According to an article on Brittle Paper written by Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ and Carole Boyce Davies — both professors at Cornell University — 75 percent of the the university faculty voted this week in favor of changing the name of the English Department to the "Department of Literatures in English."
This sounds like a subtle semantic change. But the idea behind it is driven by a larger-scale movement to de-colonize the Western university system. As the authors explain:
The name 'English Department' no longer reflects our diverse fields of study – even those still in the margins of the English canon. Our Department now offers courses in Enlightenment, Romanticist, Modernist and Post-Colonial literatures; Caribbean, African, African Diasporic, Native American, African American, Latin American, Chicanx, LatinX, LGBTQ, Indian, Asian diasporic and Asian American. Literature in translation and many others using literary theories and concepts from all over the world. Within fields traditionally associated with English literature, scholars of both Romanticism and Medieval Studies have keenly recognized that multiple diverse voices and histories were involved in shaping those areas of study. What we want is to have a department that lives up to our lived reality. There is no room for a singular English literature.
We are not asking for other fields to be defunded at the expense of centering diverse scholars and their scholarship, we are simply asking for equality. For how can a department expect to become an incubator of Caribbean, African American, or African scholarship if it has only one scholar working on vast fields? How do we incubate ideas and develop them without clusters of people working in the same field? Our students, in an increasingly shrinking job market made worse by the pandemic need to be well grounded in their fields and their global dimensions.
And why not be part of decolonization histories happening in global south spaces? As early as 1968, the English Department of the University of Nairobi, Kenya renamed itself the Department of Literature, led by African author and Nobel Prize contender, Ngugi wa Thiong'o. And in academic terms, intertextuality is the bread and butter of literature where writers from all spaces, Western and Global South influence each other. Issues of decolonization are continuous and as we see with the taking down of statues, it is a steady process to social transformation.
In other words: while English may have emerged as a dominant cultural language across the globe, the use of the English language has now evolved far beyond its affiliation with England as a nation. By focusing on "Literatures in English" rather than simply "English," the department can make a conscious effort to embrace post-colonial narratives that use the English language in various ways, instead of being beholden to the Imperialist traditions of English English and American English.
It's a small gesture; and I've seen some folks arguing that it doesn't really accomplish what it claims to set out to do. But I, for one, welcome it. Sometimes those small gestures can start to reframe larger conversations, which leads to greater change. (Hell, I can trace my own experience as an Irish Speaker back to my college British Literature teacher who made us read James Joyce and JM Coetzee, which first helped me to understand post-colonial perspectives.)
Decolonizing the English Department [Carole Boyce Davies and Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ / Brittle Papers]
Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons