Women’s literature

U of T professor refuses to teach women writers.

I will admit that I occasionally enjoy literature by serious, white, middle-aged, heterosexual males. Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Faulkner—all of these authors have published works that I personally love, and were I a professor, I would certainly consider putting these on a syllabus.

A syllabus, I might add, that would also include works by Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, Mary Shelley, Alice Walker, Leslie Feinberg, and Sappho, to name a few. Not only because I believe that these writers are just as talented (and in many cases more so) as the others listed above, but also because I know that the messages contained in literature by women, queer and genderqueer writers, and people of colour are extremely valuable and crucial to our understanding of human society and the worlds that we inhabit and construct. 

Which is why I think it’s reasonable to be concerned when professors like David Gilmour of the University of Toronto state that they are simply “not interested in teaching books by women”, as he told Hazlitt last week, claiming he only teaches authors that he truly loves, none of which “happen to be Chinese, or women”. If that weren’t enough, he defended himself to the National Post by saying “there isn’t a racist or sexist bone in my body”. If this is true, then why does his list of the world’s “greatest authors” directly correlate with his own demographic, with middle-aged white men all making the grade?

A common defence of Gilmour’s philosophy is that professors need to stick to an area of specialization in order to be successful educators, and that male authors are simply his chosen field. However, if a student of English literatures made this same claim and refused to take any courses except those covering male twentieth century writers,  they’d be told to pack their bags; there is a reason that academic institutions require distribution credits. Furthermore, excluding over fifty per cent of the world’s population from academic study based solely on personal preference is not only a failing grade in representation, it’s also blatant ignorance. After all, the role of education is to help students broaden their perspectives and explore new ways of thinking that we may not have considered or even bothered to examine before. How can students expect to achieve this if their professors aren’t open to it either?

The unfortunate and paradoxical reality is that sexism still exists because individuals like Gilmour aren’t reading literature by women and are thus still unaware of their privilege and biases. Don’t worry David—I’m not asking you to stop loving Henry Miller or Philip Roth. I’m asking you to consider why you love them so much. I’m asking you to step outside your box a little and teach some literature by non-white, non-heterosexual, non-cis male writers, because I promise it will be well worth the experience for both you and your students. As Harper Lee once said, “The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think.”

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