Friday, April 2, 2010


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?

Traditional Writers

Mark Twain
Henry James
Sarah Orne Jewett
Kate Chopin
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Stephen Crane
Jack London
Edwin Arlington Robinson
Amy Lowell
Robert Frost
William Carlos Williams
Carl Sandburg
Ezra Pound
T. S. Eliot
H. D.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
John Dos Passos
William Faulkner
Elizabeth Bishop
Randall Jarrell
Flannery O’Connor
Anne Sexton
Sylvia Plath
Ronald Sukenick
Thomas Pynchon
Annie Proulx

“Political” Writers

Booker T. Washington
W. E. B. Du Bois
James Weldon Johnson
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Langston Hughes
Claude McKay
Zora Neale Hurston
Jean Toomer
Countee Cullen
Richard Wright
Audre Lorde
Ishmael Reed
Gloria Anzaldúa
Sherman Alexie
Jhumpa Lahiri
Manuel Muñoz

*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.


  1. First of all, I hope my comments in class were not offensive. I certainly did not mean to force you to defend all of the writers that you have chosen. In fact, for the most part, I have enjoyed the literature that we have read. Far better than the usual textbook readings for my other classes. I get tired of reading about capital markets, and the different strategies of managing a firm. I am thrilled to have been forced to read writers such as Faulkner...someone who I likely would never have picked up without this class. With that said, there were a few times where I became bored with the topics. Maybe it is just me, but many of the "non-traditional" writers seemed dull. Although I may have read some of the more traditional writers previously in high school, I still enjoyed reading other pieces of literature by these authors and would have preferred to have read more of them.

    Overall, I have found the class to me very informative and interesting. I am not necessarily suggesting that you change anything in the future. Perhaps the rest of the class was much more interested in these non-traditional writers?

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  3. cperkal,

    Absolutely no offense whatsoever! However, I maintain that any and all critiques that all of you make about anything, not just this course, need to be substantiated. That's sort of what this whole college thing is about--allegidly. Therefore, I'm pushing you, as the title of the post suggests, to do that. If you, for instance, don't like W. E. B. Du Bois, that's fine. I never knew the man, so I don't take it personally. However, you need to say why you don't like his writing. And I would argue that making a convincing argument about that dislike should go beyond the kinds of terms we hear tossed around outside of literature circles.

    And Phil, you might be onto something. However, I think someone like Ishmael Reed forces us to rethink the supposed seriousness of so many black writers. In other words, it seems like we can only come at them either from a point of criticism or from a point of admiration for the gravity of their work. Reed undoes that to a certain extent, I think, and he provides us space to laugh. Which is just another way of saying we might be doing an equal disservice to the literature by "taking it so seriously."

  4. It certainly seems as if I should clarify a little further. I do not judge writing based on color! Phil, no one is denying the importance of black literature (or any of these non-traditional writers). In fact, I really enjoyed some of their work. I suppose it is my fault for not clarifying a little further. I particularly liked the writing of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

    I was not a fan of Dubois. I felt that Dubois seemed arrogant in is writing, much like T.S. Eliot. They both seemed as if they were writing for merely the intellectuals, and were to good for the common people. I don't mind sophisticated writing, but it is much more enjoyable to me when it is presented in a more creative manner (like Faulkner), rather than having to look up all of these references that both Eliot and Dubois throw into their writing.

    In addition, I did not like the piece that we read on Malcolm X. Pretending to be ready to die, yet in reality fooling your friends?? I don't care what your motivation is, I don't agree with this sort of deception. It frustrated me.

    Ishmael Reed...I couldn't even understand. Maybe it is my lack of skills in terms of deciphering literature, but I hated this. I couldn't even get through it. Perhaps it was meant to comedy, but I didn't find it particularly funny. Maybe I would appreciate it more if I knew exactly what he was trying to get at...

    Some of the other non-traditional writers just did not end up sweeping me away. Booker T Washington's piece was very informative, and was certainly an interesting perspective, but I can't say that I hungered for more of his writing. Granted, I am not a huge fan of poetry, but I had a tough time appreciating the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar. "When Malindy Sings" seemed like a folk song to me, and while I might be missing some awesome meaning, it felt no different than sitting out in West Virginia listening to some horseshit folk tune about a woman with a beautiful voice.

    I'm sorry for not being a little more clear. I did not mean to elicit the response of someone having to defend the importance of black literature. Clearly, it is a sweeping generalization for me to say that I didn't enjoy ANY of the diverse writing. That is simply not true, and for giving that impression I apologize.

    However, I found that while I liked the majority of the traditional writers, this was not necessarily the case for the diverse ones. That is not to say that there aren't thousands of non-traditional writers out there that I do like, perhaps there are. It is just simply that I tended to like the non-traditional writers FROM CLASS less than the traditional ones.