Major English Poets Makes the News: Notes from the Department Chair

June 10, 2016

English 125/6, Major English Poets, has been a course taught in seminar-format in the Yale English Department in one form or another since around 1920, and for decades it has been a prerequisite course for English majors.  But it’s never been in the news before.

An opinion piece appeared in Slate on May 24, responding to a petition created by Yale students.  The petition was critical of English 125/6 and argued that the course should not be a prerequisite for majors.  It raised several objections, most of them relating to the fact that the poets studied in the two-semester course are almost all white and male.   Another piece about the petition appeared in the Yale Daily News, with quotations from Yale students and faculty. 

Then The Daily Beast reported on June 2:  “Capping off a year of political unrest and student protests at Yale University, English department faculty emerged from their final meeting of the semester to a petition from students hoping to return next fall to a refurbished, ‘decolonized’ undergraduate curriculum for English majors.”  This was a bit misleading, since our final faculty meeting of the year ended without a petition being presented.  The petition, so far as I know, exists in the form of a google.doc to which news articles have linked.  It hasn’t been presented to the English Department faculty, and it’s anonymous.  Nonetheless, the story was picked up by the Guardian, Wall Street Journal, NPR, Le Monde, Fox News, New York Post, and other outlets.   

This isn’t the place to critique or defend the course—except to say that student evaluations for the spring semester of English 125/6 were overall very positive, as is usual.

English 125/6 is a course that introduces students to a particular literary tradition, and the course itself has the status of a tradition.  The thing about literary traditions is, they are always being upended and remade.  That is the history of English poetry from Chaucer to Eliot (or to Hughes or Stein or Bishop or Walcott or Glück, who were all taught this spring in one or another section of this multi-section course).  So it seems fitting for students and faculty to raise questions about the course and its role in the major.      

The questions on my mind about English 125/6 are: How can this course be made better?  What is its relationship to the rest of the English Department curriculum?  What should and shouldn’t the faculty require of its majors?  What does a strong education in the discipline of English look like today?  And what should it look like tomorrow?

The English Department faculty is charged with asking those questions about all of our courses. We ask them in formal and informal ways every year, and we will again next year.  We’ll be in conversation with our students, who have a range of views.  And we’ll make decisions about what we teach and what we ask of students that seem appropriate to us.

—Langdon Hammer, Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English and Chair, Department of English, Yale University

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