Statement of Solidarity and Commitment to Action by Some Members of the English Department
*a note from the authors: In no way do we claim to speak for or represent others in the department. We acknowledge and honor the good work on anti-racism and social justice that many of our colleagues and peers are already doing. We understand that people may well be checking email less frequently over summer, and are generally overwhelmed by all that is happening in the world, which is why we have opted not to try to collect signatories for the statement nor invite all-hands edits. We know that reform can only happen if all are involved and we welcome that collective work in the Fall.
We join with others to denounce the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor by the police and other state-sanctioned actors. These killings are only the most recent in an unbroken history of violence and systemic racism dating at least to 1619, and disproportionately but by no means exclusively, impacting people of African descent and Latinx, indigenous, and other marginalized communities. We affirm that Black lives matter—and have always mattered.
This living and historical racism in society is not simply mirrored in academic institutions such as Stanford; structures of power & inequity emerge in distinctive ways in the field of literary studies—and therefore, also in English departments like our own. In other words, the discipline itself is complicit with forms of systemic racism that have historically muted or minimized some scholarship, some voices, some experiences, and some ways of knowing.
We acknowledge, applaud, and honor the work of those in our department and at the University who have already been long engaged in anti-bias and social justice work. But there is so much more to do and we need more people to do it with us. We welcome others to join in examining—and striving to redress—the histories of racial and other biases that inform the creation, consumption, and interpretation of literature. We also commit, as scholars and students of literature, to using (and when necessary, remaking) the tools of our discipline to dismantle structures of racism and social injustice within our field and in the world at large.
We are calling for a plan of action to begin meaningful change of our department culture, of our hiring and admissions priorities, of graduate student ‘milestones,’ of our curricular models, and of our pedagogical practices. We believe that this change can only occur when anti-racist and social justice work is recognized as a community value and priority, engages the entire English community (faculty, staff, and students), and involves a transparent process with commitment to accountability, which includes benchmarks and timelines, as well as a formalized feedback loop.
To that end, the Chair has agreed to a wide-ranging review of and action on all these aspects of department life. She has proposed beginning that work with a town hall this fall to initiate a constructive and open dialogue that involves students, faculty, and staff.
To our students: we know that one of the several arenas where change is most pressing includes our undergraduate and graduate curriculum. We hope the changes we have made to our curriculum in recent years reflect our understanding that choices about what we teach bear a meaningful relation to what we value. Yet, we acknowledge how much work there still is to be done. We believe that conceiving of classrooms as siloed from the ‘real world’ is to misunderstand the mutually constitutive relation between literature and life, and moreover, that the implicit suppression or active silencing of that fact can be viewed by our students as harmful indifference to systems of inequity and injustice. We know that reform is an ongoing process, and we are committed to the project of expanding course offerings that address the dynamics and intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and neurodiversity.
To our community: we are keenly aware that this call to account and to action comes at a time when most of us are to some degree or another mourning, overwhelmed, outraged, exhausted, anxious. We may be optimistic one minute, despairing the next. We hope this statement acknowledges the pain many of us are experiencing, and hope that our call for change and community releases some stress rather than adding to it. We want, especially, to affirm the importance of nourishing mental health and well-being—particularly now in the midst of heightened racial and gender violence, at the peak of a pandemic, and as so many are suffering economically. We hope you can make time and space to take gentle care of yourself as well as of family or community members in need.