Jill Yonit Goldberg: Decolonize This: On Taking the English Out of English Departments

Jul 17, 2016

One of the great joys of organizing TIA House events is the opportunity to bring together other writers and thinkers on questions of justice and aesthetics. This piece, by the Vancouver-based writer, instructor and organizer, Jill Yonit Goldberg, was originally delivered as a contribution to the panel “Equity Now”, sponsored by CCWWP and TIA House at the recent Canadian Writers’ Summit in Toronto. Other participants on this panel were: Lillian Allen, Waubgeshig Rice, and Farzana Doctor. So much discussion and energy ensued in the aftermath, and TIA House hopes that there will be much much more.

Decolonize This: On Taking the English Out of English Departments

Thank you Larissa for organizing this panel and for including me.

I am honoured to have been asked to be on a panel on the topic of equity. As someone who has worked in various alliances between Jews and Muslims, with women who are sex workers, and most recently as a member of the board of CCWWP, this topic is dear to me.

I believe Larissa asked me to join this panel because the first question I asked when I joined the board of CCWWP two years ago was “Where are the French language panels?” Though my question was met with some skepticism, I’m pleased to say that at this year’s conference, we have five sessions that are either bilingual or entirely in French, and I look forward to continuing to make strides to bridge the divide between the French and English literary worlds in Canada.

However, I still have lots of pesky questions. Questions like what are we doing to shore up our offerings from Indigenous writers? LGBTQS writers? Writers of varied economic resources? Of all the races, shades and ethnicities that make up Canada’s literary community?

There is much work to be done.

As a college instructor of literature and creative writing, I believe educational settings can and should be at the fulcrum of the labour that must be done to address the current inequities within literary institutions and to redress the tacit biases that live in our collective and individual consciences. The work of an instructor is, implicitly, to “transmit social and cultural values” (Mukherjee 451), and post secondary institutions therefore have the power to function as incubators of society at large, so there is much responsibility there.

Our job as educators is not merely to transmit information, but to level the playing field, indeed the living field, for all of our students by providing them with a view of humanity that is pluralistic in its understanding of narrative. This can only occur by making curricular choices that tell a new story – many new stories, in fact. The narrative that post secondary English departments provide is one that is often, and in many places sclerotic in its conformity to the so-called canon, and that possesses a remarkably durable rhetorical narcissism designed to reinforce Anglo or Euro centric narratives that tell us: white is still right. If this is what we feed to our students, we continue to nourish them with the food of racism, with disturbed and disturbing colonial ideas about whose history, whose lives are significant.

This is a problem of centre and margins and also a problem of power.

In 1968 Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who at the time went by his given name James, along with Okot p’Bitek, proposed the Abolishment of the English Department in universities in Kenya. This proposal included a call for English departments to be replaced with departments of African language and literature. It was soon after this that James Thiong’o began to call himself Ngugi wa Thiong’o and pledged to write only in his native languages of Gikuyu and Kiswahili. His and Okot p’Bitek’s idea was a project designed to enable Kenyan students and scholars to come out from under the imperialistic thumb of English colonization and to assert through intellectual means the significance and centrality of the Kenyan and African narrative. At the root of this proposal was an understanding that literature is formative and discursive. There is nothing like literature to shape our worldview, to make us more human, and to enable us to humanize the Other. Without subverting the dominance of English literature, Thiong’o and p’Bitek understood that the Kenyan and African experience would continue to be seen as inferior or of marginal importance relative to the perceived centrality, even universality of the European experience

When I was an undergraduate student at McGill university’s English department there was exactly one class taught by non-white professor on the topic of literature from a non-white place. The popular class was Caribbean Literature taught by Max Dorsinville. There was also one class in postcolonial literature, but at the time the professor – an American – who taught that was so struck by McGill’s conservativism that she high-tailed it out of there after a very short time at McGill.

So it was that I, the grandchild of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who has no special connection to the English tradition whatsoever was schooled in the usual round-up of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare and the like. My worldview was shaped, curated by a tacit belief in the supremacy of experiences contained within the Norton Anthology. No one ever exposed me to the literature of Indigenous people – the people whose land my family and ancestors have been allowed to prosper on for three generations. And this is wrong.

In preparation for this panel, I took a look to see what Mcgill is teaching nowadays, and it seems they’ve found someone else to teach postcolonial literature, and there is also an class on Inuit, Métis, and Aboriginal film, but this is not a required course.

I also took a look at my other alma mater’s offerings, and it seems the University of Toronto is doing slightly better with classes on African, Asian, postcolonial and Aboriginal literature.

Other universities are doing still better, such as at Simon Fraser University where professors in the English department are teaching classes on the TRC as narrative and compiling an anthology of Aboriginal literature.

However, diversity or inclusion within a scholarly department is not the same as equality.

Words like diversity and inclusion imply the incorporation of the outsider into the master’s narrative on the master’s terms. As in, we’ll teach a class on African literature but it will be optional, a fringe benefit. Meanwhile everyone will still be obliged to study “The Rape of the Lock” by Alexander Pope, for example, the wisdom of which had done little good for either my intellect or my heart.

Equality is when the narrative of the historical Other – of those individuals and communities who have been oppressed and silenced by the master narrative – is seen not as optional, but as crucial, meaningful, true.

It is when the study of literature is not complete until it contains a multiplicity of stories from a plurality of people and places so as to represent – with equal gravity – the spectrum of the human experience.

Equality is also when people who identify as members of a historically oppressed group have the opportunity to determine how, when, and by whom they are represented.

Finally, equality is when what is considered mainstream loses its centrality so that we cease to understand world literature through the old power paradigm of centre and margins. When this happens, the mantle of power historically granted to white (mostly male) literature, may begin to crumble, and our worldview too may crack wide open.

Some of you have likely heard of the recent kerfuffle at Yale’s English department over student calls to decolonize the curriculum, and in this case, I’m on the side of the students.

Until literature of all peoples becomes central to the (meta)narrative taught by English departments, then this narrative will continue to quietly, subtly teach a racist worldview.

But we can fix this. Through an examination of the way in which we address content, themes, forms of literature, and our tools of literary analysis we can begin to change the narrative and change minds.

Content: This one is easy. It’s time to stop making the canon obligatory and everything else optional. A good place to start in Canada would be to make the teaching of Aboriginal literature central to all pedagogy.

As an anecdote, a number of years ago, while teaching at a CEGEP in Montréal, I proposed a class on Postwar Japanese literature. I was told this topic was “too narrow”, but it was obvious that it wasn’t too narrow, it was too Japanese, too not white. After all, the department offered entire classes devoted to Shakespeare, The Beat Poets, Twain and James, and the usual other canonical suspects. I taught the class anyway, and managed to set off a surprisingly hostile firestorm of debate. It was, in retrospect, a satisfying moment.

Theme: Frequently we teach our students to perceive the themes of so-called canonical literature as universal, as exemplifying the human condition, while we often speak about the themes of non-white, non-English literature as though they are local, temporal, political, or speaking to and about a limited social reality as though that is somehow of less gravity (cf. Docker 444). Decentralizing the canon requires us to recognize the limited reality of all literature, perhaps especially the limited reality presented by so-called canonical literature.

Form: our understanding of what literature is has been limited by Eurocentric concept of narrative. We exclude oral tradition, song, dance, music and other art forms from our curriculums, yet these forms are integral to the study of non-Anglo, non-Eurocentric literatures, and we must increase our competence to understand and to teach them.

Tools of analysis and evaluation: If students are meant only to look at the level of language of a piece, as in close reading, and not to question the social, political conditions under which a piece may have been written, we neuter the literature we seek to teach and impose upon it a passable homogeneity that does not accurately represent its significance. We must teach our students to ask deeper questions, and begin ask these questions ourselves.

In choosing the work we teach, we may say we wish to teach only work that is of a high standard, that has stood the test of time, but fail to interrogate the historical and ideological reasons behind these supposed standards (cf. Ngugi wa Thiong’o 441). Our white supremacist values are so deeply embedded that we are frequently blind to our own biases, which we take to be not bias, but a correct understanding of what is normative, and therefore good.

If literature itself reveals the machinations of power, class, race, gender, and social dis/order that lead to its creation, pedagogy has the power to respond to these things, and to subvert, reject, and resist the persistent hierarchies that determine what is central and what is marginal, what is powerful and what is powerless.

It is time to recognize that what we call the canon or the required curriculum is often handsomely cloaked bias, even racism that we do not recognize because it doesn’t seem violent, and because it has been accepted for generations. Just because English professors are not wearing white robes, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t systemic racism and implicit violence beneath our genteel academic robes.

It is time to re-educate ourselves so that we can better educate our students. I’m no Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but I believe it is time to stop calling our departments English departments and refer to them as Departments of World Literature Experienced (perhaps unfortunately) in English. (cf. Docker 445).

I further propose that we set our sights on the learning and teaching of non-European languages.

It is striking that here in my home on Native Land, where I have made myself very comfortable, I learned in school two languages other than English, and neither of them is a language native to those who were in this land all along.

Since there is nothing like language to convey worldview, I hope that in time, the instruction of Indigenous language becomes part of school curriculums so that students learn to see through the eyes of those who were here first, and who suffered/continue to endure much at the hands of the rest of us whose ancestors tried to erase their stories, cut off their tongues, depriving all of us of what was original to this land.

As Eula Bliss points out guilt is the experience of liking what you have, but not liking how it was gotten.

Those of you who were at the recent AWP in Los Angeles may have heard Claudia Rankine discuss the need to increase our tolerance for discomfort.

Speaking for myself, it is time for me to sacrifice my privilege, my place in the hierarchy, and to endure the discomfort of a new order, knowing that that in time the discomfort will settle into an expanded knowledge of what it means to be human – not just for white people like me – but for all humans here on Turtle Island and around the world. Mine is not the only story.

Works Cited

Bliss, Eula. “White Debt”. The New York Times. 2 Dec. 2015. Web. 23 June, 2016.

Docker, John. “The Neocolonial Assumption in University Teaching of English”.
The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. 443 – 446. Print.

Mukherjee, Arun, P. “Ideology in the Classroom: A Case Study in the Teaching of
English Literature in Canadian Universities. The Post-Colonial
Studies Reader. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. London:
Routledge, 1995. 447- 451. Print.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. “On the Abolition of the English Department”. The Post-Colonial
Studies Reader. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. London:
Routledge, 1995. 438 – 442. Print.

Note: While Ngugi wa Thiong’o is the acknowledged author of the above piece, a conversation with Juliane Okot Bitek, daughter of Ugandan writer Okot p’Bitek, revealed to me that Okot p’Bitek was equal part of the generation of the ideas in this piece, and so I have opted to include Okot p’Bitek’s name in this essay.

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