Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Dear Yale English majors,

Wikipedia public domain
Various people have reasoned with the demands of your petition (included below) on many grounds: the paltry numbers of "women, people of color, and queer folk" actively writing major work in earlier centuries; the fact that literature speaks to the larger human condition; the brutal truth that we can't time travel to correct injustices and insert diverse writers; the idea that foundation survey courses are, in fact, foundational. My business is not with these arguments, interesting though they may be.

In fact, I have no wish to reason with you. Instead, I speak as a writer and poet, and as a reader who is passionate about poetry.

Among you at Yale, I am quite sure there are young men and women who openly or secretly consider themselves to be poets. Some of them are "women, people of color, and queer folk." Now, when you take away the major tradition of poetry in the English language--Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others--you deprive your own future poets of the rock they will build on. The now-and-future poets of Yale may choose to write against these voices that belong to us all. Your poets may even write in distress or anger. And yet, whatever their background, their word-wielding force will not be unchanged--will accrue strength and power--by encounters with the work of the great writers of the past. Your poets may not even like some of what they read. But any dislike does not matter a whit. The way forward always involves the tradition, and strong poems of the past are still the rock on which your Yale poets will build. (I note that in no discipline or art do its followers throw away the past before starting their own work.) Great poems of the past remain the touchstones against which new poems of our own day will be measured.

And for a reader of literature who has no intention of becoming a writer? Like it or not, the great works of the past are still the touchstones of power--the words played with in joy until the work is bright--against which an understanding, informed reader instinctively measures the work of his or her time. Without respect and some degree of love for the achievements of the past, how can a reader assess the fresh achievements of the present? If they are worth surviving the flail of time, the poems of our own day will eventually live in the past. But what about the reader's work of supporting and sharing the best that is made now? Without regard for past monuments of the spirit and intellect, how can a reader begin to winnow today's gold grain from the chaff--in fact, how will the reader be able to tell what is gold from what is chaff?

As a reader and as a poet, I look forward to reading your future Yale poets, including "women, people of color, and queer folk." I wish them well. And I wish them well read.

Petition to the Yale English Department Faculty 
We, undergraduate students in the Yale English Department, write to urge the faculty to reevaluate the undergraduate curriculum. We ask the department to reconsider the current core requirements and the introductory courses for the major. 
In particular, we oppose the continued existence of the Major English Poets sequence as the primary prerequisite for further study. It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors. A year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity. The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color. 
When students are made to feel so alienated that they get up and leave the room, or get up and leave the major, something is wrong. The English department loses out when talented students engaged in literary and cultural analysis are driven away from the major. Students who continue on after taking the introductory sequence are ill-prepared to take higher-level courses relating to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability, or even to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship. We ask that Major English Poets be abolished, and that the pre-1800/1900 requirements be refocused to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity. 
It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings. A 21st century education is a diverse education: we write to you today inspired by student activism across the university, and to make sure that you know that the English department is not immune from the collective call to action. 
It is our understanding that the faculty must vote in order to reconsider the major’s requirements — considering the concerns expressed here and elsewhere by undergraduate students, we believe it would be unethical for any member of the faculty, no matter their stance on these issues, to vote against beginning the reevaluation process. It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices. We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.

21 comments:

  1. There is little that is more attractive and powerful as clear, open understandings. I just LOVE this, Marly.
    If the foundations of literature are removed then everything collapses into the hole that is left.

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    1. really like that image: a spiral of dust floating up from the depths with an alphabetic chaos glinting in the sun...

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    2. Heh. Paul, meet Mudpuddle! And thanks.

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  2. Also....
    What has happened to my written English?
    Good lord....

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  3. The petulance isn't new. I recall a grad student who complained it was unfair that she'd been given a required reading list by her professor. A creative writing student of mine noted he didn't read other poets (Yes, he considered himself in this beginning course already a poet) because they might affect his style. Oh, I thought, if only. . . . I recall Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," but of course they wouldn't have read him, either. Sigh.

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    1. Interesting. If they took the Yale course as is, they might read that Eliot essay.

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  4. It's funny how the arguments change over time. Activists used to claim that the entire curriculum was too white, too male, too European, too ignorant of current theory, too this, too that. Now they claim that these couple of lower-level introductory courses are ideologically out of sync with everything else they'll ever study in the English department. It's not enough to get the Western canon out of the way early and then let students opt to forget about it; no, the last remaining required courses must be expunged by little zealots who can't bear that anything inconsistent with their doctrine has the nerve to exist.

    Poke the petition with logic and it unravels fast, but I was particularly amused by the fumbling appeal to ethics at the end: the claim that regardless of where faculty stand, the students' own feelings are ethically superior. No argument, just a demand couched in irrefutable emotional bullying.

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    1. "Irrefutable emotional bullying." Nice.

      "Ideologically out of sync." Yes, I think that's a clear way to look at the situation in a lot of colleges now.

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    2. The other thing that struck me was the claim that these foundational courses are hostile to "students of color," which is so disappointingly short-sighted. Without Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare, et al., much of the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, Countee Cullen, Paul Dunbar, and other pioneering black poets is incomprehensible. Ralph Ellison's marvelous Invisible Man is that much more meaningful (and funnier) when you see how he took modernism--he loved Eliot--and made something new from it. Even a radical like Amiri Baraka--you don't really get him until you understand, among other things, his frustration at his own fascination with Dante.

      I honestly never imagined that in the 21st century, I'd need to formulate basic arguments for everyone reading outside their own race.

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    3. In a metaphysical sense, we are neighbors.

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  5. a teapot tempest and a catch 22. how can they know what's good unless they take the basic course load? i think i'll take a ride down to the local and complain about the way quantum mechanics is taught. i've never had a physics course in my life, so i should be eminently qualified... (actually, i have had physics courses, but i mean...wtf)

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    1. Comparing it to something like a science or architecture or medicine is enlightening, isn't it?

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    2. Years ago I taught an upper division comp course at UC Irvine for psych majors who had never heard of or read Freud.

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    3. I know an English major at Stanford who has zero knowledge of either the Old Testament or the New, which must make reading cornerstone works of English literature rather a puzzle. So it goes.

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  6. Before declaring a crisis, I'd like to know the order of magnitude here--a handful of signers, tens, hundreds? If only a handful, or a few tens of students signed it, well, it is not hard to find an undergraduate to say something stupid or find others to endorse it; I did some of both in my undergraduate days.

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    1. What bothers me most is that it is an expression of sentiments seen nationally--the abolition of foundation courses in literature is going on in many colleges, and it is possible to graduate from many schools without any clear sense of the tradition and any encounter with the great writers of the past. The right attitude of a writer before the great works of the past ought to be one of humility, but here we find attitudes that are very far from that--tossing out the great works, exerting one's own arrogance, replacing any understanding of the mighty tradition with lesser (however pressing) concerns.

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    2. trumpic, as it were... quaint...

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  7. Hi Marly. There is nothing so new about what these students are saying or asking for. It reminds me of what many in my generation, as high school students and undergraduates, clamored for. And this effort gave us majors that considerably opened up the tradition to people (women, people of color, etc.) who had been silenced in the past.
    But to open the tradition does not mean the old classics should be eliminated. The old and the new are not mutually exclusive at all.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.