English Department Revamps Reading Lists

The+Undocumented+Americans+by+Karla+Cornejo+Villavicencio+and+The+Underground+Railroad+by+Colson+Whitehead%2C+two+recent+additions+to+the+English+curriculum+at+Loomis+Chaffee.

Julie Chung '21

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, two recent additions to the English curriculum at Loomis Chaffee.

Chloe Chen ‘22, Staff Writer

This summer, the Loomis Chaffee English Department changed up numerous syllabi and added multiple books that diverged from past typical works. Replacing classics with new, relevant readings, the English Department welcomed a variety of stories.

English faculty supported the introduction of new readings and even new electives into our curriculums. Discussion in the department prompted works about LGBTQ+ issues, colonialism in Nigeria, and racism in America, to permeate the English curriculum at our school.

“Our book choices are important, but they are secondary to the skills we teach in English classes,” Mr. Stephen Colgate, head of the English department, said. “We select texts that bring in a variety of perspectives and voices to the classroom, and we seek texts that contain challenging and creative language to both serve as examples for our students and to provide material for close study.”

Mr. Miles Morgan, who leads the team of freshman English teachers, elaborated on the need to have a more inclusive curriculum. He emphasized the importance of honing in on the skills and lessons derived from the English syllabi.

“We have to consider opportunities for students to see themselves in what we teach,” Mr. Morgan said. “It would be deeply irresponsible to continue to teach a predominantly white curriculum. Curricula that prioritize white voices suggest that writers of color don’t have literary value or that only certain writers of color are allowed to join the club. We have to think very carefully, very responsibly about the messages we send our students.”

Dr. Will Eggers, who leads the team of junior English teachers, agreed. “For too long, our school, following the Western academic tradition, has focused too much on the work of white, straight men. Having students read a range of perspectives offers more chances for the kind of ethical and intellectual explorations that make excellent thinkers and outstanding citizens.”

In general, English faculty are glad for this implementation of various perspectives and are excited for the students’ reactions to the new books.

“Oh, goodness…I love that CL English III Seminar is reading Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s a titan and supremely important in the conversations we need to have about how reading shapes our understanding of the world,” Mr. Morgan said.

Dr. Eggers’s favorite of the new readings (and one that he is teaching this year) is also Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

“Perhaps because it is so timely, I am most excited about Coates’ Between the World and Me. Even as he uses a wide range of rhetorical and literary devices, Coates manages to present a voice that is natural and themes that are vitally important,” Dr. Eggers said.

In addition to an alteration of syllabus, the English Department constructed the Offensive Language Policy. Its purpose was to make sure that students did not utter hurtful and derogatory language out loud in literature, without ignoring the meaning of the language.

“I view the Offensive Language Policy as a crucial component of our department’s approach to studying challenging literature. We intend to read literature that contains difficult language and topics, but we want to preserve the classroom as a safe space that doesn’t reintroduce the trauma of language that was designed and intended to hurt. We can and will still discuss the power of offensive language and authors’ choices to use that language without verbalizing the words out loud in the classroom,” Mr. Colgate said.

Mr. Morgan added, “Language can sow mistrust and withdrawal, so the policy enables us to have the conversation without subjecting a student to hearing language that could have a tremendous negative effect. I see ours as a starting point for a lot of very important conversations about the dark history of language.”