English departments nowadays are big tents, housing experts on everything from Chaucer and Shakespeare to LGBTQ and diaspora literature. Increasingly, departments are tweaking their names to reflect this diversity.
Cornell University’s Board of Trustees, for instance, recently approved the English department’s vote to rebrand itself as the department of literatures in English. Department professors Carole Boyce-Davies, Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Derrick Spires proposed the idea last summer, writing in an open letter that the “double pandemic of COVID-19 and global racism, along with the demands for decolonized institutions, have brought a new urgency to ongoing questions about how racism functions in symbolic and structural ways.”
English departments historically “bore the imprint of British colonialism and imperialism” and “were therefore meant to valorize English dominance in language, literature and culture,” the letter said. But following the “advancement of a range of literary studies over the last century and a growing faculty and students from diverse cultural locations, the need to create a more dynamic department of literatures in English which actually reflects the world has become an even stronger mandate.”
Indeed, the professors wrote, the term “English department” “no longer reflects our diverse fields of study,” which range from Enlightenment to postcolonial and literature in translation “and many others using literary theories and concepts from all over the world.”
Thirty-six professors in the department eventually signed on to the letter. The department voted on the proposal in October, approving it not unanimously but by a large majority.
Dan Schwarz, Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English at Cornell, said he missed the department meeting at which the name change was approved, but “many of my colleagues thought the name change was more inclusive and spoke to the department’s intellectual diversity and its evolving curriculum.”
In a subsequent letter to her dean, Caroline Levine, David and Kathleen Ryan Professor of the Humanities and Picket Family Chair in English, wrote, “We do not seek to change the formal curriculum or the transcript designation, but we do make an impassioned request to change our name to reflect our current diversity and our long-term and deep commitments to the wealth of literatures from around the world in the English language.”
Writing for the department’s fall newsletter, Levine said, “We seek to make it clear to students and the broad public that we study writers from Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean, and the U.S., and that we value these as central to any canon of great literary works in English.”
Heading off criticism such as, “But doesn’t literature transcend politics?” and, “Shouldn’t we think about literary greatness apart from nationalism and imperialism?” Levine explained that scholarship in literary studies demonstrates English departments have long been political. Gauri Viswanathan’s 1989 Masks of Conquest, for one, details how the first English literature curriculum emerged in India in the early 19th century “as part of a dedicated effort to persuade Indian subjects to view England as a culture superior to their own and so to acquiesce to English rule.” More recently, Levine said, the Central Intelligence Agency promoted American literature to promote U.S. culture during the Cold War.
Bryn Mawr College’s English department sought to change its name to the department of literatures in English, as well, in October. The college’s Curriculum Committee formalized the change in November.
Kate Thomas, K. Laurence Stapleton Professor of English at Bryn Mawr and department chair, said she and her colleagues were aware of what was happening at Cornell and wanted to make manifest their own “commitment to de-colonial approaches to literary studies.”
Paula Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said some of these changes are happening because of “the problem” of English being used to “encompass all literature written in English, including the literature of the U.S. and many other former British colonies.” At the same time, she said, some departments are reluctant to switch to a new name that highlights literature alone, “when the department includes, say, writing studies, folklore, performance studies, digital humanities, linguistics, or other disciplines that often find themselves in English departments.”
Ultimately, Krebs said, there is “no easy answer” to the English department question “that doesn’t end up simply being a list.”
While name changes are becoming more common, they are not new. To Krebs's last point, Harvard University changed the name of its department of English and American literature and language to the simpler department of English in 2008, seeking to better capture its own pluralism.
Wa Ngugi, of Cornell, has pointed out that the first such change happened at Nairobi University in Kenya in 1968, when the English department become the department of literature. Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiongo'o -- Wa Ngugi's father -- published the influential essay "On the Abolition of the English Department" in 1972. The English department at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, became the department of literatures in English in 1994.
“In this sense we are part of a historical global energy, recognizing where we are and want to be. This is timely given the times we are in,” Wa Ngugi told the Cornell Chronicle. “Decolonization is about decentering and welcoming many ways of reading literatures.”
Carolyn Cooper, professor emerita of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, has approved of Cornell’s move but taken umbrage with how the department previously described its move -- including by using the word “historical.”
“I applaud the Cornell initiative,” Cooper wrote in a fall op-ed in Cornell’s student newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun. “But though it may be ‘historical’ for the U.S., it is certainly not so for ‘the West in general.’ It seems as if the Cornell professors were not aware of the fact that a ‘global’ university in the Caribbean had long recognized the need to decolonize the English department.”
Rachel Moseley-Wood, a lecturer in film studies and literature at the University of the West Indies, said her department has taught courses that used texts translated from French and Spanish. Its Caribbean and West Indian literature courses involve texts with significant Creole language content.
In the Caribbean context, Moseley-Wood said, “language is so porous and we teach texts in which different registers of language are employed and which draw on both Jamaican Standard English as well as Jamaican, or Jamaican Creole.”