The Anti-Racist English Department
What We Believe
We believe that studying English necessarily means confronting the history and persistence of racism, imperialism, and settler-colonialism across the English-speaking world. Our efforts to recognize and respond to these histories fundamentally shape our pedagogy and inform the methods and material that we teach.
We also recognize the centrality of BIPOC artists to all of the literary, film, media, and performance traditions we teach in this department. Many of our courses focus exclusively on such artists–and you will encounter their work in nearly all of our courses.
Meanwhile, we also welcome multiple Englishes into our classrooms and onto our syllabi. This includes not only the many varieties of British and American English, but also the English of people who speak this language all over the world. Courses on translation, creolization, and multilingualism offer special opportunities to reflect on this fundamental multiplicity of “English.”
Where We Are
The English Department’s faculty has diversified dramatically in recent years. As recently as 2011, we were an overwhelmingly white department, with only a small number of Black faculty members and no other BIPOC faculty. Now, roughly half of the full-time faculty in English are BIPOC, including professors who are Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American. Our Creative Writing program, homogeneously white in 2011, is now led by women of color, who make up more than half of our Creative Writing faculty.
Our student body in English is defined not only by BIPOC representation, but also by BIPOC excellence. As Amherst College has diversified its student body, both by race and socioeconomics, the English Department has kept pace with–and at many times exceeded–the diversity of Amherst College as a whole. In a typical year, slightly fewer than half of our majors are American students of color; this is equal to the number of white, American students who major in English. Our smaller cohort of international majors offer their own mind-expanding perspective on American approaches to race. Our BIPOC students complete honors theses at a rate equivalent to their fellow English majors, and at a rate far exceeding the college average.
Our curriculum requirements are designed not around content, but around skills–e.g., close analysis and frequent writing at the 100-level vs. introductions to particular genres and methods at the 200-level. This gives students and professors maximal freedom to determine the subject matter covered in individual courses and throughout the English major.
We fill each level of the curriculum with courses that feature BIPOC creators and encourage deep thinking about race and racialization. The only content-based requirement is a one-course minimum in pre-1800 material. There, too, students can focus on questions of race and racialization–whether in well-established courses like “Indigenous American Epics” or in more recently developed courses like “Race and Otherness in the Middle Ages” and “BIPOC Shakespeares.”
Meanwhile, students have the opportunity to count courses toward the English major offered by other departments across the college, as well as from study abroad programs. The English Department routinely cross-lists courses on BIPOC or non-Western subjects from American Studies, Art & Art History, Asian Languages & Civilizations, Black Studies, European Studies, Film & Media Studies, Religion, Russian, Theater & Dance, and Sexuality, Women’s & Gender Studies. Cross-listed courses count directly toward the major and its level-based requirements. Students are also allowed, with their advisor’s permission, to count two other courses (e.g., from study abroad programs or the Five Colleges) toward the major. This gives students even more flexibility and choice in course selection, which we, in our role as advisors, encourage them to tailor to anti-racist ends.
Central to the life of an anti-racist department must be opportunities to bond with faculty and fellow students over shared interests and goals. A key opportunity for such community-building occurs each year during our Capstone Symposium, when senior majors gather to share advanced work they are doing in honors theses or 400-level courses. Every year, we leave the symposium in awe of the diversity of interests and expertise they develop in the English Department.
Other opportunities to form a strong English community include the Creative Writing Program’s reading series (including an end-of-year reading by our students), the Writing Studio (a joint venture of the Creative and Intensive Writing Programs), and the Thesis Workshop courses (ENGL492 and ENGL497) in which students join together to support one another and to reflect on the intellectual and emotional work of thesis-writing. Fellowships at the Folger Shakespeare Library, internships at The Common (a literary journal), and programs at the Emily Dickinson House also give students the opportunity to learn and grow together.
Meanwhile, our Student Steering Committee–which we work hard to keep both diverse and representative of our students–allows a dedicated group of our majors to have a say in setting the course of the English Department. Members of this committee arrange and publicize departmental events, weigh in on some policy changes and on all hiring decisions, and take the lead in pursuing co-curricular initiatives of their own devising.
Where We’re Going
Anti-racism is a journey, not a destination. The work is ongoing, and it includes the following goals for the coming years:
- To reinvent the future of Black literary & cultural studies at the college, with the help of our colleagues in Black Studies, with whom we collaborated during AY2021-22 to hire three new faculty members in these areas.
- To grow our curriculum in Asian American literature & culture, hopefully by hiring a full-time faculty member who specializes in that field. We have already been working with students, alumni, and other faculty who are pushing Amherst College to create a new program in Asian American Studies and to include more Asian American content in existing courses.
- To expand and more clearly define the powers and responsibilities of the Student Steering Committee, who already do so much to forge a sense of community in the department.
- To continue expanding the range of courses we teach that focus exclusively on race, or on the work of BIPOC people.
- To continue interrogating the ways we run our classrooms, in search of more actively anti-racist practices. (E.g., our faculty has been leading the conversation at Amherst College about alternative and anti-racist grading practices.)
Black Minds Matter
The #BlackMindsMatter walkout has drawn much-needed attention to the experience of students whose studies are impeded by the terror, anger, and grief that accompanies each instance of racist violence in America. We are deeply concerned about these manifestations of white supremacy, from police murders of Black citizens to the ongoing epidemic of violence against Asian Americans. The English faculty see the psychic harm this kind of racist violence causes, and we are committed to supporting our students. To that end, we want to formally recognize such experiences as valid reasons for “excused absence” from our classes. We also commit to working flexibly with students to help them complete their coursework in ways that don’t overburden them. Our classrooms must be supportive spaces for Black students, AAPI students, Indigenous students, and all students of color. Your education should never come at the expense of your well-being.
Black Lives Matter: A Letter to the Community
The Amherst College English Department stands united with those who protest against police violence and who fight for Black lives. With one voice we say: Black Lives Matter.
We also know that saying these words can only do so much. We also have to enact their meaning every day. Back in 2015, amid the Amherst Uprising, we stood in Frost Library with you and affirmed “our commitment to racial justice on campus and beyond, to raising consciousness about matters of race, and to redressing the long history of racial discrimination on campus.” Today, we recommit ourselves to the daily labor of combating anti-blackness in our classrooms and communities.
As scholars of art and culture, we turn to art as an emotional and intellectual resource in trying times. As our streets and screens fill with images of oppression and resistance, we draw solace and power from art that challenges white supremacy and helps us see, feel, and imagine new kinds of freedom. We believe it is important to share such art—and such perspectives on art—in every corner of our curriculum. At Amherst, you’ll find that a course on Shakespeare can focus on the formation of modern concepts of race (as ours will this fall) or that an introductory course on TV can devote itself to representations of race and policing (as ours will this spring). Courses like these have an important role to play in providing a robust, anti-racist English curriculum.
We also recognize the importance of providing courses that immerse students fully in Black intellectual traditions and are taught by specialists in those traditions. Recent faculty departures and upcoming retirements threaten our ability to keep that promise into the future. We see this as an existential threat to the department, and have made it our top departmental priority in coming years. Those faculty must (at a minimum) be replaced so that Black art and thought can continue to be taught by world-class experts and career-stable faculty in English. Meanwhile, we will fight to create a college that hires, supports, and retains faculty of color—not only in these fields, but across the curriculum.
We know we can count on Amherst students to be our partners in this struggle. Back in 2015, we expressed our admiration for the “intelligence, emotional bravery, and sensitivity” of Amherst students engaged in anti-racist work. As we collectively imagine the future of English at Amherst, we hope you’ll set the bar high—and we welcome you to speak up whenever we fall short.
We look forward to having these conversations with you and to transforming the intellectual space that we share.