Four years of English literature and I still don’t belong
Every time I look at my grades on Moodle I feel like my whole college career is on the line. For the past year and a half all I want is to finish my English Literature degree and get into a master’s program in English.
To do this, I work my ass off. Getting into graduate school takes more effort than completing an undergraduate degree. However, opening Moodle and seeing any grade below -A makes me feel like I don’t belong and all the work I put into my degree is worthless. Once the thought enters my mind, it settles there and haunts my week.
Sometimes I feel like I’m not smart enough to go to college. My peers don’t seem to work as hard as me, yet they get better grades than me. The problem is, in every one of my literature classes, I can count people of color with one hand. This means that when I compare myself to my peers, I compare myself to white people.
It’s not like people of color aren’t interested in literature, reading, or writing. So why are we in such a minority in the program? Is it because we are deliberately pushed back?
Through the B’s, ‘I didn’t understand what you said’, ‘I don’t think that writer was racist’ and teachers slurring in class, we’re moved away from a space that clearly wants to stay. White.
I started studying literature in CEGEP. I chose it because the classes seemed fun and I liked creative writing. Before going to CEGEP, I had never, in my life, had a real English course. I went to primary school in Guatemala, where all of our lessons were in Spanish. When I immigrated to Quebec, at age 12, I had to go to high school in French.
This means that before entering the literature program, I had never read a classic, had never written an essay, and had never even had a class discussion on themes and devices. literary. I knew practically nothing.
My basic English course in CEGEP was a course designed for people who needed help with their writing. I am a student of English literature. The same teacher taught my English Literature course, designed for people who had an interest and experience in writing. He was simultaneously teaching me how to write an essay in English and teaching me an advanced literature course that only literature majors were allowed to take.
In my second or third week, after our first assignment was handed in, the same teacher came up to me in class and asked me why I was in a lower Basic English course. “I’ve never taken an English class,” I say. He was surprised and said it was impressive. In my four years of studying English literature, he was the only teacher who ever made me feel like I belonged in my field.
For another course, we were given the reading of Othello, by Shakespeare. I remember my teacher saying, “Just borrow the book from a family member, there must be someone in your family who has a copy of Othello.” I don’t have a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, cousin, not even a godfather who owns a copy of a Shakespeare play. I only have a few family members in this country.
I don’t have any of that cultural knowledge that white people have acquired from their parents and supposedly cultured families. I had to learn everything about English literature on my own. No one in my family knows how to write an essay, what hyperbole means, or what translation of the Illiad I should get. I am the first person in my family to pursue post-secondary education in Canada.
All of my peers, those who don’t work as hard as me and get better grades than me, have learned to read, write and analyze the English language since birth. They received a welcome invitation to the academic field. During this time, I was actively rejected and distanced from it.
It’s almost funny how my white professors always claim that voices of color are important in our field. They each have their own token writer of color that they showcase in class, but do nothing to help or encourage their actively present students of color.
A teacher told me not to read aloud again for class because I mispronounced a word I had never seen in my life. In turn, he pronounced my last name differently each time he was present.
A white man in my chat group kept straying from the weekly topics and saying offensive things. When my classmate said to me, “It’s hard to find a job these days because people are so sensitive. Color, I didn’t feel safe. He responded by saying that he preferred an open discussion mode, and that if I didn’t want my classmate to monopolize the conversation, I should talk more. It was a hurtful response to receive, as I felt my complaints weren’t heard at all.
All of these experiences show that when I feel like I don’t belong, it’s because people tell me I don’t belong. I have to work my way through this, but when I get a disappointing grade, I wonder if it’s worth it or if I should just give up.
There is not a single visibly racialized person on Concordia’s current list of doctoral students in English. In order for my field to change, I feel compelled to be one of the few people of color who manage to get a higher education.