In the Cornell controversy, English in the Department’s name clearly refers to the language, not the country. It is hard to see the great triumph in moving from the “Department of English” to “The Department of Literatures in English.” Indeed, the only clear impact is making the title more obtuse and awkward.
Few people would assume that an entire department at Cornell is dedicated to all things about England. The absence at various schools of a “Department of Germany” rather than the Department of German would seem a reasonable clue at to its obvious meaning. (Cornell has a Department of German Studies which clearly refers to work in the German language). Indeed, the address is ‘https://german.cornell.edu/” but you do not reach a German but the German Department.
There is also the fact that “Department of English” is used throughout the world from high schools to graduate schools without confusion. Until this moment, I have never heard anyone inquiring if these departments are dedicated to studying England. For the same reason, I doubt many people believe Cornell’s Department of Romance Studies is where you go to learn about being romantic. Before every Spanish Department is changed to Department of Literatures in Spanish, I think we need to consider both the practical and intellectual basis for such changes.
The question is not only the real confusion caused by the traditional name of such departments but also the real anti-racist benefits of making this change. I would first and foremost challenge such a proposal as belittling real efforts to address racism with such trivializing or cosmetic changes. Yet, it is difficult to have these discussions today when dissenting voices are often denounced as racist or insensitive. Many faculty are afraid to speak freely after numerous campaigns to silence dissenting voices, including at Cornell. It is easier to simply remain silent.