English curriculum not stacking up

In CommunitiesLeave a Comment

Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Ab Velasco

“I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them

But they answered: “Frightened? Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?

MY drawing was no a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant.”

This opening scene from The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic fable, illustrated that from Shakespeare to Stephen King, literature is a discipline infused with imagination and metaphors. A timeless craft, the act of putting pen to paper is not limited to any geographical location, but allows writers the opportunity to spread diverse ideas to readers all over the world.

Over the years, budget cuts at Ryerson have silenced many of these voices forever. Many students are now concerned that they are missing out on a diverse literary education.

“It’s just old white men,” says Rick Moldovanyi, a third-year journalism student at Ryerson. “I think there are a lot of groups that are marginalized by society who are overlooked by the curriculum.”

Budget cuts have slashed Ryerson’s English department to 13 professors from 40 in the ‘70s.

Today the English department is service-oriented, offering courses to other programs, but not a degree in English. Next year, Ryerson is planning to offer a degree in general arts, in its attempt to bridge the gap between polytechnic institution and university.

In the past there were more diverse courses offered including “English: The Negro in White and Black American Literature,” and “English: Indian Literature in English After 1945.”

“Through writing, people reveal their points of view and their experiences, and if we don’t read their writing, we’ll never know what they’re thinking,” says Moldovanyi. “There’s a lot of stories and experiences that have not been heard and I think they should be.”

John Cook, chair of the English department says that students are missing out with the pared down curriculum.

“I would argue that Ryerson lost something as we cut out courses that sought to expand imaginations, our capacity for profound human sympathy and communication,” he says.

He says that several factors led to the cutting of culturally-specific courses in favour of more general, broad-based courses, including teachers’ retiring, budget cuts that froze hiring, and low student interest.

Cook said he had to ditch the course “Within and without: the literature of immigration,” because “we got so few interested that we weren’t able to run it.”

Perhaps it is because only journalism, radio and television arts, and geography students are required to take at least one English course. Before, every Ryerson student was required to take an English course.

English courses once only strictly dealt with the language and literature of England, and French departments with French literature.

In the early ‘70s, English departments began to study the writing of former English settler colonies such as Canada or Australia.

It was not until the ‘80s that the English curriculum included colonial literatures in the English language from places such as Africa and the Caribbean.

“One reason was that global politics changed,” says Monique Tschofen, an English professor at Ryerson.

“European nation states no longer dominated the world scene as they did before the wars.

“English departments finally saw what a good idea this was and began to offer courses in world literature themselves.”

With a smaller department, the focus today has shifted from high culture to a narrow cultural view, by offering a blend of the usual classics by authors such as James Joyce, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ernest Hemingway, and thematic ties to popular culture and cultural crises.

Take for instance, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a book about the cultural crisis of the Ibo tribe in Nigeria upon the arrival of white missionaries.

This winter, gay and lesbian literature will be introduced into the curriculum with a course called “The Language of Love and Sex.”

But still, some students feel it may not be enough.

Alan Faigal, a fourth-year early childhood education student, took a course last year on narrative forms.

“There were different types of characters, but culture didn’t jump out at me. The focus was on symbolism and structure.”

Adrian Lee, a fourth-year business management student, agrees.

“It’s important to focus on the individual. Everyone has different needs.”

Award-winning author Nalo Hopkinson says that addressing the diversity of the student body is beneficial. “For those of us who don’t share those identities, it’ll be food for thought. For those of us who do, it’ll probably be a delight to see ourselves represented,” he said.

In comparison, the University of Toronto’s English curriculum offers a more diverse selection, with courses such as the Bible and literature and Chinese Canadian literature.

“We’re certainly conscious of the fact that our potential students are drawn from a diverse population,” says John D. Baird, associate chair of the English department at U of T.

Baird says that U of T has the third largest undergraduate arts and sciences department. The enrolment for their department is roughly 4,500 students.

One must keep in mind, however, that Ryerson doesn’t attempt to compete with U of T’s English department, which employs over 80 staff over three campuses and offers PhDs in English.

In contrast, roughly 1,200 students are enrolled in an English course at Ryerson.

Some criticize the offering of diversity for the sake of diversity. Tschofen says that it’s ridiculous “to superficially litter a course with text by authors of other cultures,” especially “if the instructor does not have a sound pedagogic reason to do this.

“Every course needs a purpose, a focus, if it is to be meaningful to the students.”

One common thread that most Ryerson students share is Canadian soil.

Cook wants the English courses to put a stronger emphasis in exploring this ground that binds us.

“I’d like all of our courses to articulate the complexity of the Canadian voice and what it means to be human at this place at this time

“I’d like to see not single Canadian courses divorced from everything else, but a Canadian dimension to all our courses.”

Cook hopes that in the long run, budget cuts will not further hamper his department.

“Literature always forces us to imagine beyond the conventional, to see the human in all its diverse forms. The logic of metaphor takes you out of the conventional paths, and so the more we cut these courses, the more we risk a kind of imprisonment in habits and received ideas of the past.”

The Little Prince agrees: “And no grown-up will ever understand that this is a matter of so much importance!”

Leave a Comment