Whether it’s squeezing a Shakespeare course into our schedules or checking Wikipedia to confirm that Milton died before 1800, English majors at Wellesley constantly encounter a requirement they have yet to fulfill, some of which include Critical Interpretation, Shakespeare, and two pre-1900 literature courses. The rigidity may actually be necessary. Unlike the hard or social sciences, occupied by students knowing little about the subject matter, many English majors sit in class with an air of confidence unique to their field: they reenacted “Hamlet” in high school, read “Pride and Prejudice” backwards and haven’t quite read Virginia Woolf, but can at least spell her name right. Those pesky requirements remind students of what they still need to learn, and allow them to intellectually profit from the substantial wealth offered by the English language, from Middle English poetry to the baffling labyrinth of modernism. Unfortunately, English requirements at Wellesley overwhelmingly focus on white, male authors, with little to no focus on writers from more diverse backgrounds. Certainly, the two pre-1900 courses can include study of non-mainstream authors, but unless the English department explicitly calls for diversity within the major requirements, the English major at Wellesley might potentially turn away avid scholars of literature, especially those interested in subjects considered too political or eccentric in academia. Although the thorough study of Shakespeare and Keats builds a solid literary foundation, we must also incorporate a global component into the English degree. A global literature requirement would ask students to take at least one course on non-traditional writers and narratives, some of which may include postcolonial literature, slave narrative and diaspora.
A global requirement to the English curriculum accords perfectly with Wellesley College’s mission: “to provide a liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world.” Recent discussion on campus revolves around the Wellesley Effect and corresponding global campaigns to emphasize the liberal arts and women’s education. Unfortunately, such lofty goals cannot take effect if Wellesley students fail to understand the narratives of those whose voices are often neglected and marginalized. Some at Wellesley may argue that the general requirements already include a global component, thus removing the necessity of a global literature course within the English major. Such detractors miss the point of reading English literature dealing with diverse cultural settings and issues. Far too often, academia puts fiction and poetry by nonwhite writers under the category of “cultural studies,” and fail to give them the in-depth analysis and treatment afforded to Chaucer, Dickens and Conrad. In other words, we tend to analyze postcolonial and diaspora literature in terms of cultural differences, and not as narratives in their own right, replete with nuanced rhetoric, complex characters, and universal themes. This in itself marginalizes writers of color. As Sunili Govinnage, an Australian writer who read only books written by nonwhite authors for a year, puts it in The Guardian, “‘ethnic’ writers don’t just write ‘ethnic’ books about ‘ethnic’ things.” A familiarity with non-mainstream literature would not only strengthen Wellesley’s ambition to create an impact on a global scale, but also facilitate an open mind and receptivity regarding other nontraditional art and ventures.
Familiarizing oneself with literature by nonwhite authors can also enhance one’s understanding of traditional English works. In the beginning of the postcolonial tradition, many writers responded to Caliban’s characterization in Shakespeare’s renowned play, “The Tempest.” A grotesque figure of pity and scorn became a literary symbol of colonial subjugation, and many works followed that revolve around Caliban’s narrative and struggle. One can argue that today, one cannot deconstruct Caliban’s character without taking into account postcolonial literature and how it shed light on some of Caliban’s most beautiful lines. Some critics even argue that medieval literature impacted the way Europeans justified colonialism in the 19th and 20th century; crusading romances often focus on the tensions between Christians and Muslims for instance, and it is interesting to see how the same rhetoric used against Jews, Muslims, and “heathens” in “The Canterbury Tales” is echoed today within Western media. Another one of Wellesley College’s goals is to analyze trends across various and seemingly divergent disciplines; although initially the connections between Shakespeare and an English writer from the Caribbean may not seem obvious, thoroughly familiarizing oneself with English literature from all across the globe would deepen one’s understanding of intertextuality.
Over the past few years, Wellesley students have demonstrated an increasing demand for courses engaged with literature outside the Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Saxon paradigm. For the spring semester, the English department offers plenty of courses that engage with literature outside the Victorian and modernist circles, including Professor Gonzalez’s course on Harlem Renaissance, Professor Brogan’s course on American immigration and diaspora and Professor Tyler’s course on Southern literature and black gospel. Even the traditional courses on medieval epics and poetry incorporate a strong analysis of race and religious tensions, such as Professor Whitaker’s courses on Chaucer and medieval reason. Most of these courses are quite popular amongst students, as evidenced by the large numbers that have enrolled in such courses for the spring semester. Adding another requirement or altering one to fit better with Wellesley College’s mission for diversity would bolster students’ understanding of literary trends across time and global barriers.