By DEANNA BIONDI
The first literature class I took at UMW was Novels of the Bronte Sisters, my very first semester, and I loved it. The second semester of my freshman year that I took Global Issues in Literature, the only literature class I found that didn’t revolve around Western literature. In that class I was exposed to literature by authors of Mexican, Indian, African, and Native American descent, and some of the novels I read in that class became new favorites.
When it came time to choose classes for the first semester of my junior year I decided I wanted to further expand the diversity of the literature that I read. Inspired by my Global Issues in Literature course, I looked through the list of courses and couldn’t find many non-Western literature classes that were still available for that semester.
I ended up choosing American Romanticism, which, while it did include minority writers, wasn’t quite the level of diversity that I was looking for. It was during registration that I discovered the larger issue of the university offering literature courses that are, for the most part, centered around Western cultures and ideologies.
A list of UMW’s nationally and/or culturally focused literature courses can be found on the university’s online course catalog for the 2018-2019 academic year, including both courses offered during just one semester and in both. The list includes a total of 65 literature courses. Of these 65 courses, 45 of them focus on Western nations or writers without narrowing down the topic to a historically marginalized group.
This leaves only 20 (about 31 percent) non-Western literature courses the university offers. Of these 20 courses, at least five of them are described as “global” or “postcolonial” literature courses, rather than specifying a nation, culture, or writer, unlike almost all of the detailed Western literature courses.
Recently, the requirements for the English major were altered for the purpose of expanding the cultural range of literature that English majors are exposed to. According to the UMW English, Linguistics, and Communications department webpage, these changes include that “the three 300-level literature courses must include at least: one course in pre-1900 literature; one course in post-1900 literature, and one course in literature of historically marginalized groups.” While this may appear to be a positive effort on the part of the ELC Department, students within the English major are still limited in their options for literature of historically marginalized groups.
The ELC Department includes courses focused on female writers under this category, which is without a doubt a positive and valid inclusion. This inclusion, however, allows English majors to restrict their literature courses to being focused on Western nations and cultures. Even with these new restrictions, all three required 300-level literature courses, as well as the three remaining elective courses, could be met with six different courses on British literature, let alone Western literature in general.
Even with the established inclusion of courses on female writers, there are comparatively few options for courses focused on literature of marginalized groups. Exposure to different forms of literature is not only about the enjoyment of different stories, or about discovering new writers. Non-Western literature allows readers to discover Eastern cultures through stories, but most importantly, causes readers to develop a broader understanding of the world through the voices of writers from different nations and cultural groups.
The ELC Department should alter the English major even further to require students to take at least one non-Western literature course. By limiting the choices that students have regarding culturally-focused literature, they are also limiting the range of cultures and global knowledge that they’re exposed to.