Press "Enter" to skip to content

English Department dismantles the canon

Mills College Weekly

Whether to take Shakespeare or not will be the question for new
Mills students majoring in English, beginning in the fall of 2004.
What has long been a requirement at Mills College will soon become
an option.

This decision to alter the requirements for future Mills English
majors raises questions about the authority of the canon, or
sanctioned body of great English literature, and Shakespeare’s
position within that literature’s hierarchy. Some may regard this
change in curriculum as a step towards dismantling the canon.

At the core of the department’s discussion was Shakespeare’s
status as the only single author requirement, according to English
Department head, Cynthia Scheinberg. “The decision gives students
more choice to study texts that will be relevant to their own work
on their thesis,” she said. Scheinberg also believes that
Shakespeare remains an important influence, but cannot make the
case that he is more important than any other influential writer in
English literature.

Stephen Ratcliffe, who is teaching Shakespeare this semester,
responded to Scheinberg’s defense of the change with his support of
Shakespeare and “Shakespeare’s language itself, which has been
valued for the last 400 years or so as the greatest ‘achievement’
in English literature.”

While both Scheinberg and Ratcliffe agree on the continuing
importance of Shakespeare’s works in the Mills English curriculum,
they don’t agree on the new requirement placing Shakespeare or the
Bible as literature as the new choice for students.

Scheinberg pointed out the importance of placing another work of
literature along side Shakespeare to support “the idea that there
have been deeply influential texts and writers in the past,” but
not making a claim that one was more relevant than any other.
Ratcliffe pointed out that the Bible “wasn’t written in English, or
even by a single author.”

This change in course requirements may be viewed as weakening
Shakespeare’s position in the canon’s hierarchy and the results
remain to be seen in Mills students’ future choices. “The student
who graduates with [an] English major from Mills who hasn’t ever
taken Shakespeare has missed something crucial I think,” said

Scheinberg points out that students may opt to take both
courses. Shakespeare will be a part of another new required course,
Introduction to Literature. With the new option of Shakespeare or
the Bible, a student may choose not to take a full course of either

When asked about the change, Cynthia Cooper, MFA, felt that
removing the Shakespeare requirement from a B.A. in English could
“weaken” the department and make Mills English graduates less
competitive with other institutions.

Senior Kelly Sheahen feels that doing without Shakespeare
altogether amounts to “literary heresy.”

Megan Hammond, also a senior, believes Shakespeare is
“essential,” but also believes “he is falling out of fashion
because of the whole dead white guy stigma.”

Raquel Baker, MFA, feels “Shakespeare is overrated.”

Judith Rathbone, MFA candidate, says, “It will be a sad day when
Mills gives Shakespeare the boot.”

The debate over Shakespeare and his position may not be greatly
impacted by this decision, but whether there is agreement or not,
the discourse is chipping away at the long-standing canon. English
majors and faculty will carry on the discussion about what works of
literature should remain, be removed, or added.

The new course requirements will become effective fall of