Black authors account for approximately 7.2 per cent of overall assigned authors for course readings in the four mandatory courses required for a UTSG English major or specialist, according to The Varsity’s analysis.
The Varsity looked at syllabi from this academic year for the following mandatory courses, each worth 0.5 credits: ENG202 — Introduction to British Literature I, ENG203 — Introduction to British Literature II , ENG250 — Introduction to American Literature, and ENG252 — Introduction to Canadian Literature. It should be noted that English professors design their own syllabi independently, meaning that featured authors may change over the years and across instructors.
Of 83 assigned authors across the four courses in 2020, only six were Black. ENG202 — Introduction to British Literature I, had no Black authors in the syllabus among the 24 authors assigned. ENG203 — Introduction to British Literature II, had one Black author out of 17 authors, Zadie Smith. ENG250 — Introduction to American Literature, had three Black authors studied out of 19 authors: Felix, an enslaved person, Frederick Douglass, and Jesmyn Ward. Felix’s petition was a letter signed to the Massachusetts legislature in 1773, describing the dire conditions under which slaves were treated, and had a lone signatory, Felix. Finally, ENG252 — Introduction to Canadian Literature, had two Black authors studied out of 23 authors, Austin Clarke and Dionne Brand.
Students in an English major are also required to take an additional credit, and specialists are required to take two additional credits in pre-1800s British literature. Both majors and specialists must take a half credit in Indigenous, post-colonial, or transnational literature.
Adriana Williams, writing on behalf of U of T’s Black Students’ Association, told The Varsity that “historically it has been Eurocentric/Western literature and thought that would be the base of many misconceptions about Blackness as a whole.” Williams asked: “Why should we continue to push out [a Black] narrative?”
As far as solutions toward the lack of representation of Black authors on mandatory English course syllabi, Williams wrote that it begins with the department: “The English program needs to create more specific program requirements that involve reading literature outside of the West.” Williams also emphasized the importance of having Black staff teach courses on Black literature.
Associate Chair of the English department, Naomi Morgenstern, told The Varsity that only looking at the required courses does not give a “good enough sense of what most students end up reading over the course of their degree.”
Morgenstern also emphasized that in order to do decolonization work within English, “It’s really helpful [to] read canonical things critically,” and stressed that the English department is interested in hearing feedback from students on the curriculum, noting that it would be willing to have discussions on the topic.
A U of T Media Relations spokesperson told The Varsity in an email that diversifying courses is an “ongoing effort” at the university, and that when programs come under review they are “prompted to consider the extent to which initiatives have been undertaken to enhance the program’s diversity.” Programs are required to be reviewed by the Office of the Vice-Provost, Academic Programs every eight or fewer years.