The Record has a nice, thorough article on the call for a boycott of the English department, by Danny Jin, Samuel Wolf, and Kevin Yang. Some passages, and thoughts, from the article.
The original petition said the boycott will not end until the College searches for a senior-level woman of color from outside of the College to chair the English department, immediately runs searches for tenure-track faculty members specializing in African American, Latinx, Native American and Asian American literature, and conducts an external investigation of English. The petition revised the demand for a chair, calling instead for the hiring of a senior faculty member specializing in ethnic literature.
Any thoughts on why the petition-writers reversed their demand for a chair? How do you think they came to that decision to revise their demands down? To me, the original demand just seems unnecessarily and unproductively specific, so that would be my reasoning, but after publishing something like this and having it get such a large amount of traction, it seems odd to backstep like that.
The petition calls out what its creators see as a “racist culture” in the department.
My anecdotal evidence doesn’t and shouldn’t mean much, but from my perspective as a student, this view that there’s some degree of a racist culture in the English department, while not necessarily a mainstream or majority view, certainly wasn’t a controversial one. Even before the whole Kent-Wang altercation came up at the end of last year, it was the sort of thing that you’d hear from relatively non “radical” or politically engaged English majors, just your typical students–that English classes were unexpectedly conservative in many ways, that many professors were behind the times and used their subject matter as an excuse not to consider the importance of a world beyond the white literature that might have been their specialty. This all to say, yes, it’s news that there’s some level of organized “boycott” happening now, but for students, I don’t think this is adding so much new to the conversation as it might seem to be from the outside.
Kent also emphasized the range of professors in the department with experience in “scholarship of underrepresented groups.” She cited Owen, Love, Associate Professor of English Anjuli Raza Kolb (who currently teaches at the University of Toronto), Associate Professor of English Bernie Rhie and Franny Choi, a Bolin Fellow in English who will teach next spring.
This made me laugh a bit, that Kent’s great defense of the range of professors dealing with diverse scholarship involves so many notable absences–Love’s from last semester, Choi who isn’t even here yet, Raza Kolb who left for Toronto even after getting tenure.
From an article last year, “A closer look at departures of College faculty of color”:
Although Raza Kolb received tenure this year, she began applying for other jobs when she became worried about a possible negative outcome of her tenure decision. “The process is not designed to adequately assess the work of scholars in what are still considered marginal fields,” said Raza Kolb, who specializes in postcolonial literature. She chose to pursue the position in Toronto after she received tenure.
Raza Kolb also cited issues mentioned in the FSI report, such as a lack of recognition for the increased service burdens of faculty of color and comments from peers that she would not fit in the College community. Indeed, according to Raza Kolb, the College is hostile to faculty of color in many ways that are at first easy to miss. “In addition to issues of culture and community, the college has deep problems of discrimination and bias in many places that are hard to see at first – benefits, disciplinary and grievance procedures, sexual misconduct and harassment policies and protocols, evaluation and promotion, support for research and special projects, retention and merit recognition.”
Raza Kolb also pushed back against narratives for her departure that are centered around the geography of the Berkshires. “It’s easy to tell ourselves a routine story about why faculty of color leave,” she said. “It often comes down to location. I’m not stepping away from my position because I’m uncomfortable in Western Massachusetts. I’m reevaluating my relationship to the institution because I haven’t been treated fairly here, or seen through my pre-tenure years in a reasonable, above board way.”
During my time at Williams, I took classes with Raza Kolb, along with Rhie, who was mentioned in Kent’s list of great diverse professors. Both Anjuli and Bernie taught my absolute favorite courses at Williams, English courses which really changed the way I see literature and its role in the world. Both engage substantially with texts of all kinds–including many, many texts by white, canonical authors. Bernie’s area of scholarship is largely on Wittgenstein; Raza Kolb deals just as much with colonial literature (literature by those who colonized–think Kipling and Conrad) as with post-colonial (literature by the formerly-colonized). They deal with these texts with care and intense scholarly interest; what makes these classes so interesting, and so valuable to students, is that the texts by white canonical authors are not the only texts they treat as such. Rather, they recognize, and embrace, the fact that English literature comes from many non-white, non-canonical authors, and bring those texts as intensely into the literary conversation. That’s what made those courses so fantastic for me, and the fact that great professors like Raza Kolb are disappearing from the college seems like such a shame to me.
Finally, in yesterday’s post on the topic of the boycott, DDF wrote:
I believe that EphBlog, although unmentioned in the article, is fundamentally responsible for this turning into a national story. A comment from a longtime reader about the boycott appears on November 1. This led to blog posts from John Drew and Jerry Coyne on November 3. This led to right wing coverage at places like Breitbart and the College Fix yesterday. (I could be wrong about the causative chain. Perhaps the same person who tipped us also tipped Coyne and others.) How long before this story breaks into the New York Times?
Do we really take ourselves that seriously? Coverage by right-wing blogs desperate for any sort of story that fits their views of college students as snowflake liberals doesn’t necessarily make this a national story, and no matter how frequently EphBlog wants to declare every little controversy at Williams to be fundamental in the national collegiate political landscape, I really doubt Williams’ small-scale petitions and open letters quite warrant New York Times coverage.