Shakespeare week, which this year commemorated 400 years since the death of the bard, was a roaring success both on campus and across the country. UEA Drama Society hosted a week of events including a lecture and film screening, a Shakespeare-themed quiz and monologue slam. UEA Publishers also produced a zine to celebrate the occasion featuring interviews with students about what Shakespeare means to them. The week celebrated the extensive works of William Shakespeare, all of which have formed huge parts of school and university curriculums for generations. However, it also reflects the age-old problem of a predominately white male curriculum.
Even in a progressive society, and at an even more progressive university, our curriculums are plagued with an inordinate number of so-called dead white European males (Dwems) and white Anglo-Saxon protestants (Wasps). It’s a problem that has been recognised and, particularly in the Arts, is being dealt with by attempting to introduce more women and ethnic minorities to modules and course profiles. However, many students still find their predominately white curriculums difficult to relate to. Many literature students feel that their course reading does not speak for the majority of people and find many classics racist and sexist. Although this reflects the society these works were produced in, the necessity of including such offensive, oppressive material is often called into question. Even more subtle differences like using the pronoun “he” as opposed to “they” in reference to an abstract person can come across as ignorant and presumptive for some. However, to study these historically within their context, most of this must be accepted.
Indeed, to decide the likes of Shakespeare are no longer relevant or necessary is misguided – it is the nature of history that Dwens and Wasps will have had the opportunity to make more of an impact in their respective fields. From scientists to writers, the work of these people is essential to our learning and this cannot be denied. However, today more and more students are calling for their curriculum to represent and reflect the diversity of those studying it, including ethnicities and genders people feel they can identify with. It wasn’t until the 1980s that feminist history really took off, and now we know a lot more about women whose contributions might previously have gone unnoticed or unknown. Therefore, excuses for leaving such people out of syllabuses tends to comes across as either plain laziness, ignorance or deliberate prejudice.
At UEA, many courses include a diverse range of options, but for some people these often feel “shoehorned” or forced. For example, entire modules are dedicated to women’s history, or queer literature, rather than integrating these into the course. Many modules will slip a female writer, or a writer from outside of Europe, in at the end of the semester as if this had to be done as a token. Perhaps a better solution would be to include a mix of women throughout the module and to give a natural feel to their inclusion. While an entire module for a minority might feel like obligation-fulfillment without actually integrating them into the wider course as a whole, it can also be said that dedicating an entire module might change people’s perceptions of the significance of minorities, and after years of ignorance, an entire semester is what these figures deserve.
Even just changing locations and time periods studied would give an interesting change to a white-washed curriculum. The School of History, for example, offers a vast range of courses but the majority appear tofocus on Europe or America beginning in the late medieval and early modern era. Kirsty McAlpine, second-year history student says: “I get really annoyed that history modules are basically all white male things. We rarely touch on Asia or South America, and God forbid we acknowledge Africa apart from the slave trade. [It’s] as though all other cultures and countries only began to exist when the white man arrived. Also, women are always a module or subject on their own, as though we were studying capitalism or horse farmers. Men are constantly interwoven with history and never need a discreet topic”.
However unfortunate it may be, society has almost always been largely patriarchal and as a result some of the most important scientific discoveries have been made by men, and men have written a large proportion of our most important literature – at least, that which was actually published at the time. We cannot ignore discoveries made by men in favour of “making room” for women, nor should we neglect Shakespeare because we’re sick of literature written by men.
That said, the issue of relation is understandable: how might a female member of an ethnic minority relate to a play writtenover 400 years ago by an English man? Then again, how might any of us? Even white men who study Shakespeare might struggle to relate to an Elizabethan playwright, if not as much as the rest of the world. Striking someone from a curriculum to make room for a minority is certinly not the way forward if that person’s contribution to their field has been prolific and important, but neither is treating them as the only people who matter.