The study of Dead White Men
Opinions / July 5, 2016
English literature focuses too heavily on one demographic
English literature at Kwantlen Polytechnic University does not unreasonably favour white, male authors. But in order to be well-versed in the history of poetry, drama, and philosophical musings in a university setting, one must navigate the sometimes murky waters of the eurocentric, male-dominated past.
One cannot—nor ought one be able to—complete a Bachelor of Arts degree specializing in English at KPU having exclusively consumed literature written by white males. This is a good thing—it is embarrassing even to write such a blatantly obvious fact.
Even taking a full course load of English literature at KPU without hearing a single word from a non-white scholar or writer, or a non-heterosexual cis-gendered male, is profoundly unlikely. In my experience, not only do instructors tend to provide optional reading lists that supplement the course material, but the obligatory course material is often representative of our contemporary, globalized society.
And yet, this is not necessarily the case at other institutions. In the wake of English students at Yale University petitioning for the removal of a mandatory course which requires them to study the canonical writers (including but not limited to Chaucer, Milton, Wordsworth, and of course, Shakespeare), new dialogues concerning the ethical implications of studying exclusively or overwhelmingly “dead white men” in literature have sprung forth.
One English student at the prestigious university, Adriana Miele, told the Yale Daily News that “many students do not read a single female author in the two foundational courses for the major. This department actively contributes to the erasure of history.”
KPU alumnus Adam Vincent, who has most recently been accepted into the University of British Columbia’s Ph.D. program in Language and Literacy Education, somewhat shares Miele’s sentiment, though he also shows appreciation for the inclusivity and diversity that can be found in our English department’s upper-level offerings.
“I don’t know if students know it is a problem when they come into their introductory classes,” he says in response to the scope and prevalence of the issue. He believes that, for 1100 level English classes, reliance on white, male authors is the “status quo.”
On the other hand, “what KPU offers […] in the 1200 level” and beyond, says Vincent, is a broader perspective with respect to the necessary female, queer, and ethnic minority voices.
Having completed a Bachelor of Arts, with a major in English at KPU in 2010, Vincent notes that there are some world literature courses at KPU which explore “foreign” and often times silenced narratives from around the globe. Canadian literature in general, he says, has a strong Aboriginal focus in its poetry and short stories.
While he admits the introductory English courses at KPU still features the same cast of canonical dead white guys, Vincent argues that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One reason they’re used is that they’re standardized and traditional, and they prepare students for the critical thinking and analyses to come.
“We are teaching everyone the same thing,” so that everyone can “critically analyze the same texts,” says Vincent.
Now, let there be no confusion: white, male, English literature is not the literature of oppression. It rather just so happens that literature written in English by white, male authors constitutes the very foundation of, not surprisingly, what we know to be English literature.
Besides, scholarship does not begin and end in the classroom—in other words, if you are intent on bucking what Vincent deems an established “hierarchy” inherent to “the system,” then, by all means, read more.