Canonicity and an American Literature Survey Course

This term, I taught an American literature survey for the first time since I was a high school teacher, and since the demands of a college curriculum and schedule are quite different from those of a high school curriculum and schedule, it was a very new course for me. Indeed, I've never even taken such a course, as I was successful at avoiding all general surveys when I was an undergrad.

As someone who dislikes the nationalism endemic to the academic discipline of literature, I had a difficult time figuring out exactly what sort of approach to take to this course — American Literature 1865-present — when it was assigned to me. I wanted the course to be useful for students as they work their way toward other courses, but I didn't want to promote and strengthen the assumptions that separate literatures by national borders and promote it through nationalistic ideologies.

I decided that the best approach I could take would be to highlight the forces of canonicity and nationalism, to put the question of "American literature" at the forefront of the course. This would help with another problem endemic to surveys: that there is far more material available than can be covered in 15 weeks. The question of what we should read would become the substance of the course.

The first choice I made was to assign the appropriate volumes of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, not because it has the best selection, but because it is the most powerfully canonizing anthology for the discipline. Though the American canon of literature is not a list, the table of contents of the Norton Anthology is about as close as we can get to having that canon as a definable, concrete object.

Then I wanted to add a work that was highly influential and well known but also not part of the general, academic canon of American literature — something for contrast. For that, I picked A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the Library of America edition, which has an excellent, thorough introduction by Junot Díaz. I also wanted the students to see how critical writings can bolster canonicity, and so I added The Red Badge of Courage in the Norton Critical Edition. Next, I wanted something that would puzzle the students more, something not yet canonized but perhaps with the possibility of one day being so, and for that I chose Wild Seed by Octavia Butler (who is rapidly becoming an academic mainstay, particularly with her novel Kindred). Finally, I thought the Norton anthology's selection of plays was terrible, so I added Suzan-Lori Parks's Red Letter Plays, which are both in direct dialogue with the American literary canon and throwing a grenade at it.

The result was this syllabus. As with any first time teaching a course, I threw a lot against the wall to see what might stick. Overall, it worked pretty well, though if I teach the course again, I will change quite a bit.

The students seemed to like the idea of canonicity and exploring it, perhaps because half of them are English Teaching majors who may one day be arbiters of the canon in their own classrooms. Thinking about why we read what we read, and how we form opinions about the respectability of certain texts over others, was something they seemed to enjoy, and something most hadn't had a lot of opportunity to do in a classroom setting before.

Starting the course with three articles we could return to throughout the term was one of the best choices I made, and the three all worked well: Katha Pollitt's “Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me” from The Nation and Reasonable Creatures; George E. Haggerty's “The Gay Canon” from American Literary History; and Arthur Krystal's “What We Lose If We Lose the Canon” from The Chronicle of Higher Education. We had to spend some real time working through the ideas in these essays, but they were excellent touchstones in that they each offered quite a different view of the canon and canonicity.

I structured the course in basically two halves: the first half was mostly prescriptive on my part: read this, this, and this and talk about it in class. It was a way to build up a common vocabulary, a common set of references. But the second half of the course was much more open. The group project, in which students researched and proposed a unit for an anthology of American literature of their own, worked particularly well because it forced them to make choices in ways they haven't had to make choices before, and to see the difficulty of it all. (One group that said their anthology unit was going to emphasize "diversity" ended up with a short story section of white men plus Zora Neale Hurston. "How are you defining diversity for this section?" I asked. They were befuddled. It was a good moment because it highlighted for them how easy it is to perpetuate the status quo if you don't pay close attention and actively try to work against that status quo [assuming that working against the status quo is what you want to do. I certainly didn't require it. They could've said their anthology was designed to uphold white supremacy; instead, they said their goal was to be diverse, by which they meant they wanted to include works by women and people of color.])

Originally, there were quite a few days at the end of the term listed on the schedule as TBA. We lost some of these because we had three classes cancelled for snow in the first half of the term, and I had to push a few things back. But there was still a bit of room for some choice of what to read at the end, even if my grand vision of the students discovering things through the group project that they'd like to spend more time on in class didn't quite pan out. I should have actually built that into the group project: Choose one thing from your anthology unit to assign to the whole class for one of our TBA days. The schedule just didn't work out, though, and so I fell back on asking for suggestions, which inevitably led to people saying they were happy to read anything but poetry. (They hate poetry, despite all my best efforts to show them how wonderful poetry can be. The poetry sections were uniformly the weakest parts of the proposed anthology units, and class discussions of even the most straightforward poems are painfully difficult. I love teaching poetry, so this makes me terribly sad. Next time I teach this course, I'm building even more poetry into it! Bwahahahahaaaa!) A couple of students are big fans of popular postmodernist writers (especially David Foster Wallace), so they wanted to make sure we read Pynchon's "Entropy" before the course ended, and we're doing that for our last day.

Though they haven't turned in their term papers, I've read their proposals, and it's interesting to see what captured their interest. Though we read around through a bunch of different things in the Norton anthology, at least half of the students are gravitating toward Red Badge of Courage, Wild Seed, or The Red Letter Plays. They have some great topics, but I was surprised to see that most didn't want to go farther afield, or to dig into one of the areas of the Norton that we hadn't spent much time on. Partly, this is probably the calculus of getting work done at the end of the term: go with what you are not only most interested in, but most confident you know what the person grading your paper thinks about the thing you're writing about. I suppose I could have required that their paper be about something we haven't read for class, but at the same time, I feel like we flew through everything and there's tons more to be discussed and investigated in any of the texts. They've come up with good topics and are doing good research on them all, so I'm really not going to complain.

In the future, I might be tempted to cut Wild Seed, even though the students liked it a lot, and it's a book I enjoy teaching. It just didn't fit closely enough into our discussions of canonicity to be worth spending the amount of time we spent on it, and in a course like this, with such a broad span of material and such a short amount of time to fit it all in, the readings should be ruthlessly focused. It would have been better to do the sort of "canon bootcamp" that Crane and Burroughs allowed and then apply the ideas we learned through those discussions to a bunch of different materials in the Norton. We did that to some extent, but with the snow days we got really off kilter. I especially wish we'd had more time to discuss two movements in particular: the Harlem Renaissance and Modernism. Each got one day, and that wasn't nearly enough. My hope was that the groups would investigate those movements (and others) more fully for their anthology projects, but they didn't.

One of our final readings was Delany's "Inside and Outside the Canon", which is dense and difficult for undergrads but well worth the time and effort. In fact, I'd be tempted to do it a week or so earlier if possible, because we needed time to apply some of its ideas more fully before students plunged into the term paper. I wonder, in fact, if it would be better as an ending to the first half of the course than the second... In any case, it's a keeper, but definitely needs time for discussion and working through.

If I teach the course again, I would certainly keep the Crane/Burroughs pairing. It worked beautifully, since the similarities and differences between the books, and between the writers of those books, were fruitful for discussion, and the Díaz intro to Princess of Mars is a gold mine. We could have benefitted from one more day with each book, in fact, since there was so much to talk about: constructions of masculinity, race, heroism; literary style; "realism"...

I would be tempted to add a graphic narrative of some sort to the course. The Norton anthology includes a few pages from Maus, but I would want a complete work. I'd need to think for a while about exactly what would be effective, but including comics of some sort would add another interesting twist to questions of canonicity and "literature".

Would I stick with the question of canonicity as a lens for a survey class in the future? Definitely. It's open enough to allow all sorts of ways of structuring the course, but it's focused enough to give some sense of coherence to a survey that could otherwise feel like a bunch of random texts strung together in chronological order for no apparent reason other than having been written by people somehow associated with the area of the planet currently called the United States of America.

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