Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, in context at Essex

Another "book banning" story turns out to be nothing of the kind. David Kernohan isn't even pretending to be surprised anymore.

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

So The Times has been at it again, making 300 FOI requests to 140 providers of higher education to ask about books that have been removed from undergraduate module syllabi for content-linked reasons.

The UK’s newspaper of record wasn’t going to let a mere bagatelle like the fact it only managed to find two examples in the entire sector get in the way of a banner front page headline. I’d usually attribute this to silly season and move on, but it is worth noting that this is not a usual August and there is quite a lot of news (both about higher education and in the wider world) that is maybe more pressing. Perhaps.

Anyway, the University of Essex has apparently “permanently removed” Colson Whitehead’s (excellent) The Underground Railroad from an optional third year undergraduate module (“The Beginning of a Novel”) offered within the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies. It’s the first cited example in The Times‘ story – so I thought I’d have a look into what has actually happened.

Doing the reading

The Beginning of a Novel” (cited as “Beginning the Novel” in The Times’ report) isn’t a literature survey module. Neither is it (really) “is an opportunity to study some of the most celebrated modern writers”, though there are some superb books on the reading lists.

It is actually a creative writing course, during which “students will learn how to devise and plan their own novel through the reading and study of a selection of other novels”. There are a number of critical texts on the bibliography alongside a range of fiction: ranging from Saul Bellow to Zadie Smith, and Tade Thompson to Leo Tolstoy. The idea would be that students experience a range of different works – designed and realised in a number of different ways for a number of different effects. Here we are looking at the mechanics of developing a novel – students are assessed via their production of a plan and draft sections for their own novel (65 per cent), a personal reflection on the influence of three novels and three critical texts on the novel on their work (30 per cent) and participation in seminar discussions (5 per cent).

As this is a final year module I would be surprised if the students taking this module would be required only to reflect on what they have read for the module. As they are coming to the end of a a three year degree in which they have read all kinds of stuff I would imagine that a student would be able to do everything required here (apart from the seminar discussions) without reading anything on the list.

Essex looks like a great place to study literature

I know I’m labouring the point but this is not a module focused on the content of the books on the reading list. Essex has a variety of other modules (both compulsory and otherwise) for a student to focus on the content or themes of novels. For example, if you were interested in representations of the Black experience as represented in world literature you might – for example – want to study:

There’s some great books represented within these modules (Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Tayari Jones, Edwidge Danticat…). It’s all making me rather nostalgic for my degree.

So, all this considered, is it a huge problem that The Underground Railroad (a magic realist work of fiction set in an alternative history where the metaphorical “underground railroad” is a real, actual, railroad) no longer features in a module focused entirely on students’ own creative writing practice? Are the ideas expressed in the novel no longer available to students? Are they forbidden to read it or write about it? Do the offered modules underrepresent Black voices, or the reality of the enslavement of Black people by western cultures? Does the actual module in question now not cover magic realist approaches? Is The Underground Railroad the only – or most suitable – book to use in this module for this purpose?

A response

The Mail follows up the Times story, and includes a response from Essex.

It is completely untrue and misleading to say Underground Railroad has been banned or blacklisted. Underground Railroad is available in our library and remains an option for inclusion on future reading lists in relevant modules. Books covering themes and issues around slavery are on the reading lists for many other modules. Underground Railroad was replaced on one reading list for a creative writing module about the development of the novel, as another book was viewed as better suited to the learning aims.

If you get nothing else out of this sorry affair – do go and read The Underground Railroad. I enjoyed it. And do read Tade Thompson’s Rosewater – there is always room for more Afrofuturism in your life.

15 responses to “Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, in context at Essex

  1. David, you have studiously avoided the reason given by the Times for its removal, which is surely the pertinent point here. The Times say it was removed ‘because of concerns over the graphic depiction of slavery’, and provide a supporting quote from Essex University. So, assuming that is not invented, the point isn’t readings pulled or made optional on literary grounds or relevance to the course as you imply, but on the basis of their assumed capacity to cause offence / psychological harm. That is also the case for the other examples and 1000 plus content / ‘trigger’ warnings they identified – formal university polices on content warnings are a recent innovation, but now common. The Times may be playing fast and loose with their headline, but equally you’ve completely side stepped the issue. It is a wholly legitimate concern that deserves proper discussion, not obfuscation.

    1. Why do students studying this particular module need to see a “graphic depiction of slavery” in this educational context – rather than, say, a context where they are actually learning about slavery? Why shouldn’t the tutor have the academic freedom to replace a book that they know tends to derail seminar conversations with one that does not?

      1. They should, although I think that doing so to avoid the depiction is a poor reason. The Times article cites a US Prof and expert on slavery who explains why very convincingly I thought. Again, the issue, as reported, was the graphic description, not which book was better to teach about slavery as you imply.

        But universities have developed or are developing formal policies on trigger warnings, effectively making them an orthodoxy and an expectation for students and staff. That has implications for academic freedom for staff who disagree with their use, and for campus culture generally.

        1. Why might one disagree with their use? Used correctly they provide an important safeguard for people suffering sometimes serious psychological conditions. The term comes from PTSD after all, and the physiological dangers of panic attacks are often overlooked. They can become a medical emergency, and in people with asthma or heart conditions they can sometimes go as far as to be life-threatening. And since any given trauma can be triggered by things that can seem inconsistent, unpredictable or outright inscrutable to people unfamiliar with it – that is, anyone except the individual in question – then what else do we have but highlighting potential triggers in advance where we can? Is it so different from COSHH sheets and warning signs?

          This has always made me wonder if the problem is with trigger warnings themselves, or just with specific instances of them being used poorly. Or how much of it is actually nothing of the sort, but rather some vague, unsupported handwringing about the importance of challenging topics or of the virtuous, stoic emotional resilience that our society romanticises trauma into?

    2. And mate. The other example (singular) is at Sussex. Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” is a perfectly decent play, but for an introductory level 3 (foundation year) module on stage drama and poetry (“reading literature 1“) it is hardly an essential inclusion alongside Milton, Pinter, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Yeats.

      Thinking on it, I reckon most of those dealt with suicidal ideation at various points.

      1. Again, the Times is not making a case for this or that book being included or not on literary merits. The argument is over the invocation of psychological harm as the reason for withdrawal, making optional or issuing warnings (I think they found over 1000 cases of the latter).

        1. “ students are assessed via their production of a plan and draft sections for their own novel (65 per cent), a personal reflection on the influence of three novels and three critical texts on the novel on their work (35 per cent) and participation in seminar discussions (5 per cent).”

          I’m less concerned with the alleged censorship and more concerned with their maths…

          1. With due respect to DK, I think that’s a mistype on his part. Clicking through to the original it has 65/30/5.

        2. Only “over a 1000” across 140 institutions and years of built-up documentation? Amateurs! The BBFC alone issues several thousand each year.

  2. Jim – the reason cited in the article for replacing the Underground Railway is that another novel suited the learning aims of that Creative Writing module better. & If there are a thousand cases of warnings that is something TOTALLY different from a book being withdrawn – the article pretends they are the same thing – unconvincingly so, of course, because this is false and a misrepresentation.

  3. Good to see the forever answer to a pub quiz question of “Who had the shortest spell in a Secretary of State role in British history?” has weighed in with a typically stupid response to this…

  4. This piece starts off with a criticism of the banner headline of the Times’ article. But the banner strapline of this piece is itself something that is not justified by neither the Times article nor the Mail article. The strapline here includes “book banning” in quotes, implying that this is what the stories are claiming. The only time the term “ban” is used is when the Mail article quotes an Exeter University professor saying “It is completely untrue and misleading to say Underground Railroad has been banned or blacklisted”. It would be nice for each “side” in such debates to not misrepresent each other (I was also going to state what Jim Butcher has eloquently described in his comment – the talking past the actual accusation made by the Times)

  5. Whilst I agree that there is merit to the notion that Colston’s novel may not be the best choice of text for the module, and the academics would be well within their rights to remove the text from study. My question is as follows: To which point will students be limited from reading other texts due to fears over context and by extension have their knowledge and understanding of ‘challenging’ novels limited, novels that often approach subjects worth exploring and discussing.

    Regardless, I agree with are reply made by Anthony to a previous comment, that trigger warnings are an essential element of the dialogue academics have with students and ensures that students are safe and have an understanding of the material that they will be interacting with.

    As a former English Literature graduate, some of the best novels that I encountered discussed topics as discussed within Colston’s text, and it would be a shame if current students were not guided in the direction to read his texts and others of a similar nature as I was.

  6. I have little doubt there is a group of well placed people who deliberately set out to denigrate universities as part of a wider culture war. Focussing on the substance of the Times piece is really
    looking at it from the wrong end of the telescope because very soon a new stick will be found to beat universities (and the BBC) with. This is part of the modern right wing wing playbook which has us all talking about crap like this and not the crisis in public services, the cost of housing, ongoing regional inequalities- the things that are really important to peoples’ lives for which the right has no interest and no answers. The Times (and l say this as a reader) is part of the Murdoch empire and the previous editor was removed for not being enthusiastic enough about the project.

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