The English Department at Cornell University voted earlier this month to change their name to “The Department of Literatures in English” in an effort to combat systemic racism within educational institutions.
Professors Carole Boyce-Davies and Mukoma Wa Ngugi created the proposal in response to the national conversations about race following the death of George Floyd in May.
Boyce-Davies is professor of English and Africana studies with academic interests in such subjects as African diaspora studies, African literature, Black women’s writing, and transnational feminist theory. She is also the author of “Left of Marx”, a book on the life of Claudia Jones, a black Communist activist who expanded the political ideas of Marx and Lenin to include gender and race.
In the words of Director of Undergraduate Studies Professor Kate McCullough, the change would eliminate the “conflation of English as a language and English as a nationality.”
The proposal was first introduced to faculty of color before being introduced to white faculty and finally to the the department chair Professor Caroline Levine.
“What surprised us,” said Professor Boyce-Davies, “was the fact that so many of the white faculty of the English department signed on – we were amazed. By the time we were ready to officially take it to the department as a whole, we had over 75 percent of the faculty signed on.”
Levine signed the proposal without hesitation.
“I think leadership matters,” said Levine. “This isn’t just us doing a symbolic gesture, this is in keeping with the University’s call to have us really rethink our everyday practices around racism.”
But some see the move as just that – a symbolic gesture, empty of any real-world efforts at application.
“We should be encouraging a push in requirements to deliberately include literature that interacts with race, racism, gender, sexuality and colonialism,” wrote Shriya Perati, a double major at Cornell in Biology and English.
In her piece, Perati called into question the university’s requirement that 30% of the English major be comprised of courses teaching literature written in England preceding the 1800s (she listed Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and the classic Beowulf as examples of a problematic list of authors).
The proposal now awaits approval from the college administration.