Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Our English Department

We had an interesting discussion in class yesterday discussing, off of The Abolition of the English Department, how the works English departments address don't always speak to the true cultural identity of those they educate. I got the sense that a lot of us felt that though fluency in the Classics is important, traditional English departments could be more inclusive and realistic in consideration of students' life experience in the works that they teach. If you were in a focus group for the GWU English Department spearheading an effort in this direction, what suggestions would you have? Or do you think such an effort is unnecessary, that the presented cannon should remain as it is and that there are no cultural consequences for its focus, or unrealistic, that the tradition is too embedded to change?
We also spoke about how steps towards a more culturally comprehensive and realistic cannon have occurred of late to positive results. What would you suggest for furthering these efforts?
Think back to reading Freud and Marx, but look forward to reading Henry Louis Gates and reflect on the recently approached bell hooks, and chew on that for a bit....


  1. I know that we do have some very culturally significant readings available right now and that Shakespeare was not considered a classic when his plays first came out but in some ways I'm really skeptical about adopting english to match modern american society. If you look at the Amazon best sellers list, the top three books are the new Stephen King, Sarah Palin's autobiography, and the book of basketball.

    Call me jaded, but I think that writing for our culture has gone significantly downhill and that it is still important to focus on the classics because they contain so many more layers than Sarah Palin talking about how much the media hates her. We read Shakespeare to discover more about the human condition, not to laugh at how Lady MacBeth is a crazy b--tch who should talk about her issues on "The View"

  2. I feel as if I should stay out of this one so as to allow all of you to weigh in freely on your respective educations. I'll just reiterate one of the questions that I asked the other day: Even though Shakespeare might reveal something about the human condition, why not read Maxine Hong Kingston, who also reveals something about the human condition? And I guess the subtext here is the question of what defines a classic. Even more so, if we scrutinize the way we talk about classics, we usually do so in nonsense banalities--they represent "good writing," they've been "established over time," they "speak to us," etc. Can we really objectively argue that Shakespeare, Milton, Joyce, etc. do all of this any better than Kingston, than Junot Diaz, than Toni Morrison, than Dave Eggers?

  3. When we spoke about this during class earlier this week, it made me think of my favorite writers and what aspects of their works appeal to me. For the most part, these aspects are good prose, good psychological insight, etc. More often than not, what makes literature "good" literature (to me, at least) is simply the indescribable feeling I get when reading it. I think the most brilliant writers are those who can elicit this feeling in a very broad audience (e.g. Proust).

    That being said, I now realize that I had previously pigeonholed myself in the Victorian Literature canon; I saw Proust, Wilde and other writers of that time as the elite. However, after taking a few courses out of necessity, I read works that had absolutely no appeal initially ("Funhome," which is actually a graphic novel, something I would have NEVER thought to find merit in, I found to be excellent). The majority of these books opened up new ways of reading, new cultures, and new modes of writing. Additionally, I began to be able to detect a subtle similarity in voice/tone/etc. between these works and other works I have read. In a way, these readings of the "Other" pointed to exactly what makes literature great. These works may be different culturally, but they align on that one aspect: being pieces of art composed of great ideals, writing styles and other attributes.

  4. Very true Megan, what's important is the work's quality that gives it its ability to speak meaningfully and in so doing powerfully affect readers. I feel the same way about my journey as a dancer at GWU. I came in very ballet and jazz classically trained, which is the exact opposite focus of the GW Dance Department. At first the "move from the joint" and release technique movement felt strange and uncomfortable, but I came to appreciate its freedom. I still love and work hard at classical technique, but have broadened my vocabulary to also regard the worth of the contrasting modern technique. Just as in any area of life, being open to and hungry to learn as many ways of thinking, being, etc can only make you a more knowledegable, dynamic, and enlightened person. Imagine the society we could have if all people strived to make themselves so!

  5. I think that what makes something "classic" is that it is the first and best of its kind. You can easily apply this theory to other genres, like music. The Beatles have always been considered the best in terms of bands and rock music, because they were the first of their kind--before them, top 40 charts were monopolized by show tunes and musicals.

    I do see that, however, my theory doesn't always apply to everything. Just because something is new and different from everything else doesn't make it great, take the Twilight series for example, nor does a less innovative text (in terms of subject matter, form, whatever) make something bad. Rather, the widespread appreciation for an artist (like Shakespeare or the Beatles) makes something classic.

    This doesn't really answer the question of WHY Africans should have to read Shakespeare in their literature departments with the same importance to it that Americans do, but I feel as different types of literature become better circulated and diversified, a change could occur... but as texts are translated from language to language, I don't see why particular texts from one region can't be appreciated or learned from in another culture. Isn't that the entire point?

  6. It's funny that I came across this point of yours today because earlier my professor from my Intermediate Fiction class brought up a point that coincides with this well. He asked us what author we thought we grew up with reading. Someone that isn't dead, that we followed throughout our childhood, always anxiously waiting for the author's next book to be published. The best people could come up with was J.K. Rowling. Now, I'm a big fan of Harry Potter, don't get me wrong, but I think its a little sad that the author we "grew up" with comes down to her. So I would have to agree with Nick, I'm a little skeptical on whether the literary canon should be changed for modern writing because honestly, I think literature has gone in a new direction, that may not necessarily be bad, but just too different to apply as classics in a English class.