Ponnada: English curriculum is inclusive


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Last week, fellow columnist Ashley Lee expressed her frustration with the UI English Department’s failure to include perspectives from different races.

Lee wrote, in her column titled, “Teach lit in black and white,” that she isn’t sure what the English Department and UI faculty expect undergraduate students to take away from this major, which she claims ignores the voices of individuals who do not come from European or other white backgrounds.

Lee used Intro to the English Major’s as an example. She wrote that “the class is overwhelmingly British- and American-based, and it relies almost exclusively on Western and European perspectives.”

As a woman of color, I can sympathize with Lee’s frustrations. I was in Intro to the English Major this fall semester, and it would have been nice to read more works by authors of different races. I agree with Lee that many times the voices of people of color become marginalized, while works by white individuals are glorified and presented as being some sort of “universal truth.”

This is undoubtedly very problematic.

However, I don’t think Lee is right to use a curriculum from one English class (that is subject to change almost every semester based on the instructor) to essentially present the entire English Department as ignorant of black voices and quick to universalize whiteness. There are quite a few instructors in the department who work very hard to break these barriers and make English classes inclusive of as many different perspectives as possible.

One such instructor who has dedicated herself to battling the issue of inclusion in her courses is Taryne Taylor, a graduate instructor and head of the General Education Literature textbook committee.

I took a class with Taylor this semester. I was pleasantly surprised by how diverse her reading syllabus was. We read works by many black writers such as Nalo Hopkinson and Lucille Clifton. We also read works by other women of color, including Suniti Namjoshi, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Furthermore, the stories and poems we covered by white authors dealt a lot with issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression that people face.

“There are a number of ‘white texts,’ including traditional canon texts that deal with issues of race and ethnicity in interesting ways (and I am including whiteness),” Taylor said. “There are white authors who deal directly with the oppression of people of color like Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688), and there are others who deal with issues of non-normative whiteness such as Irishness, Jewishness, LGBTQ identities, and so on.”

Despite her efforts, Taylor also pointed out how difficult it can be to engage students on issues of race.

“Whenever you deal with issues of representation there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that,” Taylor said. “Talking about systematic oppression makes people uncomfortable, and efforts to be inclusive and to include the voices of people of color and other minorities can often be read as devaluing the perspectives of those who identify with the hegemony.”

As Taylor illustrates, it is certainly a struggle for instructors to find the right balance when trying to “teach lit in black and white” — especially given the extremely complex and diverse world that we live in today.

Taylor isn’t the only one trying. If you take a look at the English classes being offered next spring, there are many that cover works by people of color. Some courses even focus solely on these non-white identities, such as African Literature, taught by Peter Nazareth.

While I understand Lee may be annoyed that she didn’t read many works by writers of color in the classes that she has taken so far, it’s not OK to ignore the hard work of instructors who are trying to move away from the “whiteness” of curriculum that Lee is fed up with.

The English Department may not be perfect in terms of racial inclusion, but there is definitely a lot of effort being made to teach lit in black, white, brown, and everything else in between.

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