As always, I enjoy hearing student feedback on my courses. And, as always, I lament the amount of variables—cost of books, thematic focus, diversity of authors, etc.—that need to be balanced when creating a syllabus for a survey course like ours, one that encompasses 150+ years of American literary history (in fourteen weeks).
However, I was struck yesterday by a few comments that some of you made. Therefore, I’m challenging you to think through some of the criticism that you lobbied at the course. To be clear, your sentiments are fine, and you’re well within your rights to locate structural problems in the course. That said, you should always be able to substantiate any criticism you make of anything with, as you know, well-substantiated arguments. Yesterday, it seemed to me that some of the concerns that many of you had about the (problematic) diversity of the authors in our course emerged from two different locations: 1) a kind of top-down point of view that parrots mainstream, often conservative, critiques of higher education which claim universities (and professors) are too “PC,” whatever that might mean; 2) bottom-up from the perspective of the almighty, all-encompassing AP English classes that students take in high school—often at ages around 16-18—when we all know that our intellects are at their sharpest. (To put that last point in less snarky terms, all the while admitting that I am a very open critic of the AP [and IB] industries: If you study Hemingway pretty thoroughly in high school, why should you be required to read him again in college? Why not skip over him to touch upon some other less canonical authors?)
Finally, the issue of thematic focus is a thorny one, for very practical reasons. In our case, I had you purchase the bulky, but very useful, three-volume Norton. I also asked you to purchase two stand alone paperbacks. The Beats are not covered in any significant detail in The Norton, and I didn’t want to make you purchase too many books for the class because that gets costly. Thus, Kerouac and co. didn’t make the cut. That’s a problem inherent in courses like these that just won’t go away, unfortunately. Still, you can feel free to question the utility of these types of courses that require hard decisions to be made when it comes to selecting content.
So where was I going with all of this? Oh yeah, the syllabus. Below are two purposefully clumsy categories that represent the authors on our syllabus. I have chosen these clumsy categories because they echo the terminology that many of you used in class yesterday—the canonical (frequently white) authors versus the “political” ones. (And again, I’d argue that this terminology is something that we’ve all heard elsewhere, which is why we might use it so uncritically.) What do you think of the syllabus when it is divided up this way? Does it alter your impressions of the thematic content of the course?
Sarah Orne Jewett
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Edwin Arlington Robinson
William Carlos Williams
T. S. Eliot
F. Scott Fitzgerald
John Dos Passos
Booker T. Washington
W. E. B. Du Bois
James Weldon Johnson
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Zora Neale Hurston
*A Few Points:
1) I didn’t include any of the 9/11 writers in here because there’s a whole slew of smaller pieces assigned for that day, and I just didn’t have the time to sort through all of them. However, it’s probably safe to say that 9/11 is a political event, even though I’ll argue that it’s a primarily textual one. We’ll see what you think.
2) By my count, there’s 26 writers in the first group, and 16 in the second. Moreover, the first group contains three major, long works of literature—Daisy Miller, As I Lay Dying, Postcards--whereas Zigzagger is the only long work written by a “nontraditional” writer.
3) The point of all of this: How are all of you making the judgment calls that you are making? How can someone like Audre Lorde be more, or less, political than someone like John Dos Passos? Moreover, how do we establish literary categories to begin with? Clearly, the ones above don’t work. Therefore, when some of you claim that there are too many “civil rights” writers in the course, what does that mean? Clearly, there aren’t more civil rights writers in the course than writers who don’t write on civil rights. Why, though, do the CR folks stand out? Why might that seem problematic to you? And why, of course, is it problematic that we are not reading Hemingway?
Okay, have at it. I’ll be curious to see what you come up with.