Author: Arielle Laub
As an inter-disciplinary school, Occidental can boast the label of “liberal arts college.” Yet, its humanities – the backbone of a liberal arts education – flounder.
As an ECLS major with a creative writing emphasis, humanities are my home. It is within these disciplines that myself and others find the puzzles we know how to solve, the problems which bait our curiosities and the professors who challenge and inspire us. Upon opening the most recent course catalogue, an event usually filled with eagerness to discover new academic wonders, it became apparent that the courses offered by the ECLS department are subpar and redundant.
How is it possible that Occidental has allowed its English & Comparative Literary Studies (ECLS) department to deteriorate? The department boasts excellent professors, all of whom are experts in their field. Yet the course catalogue offers only fourteen classes for the fall semester, and most of these focus on the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition.
Professor Near, chair of the ECLS department, explained in an interview with the Occidental Weekly that the department has ten working professors at the moment, four of whom teach minority literature, which means that 40 percent of the department is devoted to the non-Anglo-Saxon. And yet, when students read the course catalogue, options feel suffocated in a blanket of musty, European tradition with some American feminism and black radicalism thrown in for good measure.
One could assume perhaps this is because the fall semester always focuses on offering courses that satisfy core requirements, and that the department’s plan is to offer a wider range of courses in the spring. But in the 28 classes being offered in the ECLS department over the next two semesters, only four focus on minority literature. Three of those, taught by Professor Ford, are on black literature. And only one, taught by Professor Neti, is on 19th century literature and Bollywood cinema.
There is a glaring disparity between the ethnic diversity on campus and the offerings in the ECLS department. Some may claim that the department is doing the best it can, given its small staff and limited resources. Others may make the case that it is the responsibility of the department to offer a more diverse course load. However Near claimed that when minority literature classes were offered, they didn’t attract enough student interest and were subsequently cancelled.
“One of the biggest problems in the department is that a lot of students who are attracted to the department have a very a-political orientation towards literature,” member of the ECLS Student Committee for Policy Tania Flores (senior) said,
Some students in the weaker departments on campus also look to other places for additional majors, minors or emphases. “I felt like there were a lot of theoretical tools that I wanted to learn related to race and sexuality that I wasn’t going to learn in ECLS,” Flores said, who’s double majoring in ECLS and Critical Theories & Social Justice. Flores’s comments mirror the concerns of many ECLS majors.
I began questioning why it is that I am so in need of minority literature, of world views in opposition to my own. Why do I feel unable to read critically without theory of race and sexuality? Is it because I did not start my college career at Occidental, but instead at Bard College? Bard has many flaws, and it has never compared to the life-changing experiences I have had at Occidental. But what it holds higher than anything else is the importance of thinking critically, imbuing students with this mentality during their first year. Unlike Occidental, Bard has a single first-year seminar program that introduces students to critical theory and close-reading. It encourages curiosity about history, culture and theory at the beginning of a student’s college career.
I had been applying this knowledge to my studies at Occidental, never realizing that those who lacked this experience did not have the same jumping off point which catalyzed their interest in the humanities. It is no wonder, then, that the ECLS department remains small, its minority literature classes under-enrolled and its professorial staff diminishing.
During one’s first year, the college does not instill in its students the founding tenet of the liberal arts education – think. Challenging students to discover, inquire and think about ideas in new ways is central to the college’s interdisciplinary commitment. Every discipline complements the other – it is why English majors are required to take a science or math class and biology majors a fine art course. And though curiosity is in many ways innate, it is the role of a college to make a student rejoice in all that they do not know.
Literature and writing allow us to holistically understand different peoples and cultures. It is that thing which opens our eyes to worlds beyond our own, that reminds us that our experiences are not singular.
Ari Laub is a junior ECLS major. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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