is dominated by white male authors, perhaps none more so than William Shakespeare.

The perception of Shakespeare as a foundational literary figure can be challenged by the fact that, until the 18th century, Shakespeare was lumped together with all of the other playwrights and poets in his era; his status as “the bard” came in the 18th century through a national need to have a single author be the figure of the national poet. But this idea of a single poet representing a nation is problematic in our current global, multicultural society, as there is a need for diverse voices in literature to reflect the diversity around us.

Many Canadian universities, including SFU, have a Canadian literature requirement, and many of these schools also offer courses in aboriginal and indigenous literature. Although Canadian English departments are providing required courses outside of the white, male-dominated literary canon, the course selections are often minimal and students are often only required to take one.

Meanwhile, students are required to take two courses from a list that prominently enforces the white male canon, such as English 306 on Chaucer, English 311 and 313 on early and late Shakespeare, and English 416W on Milton, among others.

Lower level requirements focus on broad periods — such as medieval literature and 18th century literature — with very little emphasis on literatures outside of the white male canon.

There is a demand for more diverse authorship and characters in the current literary scene, as demonstrated by the Twitter call #WeNeedDiverseBooks, in children’s literature. Although more Canadian universities are offering literature courses outside of the expected white male canon, these courses aren’t typically main English major requirements — and if they are, usually only one course is needed.

I believe that English departments could shift their course requirements to focus less on the white male canon, and could provide more options for students in diverse literature, with female and non-white authors. There are many female authors in the English literary canon — Jane Austen, Margaret Cavendish, the Brontë sisters, Marie de France, to name a few — and contemporarily, many non-white authors are expanding the English literary canon.

As our society becomes more global, and since Canada is a multicultural country, our literary studies need to expand beyond the historical English canon to one that is multicultural, and English major course requirements need to diversify.

Though perhaps SFU should not go as far as what Yale students are suggesting and completely remove canonical authors from their course requirements, there should certainly be less emphasis on historical literature by white men.

No, SFU’s English department should stay as is.

By Courtney Miller, Peak Associate

As much as it sucks, studying the works of white men in their entirety is an integral aspect of studying English — especially for those historical figures. Would I love for writers who fit outside of this narrow mould to be more prominent? Absolutely, and the classes focused on later writers (particularly here at SFU) feature a wide variety of authors with a corresponding selection of backgrounds and experiences.

It would be great if that same openness could translate to the past, when most of these men were writing. Unfortunately, we can’t change the past.

Regardless of their race, gender, or age, these writers have shaped and dramatically influenced modern English. Shakespeare alone contributed more than 1,700 words to the English vernacular. William Wordsworth is the poster boy of Romantic era poetry. Charles Dickens became one of the pioneering novelists of the Victorian era.

The list goes on. Every white canonical male we study is studied for a reason. To avoid studying their work would be a disservice to the styles and eras they represent.

A sad truth of the matter is that many of these literary men lived in a far more patriarchal society than many of us Westerners do today. White men were the overwhelming majority of published writers. That’s not to say women or people of colour didn’t contribute, or weren’t integral to the formulation of the ideas that men were credited with — after all, Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, may have been as crucial to the development of the Lyrical Ballads as either Wordsworth or co-author Samuel Coleridge.

But these events transpired at a time when non-white men were not valued for their worth, and thus were not remembered to the same degree as white men. To not focus on the inequalities of this era would discourage us from learning and reflecting on our ongoing progress as a Western society. Besides, many of the English classes I’ve taken at SFU, which are not centred around one male author, have included literature by diverse authors.

Furthermore, the professors (at least, those at SFU) who teach canonical male-centred courses are also the ones who say, “Now, take this with a grain of salt. Thoreau’s view of the world was problematic because of X, Y, and Z. As we can see from Dickinson, there are vastly different experiences happening in the same era.” To not play the works of white male authors off of other literature hurts everybody involved because it contributes to a loss of knowledge and critical thought.

SFU’s English department should stay as is — it’s a fair representation of the historical influences of English literature through time. In the study of English literature, it is important to present information on times of inequality. It is our duty to apply our reasoning and criticism liberally to everything we evaluate, in order to decide for ourselves what is worthy to incorporate into our own lives.