When 29 Courses on Black Writing Isn’t Enough at Williams

The readers, writers, and editors of Minding the Campus have it all wrong. If they were to hear the words “Williams College English Department,” a vision of politically correct, exquisitely liberal professors would instantly spring to mind. If they went to the department web site, to be sure, they could find support for their judgment, too. Emphasis #2 listed on the page describing the major begins like this:

Some English majors are especially interested in questions of power and politics.

After a few clichés about inequality and subjugation, we have a final sentence enumerating the identity-politics orientations available to undergraduates at Williams:

English majors working in this mode draw extensively on critical theory of various kinds: feminism, queer theory, anti-imperial and postcolonial studies, and critical race theory, among others.

What else, then, could English at Williams be but a leftist-based study of victimized groups? The list of courses offered by the department includes:

  • “Black Literature Matters”
  • “Twentieth Century Black Poets”
  • “Black Writing to/from/about Prison”
  • “Slavery and the Making of a Literary Tradition”
  • “Direct Action & Other Political Acts in Black Cultural Texts”
  • “Gender and Sexuality in the Neo-slave Narrative”
  • “Introduction to African American Literature”
  • “Blackness and Visual Expression”
  • “Black Women in African American Literature and Culture”
  • “Staging Race and Gender”
  • “’As If Her Mouth Were a Weapon’: Jamaica Kincaid”
  • “Being American, Being Muslim: American Muslim Literature in the 21st Century”
  • “Black Queer Looks: Race, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary African American Film”
  • “Thinking Diaspora: The Black Atlantic and Beyond”
  • “Groovin’ the Written Word: The Role of Music in African American Literature”
  • “Blackness, Theater, Theatricality”
  • “Black Migrations: African American Performance and Home and Abroad”
  • “Race and Abstraction”
  • “Experimental African American Poetry”
  • “Writing in the Margins: Race, Performance, and Playgiarism”
  • “The Great Debates: African American Literary Criticism”
  • “Black Counterpublic Sphere in Early America”
  • “Race and Feeling in Twentieth Century Literature”
  • “Negative Affects in African American Literature”
  • “Comic Lives: Graphic Novels & Dangerous Histories of the African Diaspora”
  • “Mobility & Confinement in Black Women’s Personal Narratives”
  • “Freedom Dreams, Afro-Futures & Visionary Fictions”
  • “Black Literary and Cultural Theories”
  • “Blackness and Gender: The Drag of Black Masculinity”

That makes a total of 29 courses on race in general and African Americans in particular, out of the 198 courses listed that have an identifiable subject (excluding, that is, independent studies and generic courses such as expository writing, which may or may not focus on African American materials). Furthermore, I do not include in the list of 29 any courses on feminism (“The Feminist Poetry Movement,” “Living a Feminist Life”), Asian Americans (“Reading Asian American Literature,” “Experimental Asian American Writing,” “Asian American Writing and the Visual Arts”), or politics (““Contemporary Literature, Postcolonial Studies, & the Politics of Culture in the Age of Trump” and “The Orientalist Sublime and the Politics of Horror,” whose description begins, “Islamophobia is on the rise once again . . .”).

Add to those numbers the fact that African Americans make up only around seven percent of the student body at Williams—roughly 150 students out of 2100—and it is clear that the English department pays disproportionate attention to this particular group identity. (This is a standard leftist calculation based upon the demand that the course content reflects the group experience of the students.) What else could we conclude, but that the department is a leftist haven?

But despite all this evidence, you’re all wrong if you think the department is filled with broad-minded, liberal academics sensitive to racial injustice and committed to diversity. Here is the truth about English at Williams. The revelations were made recently in the form of a series of questions that appeared under the command “BOYCOTT ENGLISH.”

Did you know that the Williams College English Department . . .

Has only ever tenured a single professor in Ethnic Literature?

Has had multiple incidences of professors using racial slurs in classes and candidate interviews?

Has a chair who has verbally abused other faculty members in public, with no disciplinary action taken against her? [This allegation may refer to this incident.]

Has sparked two open letters written by students/alums protesting its discriminatory actions in the past four years?

Has been described by its own former chair as “effectively a department of white literature”?

Has a long history of documented racist, transphobic, and sexist behavior?

That’s the first page of a poster pasted around the Williams campus last week. Following those nasty allegations is a second page that blasts:

We are calling on all of us to stand against the anti-Blackness, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny of the English department by refusing to register for all ENGL classes that have only a token engagement with race.

The poster was removed by campus authorities because of a technicality: it did not have a contact listed anywhere on it. There is a Google page that corresponds to the call, however, which has much more information. It includes a history of discrimination and insensitivity in the English department in letters to the department and to the president, punctuated by bold-font accusations (“Racism and its outbursts are a norm in this department, not a singular incident”; “You tell us we have misinterpreted, misrepresented what you have taught, even as you willfully misunderstand and misquote our criticisms”; “You cannot afford to ignore the problems festering in your department, in your classrooms, and in your colleagues’ classrooms”). This time, we do have contacts, the signatures of students and alums who have had enough of the brutality.

In an appendix entitled “Our Testimonies,” one of the alums recalls what happened when a potential advisor at his or her graduate school asked which English teachers at Williams had the most influence: “No one came to mind who did not at one point yell in my face, mock my last name, or make a rape joke in the classroom.” Another talked about “white professors targeting professors of color who dared to stand up to the racism within the department and the college as a whole.” Another claims to have been “traumatized by my time in the English department.” The word brutality, you see, is no exaggeration.

The depth of the hurt is obvious; the sincerity of the charges unquestionable. Students must avoid this noxious department and its hateful faculty. And if the Williams leadership has any conscience, it will take action.

So, on our part, let’s be wary of accusing humanities professors at prestigious northeastern liberal arts institutions of liberal bias and identity politics. Oh, they talk a good game, sure, and we conservatives have taken them at their word. But the students who know them, who have sat through semester after semester with them, who are themselves men and women of color and have a keen ear for prejudice . . . they know what the profs are really like.

We must listen to the voices of the oppressed. We must appreciate what they have undergone at this school nestled in the Berkshires, always ranked by US News & World Report in the top five of liberal arts colleges, charging more than $50K per year, and boasting an under-20 percent acceptance rate. Yeah, it’s true that a study of party affiliation found that the ratio of Democrats to Republicans on the Williams faculty was 132-to-1, but we shouldn’t pick nits.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

9 thoughts on “When 29 Courses on Black Writing Isn’t Enough at Williams

  1. The problem is very simple: There is no “conservative” voice on campus. If a Professor wanted to say that European Culture is superior, then he or she would get fired. It’s illegal to speak in favor of Europe, or Caucasians, or Christianity, or even Marriage. So it’s little wonder that these crazy kids have taken over.

    If you look at conservative websites like Amren, they are branded as “extremist” organizations, even though their main purpose is to defend Western Civilization. Right now, the media holds all the cards, and they aren’t backing down. “White people are evil, period”. The only way to correct the situation is to regain control of the airwaves. But the left will fight with everything they’ve got. And the communist party is backing them up.

  2. I had a hard time not laughing out loud as I read this. Thank God I was not drinking coffee! The Williams English Department is being eaten alive by the very forces it coddled and nurtured. Schaudendelicious!

  3. All I know is that, as a prospective employer of college graduates, I am going to start requiring transcripts to see if they learned anything that is valuable in a workplace environment.

  4. It’s not clear to me what point Mark Bauerlein is making here. That the Williams students are off the wall? Sure. Then what. They’re not getting their money’s worth? Well, nobody forces them to be there. Then is it that we should feel sorry for the Williams faculty? Please, spare me, with an occasional exception, it seems to me they are getting what they want/have brought on themselves. Then what?

  5. What you leave out is that this letter was composed by only ten students. So, not a very compelling argument, but one that is being put forward by a tiny fraction of the African-American students at Williams. Let’s not get too upset by this little blip on the radar screen of doings at that college.

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