‘To be or not to be’: English faculty members debate Shakespeare requirement

A current proposal to revise the major would continue to require students to take a Shakespeare course.

Douglas Kearney, an assistant professor in the Department of English, fields questions from his colleagues in Lind Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. The department’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee developed its first-ever report which lays out a plan to improve diversity across curriculum and personnel.

Nur B. Adam

Douglas Kearney, an assistant professor in the Department of English, fields questions from his colleagues in Lind Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. The department’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee developed its first-ever report which lays out a plan to improve diversity across curriculum and personnel.

Farrah Mina

University of Minnesota English department faculty members are in contention over requiring English majors to take a course on William Shakespeare, a provision most top universities have discarded.

The English department undergraduate studies committee created a proposal that suggests adding an upper-level diversity requirement to better integrate “diverse authors and subjects into the curriculum.” However, it maintains the class “Introduction to Shakespeare,” the only single-author course required in the major.

Some faculty members called into question whether the department should continue to require undergraduate students to take the Shakespeare course over concerns that the curriculum centers around a white male perspective. 

“You can’t be saying you’re for diversity, and then say, ‘By the way, the most important writer is Shakespeare — a white man,’” said Qadri Ismail, a professor in the English Department. Ismail chaired the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee that wrote a report in the fall and made several recommendations to the department, including curricular reforms.

However, there is strong opposition to removing the Shakespeare requirement, said Douglas Kearney, a professor in the English Department and the current EDI committee co-chair.

Four of the top 52 universities and liberal arts colleges required their English majors to take a Shakespeare class, according a 2015 study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that was cited in the EDI report.

Despite offering classes in areas such as African American, Native American and Asian American literature, the department does not require students to take them.

“It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a student could go through our program having never taken a class in literature that exposes to them to anyone who’s not white,” said Mariela Lemus, a graduate student and EDI committee member.

The department will convene later this month to discuss and potentially take a vote on the proposed curricular revisions. If approved, the changes could go into effect next fall.

John Watkins, a professor in the English department, has taught Shakespeare several times. Though Watkins said he thinks the department should cut down its requirements as a whole, he said the matter should not come down to Eurocentrism. 

“England happens to be part of Europe. If you’re going to work on England at all, you’re dealing with Europe,” he said. “Anyone teaching that course is probably teaching it with global context.” 

When he teaches Shakespeare, Watkins said he incorporates race, gender and sexuality, while also looking at interventions in Africa and the Atlantic.

Josephine Lee, a professor in the department and co-chair of the EDI committee, said she does not agree that Shakespeare should remain a requirement for the major. However, it is possible to incorporate EDI values when teaching it, she said.

“… As someone who has taught Shakespeare many times, I do think there are ways of teaching this subject so that we can see the integral connections between the work of this dead white male author and the anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-militaristic aims of EDI — as well as the performative impulse to simplify deep conflicts by generating stageworthy heroes and villains,” Lee said in an email.

A student’s experience taking the course will ultimately depend on how the professor decides to teach the class, Lemus said. 

“I don’t have much faith that we could guarantee our undergrads that Shakespeare will be taught in a more contemporary way. It all depends on who’s teaching it,” Lemus said. “… I think that’s unfair for undergrads.”

Senior students have shown in surveys declining support for the Shakespeare course, said Andrew Elfenbein, the chair of the department. Elfenbein said although he has encountered students who have expressed concerns about the course, he has also been approached by students who have been enthusiastic about it. 

When asked about his opinion about the requirement, Elfenbein said he will follow what the department recommends.

The University of Minnesota is not alone in having these discussions. In the past, the University of California-Los Angeles required its English majors to take three single-author courses. Students had to take courses about John Milton and Geoffrey Chaucer, in addition to Shakespeare, in order to graduate. It removed this requirement in 2011.

Despite receiving public criticism for this decision, UCLA is still seeing full Shakespeare classes nine years later, according to Janel Munguia, an undergraduate counselor in the Department of English at UCLA. 

“Shakespeare hasn’t really gone anywhere,” she said.