Colorful Language: The Problem of Diversity in the Williams College English Department – Quentin Cohan

One day in an English class last spring, the professor introduced, according to a student in the course, that day’s session as the one set aside to discuss the unique qualities and issues that come up with authors of color and stories that are about people of color. In theory, this was all well and good, but why, the student wondered, did a specific day have to be scheduled for this discussion–was it not relevant any other day? And did these authors, all people of color, not warrant analysis of their literary merits as well? Certainly, spending even just one day discussing the perspectives of people of color in literature is better than not doing so at all, but designating a single meeting to do so gives the impression that it is a sort of interruption from the regularly scheduled programming of the rest of the syllabus–that it is something we should talk about, but only in one class, so that way we can do it and get it over with. Furthermore, using the authors of color solely to discuss issues of racial identity, rather than critiquing the writers for their literary merits, plays directly into the damaging trope of exoticizing people of color, and implies that the literary properties of their writing are, at best, secondary. This analysis of difference implies that these authors somehow exist outside the American canon, and that race is not a topic worth discussing, or somehow does not exist, either implicitly or explicitly, in texts by white authors.

This problem of this specific English class describes a fairly common occurrence here at Williams: the way well-meaning people (usually white) fall into traps of racial insensitivity through a lack of thoughtfulness, but which is harmful nonetheless. In the case of this class, and the English department as a whole, this is the result of a noted lack of diversity among the faculty and curricula.

Focusing just on this fall semester, of the 29 professors offering classes in English, five are not white–though not all of them are English department faculty–and of the 44 classes offered with syllabi (so excluding theses or independent studies) 20 list a book by a nonwhite author in the book information online. Of those 20 classes, all but five are either taught by a nonwhite professor, deal explicitly with issues of racial identity, or satisfy the Exploring Diversity Initiative (if not all three)–meaning that, effectively, one-third of the classes are “race” classes, and the remaining 29 classes avoid the subject. Putting aside whether these number are high or low, the implication is, like in the class described above, that race is a subject that only occurs in some writing, or is insubstantial in the majority of texts (one caveat: only so much information can be gleaned from the course descriptions and book listings, so it is entirely possible that a class could deal with race, but in a way that would not come through in these details).

As a point of comparison for what these numbers mean, in the general American population, non-hispanic whites, blacks, and Asians compose 63.7%, 12.2%, and 4.7% of the population respectively, while hispanics and latinos make up 16.3%, and native Americans, pacific islanders, and other groups are each less than 2% of the population. The issue of underrepresentation of faculty of color is not, however, a problem local to Williamstown. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012-2013, 72% of all doctorates were awarded to white students, with Asian/Pacific islander as the second-largest group at 12%. Black, hispanic, Native American, and people of more than two races all received less than 10% of the doctorates, at 8%, 7%, 1%, and 2% respectively. Additionally, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the numbers for literature doctorates reflect the same trend, as hispanic students received 4% of such degrees, black and Asian/Pacific islander students both received 3%, and Native Americans received less than 1%.  As such, professors of color, while greatly underrepresented relative to the general population in the College English department, are only slightly underrepresented relative to the number of doctorates awarded. These numbers also reflect the fact that attaining a doctorate remains an overwhelmingly white feat.

Still, though, the College English department does not exist above this issue. Professor Dorothy Wang, an Associate Professor of American Studies and Faculty Affiliate in English, who teaches classes on authors of all colors, says that “the whole culture of the English department is really white, and the whole culture of English literature is really white,” and that this is a deeper problem beyond even a lack racial and ethnic diversity among the faculty. The effect of this, according to Professor Wang, is as if to say minority writers and faculty are “just supposed to be this exotic person that adds some color.”

Additionally, Professor John Limon, the John J. Gibson Professor of English and Chair of the English department, also stressed that the department has work to do, saying “Is there as much diversity as we would want in the faculty, or in our majors, or in the people who enroll in our courses? No, we don’t think so.” Professor Limon also noted that he believes there is a high degree of diversity of thought among the English faculty.

The problem of a lack of diversity, whether of identity or of thought, is a well-discussed and manifold one, but, as it applies specifically to this case, it is a problem of creating a false narrative of the canon of English literature. Firstly, as Professor of English Christian Thorne point out, the key realization is that “race is in play even when the class isn’t about race,” which is a contrast to the anecdote recounted earlier in which the class was about race only when the teacher said so explicitly. “The important thing,” Professor Thorne explains, “is to setup a classroom environment where it’s always a possible topic.”

One complicating factor in creating such a classroom environment is, according to Professor Limon, a lack of training in racial literary analysis. Using the example of his American Renaissance class, which focuses on the “explosive cultural energy” of U.S. literature from 1830-1860, Limon acknowledges that while a racial understanding of Ralph Waldo Emerson is possible without Harriet Jacobs, “it is Harriet Jacobs’ job to say ‘you people should really be thinking about other kinds of experiences besides this white males.’ It would be great if we all were trained in order to talk intelligently without her. It turns out it is of some importance in Emerson, and I would like to think I could think about it without Harriet Jacobs, but with her is better.” Professor Limon also stresses that the hiring the department does helps with this problem, as “here are people who can tell us how to do it, just as here is someone who can tell us how to do a psychoanalytic reading.”

Currently, though, the English department has not done enough of this sort of hiring, so problems persist. Among these are, as Professor Thorne points out, the loss of a broad series of insights and spontaneous multiplicity of viewpoints that comes with having a group of people form different backgrounds; the fact that if there are very few people of any given minority group, then that person is often made to stand in for all people of that group; and that faculty of color “are pounced upon with eager sincerity by scores and scores of different people as soon as they arrive on campus–and that pressure never lets up.” These issues are fairly well-established, but they are not the only ones. A less-discussed problem with having a fairly uniform faculty is that most of the authors read and analyzed are equally similar, and therefore, in the case of Williams given that most of the professors are Caucasian, white. Being taught all white texts can create what Professor Wang calls a “false picture of what American literature is.” She says it is “erroneous” and “particularly alienating for students of color, because the fact that it’s not even discussed, the fact that they’re not seeing anything by writers of color gives the implicit image that English literature, American literature is white.”

This underrepresentation of minority faculty is nothing new for the English department. In May 2015, three students–Anonymous, Diana Chen, and Tony Wei Ling–wrote a letter entitled “An Open Letter to the Williams College English Department Or, Uncomfortable Learning at Williams,” in which they, from the perspective of female English students of color, charged the department with “racist or misogynist teaching practices,” a tendency that “dismisses and suppresses” marginalized voices, and for a lack of accountability on these issues. “This is not only a pedagogical problem, but an ethical failing of the department to approach its students as complex learners, thinkers, and people. You make the work that we want to do impossible by encroaching on our physical space, by looming over us, by throwing off our criticisms and simultaneously retreating into the comfort of your authority,” the students wrote. Getting to the heart of the matter, the authors claimed “race, gender, sexuality, and other axes of ‘identity’ critique are not marginal modes of analysis. And we, the women and people of color, are not marginal in your department.” The letter’s authors could not be reached for comment.

In response to the letter, Limon met regularly that spring with one of the signatories, and reports that sometimes they had strong differences of opinion–about classroom etiquette in general, as well as about the nature and implication of specific incidents–but that sometimes the discussion highlighted issues the department had to keep in mind. More recently, Professor Limon has said the letter “served as a pretty good provocation–that is, it said ‘don’t stop thinking about this,’ but it was false to believe we never thought about it.” He also points out that the department created a new job four years ago in post-colonial global world literature, which was “obviously before anyone told us we had to reform ourselves.” On the whole, he described the letter as “useful, but overly generalized.”

The last two years, however, the department has, in fact, engaged in hiring searches for new faculty to teach African American literature and culture, and literature of the African diaspora. An email sent out from Professor Limon’s office on August 19, 2015 to all English majors stated “the English Department will be searching for a new professor of African American literature.  That is the primary definition of the position, though we will be looking for additional expertise in a large variety of minority US literatures, African Anglophone literature, and a variety of theoretical approaches.” The department interviewed four candidates (three African American, one white) in 2015, but made no new hires. Naturally, several different theories exist as to why.

One, oft-trod, argument holds that Williamstown’s physical isolation and lack of racial diversity makes it an unappealing destination for minority hires. Professor Wang, though, argues that “the isolation is a factor, but it is not the big reason. I think they like to use it as the reason.” Professor Limon explains that the department wanted to hire two of the candidates, but that, after long negotiations, in both cases “we lost to New York City.” As a third opinion on this matter, Professor Thorne argues that, for potential faculty of color who study questions of race and ethnicity and maintain connections to active minority communities, “it’s always going to be a hard sell, it has to be a hard sell, to say that you should come some place where those communities will now be at arm’s length, so you can instead describe those communities to a majority white institution–that’s a tough buck.”

Another theory holds that the department–in spite of the recent searches–has not fully recognized the importance of minority literatures and the issue of race to the discipline of English and to the department’s curriculum. “They have not made it a priority,” Professor Wang explains, “and until they make it a priority, it’s not going to happen.” For one thing, The English department has never, in 30 years, tenured a faculty member in the African American literature position, indicating, for Professor Wang, that the department does “not seem to view minority lit as contributing to the larger field of literary studies, theory, and methodology,” or that “if you do ethnic lit it is second-class.” Additionally, when Professor Wang was hired, in 2006, she and two other professors–who have since left–were the only three faculty members with English Ph.Ds teaching ethnic literature, and none of them was hired into the English department (Professor Wang is, technically, an American studies professor affiliated with the English department; the other two taught Africana studies)–a fact that Professor Wang views as “not an accident.” “If they really, really want to recruit people, they could.” Professor Limon disagrees, however, saying “that’s false, that’s been false for a while,” and that, though “we have only one person whose position is to teach African American literature, the College and the department have always been quite sure that the number should be at least two”–hence the hiring investigations last year and this year.

There is an anecdote from last year’s hiring search that, while subject to some disagreement, seems to exemplify the department’s sometimes callous attitude toward racial minorities. One of the candidates, a Asian American woman, was giving, as part of her application process, a talk on Zora Neale Hurston to a group of faculty and students. The candidate handed out note sheets with a series of quotes that she wanted to discuss–all of which were folk memorabilia Hurston had collected as part of her ethnographic interests, and one of which was the song lyric, from an old Southern folk song, “I’m gonna go kill me a nigger.” The job candidate read the entirety of all the other quotes, but did not say the racial epithet in the song lyric, instead more politely drawing attention to it, but not actually speaking it aloud. During the subsequent question and answer session, though, one professor asked a question about the lyric, speaking the offending word in a manner one source described as repetitive and aggressive. A different source said, however, that that while, yes, the professor did say the slur, it was used only once and only to quote back something the candidate had brought up. One attendee also said that the word “‘aggressive’ is a subjective judgment.” Regardless, the applicant does not work at Williams.

The failure of last year’s search means that the investigation has begun anew this semester, with job talks already planned for January. The results are, of course, to be determined. The English department, though, still has miles to go before it sleeps, because, as Professor Wang explains, “the English department at Williams should reflect the United States in 2016.”

3 thoughts on “Colorful Language: The Problem of Diversity in the Williams College English Department – Quentin Cohan

  1. If Professor Wang truly doesn’t get that Williams geographic isolation is a major factor in making it an undesirable place to teach, then her department has worse problems than a lack of minority representation. I still remember the stress of driving into Williamstown over the ice covered road to the airport in Albany, NY.

  2. “Furthermore, using the authors of color solely to discuss issues of racial identity, rather than critiquing the writers for their literary merits, plays directly into the damaging trope of exoticizing people of color, and implies that the literary properties of their writing are, at best, secondary.”

    By insisting that the English department needs to hire more professors of color, aren’t you also implying that their lessons on race will only be validated by the color of their skin, not the merits of their ideas?

    “Of those 20 classes, all but five are either taught by a nonwhite professor, deal explicitly with issues of racial identity, or satisfy the Exploring Diversity Initiative (if not all three)–meaning that, effectively, one-third of the classes are “race” classes, and the remaining 29 classes avoid the subject.”

    Are you suggesting that this isn’t enough? If some students want to remain ignorant of the vast range of intellectual topics in literature that aren’t directly related to race, then they shouldn’t have come to a liberal arts school. Or, how about they just take classes in other departments for a change? If they believe that they see racism and race issues in every book they read, every work of art they interpret, etc., or that the only works of value are those that deal with race, then they have a psychiatric problem. That’s not the department’s problem.

  3. Along with Prof. Wang, I, too, await the day when the Williams English Department is 7% military veterans, 8% Appalachians, 25% Christian Evangelicals, 27% registered Republicans, and 36% gun owners!

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