UC Berkeley needs to diversify its English curriculum

Diverse group of people reading books
Olivia Staser/Staff

Being a student of color at UC Berkeley is immensely difficult. Walking into a classroom, students might hope to find a professor or peer that might share their language, culture and perhaps, even skin tone. There is comfort in numbers. Sadly, the odds of finding someone that shares their experiences are slim. If students struggle to find a community of their own, they may begin to feel alienated, almost as if they have to bear the burden of representing their culture. Many who have not lived in a racialized experience wonder why so many focus on their race. It might seem superficial, but for many, race has become the center of our lives. In order to combat this alienation, UC Berkeley should aim to diversify the humanities.

Although not all students of color will feel this discomfort in their classrooms, there is no denying that they are severely underrepresented. The number of Black students entering UC Berkeley is disappointingly low, standing at 3.1 percent in fall 2018. The number of entering Latinx students was just slightly ahead at 3.8 percent, while Chicanx was at 10.8 percent, and the number for Native American students landed at a tragic 0.3 percent. Numbers this jarringly low prove that there is an issue in the way academia values the presence of students of color. This is why it is essential that UC Berkeley attends to the needs of all students, and widening the curriculum is an ideal place to start. Classroom discussions are not beneficial if they lack a diverse group of voices.

For some students, the lack of diversity leads to a sense of alienation, and there are moments when one can wonder if their voice even belongs in these discussions. It is for this reason that Students of Color Emerging in English, or SOCEE, a small student organization, was formed. The organization works to bring together students of color interested in the humanities into a safe, welcoming space. SOCEE hopes to offer those who have made it to UC Berkeley a space where their voices are validated. We aim to have discussions that are not always addressed in our classrooms. Most importantly, SOCEE challenges those who have the privilege of leading a classroom to include texts written by people of color. It is crucial that students of color at UC Berkeley find a community that can relate to their experience and learn that their presence and narratives are as valid as any other.

One of the largest contributors to this alienation is the lack of diversity reflected in the canonical texts emphasized in the humanities. Of course, the works of authors such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and many more deserve the praise and their place in the canon. Unfortunately, many of the canonical authors in the curriculum seem to match the lack of diversity in our classrooms, considering that most of these authors are European. Although UC Berkeley should not remove these texts, it should also praise a diverse group of authors alongside these celebrated pieces. If English courses include a larger group of authors, then students from all backgrounds will be able to explore their own histories.

The UC Berkeley Department of English appears to have begun to hear these demands. The spring 2019 courses include topics such as Asian American literature, Latinx novels and the Harlem Renaissance. There are only a few more courses, beyond the ones listed, that appear to center themselves around racialized topics. Although it is wonderful to see that these classes are being offered, they are still a tiny chunk of the courses. These sorts of classes are still lost in a list that almost exclusively praises Anglo-European works. Additionally, most of these class are upper division courses, meaning that people’s first experiences in the English major will be centered around European texts. For example, the English department requires all English majors to complete a course focused entirely on Shakespeare. If the school hopes to expand the program, then UC Berkeley should also ask all English students to fulfill a requirement that highlights and praises authors of color in the same way they are asked to praise Shakespeare.

The humanities are special in that reading and analyzing a text can feel like an intimate process. Everyone is forced to take the time to digest language and continue to internalize the feelings that surface while reading. These texts can allow students to hear from authors who have lived similar experiences and whose voices are deemed worthy of study.

Experiencing a text that can relate to one’s manner of being is a distinctly gratifying experience. There is nothing more special than hearing a voice that resembles your own, sharing ideas on your everyday life. It is essential that educational institutions allow this validation to exist, especially UC Berkeley. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the high school dropout rates in 2016 for Black students landed at 6.2 percent, 8.6 percent for Latinx students and 5.2 percent for white students. These numbers might suggest that the material taught in our classrooms does not appeal to a diverse group of people. If we fail to open up our classrooms to highlight diverse experiences, then we prevent students from imagining themselves as participants in the academic world. Of course, reading a novel by an author of color cannot solve every issue, but it might offer a sense of visibility. It provides an opportunity to help them understand that their issues are shared by others.

Diversifying the English curriculum will not solve the issues of students of color entering the humanities. A curriculum that reflects students of color, however, can offer them a chance to see themselves as active and valuable members in academia. Even if people of color have yet to be the majority in university classrooms, the opportunity to find role models in diverse authors might encourage their pursuit of higher education. UC Berkeley needs to address the issues of all of its students and must better represent their identities. It is essential that UC Berkeley satisfies these demands and begins to decolonize the curriculum.

Jenne Herrera is a junior at UC Berkeley and an intern at Students of Color Emerging in English.