As a scholar of both English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, I often feel as though I exist in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. I’ll go from reading racist, Enlightenment-period travel logs in my 10:10 a.m. class to deconstructing the violence of the capitalist nation-state in my 2:10 p.m. It’s wild. While I chose to major in English mainly because it is the only way to pursue creative writing at Barnard, I have been nonetheless struck by the fact that most of my readings center on the perspectives of white men.
Somehow, the English major seems to have forgone radicalization over the years, even in spite of students’ widespread desire for a paradigm shift toward diversity. Last spring, a petition to require classes in the major that critically engage race, gender, and sexuality gained traction among students. In response, the college promised to hire 10 new faculty from minority groups by 2022. While I agree that it is important that faculty represent an array of backgrounds, the addition of diverse identities does not solve the problem students called attention to in the first place—that of Eurocentric syllabi. This nearsighted focus on identity hinders a more specific recognition of what constitutes an inclusive syllabus.
Hiring faculty of color boosts diversity statistics and looks great on a brochure, but it doesn’t supply the labor necessary to take on the project of decentering white male voices in the curriculum. As theorist Sara Ahmed details, the word “diversity” is often employed by institutions topically in order to avoid enacting the tenuous work that the idea actually signifies. Further, positing the addition of certain identities as the solution to the issue of disproportionately Eurocentric syllabi rests on the erroneous assumption that adding diversity to a space constitutes decolonizing that space. It doesn’t.
I want to make it clear that I am in no way in support of the inordinate percentage of white (and, especially, male) professors in the English department. A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in office hours exhaustively defending the concept of intersectional feminism to one of my professors. In one of my classes last semester, I would consistently try to bring subversive lenses to uncritical discussions of capitalism, race, and colonial expansion, only to be interrupted and shut down. As a woman of color existing in a male-dominated academic space, I have many more stories I could tell here.
On the other hand, though, I’ve also had white male professors who have supported my learning of themes and events relevant to social justice, activism, and the implications of my own identity. In light of this paradox, I think that blaming the lack of critical race analysis solely on the lack of people-of-color professors can obscure critical thinking regarding the labor that decolonizing the classroom actually entails.
Last fall, feminist critic Gayatri Spivak gave a talk at Columbia in which she mainly argued that “although identity politics can provide a sense of unity among different diasporas, it neglects the numerous divisions within a diaspora.” A disproportionate focus on identity politics in learning impedes us from “explor[ing] [our]selves and current issues outside of expectations and traditions.” Relegating individuals solely to the fields they’re expected to inhabit constitutes an identitarian limiting of the kinds of learning people are allowed to pursue. When we’re not encouraged to reach beyond our own microcosmic bubbles of identity, the world becomes a less compassionate place.
Diversifying the classroom at the level of both individuals and perspectives is crucial to the process of radicalizing an institution that is traditionally exclusive of marginalized identities. Analyzing a class in terms of its inclusivity necessitates not only a consideration of the professor’s identity, but also other questions: What kinds of readings do they assign? Which perspectives do they champion, if any? To what extent do they make space for students who might find themselves at a loss in relating to a course text?
We shouldn’t stop ourselves from reading critically the way we’ve been taught to. Contemporary sociopolitical interpretations of texts are not far-fetched ideas that hinder our ability to appreciate literature; rather, they demonstrate close reading and deep, interdisciplinary engagement with the source material. By reimagining radical teaching methodologies along with diversifying our faculty, perhaps we can strive toward decentering the (often harmful) voices that have remained at the forefront of syllabi for hundreds of years, and afford all students the space to negotiate their own identity and experiences in the classroom.
Hana Rivers is a junior at Barnard begrudgingly completing her English major requirements. Reach out to her at email@example.com. On the In-Between runs alternate Thursdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.