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English students petition for more diversity in curriculum, hiring

The Undergraduate English Literature Association at Boston University is advocating for more diversity among faculty and coursework in the English department. KANKANIT WIRIYASAJJA/ DFP FILE

Students are calling for greater diversity in faculty hires and coursework in Boston University’s English department, according to a petition sent to English students Wednesday and shared among department heads Friday.

The Undergraduate English Literature Association, which launched the petition, claims the department lacks not just racial diversity, but also “expertise, financial background, and education,” the petition reads, leading many students to believe communication with faculty has become “one-sided and intimidating.”

In addition, UELA wrote many of the courses students are required to take focus on “Eurocentric, White male ideals” that offer students a narrow perspective on literature.

UELA member and letter co-author Sabine Tessono, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the petition aims to introduce conversation about diversity at BU.

“The main thing that we wanted to accomplish with this letter is to have an open dialogue with both the English department and with BU,” Tessano said, “so they can actually be more transparent about … what they’re doing to address these [concerns].”

The letter does not lay out specific steps or actions the department should take, Tessono said, because UELA wants the department to come up with its own solutions to these problems.

“As students, it’s not necessarily our job to solve these issues,” Tessono said. “It’s not necessarily our job to come up with these administrative decisions.”

She said the petition was motivated by a need to address diversity and racial injustice within the department and the University as a whole, especially after the police shootings during the summer.

“It’s kind of been these long-standing issues that everyone knows needs to be solved,” Tessono said, “but what really prompted it was the issues that happened over the summer and the need to support diversity and inclusion in general.”

Tessono said the letter “surprisingly” received widespread support from English students, including students of color who have reached out to Tessono to express their gratitude.

“Historically, English has been a white male field, and there aren’t a lot of POC students in the English department,” Tessono said. “I think it addressed that feeling of isolation that a lot of POC students, including myself, have felt with the department and within the major.”

English Department Chair Robert Chodat said he was “happy” to see the petition, and that the department had already started the process of curricular reform last year to address diversity in its program.

“We found in the research that we’ve done,” Chodat said, “that the basic structure of the English major is pretty antiquated relative to other English departments around the country.”

He cited examples of outdated curriculum within the BU English department, such as the survey in British literature courses required for English majors. Chodat said the field of literary studies changed significantly in the last 20 years.

“I think the petition is right to suggest that the curriculum that’s now there doesn’t fully reflect the interests and realities of students in 2020,” Chodat said. “I think that’s entirely true.”

If change is going to happen, Chodat said, it has to be “now,” because the curriculum changes take time to implement and must go through many levels. While the department has control over the curriculum, it has less power over the hiring process.He added that he hopes this message is spread throughout other BU’s departments as well..

CAS senior Maddy Clemente said she supports the petition, and was pleased to see expressed in the letter perspectives from people who shared her concerns.

“It makes people feel less alienated,” Clemente said. “I didn’t know other people were thinking the same way I was.”

Clemente said she agrees the lack of diversity in English faculty makes it intimidating for students to try to relate to their professors. However, she said, it is not a reflection on the faculty themselves.

She said she is doubtful these issues will tangibly be addressed, citing a memo sent over the summer by Joseph Bizup, associate dean for Undergraduate Academic Programs and Policies, asking teachers to self-censor their language in relation to COVID-19 this Fall.

Chodat wrote he emailed English students Monday evening informing them of a survey to be released in upcoming weeks as the English department reviews its curriculum to consider changing degree requirements and courses offered. The survey, he added, will have questions about the curriculum and student experience. 

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