Barnard student petitions against ‘Eurocentric literature’

More than 200 students at Barnard College have signed on to a petition demanding that the school’s English department reform its “Eurocentric” focus on pre-1900’s literature.

The “Petition for Diversifying the the Barnard English Major” was written by student Mya Nunnally, an English major who feels that the department’s “focus on the Western Canon as the standard for literary excellence” overshadows literature written by people of color. 

“By focusing on Eurocentric literature, Barnard’s English major perpetuates a vicious, exclusionary cycle,” writes Nunnally, adding that the English department creates an “academic space that erases all the crucial contributions of other cultures.” 

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“Not only is this blatantly racially biased, it has lead [sic] to many students avoiding the major in favor of some that are more inclusive,” Nunnally adds. 

Out of 10 required classes for an English major, four must be focused on the pre-1900s, according to the department. 

In an interview with Campus Reform, Nunnally said she has felt a “gradual frustration” as a student of color majoring in English, explaining that “Once I knew that I wasn’t the only person who felt this way, I decided something needed to be done.”

Her petition also points out that other issues within the department include “lack of diverse courses overall” and a “lack of faculty of color.” 

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To address those complaints, Nunnally’s petition calls for the school to hire more professors of color, require all Barnard students to take a class in non-Western literature, and require certain classes to “have at least half the syllabus composed of marginalized voices.” 

She also demands that the pre-1900s requirement—which students usually fulfill by taking classes on Shakespeare, Othello, or The Canterbury Tales—need not focus on English or American authors, arguing that “the amount of literature pre-1900 created across the globe is enormous, groundbreaking, and just as important.”

These changes are necessary, Nunnally told Campus Reform, because “on a grand level, the current curricula fosters an environment of Eurocentrism and implicit racism that leaks into the ‘real world.’”

“When the major pushes away writers of color, and centers white narratives, it perpetuates this [lack of racial diversity in the publishing industry at large],” she asserted.

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The message from Barnard to students, Nunnally said, is that “only white men write things to be studied, dissected, and written about further,” claiming that this message “alienates us in an already isolating world, and it has a palpable, toxic impact.” 

The petition was first published on Saturday, and has received more than 200 signatures thus far, Nunnally said. 

UPDATE: Barnard College has provided the following statement to Campus Reform in response to the petition:

”The Barnard College English major is designed to foster excellent writing, effective speaking and heightened understanding of culturally significant texts.  The curriculum exposes majors to texts from a variety of genres, theoretical approaches, and historical periods ranging from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present. Because many of our courses explore texts in their historical contexts, issues of race, gender, and ethnicity are often central to their concerns, even when the courses are not explicitly focused on race and gender. We understand that some students have concerns about the curriculum, and we encourage students to continue to share their thoughts directly with the Department of English so that we can have a productive discussion on this matter. ”

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