Durham’s English Department reinstate “diverse” specialist module following student complaint

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Durham University’s English Studies Department has added a new Level 3 seminar module following criticism that a decrease in options for 2024/25 meant modules focusing on race and gender were removed.

The Department faced criticism from students in both its Level 3 module talk on 1st March 2024 and online. One student, Alannah, spoke up during the talk to ask why so many modules had been removed, especially those focusing on postcolonial and feminist literature.

“It just seems completely skewed,” she told Professor Peter Garratt, Head of Department, “it was really diverse last year and they’ve all gone and not been replaced with anything equivalent.”

The number of ‘special topic modules’, which are specialised seminar modules aimed to explore parts of literature in greater depth, decreased from 21 offered in 2023/24 to 13 in 2024/25. These modules are typically run by only one member of staff, and therefore will not run if said staff member is unavailable that year, such as for research leave. The decrease in modules is also partly due to a smaller cohort after the Covid-19 pandemic led to inflated year group sizes.

This meant that modules focused on race, ethnicity, gender, and world literatures, such as ‘South Asian Postcolonial Literature’, ‘Contemporary Feminist Drama’, and ‘Postwar Black British Writing’, were no longer available to students. Modules that remained included ‘Keats and Shelley’, ‘From Romance to Romanticism: An Introduction to English Ballads’, and ‘Reading Games, Playing Books’. As a result, no English Studies modules offered to Level 3 students at 2024/25 explicitly focused on race, ethnicity, or gender, though other modules do give some attention to these themes.

“I know it hasn’t been eliminated from the curriculum, but it has for our experience,” Alannah told Prof Garratt. He accepted this criticism, explaining that the decision was motivated by both staff availability and responding to the smaller cohort size.

“I know it hasn’t been eliminated from the curriculum, but it has for our experience”

Alannah

However, this decision has been criticised by Durham University English Literature Society (DUELS). A spokesperson from DUELS told Palatinate, “Whilst the present third year cohort is larger, when comparing the diversity of modules that the present third years study with the incoming cohort, the spread of modules is unequivocally different.”

Speaking to Palatinate, Alannah explained why she raised the decrease in module choice to Prof Garratt: “I was disheartened to see the discontinuation of many modules that I, and many of my coursemates, had been planning to study. […] I was disillusioned and frustrated with the options for next year, and when this reduction was not addressed in the Level 3 talk, I felt the need to ask for the reasoning behind such drastic changes.”

She continued to criticise the Department for not replacing the discontinued modules with options on a similar topic, telling Palatinate that she thought that “many of the modules that are now discontinued represented more diverse literature,” which, to her, was “further disheartening.” Similarly, another student told Palatinate that they thought postcolonial and queer literature “often feel like a footnote” in the curriculum.

Durham’s English Studies Department is ranked 3rd in the Guardian University Guide 2024, and has recently ranked 29th in the QS World University Rankings 2024, an increase from 38th in 2023. The Department prides itself on having “discussion that is tolerant and open to challenge.”

Ariba, who previously worked as a Decolonising Intern for the department, told Palatinate that she thought that “the lack of modules relating to race and postcolonialism [was] very disappointing,” and believed that “the department should strive to have a few modules related to world literature run every year irrespective of whether one specific staff member is available to teach it.”

Since the talk, the Department has announced that another module will be offered in the 2024/25 academic year, titled ‘Diaspora Literature: Contexts, Concepts, and Form’. This module was offered in 2023/24 and had been initially removed in 2024/25.

The module will focus on the link between migration and diaspora and the way it relates to different communities, genders, and sexualities.

A second-year English Literature student, Lily, said, “I am really happy to hear about the additional module being added to the curriculum for the next academic year. It shows how the English Department does listen to our criticisms and concerns.” Despite this, she worried that the module’s capacity being 40 students could limit the amount of opportunities for students to study this.

Since the talk, the Department has announced that another module will be offered in the 2024/25 academic year, titled ‘Diaspora Literature: Contexts, Concepts, and Form’

In an email to students on 28th April 2024, Prof Garratt explained that the department “offer[s] a dynamic research-led curriculum of specialised modules and the provision naturally varies from year to year, due to patterns of staff availability, new offerings, and other factors. Even so, the breadth of curriculum areas is always represented. There will be fewer Special Topic modules next year relative to 2023/24 in part of hosting a smaller final-year cohort, though the two remain in a similar proportion to this year.

“That said, I have also listened carefully to your views and do understand the depth of concern. I am pleased now to be able to announce that a further option module will be available, especially as it expands opportunities to study world literatures in English and postcolonial writing.

“As I’ve said when replying to student enquiries, the Department is committed to research and teaching in these areas, just as it is to initiatives around decolonising the curriculum.”

Palatinate contacted Durham University for additional comment, but they chose not to provide any extra details. 

The Department has three Decolonising Interns each academic year, who are students working with teaching staff to create a decolonised curriculum. According to their social media page, the English Literature Decolonising Interns believe a decolonised curriculum involves diverse authors, intersectional analysis, and a multilingual approach to literature.

Its Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) and Teaching Framework acknowledges the importance of diversifying how the subject is taught, saying: “Approaches to learning and teaching in our discipline need to become yet more alert to variations and asymmetries of experiences (among staff and students) and the historical and current structural inequalities which inform them.” The Department’s EDI Committee meets at least once a term to review this and tackle EDI concerns for both staff and students.

The Department was also awarded an Athena Swan Bronze charter in 2020 for its commitment to gender equality in higher education and research. As part of this, the Department committed to “monitoring the diversity of our syllabus.”

“I have also listened carefully to your views and do understand the depth of concern”

Prof Garratt

In response to the Department adding a module, Ariba expressed her opinions to Palatinate: “I appreciate [that] they added another module, but it still doesn’t achieve the aim of a representative curriculum.” She continued, “I wish the modules such as ‘South Asian Postcolonial Literature’ were available as it would directly relate to my background.”

Similarly, DUELS said: “The addition of one module concerning diasporic literature is beneficial for the incoming third years; however, many modules remain Eurocentric. […] On a female-dominated course, we strongly believe there should be more modules centred on female authors and writers of ethnic minorities.”

In 2024/25, only one module, which will be offered at Level 2, is explicitly about gender, ‘Writing Women: Gendering Literature, c.800-1600’, though other modules do cover this amongst wider themes.

DUELS continued, “DUELS appreciates the English Department’s efforts to accommodate students’ wishes in light of staff leave, but we also strongly believe that students should have equal opportunities to pursue their passions.”

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