English Courses Need to Be More Diverse - Here’s Why!

“We shouldn’t have to take separate courses to realise women exist” - 4th year English student

English has long been a favoured subject, and Aberdeen’s English department currently ranks among the top 25% of UK universities. But something that has been noticed by many undergrad English students is that when taking a look at the first and second year courses, there isn’t an awful lot of diversity. Both the staff and students that we’ve spoken to agree that there is a bias towards male - predominantly white - writers. So why is it still a problem?

After speaking to lecturers Dr Tim Baker and Dr Elizabeth Anderson, it became clear that there’s many reasons why academic literature isn’t more diverse and it’s definitely not a problem restricted to our university: academic history, university staff availability, student numbers, available and affordable texts… the list goes on and on. The most impactful reason is probably the fact that we’re tied to the literary canon. Historically, this has largely been defined by white male writers and especially in earlier periods, certain authors like Shakespeare dominate. The breadth of academic work done on such authors is extensive. When you then compare that to other writers of the time - especially female writers - there’s just not as much secondary material available. So even though staff are working on including more diverse texts with female and POC writers, actively challenging the historical canon and how we perceive it, the lack of secondary material makes it more difficult for students to write essays about those works. Naturally, this means that staff members are hesitant to assign these texts, particularly on pre-honours courses.

Another aspect that most students probably aren’t aware of is the way student numbers affect the syllabi. A lot of students come to university to read certain books, like Lolita, The Crucible, and anything by Shakespeare. This means that in order to attract both prospective students and even students from other disciplines, these types of works have to stay on the courses. However, that doesn’t justify the lack of diversity. Especially since this affects the undergrad courses, literature ends up being misrepresented. Issues of politics, gender, race, sexuality are all intertwined and should not be taught separately. It lessons their importance. Separating them makes them a sub-genre; literature by men is literature, literature by women is women’s literature. Literature isn’t just written by male authors, white authors, or straight authors. Literature is so much more varied than that.

Reading books by diverse writers is important, because we should be able to see ourselves in texts, reflected in a multitude of different ways. This becomes even more important when taking into consideration the fact that the undergraduate English course is predominantly taken by women, who should get to study more than one or two works by women per semester. At the same time, it’s important for students to read about experiences different from their own. Male students should read female authors, white students should read POC authors, and straight students should read queer authors. As Dr Baker said, “You only understand what literature’s doing if you read literature written under different circumstances.” Someone who had to write in secret or was not encouraged in their writing will offer a different view on the effect of literature than someone who was widely accepted. Reading from other points of view helps us expand our horizons and not perpetuate the notion that straight, white, and male is the default. Understanding other people’s perspectives can only make for a more tolerant and compassionate way of life.

In our experience, lack of representation certainly does affect the enjoyment of courses, and when speaking to other students they have said similar things. There is certainly a demand for more diversity, and when it feels like concerns in this area aren’t being heard, it can lead to a lack of enthusiasm from students. It may even mean they are less likely to continue taking English courses.

Understandably, not all staff members feel comfortable lecturing on topics of which they have no experience. In many cases, they’re worried about saying something wrong, of misrepresenting writers and their backgrounds. However, this shouldn’t stop them from teaching on certain texts, especially since a lack of POC on the staff means that, if the available staff don’t teach it, no one does. Teaching is part of re-canonisation and as pointed out by Dr Anderson: “If courses have a particular remit and are struggling to find a diversity of authors that fit into it, then we need to rethink the remit of the course.” Because of attitudes like this, improvement is happening. Individual texts on the courses have been changed and will continue to do so in the future. The staff is also looking to create entirely new courses which will allow for students to study a wider range of texts. However, these things take a long time to develop. While changes like this do not happen instantly, the diversity of texts has improved greatly within the last five years. We can only imagine the improvement that will happen in the five years to come.

While change is already happening within the department, we students also play an important role. After speaking to both Dr Baker and Dr Anderson, it has become abundantly clear that we need to use our voices. They stressed the importance of us using simple things like the SCEF forms and talking to our class representatives. They also made it clear that we shouldn’t be afraid to voice our concerns to our tutors and lecturers.

Knowing that the staff is aware of the problem and are working to improve it, we need to help them. If we don’t tell the university what we want, we’ll never get it.

Image: Freya’s own