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:
- “I, too, sing America”: Identity, Diversity, and Voice in United States Literature (a required second year module on many courses)
- Black Lives Represented: Writing, Art, Politics and Society (an optional second year module)
- Introduction to Caribbean Literature (an optional second year module)
- “There is a Continent Outside My Window” : United States and Caribbean Literatures in Dialogue (an optional third year module)
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?
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.