Considering the Western Canon in Encounters

Jordon Crawford, Columnist

As a first-year student, one is obligated to take “General Studies 145-146: The First-Year Experience,” otherwise known as Encounters. The two-semester-long course is intended as an “introduction to the liberal arts and the academic construction of knowledge,” in which students  meet on a tri-weekly basis to discuss various texts. But if you ask me, my feelings towards the course are mixed, After enduring one semester, I really don’t know my stance on the relevance of the course and its intended impact. To say the least, I’m not the only one with such a view.  It’s actually a popular sentiment shared among members of the year group. Instead of being in the course because they like it, many of us simply do it because it is compulsory.

Encounters should serve as an introduction to tertiary level education. To this point, I’m utterly perturbed. As with almost all facets of Whitman, Encounters seem to be struggling in the Diversity Department as it relates to its syllabus and the texts which are being studied. To this end, I’m left to wonder what is the intention of the course and who is the target audience?

Putting aside the religious works which are in the syllabus, the number of texts representing minority groups are significantly low. From a list of 23 texts, only four are written by people of color and an equal number of women writers on the syllabus. Not only is this sadly representative of Whitman’s own racial diversity crisis, it also poses the question of the type of introduction to college education that first year students are being given.

Diversity is already a big problem here at Whitman. With only 2 percent of the entire student population being black, I am already in a predicament as it relates to identifying with people of similar experiences as myself. If Encounters is supposed to be an introduction to academic discourse, an intended implication of this would be that academic discourse is predominantly based on texts of white, dead men whose institutions- through syllabi like this- continue to promote white superiority rather than diversity.

The experiences discussed in a lot of these texts are ones with which many people of color (POC) are completely unfamiliar. Why not involve more works from African Americans, women, LGBTQI+ peoples, etc.? Why not actually talk about works which are contemporary, relevant and applicable to all students of all backgrounds?

Yes, one may argue that the works currently on the syllabus form “the canon” and that these books are necessary for the beginning of a tertiary education. However, that’s exactly my point. There are hundreds of works written by POCs that are equally, if not better than this so-called “canon” in their subject matter. If minority writers and their works aren’t given the chance to be read and studied how do we expect this “canon” to evolve and be more inclusive of others who are “different”?  Furthermore, a lot of these canonical texts are simply the most boring things to read, simply because of their styles and language. There are a myriad of books of the same genre and subject which are less ambiguous and diverse that could easily replace the ones currently being studied.

I’m sick of being in a class and having to talk out of necessity rather than out of interest. To be honest, that has been my encounter with Encounters. While it might come across as if I’m super interested in the text being studied, and sometimes I am, I merely talk to achieve participation points. While the professor may try to make it interesting, it is simply just not possible because one’s lived experiences and those being discussed in the text are worlds apart, especially if that individual is an international student.

This is a plea to those with the authority to change the syllabus. Let us not continue down the same road, perpetuating the stereotype of Whiteman College. Let us be more inclusive of works by “the other.” If we don’t, who else is going to do it?