Friday, April 06, 2007


Yesterday I had a conversation with an advisee that went something like this (as run through the era/field anonymizer):

Me: And in that course in the fall, we'll be studying Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Eliot, among others.

Student: I'm not sure who they are, but I've read Lady Audley's Secret in another course; will we be studying Mary Elizabeth Braddon?

Or, for Americanists:

Me: We'll be reading Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others.
Student: I'm not sure who they are, but I've read Harriet Wilson and Dan DeQuille. Will we read them, too?

Well, the answer would be "yes, we'll be reading them, too" in both scenarios, but it was interesting to see that authors whom scholars regularly designate as "little known" had been taught in classes (sometimes in two or three successive classes) while the "famous" and supposedly canonical authors didn't register a blip on the student's radar.

I consider this progress. Yet I also want students to read it all--the supposedly great and (formerly?) famous as well as the recently rediscovered and newly canonized. But how can you do it all?


Sisyphus said...

That's a tough one. But I personally think it is important to acknowledge that scholars have been fighting to bring in "lesser read" works by women and people of color into the canon for at least twenty years now, and many of our students have actually _only_ encountered the revisionist canons and not ever the "Dead White Males" canons (even high schools have gotten into the act by now).

It's important to historicize what teaching _used_ to be like and why there is this push for new canons now when explaining one's syllabus, just so that the students have a bit of framework and know where you're coming from.

Bardiac said...

I agree, it IS a tough one!

As someone who teaches Shakespeare, I can pretty much count on students knowing who he is. But I love teaching stuff they don't expect in my other classes. And I think we can teach the skills of reading well with all sorts of literatures; they can keep reading at the local library once they've got a start. (I do!)

undine said...

That's what I've found, Sisyphus: ironically, the "Dead White Males" canon is as dead as they are, although that rarely gets acknowledged. I often talk to them about what this course would have looked like in, say 1950 or 1920, and about which authors would have been included/excluded. Bardiac, I'd agree: there's nothing like having students say,"I've never heard of X before, but I really like his/her work!"

Professor Zero said...

I have had the same experience ... that dead white male canon really does seem to be dead!

The Constructivist said...

Not at my school and not b/c we're culturally conservative or against multiculturalism--quite the contrary. We just take seriously the idea that the the DWMs' influence goes beyond other DWMs, and, more to the point, that non-DWMs' are and have been actively rewriting their predecessors and contemporaries, well-known and unknown, so we have a responsibility to get our undergraduates ready to understand, analyze, and evaluate that intertextual dialogue....

undine said...

Constructivist, getting students to understand that intertextual dialogue is crucial. It's hard to get students to see that one work is satirizing or revising a "classic" if the students don't have the faintest notion of the text or attitudes that the current author is protesting.

The Constructivist said...

That's why we organize our intro courses by world lit and by genre--horrible titles, like Novels and Tales, Drama and Film, Epic and Romance, and World Poetry, and of course you can't o half the things you want to in them b/c they're our gen ed humanities courses, too, but we get a lot of majors that way and require them to take three of the 4. All of them start from an intertextualist presupposition and require classic and newer works from a range of traditions.

Only problem is, our students get short shrift on British and American and pick them up in haphazard ways. But we hate surveys and more experimental mid-level courses aren't attracting faculty to teach them. So we instituted a freshman seminar--an intro to being an English major--that complements our senior seminar.

My senior colleagues switched to the world lit/intertextual core in the early '90s and since I've been there we've been trying to figure out how to have it all. I think we're getting closer.