In order to complete an English degree at Binghamton University, students must take many reading-intensive classes. But some English students have taken issue with the content and authors they have to read.
“The English department is very Eurocentric,” said Khaliq Spruill, a senior majoring in English. “It’s rare that we do not read works by white male authors. I understand the contributions of Shakespeare to writing, but there are other authors that professors should be focusing on.”
Spruill also said the department suffers from a lack of diversity of work when it comes to required courses.
“You really have to go out of your way to take African American literature or something cross-listed with another department to study authors of color,” he said. “If there is a female author present in the syllabus, it’s Emily Dickinson. She’s an amazing author, but I do feel that she is the token female author for the department.”
In addition, course substitutions for major requirements are generally limited. For example, someone registering for English 228: British Literature from 1600-1900 for the fall 2018 semester can substitute it with ENG 350P: Swift & Satire, Then & Now, English 360R: Romanticism or English 360W: Oscar Wilde & British Literature. However, someone registering the same semester for English 245: Shakespeare can’t make any substitutions at all. English 380F: Afro-Asian Connections and English 340M: Cross the Color-Line are the only course substitutions explicitly focused on people of color, and those courses can replace the globalization and literary culture requirement and the British Literature to 1600 requirement, respectively.
But it’s not only students who think the curriculum should be revised.
“My dream curriculum is interdisciplinary, inclusive, diverse, decolonizing, transformative, innovative, community-engaged, and grounded in relations of respect and reciprocity with the human and non-human world,” wrote Birgit Brander Rasmussen, associate professor of English, in an email. “I would personally love to see more Native Studies courses on campus, particularly given our close proximity to the Six Nations, the diversity of indigenous peoples living in New York City, and the fact that we are on Indian land.”
If English majors choose to add a global culture concentration, they are required to take courses in global cultural productions, globalization and culture and so forth. Africana studies courses, Arab American writers’ works, Native American literature and even a course on cultural appropriation are all options students have available to them if they pursue that specific concentration. If one does not choose that concentration, then they are not required to read those texts.
Some English department faculty, like Mary Grace Albanese, an assistant professor of English, work to make their syllabuses more inclusive. But, she knows there are limits to how much change can be made within the department and the University at large.
“Ideally our teaching would nourish our research and vice versa,” Albanese wrote in an email. “Fortunately, Binghamton acknowledges that we’re experts in our respective fields and we have a lot of freedom. It’s also important to remember that what we consider the canon is always changing and the institution needs to give its professors the freedom not just to register, but to initiate, those changes.”
She went on to say that although there are limits, she tries to let her students and class discussion guide how her syllabus is constructed. It’s not enough to add a few voices to a predominantly white-male narrative and how what counts as literature needs to be reconsidered, she said.
Spruill hopes the department will consider making changes in the future.
“I want the department to have a clear goal of how they aim to help English majors actually improve their writing and reading comprehension skills as well as incorporate more courses that do not give a Eurocentric view of literature,” he said.