Thursday, February 26, 2009

Canon to the Right of Me

Curricular discussion, yet again.

One of my colleagues laments. It's okay, s/he asserts (and I'm paraphrasing), that we teach [lit of people of color in whatever century/place], but really, we need to make sure students really know [lit of white men from that century] from that period. That's really central. The other stuff is okay, but only once students really know [lit of white men from that century]. The survey really needs to focus on [lit of white men from that century].

I teach mostly lit by white men. It's true. So far as we know, Shakespeare was white and male.

In conversations, I can tell that several of my colleagues assume that I must therefore agree that the white male canon is far superior to any other literature. I try to disabuse them of this notion pretty much every time, but it keeps coming back. I think they sort of don't hear me, because their assumptions are so strong.

What I'd like to say is that I don't think that white men have written anything interesting for the past 200 years, so we should, indeed, focus on writers of color or writers who are vaginally endowed.

It's not true, though. White men are still often fine writers who write interesting books. It would be fun to say it aloud, though, just to see the look of horror on their faces. But then they'd believe I really meant it, even if I said I was teasing, because they feel that white men are under siege, under attack (along with Christmas). It's one thing, I gather, to make sexist jokes about women, and quite another to make a joke about men. The one they take as funny because it's "just a joke," while the other they take as part of the war on all that makes life worth living.

But it is true that I don't value white male experience as central to what's important in literature.

It's going to be a long meeting, isn't it?


  1. i think of literature as a way to embrace the variety of human experiences. it allows us to experience times and places and situations that we will never encounter in our personal lives, and challenges us to find our blinders and remove them, if only temporarily. every work is an opportunity to look through a window that may otherwise be closed to our view.

    sometimes the view is gloriously affirming of our own viewpoints and experiences; sometimes it is jarring and disturbing; sometimes it leads us to reconsider issues we thought fully settled within ourselves.

    all of that is valuable to students. very few will go on to make careers of literature, but all need to be able to identify some of the Big Questions, understand the range of human experiences, and all need to be able to consider and grapple with varying points of view.

    it's fine to have a detailed knowledge of the writings of dead white men; there is much to be learned there. but i think you are correct: there is more out there, and it is not inherently less important.

    the male canon is simply how inquiries into literature have been forever framed. developing new frames takes a lot of work.

    i think there is another aspect of literature, too: that written works not only reflect aspects of human experience, but once those works are known, they become part of popular human experience. so, for example, someone who doesn't know shakespeare is going to miss cues and references in their mundane lives. we don't want students to be culturally inept.

    that cuts another way, too, in terms of a broad and relevant education, one that teaches students to think. white male students are fully capable of confronting work by women and people of color, just as women and people of color are fully capable of finding gems in the work of dead white guys -- and broadening the scope of discourse benefits everyone. to the extent that other works become part of the common public discourse, they contribute to the richness of our common cultural understandings.

    nobody wants their life work to become irrelevant. but nobody [i assume] is proposing irrelevance for dead white guys. if the study of literature is going to stay vigorous and meet its highest potential, though, it needs to acknowledge the relevance of other points of view.

    sorry for such length, and from a non-academic at that. one has opinions.

    my word verification is "static."

  2. When we were selecting a common reader for our Intro to Lit course, one department member questioned the generally preferred book because it only had Hamlet and a couple of sonnets.

    I think I -- as the Shakespearean on campus -- was the most vocal about the fact that it didn't matter. It's Intro to Lit. Let's get them interested in a variety of things.

    In fact, my spouse (who is a creative writer) argues with me about keeping the Shakespeare course a requirement for the major (the only specific literature course that is absolutely required). I'm not 100% convinced of it. I love Shakespeare. But there's a whole lot of other stuff out there too that's worth reading and teaching.

  3. Oh, god. I feel for you Bardiac, as you might suspect from reading my blog. And you know what? Why does it have to be *either* a "traditional" canon *or* a "revolutionary" one? Why can't curriculum change in the 21st century be about reading good books? Acknowledging lots of different valuable things? Is that really such an awful idea?

  4. Anonymous2:37 PM

    I sort of had that meeting on Tuesday. Wasn't fun, didn't finish the issue, don't wanna go back to it.

  5. Anonymous2:39 PM

    I think you should just say, "vaginally endowed" at regular intervals during meetings from now on.

    That should take care of it.


  6. Fortunately, our department has no sense of "canon" but a great deal of humility as we look at our small number (less than twenty full-time faculty members to teach everything from first-year to M.A. in two language streams).

    Our curriculum has been designed to minimize required courses and always work in some sort of choice. And since the previous generation retired, there's less a sense that anyone sees their fields as privileged over the others'! But I realize that's a particular fortune of place, personnel and historical accident.