Memo from the English department

September 20th 2016

TO: Chancellor Rebecca Blank
FROM: Russ Castronovo, Chair, English Department

RE: Dialogue on Diversity and Inclusion

The English Department appreciates the invitation to reflect upon its strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion in our classrooms and across the wider campus community. At our faculty meeting earlier this month, my colleagues spoke eloquently and passionately about how the work of creating a pluralistic society built on values of respect and difference is wrapped up in the very lifeblood of our discipline, in our pedagogy and teaching, our research and writing, and our mentoring and service to the university.

From our history as a department, we have learned that:

  • Diversity is a daily practice in English classrooms (i.e., not simply a topic that we address for one or two sessions before moving on to other material). Our robust offering of courses that meet the Ethnic Studies Requirements means that we explicitly address the “Essential Learning” outcomes by working with students on the culture of marginalized groups in the US that have contested the historical conditions of exclusion.
  • Because English recognizes that diversity is diverse, we regularly teach courses that focus on disability, LGBTQ, migration, and diaspora. Courses that at first glance do not seem to be about diversity are nonetheless at the forefront of addressing matters of discrimination and inequality. Our faculty who teach the history of English grammar discuss the significance of names and preferred pronoun usage; our faculty who teach Shakespeare state that their mission entails “looking out for someone who may not find University of Wisconsin-Madison as wonderful and welcoming as her peers” by prioritizing research opportunities for students of color; our faculty have teamed up with the Business School so that Business students take Ethnic Studies courses early on in their careers at UW-Madison.
  • Diversity is about leadership. Our faculty chair the Equity and Diversity Committee, Asian American Studies, African Languages and Literature, the university Accessibility Committee; direct the First Wave program; direct the L&S internship course; direct the Center for the Humanities; and serve as faculty advisors to LGBTQ groups.
  • The dissemination of our skills and values is indispensable to the campus climate. English teaches 41% of the students (the most on campus) who take Comm A and teaches many more in Composition courses. In short, English trains many of the teachers who teach students across the campus about race and diversity.
  • Departmental structures must respond to issues of climate (e.g., English created a standing Committee on Underrepresented Students that explores mentorship, recruitment, and student advancement).
  • Students must be involved in multiple venues and not just the classroom (English supports the student group, “Melanin Speaking,” and is exploring beginning a First Gen group). 

As we reflected on these and other efforts, we reached two conclusions.

  1. There is more work to do. Our graduate program needs policy changes to create a more representative and diverse experience for all students. Establishing a pipeline is paramount. To that end, we have begun a dialogue with the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding at the Graduate School about partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs) and Tribal Colleges to establish a thriving cohort of underrepresented students. Our goals include finding support for our faculty to make recruitment trips to such institutions and securing funding to retain students once they enter our program.
  2. English is a model for other units and departments about how to integrate and prioritize diversity and social justice as core components of UW-Madison’s educational mission. We are an ideal place for modest but high profile investments in diversity by providing a home for faculty with interests in ethnic studies, including Asian American, Native American, African American, and Chican@ and Latin@ studies. 

English is eager to continue this work and looks forward to collaborating with others to achieve these goals.

Chancellor Blank responds:

"Russ—thank you for the memo. It's one of the best statements I've seen on this campus of how we need to be thinking about diversity and our identity as a 'global university.' As your memo states so well, this identity should be evident in the work that we do across the curiculum, and throughout our faculty/staff/student activities . . . I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the English department can write expressively and cogently on this topic. Thanks for taking the time to make this statement. I agree that you can be a role model for others."