Barnard’s English major contends with the canon.
By Tarini Krishna
It was the last day of classes and the fourth floor of Barnard Hall was too warm. English majors in Barnard’s Enlightenment Colloquium were finishing the final discussion of the semester on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its potential parallels to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The class was antsy to escape to an outdoor table at Hungarian or a Milstein green chair, but before we could leave, our professor posed a concluding question: “Are you satisfied with the requirements of the English major?”
A perplexed silence fell upon my normally loquacious peers. Finally, I brought up the question that has been on my mind since sophomore year major declaration: Would there ever be an English major requirement that included literature that has either a global perspective or addresses race, empire, or colonialism? I knew that my friends at peer institutions such as Middlebury, Brown, and Wesleyan all had core classes addressing literature outside the Anglosphere. I wondered why Barnard’s English major—which differs significantly from Columbia’s—was lacking this.
Although I have been satisfied with my experience in the major, I would consider my entry into the discipline a reluctant one. On paper, the major appeared to center dead white male authors from the Western literary tradition because of requirements such as the junior-year Renaissance and Enlightenment Colloquiums, and the additional two pre-1900 requirements. But in practice, the curriculum offered more flexibility than I initially thought. Even with these requirements, students are left with at least three electives to select from the wide range of courses offered by Barnard and Columbia’s English departments.
In fact, the first English class I took at Barnard demonstrated to me the possibility for students to chart their own path through the major. World Literature Revisited, advertised as a response to the Western focus of Columbia College’s Lit Hum, included the Core requirement’s original staples: Homer’s Odyssey, the poetry of Sappho, and Herodotus’ Histories. But it also included the Persian epic poem The Shahnameh, the Popol Wuj (a mythology and history of the K’iche people), and Husain Haddawy’s translation of The Arabian Nights. Still, my colloquium peers’ ambivalence regarding the major requirements validated my ongoing self-dialogue about what the English major does and should do. I couldn’t help but feel that the major could better equip students with a toolbox to analyze both traditional Western canonical texts and transatlantic, global, diasporic, and English-language postcolonial texts.
Since 2019, the Barnard English Department has been due for an Academic Program Review, but due to Covid, the review was postponed until this academic year. Peter Platt, the current department chair, is leading the ongoing APR process alongside Christopher Baswell. Its most notable component is the English curriculum review, spearheaded by professors Jennie Kassanoff and Achsah Guibbory. Any changes to the curriculum likely wouldn’t be implemented until the 2024 academic year, at the earliest; the current first-years could be the first class to experience an updated English major curriculum.
The most recent change to the major was the addition of a one-class American literature requirement in 2010. It was an internal change that happened without the prompting of an APR. Professor Platt admitted that “students weren’t clamoring for it in the way that they’ve been talking about the global/comparative/colonial one”; instead, the department added the requirement because it is common among peer institutions. It was then approved because it did not present a burden to students, eligible as it was to double-count toward students’ pre-1900 courses. A global/comparative literature requirement would seem to allow for the same flexibility as the American literature requirement. Indeed, classes like Estrangement/Exile in Global Novels, Latinx and the ICE/Prison Industrial Complex, and World Literature are already popular among students.
A model for how simple a global literature requirement can be lies just across the street—Columbia’s English major has included a global/comparative course as part of its geographical distribution requirements for two decades. Given that the two departments are interconnected—students at Columbia can fulfill major requirements with Barnard courses, and vice-versa—it is surprising that Barnard does not have a similar global/comparative literature requirement. Platt noted that he liked Columbia’s requirements and could imagine the Barnard English curriculum becoming more like Columbia’s after the APR.
Columbia English’s director of undergraduate studies, Molly Murray, offered one possible explanation for the institutional incorporation of global literature at Columbia. Murray pointed out that many faculty members were trained in the 1980s or later, at a time when debates about the overlap between area studies, English literature, and postcolonial studies were becoming mainstream. Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism was published in 1978 while he was a professor in Columbia’s English and Comparative Literature department; legendary postcolonial literary theorist Gayatri Spivak has been at the University since 1991. With this history, Murray said she “never thought of the English department as being a place where you would just go to retreat from questions of power and conflict.”
But even with faculty members who hold this disciplinary training, Barnard’s English department has maintained its more traditional approach, retaining its title as an English rather than English and Comparative Literature department. This subtle difference in nomenclature indicates the department’s conception of English literature as a discrete phenomenon confined to the English-speaking Global North. This ignores the fact that imperialism and diaspora have resulted in the production of significant English literature in every part of the world. A common misconception that arises in debates about English major requirements nationwide is that texts that address questions of empire, the Global South, race, and ethnicity must be taught in place of the traditional canon. Concerns over adding such requirements often rely on the assumption that they will teach students to inappropriately apply revisionist or anachronistic ideas to canonical texts. However, this ignores the complex historical and political realities of English texts produced within empire or in a recently decolonized country: Many of these texts are created in conversation with and opposition to the colonizers’ canon. But in the courses I’ve taken at Barnard, incorporating these perspectives has never come at the cost of developing students’ understanding of the historical factors that shaped the canon in the first place.
My conversation with Platt did not reveal any resistance to this change among faculty or students. Since students have long sought to prioritize these courses, Platt emphasized that had he known that the APR would be delayed for so long, the department might have moved ahead without this extensive curricular assessment. In the meantime, the Barnard English department has in fact been expanding its course offerings, extending 5-year contracts to term assistant professors who specialize in genres of global and Latinx literature, such as Atefeh Akbari and Kristin Sánchez Carter, respectively. More recently, the English department has also hired several prominent new faculty, including Pulitzer Prize recipients Maria Hinojosa and Jhumpa Lahiri, and acclaimed poet Ken Chen. However, if the department had added a new requirement before the completion of the APR, Platt acknowledged that they would have run the risk that the APR findings would dispute or disrupt the change. If the APR recommendations end up supporting the proposal to add an 11th requirement addressing global or comparative literature, then it would justify full-time searches for specialists in these perspectives. “We have some retirements coming up and so I imagine hiring and filling those, because the retirements can be filled with a slant towards different sorts of literature and perspectives and critical and cultural angles,” Platt said.
Although Columbia English is more robust in these areas, they face similar institutional challenges when it comes to hiring professors whose specialties extend beyond the canon. Murray spoke about the department’s ongoing search to fill positions in Latinx literature and Indigenous studies. She mentioned that the enormous popularity of Denise Cruz’s Asian American literature lecture might speak to the need for more faculty in this field as well. She emphasized that unfilled positions are not due to a shortage of qualified scholars in these fields, or a lack of commitment or “cultural blind spot” on the part of the department. Murray attributed it instead to the bureaucratic, prolonged nature of the University’s hiring processes.
This institutional tendency toward inertia might explain the cultural myopia of Barnard English requirements, which haven’t been revised significantly since they were established in the 1980s. The current review provides a long-overdue opportunity to ask and answer crucial questions about the underlying purpose of an English major and the perspectives it should include to best fulfill that purpose. While the addition of a global/comparative literature requirement would not dislodge the significant focus on pre-1900 literature, it would formalize attention to often marginalized fields.
These courses do not need to claim to “decolonize” or “deconstruct” the canon. What students seek is not a complete reorientation of the English curriculum, but an opening up—an exposure to new literatures, geographies, and modes of literary engagement. Indeed, it would be difficult for students to engage with the intertextuality of this material without also having a solid understanding of the canonical texts because many Anglophone or diasporic writers are responding to the language of empire or Western cultural hegemony. In postcolonial specialist Atefeh Akbari’s Critical Writing class, we read Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy. Kincaid uses William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” to discuss the violence of British colonial education, but that meaning would be lost on those who are unfamiliar with the poem. In World Literature Revisited II, we read Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest, but I wouldn’t have understood the valences of his argument had I not read Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Césaire’s emphatic declaration that Shakespeare is for everyone.
There are ways to teach the canon that do not reify its hegemony. A course such as Atesede Makonnen’s Black Lives in Pre-Modern Britain acknowledges the historicity of the English literary tradition while also centering an overlooked contemporaneous subjectivity. A presentist focus can also be applied to a traditionally canonical course. For example, in Milton: Then and Now Guibbory teaches his political tracts and Paradise Lost, but she also encourages students to understand how his ideas shaped those of Thomas Jefferson and how they resonate with Christian nationalist movements in the U.S.
The value of a global/comparative literature requirement is that it would expand the lenses through which students can analyze texts. Courses that interrogate the bounds of the canon do not threaten the university-wide concern with historicity. Rather, they provide students with a framework for thinking about canon building itself. There must be a dual commitment within the Barnard English curriculum to understanding traditional literary perspectives as well as critiquing and challenging them to create graduates who can think within and outside of the canon. After all, curricular requirements—which bear directly on hiring decisions—are ultimately an articulation of a department’s values.