I seem to be late to the most recent row in the media over Cambridge University’s English literature degree course, which centres on an open letter written by students to the head of the faculty, on the subject of decolonising the reading list and including more literature by BME authors. I knew about the letter, but didn’t see that the Telegraph had decided to run a predictably stupid story in response to it. I must’ve missed it while I was cowering under my desk cravenly begging my students to stop turning the thumbscrews, or possibly during the 30 hours I spent last week preparing, marking, and delivering supervisions on Chaucer’s Legend of Philomela and the romance The King of Tars.
My choice of texts here isn’t incidental. I teach Philomela because, although it’s a gory and graphic rape narrative, I’ve found it offers important and rigorous ways for students to think about misogyny, literature, and the aestheticisation of sexual violence. I teach Tars because the text depicts a romance between a black Muslim man and a white European woman, and forces us to confront the possibility that medieval authors were interested both in crass, sensationalist, anti-miscegenationist narratives, and in the possibility of sexual desire and intimacy between profoundly different religious and racial groups. And my students write and say things about these texts that challenge me, and (I hope and trust) challenge them. They come up with searching, probing close readings and they interrogate what’s been said already. They demonstrate the best of what an English literature degree should be about.
In the Guardian, Jason Okundaye dissects the ways in which the Telegraph misrepresented the Open Letter debate, and particularly represented its author, Lola Olufemi, whose picture they blazoned across the top of their article. Okundaye makes the point that this debate has been depicted as a zero-sum game, as if white authors must be booted out if black authors are to be included. Obviously, this is nonsensical, but let’s imagine what might happen if we included more diversity.
One of the proposals suggested in the Open Letter is that each paper taught should contain two or more postcolonial or BME authors. A (non-Cambridge) medievalist I vaguely know commented, sneeringly, that black medieval English authors were thin on the ground – and my heart sank. A major trend in recent scholarship on medieval literature reminds us that medieval readers in England were immensely more linguistically diverse than most English academics are now: they often read in French and Latin, as well as English, and the English writings they read might be informed by Italian, Dutch, Welsh, Scots, and even Arabic or Hebrew literatures. I would like to teach English literature in the context of other languages. I think it is peculiar and rather old-fashioned to teach medieval English literature in isolation from French or Latin – and there’s a case to be made that English history has treated French medieval literature as a colonised subject, a position from which it is still only slowly recovering.
But my issues aren’t limited to the (let’s admit) fairly low-stakes question of Englishness versus Frenchness, and the Brexit-tastic status of medieval England in the context of medieval Europe. If I could teach French literature, I could teach far more about Arabic literature that reached France. If I could teach Spanish literature, I could look at the transition of Moorish texts. If I could teach anything outside England (which expelled its Jewish population in a gruesome and terrifying manner in the twelfth century), I could teach medieval Jewish writings. I would like to teach these things, not because I have some box-ticking desire to ‘diversify’ my reading lists, but because they are worth teaching. They enrich the picture of medieval literature. They are important, in their own right.
A friend of mine, reading the Open Letter, made the fair comment that it’s sad to think that students feel they need to be given permission to read widely and diversely. I agree with this. I want to make my students feel they can interrogate and challenge what they’re being told to read. I want to make them feel they can push back against the parade of dead white men – and I want to make them feel they can demand more, and better, ways to change the way we read and study English literature. I keep trying to achieve this, and I keep feeling furious at the silencing, shaming pressure that comes from articles like the one in the Telegraph. As hard as we work to open up English Literature for students, these articles work hard to knock them back into place, to teach them that to question or challenge authority is wrong, to disagree with the status quo is lazy and entitled.
Who benefits from these articles? Clearly not the students who signed the letter, who’re being represented as snowflake censors, unable to accept that black literature just doesn’t belong in an illustrious Cambridge degree. Clearly not the students who read the letter, who now get the message that interrogating literary canonicity and its tacit bigotries is somehow beyond the scope of their degrees (rather than being an integral part of the work they should be doing). And clearly not me, as I spend yet another evening angrily writing a blog about why a decolonised medieval curriculum matters, instead of marking the eight student essays on my desk.