Women authors are notably absent from our reading lists – even today.Moyan Brenn

I write this column having been chucked outside the Bubble and into Addenbrooke’s Hospital, with my broken ankle stuck in a plaster cast and raised high in the air on an orthopaedic bed after a bike accident. Since I am literally incapacitated, I have done a lot of thinking about the junction in my Cambridge career that I have been knocked down at: the final week or so of the penultimate term of my final year. I’ve worked out that, much like my crushed ankle itself, despite having loved Cambridge and my degree in many ways, it has been far from the perfectly fitted Cinderella shoe I had hoped for.

I spent so much of my life idolising Cambridge before I even became a student here. It was this prestigious Hogwarts-like historical institution with an international reputation and a legacy of incredible students gracing its cobbled streets and beautiful colleges. But when I got here I had to come to terms with the fact that the courses are not the sparkling beacons of unrivalled academic wisdom my glossy prospectus advertised to me.

17-year-old me was quickly charmed by the English students I met at opens days, able to quickly cite an array of writers and philosophers, quote verse from memory and use technical terms to describe poetry that were beyond the reach of my paltry A Level knowledge. Those eloquent students seemed like walking proof that Cambridge had rightly earned its credentials as one of the best universities on earth.

“When I got here I had to come to terms with the fact that the courses are not the sparkling beacons of unrivalled academic wisdom my glossy prospectus advertised to me”

But I have since learned that the more you read and study intellectual and cultural history, the more you learn to challenge anything that masquerades as a ‘truth.’ With this comes a set of revelations concerned with who it is that has been doing the writing for so long. Cambridge might be at the top of the league tables, but its courses are far from infallible. The university suffers from a hangover from the days of Empire, and this becomes evident when you look at the dominant modules or modes of thinking associated with our courses, the styles of teaching and the glaring lack of diversity one our reading lists.

In the case of English, the revered canon that we spend our entire degrees studying consists largely of dead white men with very questionable political beliefs. The first slap in the face came during first term when I was confronted by medieval literature. The presence of women was generally negated, but if not, then I was reading about female bodies like mine being ridiculed, tormented, or raped. Yet I was expected to repress my personal feelings of horror in my essays, and instead foreground the aesthetic merits and the ostensible universal truths on offer in the core philosophy of the text. For instance, it’s a case of ignoring the misogyny in Paradise Lost and instead focusing on the horticulture. This does not change much over the years: men have historically done better than women in the tragedy paper. This must in some way link to proliferation of texts centred around the abuse and violation of women which, as a woman, is impossible to critically distance yourself from.

I began to think that there was no space for my political and feminist readings because I was told that this involved drawing on my own context as a citizen living in the 21st century, which made my comments anachronistic. When you are told by lecturers and supervisors that someone is a literary genius, but you are left feeling offended and disturbed rather than enlightened after reading their poetry, it becomes pretty difficult to bypass their politics just so you can analyse the ingenuity of their prosody and semantics.

Time and time again we are told in lectures and classes about discovering a ‘critical voice’. But I have also found that we are to mute the fervour of our personal feelings. It begins to feel as though finding our individual styles requires us to homogenise our ideas so as to appease our departments and to graduate with a respectable grade that will get us all employed. It is difficult to know what the faculty want from a good finalist when we transition from Part I to Part II without even a comment on any of the exams, the coursework or the dissertation that many of us dedicated most of our year working towards. You get the impression that there is certain material you bring to supervisions that you omit from exam essays because it does not feel worth it if it means jeopardising your grade. It is not even that the things I would say would be actually rebellious: to me they just feel honest and just but, because the critical framework that we are allowed to move in can feel so restrictive at times, there is a fear that any crumb of a liberal political criticism about a canonical writer of Britain’s past might be perceived as radical.

Cambridge Defend Education and Decolonise Cambridge are pushing towards making our curricula more representative, but it requires us, students of our respective courses, to stand up and make noise. Even though I have had countless discussions with fellow English students over the years, this term I have seen informal discussions transform into proactive movements towards change. The teaching and ideas of the post-colonial paper – headed by the inspirational Dr Gopal – brought to my attention everything that had been lacking from the previous seven terms of my undergraduate career. It became apparent that our seminar groups were not only concerned with our degree, but with our experiences of the English Tripos more generally.

Hearing so many people voice common concerns made it obvious that we must not just accept the education we receive here because of Cambridge’s position on the league tables but speak out. It is Cambridge’s duty as such a revered institution to produce curricula that represents all sorts of identities and experiences. To react against a history of silencing others, we must push for those voices that have been silenced to echo through the city. My three-year course costs £27,000 in tuition fees, and I’d really like that to be contributing to change

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