Useless virtue-flaunting action of the month

Clearly the humanities are more Woke than the sciences; I know that from seeing which professors and grad students sign various demands and petitions.  But among the humanities, English departments seem to take pride of place for Wokeness, as ours does (see here for a local example). I’m not sure why this is, but of course English Departments were among the first to be infected with the plague of postmodernism, so that’s one theory (a theory that is not wholly mine: read Cynical Theories by Pluckrose and Lindsay).

The latest attempt of a university department to flaunt its virtue without accomplishing anything meaningful is that of Cornell’s Department of English, which is very Woke. It just changed its name to something very awkward. The alteration is reported below in the student newspaper, the Cornell Sun (click on screenshot)::

Now I bet you can guess what prompted this, and why it was done. What prompted it was the death of George Floyd and the attendant tsunami of reactions, which, on the part of colleges, are far more less useful and more ludicrous than the many protests against police brutality that are justifiable (assuming they are peaceful).  The move to change the name of this department was prompted by faculty members of color, and who is going to refuse their suggestions? You’d be called a racist if you did. Indeed, the name change is seen as an antiracist act, and something useful:

“Faculty around the country — not just faculty of color, but faculty in general — began to look at the institution to see how we can help advance a discourse that challenges structural forms of racism which get reproduced in students and in teaching over and over again,”  [Professor Carol] Boyce-Davies said. [Boyce-Davies helped write the proposal.]

Well this name change will certainly do that (not!).

The University President, Martha Pollack, helped spur this decision by writing that “Cornell should make a concerted effort to be a more inclusive environment.” That’s fine, but count on academics to instantiate this advice with something dumb. The decision is further puffed up:

. . .“[The message] was a big help in making us feel like this was an important part of a larger collective action,” [Department Chair Caroline] Levine said. “Sometimes when a department tries to do something like this in isolation, there’s concerns about whether or not people will recognize and respect it. When it comes from the top, there is a sense that this is something that the whole institution should be doing in some part and it makes it easy to rally around it.”

Smaller discussions about anti-racist changes have been happening for years, according to Levine, but current circumstances gave the faculty confidence to take concrete, unified action.

“I think leadership matters,” Levine said of her stance. “This isn’t just us doing a symbolic gesture, this is in keeping with the University’s call to have us really rethink our everyday practices around racism.”

Not a symbolic gesture my tuchas! It’s totally symbolic, for it will not promote racial harmony nor inclusivity. It will not change anything, except the Department letterhead. For everybody already knows what a “Department of English” is!  Nobody thinks, for example, that it’s a Department concerned with all things English, as in the country of England. They don’t teach about real ale or Yorkshire pud.

Nor does anybody think that a Department of English teaches only literature written by English people rather than anglophones. Everybody knows that a “Department of English” is a “Department of English Literature.” If you want, call it that, but really, a “Department of Literatures in English”? Why is the latter term better? And couldn’t they have even used “Literature in English” rather than the plural “Literatures”? Why the plural?

What we have here is a purely cosmetic change that’s a way for an entire department to flaunt its virtue without having to actually do anything about racism. In fact, I find it hard to see how the name change is even concerned with “structural racism”. And is Cornell’s English Department really infected with structural racism? I seriously doubt it.  This is just one of those risible actions taken by Woke Academics that we see so often. Yes, the action is concrete, but it’s resulted in an ugly name and, more important, the action is also ineffectual and purely symbolic. 


  1. GBJames
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:12 pm | Permalink


    (I think I’ll just start typing that instead of “sub” and save a keystroke. Next time, I mean.)

  2. E.A. Blair
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    This is really going to kill English major jokes.

  3. Jay Baldwin
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Is it DOLE or DOLIE?

  4. Jonathan Dore
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    “Everybody knows that a “Department of English” is a “Department of English Literature.” If you want, call it that, but really, a “Department of Literatures in English”? Why is the latter term better?”

    Just like the anathema that (understandably) surrounds “Colored people” but (inexplicably) does not surround “People of color”, it is a distinction without a difference.

    • eric
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Specific phrases can pick up (in your example case negative) connotations through use – connotations which might differ from the connotation of those same words used in a different context or different order. So there is no issue in understanding that “colored people” might be offensive where “people of color” is not. That’s just a foible of historical English use.

      However, “English Literature” is AFAIK not one of those cases.

      • Jonathan Dore
        Posted October 22, 2020 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        What interests me is how the people who had such strong reactions to the term “coloured people” (because of its historical associations), when casting around for an alternative, would alight on “people of colour” as their preference. After all, on top of the ponderous inversion, it retains precisely the element that was so bad about the old term, i.e. the implication that “white” is a default for humans and everyone else has had “colour” applied as a variant.

  5. Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    My undergrad is in English Literature. Believe me, I saw this 30 years ago, but it was nowhere as pervasive as it is now.

  6. eric
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    So, basically, a department full of English professors seems to have forgotten a correct use of the genetive/possessive case. For freedom!

    • Joe Dickinson
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      Not to mention there’s concerns (i.e., there is concerns).

  7. Neil Wolfe
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    There should be at least one, if not two, unnecessary apostrophes in the new name. A “Department of Literature’s ‘n English” would be sure to attract a good mix of the ironic and the stupid.

  8. prinzler
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    “Literatures” signals the plurality of postmodernism. There is not one literature that is imposed on everyone (i.e., that of white dead males).

    • davelenny
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      So then, how long before Cornell discovers that English comes in different flavours and the name should be Literatures in Englishes, or is that covered by pluralising Literature.

      Oops! ‘Literature’ is usually defined as the written forms of language. Isn’t it a bit non-inclusive to privilege written forms over oral forms?

      • prinzler
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

        Yes, and “Departments” is not too far off, either.

  9. freiner
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    One can only guess what Nabokov would have said about this. Of course, he was in a different Cornell department, lecturing on literatures in Russian.

    • eric
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      Don’t know about Nabokov and Russian, but I’d be strongly motivated to choose Bahamanian literature as my topic of study.

  10. Jon Gallant
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    One can only guess that the plural is used
    to symbolize “Inclusion”, so as to include literatures written in English by people who are Black, Brown, off-Red, and even Irish or Welsh. But Mathematics is already plural, for obscure reasons. Accordingly, if the Woke ever take over in Math departments, we can expect them to demand that the final “s” be removed, to symbolize Equity.

    • freiner
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      Or — since the first “s”‘s meaning has been buried — that we had another one, capitalized to emphasize its inclusion. Hence: MathematicsS.
      Now: On to Physics!

      • davelenny
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        To be completely safe, make them ‘MathematxcsS’ and ‘PhysxcsS’.

        • GBJames
          Posted October 15, 2020 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

          The letter “y” is problematic. It should be “PhxsxcsS”, surely.

    • eric
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      I was thinking perhaps they were referring to the literature of different times, cultures, and regions which shared English as a common tongue and not much else. Shakespearean poetry and Stan Lee comics are both literature written in English, but could reasonably be considered different “literatures” in terms of what they do, who does them, when, what they convey, etc.

      This is not to say I agree with Cornell’s making the word plural. I think you and Jerry are both on the nose in calling it virtue signalling with not much else in terms of motivation. However, it is to say that if the plural were used in a diffenent context, with a more academically “clean” motivation, I probably wouldn’t have an issue with it.

    • phoffman56
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      Department of Mathematical Excellence.
      Or even …Excellences.

      But not …Excellencies. The faculty members are just too modest for that.

      We actually have a Center for Teaching Excellence. I say: “Fortunately we have no Center for Teaching Mediocrity!” But that’s more to do with which noun to turn into an adjective, than to do with any Wokiness—just Dorkiness.

      Maybe just a Department of Excellence. Applied Math is a bit like that–can’t be all of many possibilities; could be anything. My alma mater UToronto actually got rid of their Applied Math Department about 70 years ago.

      Some profs would prefer a rating ‘…exhibits excellence in teaching’ to just ‘…excellent teaching’.

      How about ‘Department of Multiply Literaturized English’ ? Literaturified? Literaturicated?

      I trust they discussed all these carefully.

      There is some irony there–a title ‘Department of Economic Theories’ could be excused, with their faculty members not having absorbed well their English courses back in school, as opposed to their excellent absorption of their economics courses.

    • phoffman56
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      This is technical, sorry, but I’d forgotten that sci-fi idea of ‘mathematicses’, where students have a choice between the stream where the Continuum Hypothsis is true, or alternatively …. is false. The famous consistency and independence theorems of Godel and Cohen make that a starter (which surely wouldn’t get anywhere!)

  11. DrBrydon
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Seriously, has anyone ever assumed that an English Department or English course was about the English? Was this really a confusion? Do the French and German departments also have to change their names? This does not seem like serious people going about serious careers.

  12. Marou
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    They don’t teach ‘ale and Yorkshire pud’? Well there’s your problem right there. What’s the matter with you people?

  13. jezgrove
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    “Useless virtue-flaunting action of the month” – having just seen PCC(E)’s Merriam-Webster post a few minutes ago I feel like Brenda from Bristol when the 2017 UK general election was announced:

  14. Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I… don’t get it. It is now an awkward and distracting name, to be sure, but why is this supposed to be reassuringly anti-racist?

    If they wanted to unnecessarily clarify that they are not about England, they could call themselves the Department of the English Language.

    Next, the Department of Astronomy will change their name to the Department of Astronomy That is NOT about Astrology. The Department of Nuclear Physics? Now its The Department of Nuclear Physics Which is Not, I Repeat NOT About Developing Nuclear Weapons. We Are As Alarmed As You About That Application!.

    Any others?

    • phoffman56
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      Department of Gasbags? Oops, no, Department of Blimps? No (profs here are nice and slim!); better be, Department of Airship Engineering. Surely not Engineerings, we’re all in this together.

      There is an interesting history of the abject failures to be first to the North Pole that way:– ‘we better get out of this contraption before that idiot kills us all’. Time passing permits gallows humour.

  15. Posted October 15, 2020 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m just glad it wasn’t like that when I was there. Or perhaps, since I focused mainly on Elizabethan English (which really was from and in England), it was a moot point.

    “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

    • jezgrove
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      I see a first folio sold for (almost) $10 million in New York the other day.

      That’s a lot of money to shell out just so you can snigger at “where the bee sucks, there suck I” in the original Elizabethan typeface, if you ask me! (I’m showing my level of maturity and sophistication, I realise…)

      • Posted October 15, 2020 at 4:22 pm | Permalink


        • jezgrove
          Posted October 15, 2020 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

          Believe it or not, that’s the kind of stuff actors in the RSC would pride themselves on knowing when my dad was there back in the ’70s.

  16. Posted October 15, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had inklings there was going to be ” trouble at mill” with ENGLISH plastered/spoken everywhere for the woke.
    Nothing is safe, everything is subject to change like it or not but, what and who does this distraction help… the perception that’s what and to some it matters regardless of how daft, or negative the reaction.
    Ironically though it doesn’t change a thing.

  17. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Hahahahaha and one of the first things you learn, at least when I did my English degree, was not to be redundant in your writing. Can’t really do that anymore, can they? It would be my first smart assed remark in a classroom.

  18. ladyatheist
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    “What we have here is a purely cosmetic change that’s a way for an entire department to flaunt its virtue without having to actually do anything about racism. ”

    Or… we have a department that specializes in usage, grammar, and precision in writing that has decided to demonstrate these qualities in the title it chooses for itself.

  19. kelskye
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of all those who sent flowers and teddy bears to the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre. You can see the best of intentions in the behaviour, and that there’s a true sense of desire to do right. In practical terms, it achieves nothing beyond the physiological fulfillment of doing good.

    It sucks to be cynical of these this because there’s a real injustice going unaddressed, and I can see the genuine desire to be a force for good behind the action. That it almost certainly won’t achieve anything is a problem plaguing modern politics, where the appearances of doing the right thing is far more psychologically satisfying than implementation of abstract structural changes that make meaningful impacts.

  20. Kevin
    Posted October 16, 2020 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Reminds me of an unpleasing experience I had some years ago as a translator of technical Italian into English a few years ago.

    The word “information” in English is invariably singular (collective noun) and on occasion an adjective (information system).
    It is difficult to imagine a case where “informations” would really be correct.

    In Italian, the inverse is true: the most frequent form is the plural (le informazioni), though the singular form is fairly common.

    In this case my 3 page translation was sent back with 60 pencil corrections. I swear that not ONE of these corrections was “correct”;

    Obviously an “s” had been tagged on to my “information”.

    I gave up translation work after this particular experience (I was already fairly bored with it).

    I am now asking myself if we should be referring to the “Literatures of William Shakespeare”. If he wrote more than one piece, it has to be literatures.

    If you have Afro-Caribbean literature in English, it is still English literature, even though not English (from England) or English (by an English writer).

    Most “English” literature has for some time been written by “Non-English” people.
    To me, it is already implicit that English Literature includes all sorts: from the UK/Ireland, America, Australia, Africa/India/ex-colonies, minority groups, dialect forms: anywhere on the planet in fact.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted October 16, 2020 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      The Library of Congress solved the problem. Literature written in English in England is classified under PR1000 – PR 6000. Literature written in English from the US is classified under PS1000 – PS39000. Literature written in English from countries other than England or the US is classified under PR9000 – PR9999.

      • Kevin
        Posted October 16, 2020 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        @E.A. Blair
        I suppose that is a solution of sorts.
        U.S. universities can now offer courses in
        Literature PR1000–PR6000,
        Literature PS1000–PS39000
        Literature PR9000–PR9999

        To include English in the course titles would not be necessary, since it is already implicit in the number ranges.

        That way, courses in English Literatures can be offered without anybody needing to know that they are even connected to English in any way whatsoever.

        How woke is that!!!!!!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 16, 2020 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      And more urgently, will I now not eat “corn” but “corns”?

      • Kevin
        Posted October 16, 2020 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        Not entirely sure. But I would try to avoid treading on yours!

  21. sugould
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Not just a cosmetic change, a physical one.

    Because now the Publications department will have to redo and distribute the *new* official letterhead, stationery, business cards; collect and confiscate and destroy all existing *wrong* ones (lest someone use them accidentally) and change all future mentions in catalogs, class schedules and flyers.

    Do they have ceremonial banners with the old name? They will have to be destroyed, too. Perhaps in public ceremony. That would be a nice touch.

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