The Massachusetts Medievalist aspires to decolonize the curriculum

The Massachusetts Medievalist has had a tumultuous couple of weeks. Not only did the primary organization in my field, the society formerly known as the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, completely implode in what I hope is a productive and ultimately healthy way, but I ended up in the OR having major emergency surgery right as fall term classes were starting. (Personal side note: no cancer; multi-week, but manageable recovery; my dept.head amazing lining up substitute faculty for all classes).

My planned blog about decolonizing the curriculum seems ever more crucial now, in the wake of last week’s discussions about racism in pre-Conquest English studies (the members of no-longer-ISAS did indeed vote to change the name of the organization, but it’s not entirely clear what will happen next). As American universities as a whole grapple with the structural racism behind our bronzed gates and within our ivory towers, I want to think a bit about how Lesley’s new English major may help to make some changes to make the field of English overall more welcoming to students of color, at least at my own regional university.

Two years ago, Lesley’s Cultural Literacy and Curriculum institute got me thinking about the ways that our English major – a very standard set of requirements for surveys, seminars, and “electives in the major” — was set up to reinforce coverage and periodization, inadvertently making many students feel excluded and unwelcome. The sequence of coursework basically made students work chronologically through literary history, with a substantial majority of texts by white men, despite well-intentioned attempts throughout to diversify represented authors in classes like English Lit I or American Lit survey. Depending on the order she selected the core courses, a student could theoretically be a second semester junior before taking a class with even 50% of authors who were not white and male. It didn’t take rocket science to figure out why English is one of the least diverse undergraduate majors at Lesley, despite our quite good numbers of students of color overall (ranging around 40%).

The new major attempts to address these and other issues to provide a robust curriculum that will include and welcome all students from the first core course to senior seminar. Two guiding principles:

1. “Coverage” is impossible: while we use the phrase “expanded literary canon” in some descriptive materials, that canon is now so large that any attempt to “cover” it is doomed to failure. It’s more important – and more feasible – to study a variety of voices, cultures, genres, and time periods than to try to make sure that students have read a laundry list of “core texts” (mostly from the traditional western canon of white, male authors) previously defined as essential. Such “coverage” has often “included” authors of color as seeming add-ons at the end of a semester of chronologically presented texts (the Massachusetts Medievalist herself is a guilty party here).

2. Skills are more important than content: even more importantly, we are trying to teach students how to be strong critical readers and writers, to help them build a toolbox that they can use when engaging with ANY texts in any situation, formal or informal. Students will be ready to think and talk and write about literary structure, about character development, about symbol and theme and literary figures. They can hone those skills without Beowulf and Chaucer – but if they decide that they want to read Beowulf and Chaucer, in a class or on their own, they will have the skills to do so. We hope.

We are devising some assessment processes that will help us to gauge the success of the new requirements in the major. For me, one of the crucial metrics will be growth in the number of English majors overall, but especially in the numbers of students of color choosing to major in English. Stay tuned.

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