Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Teaching the Literary Canon

I read an article today about students from Yale University who wanted to "abolish the major English poets cycle and revise the remaining requirements 'to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.'" The author noted that she "was not arguing that while having only read white male authors or even 70 percent white male authors. But you cannot profess to be a student of English literature if you have not lingered in the slipstreams of certain foundational figures, who also happen to be (alas) both white and male" (para. 10).

The problem is, of course, is that the canon is not deviated as often as it should be. Teachers can be incredibly creative, but there are teachers who are also remarkably uncreative, who teach the same material in the same way for years on end, and don't think to vary their methods or materials. I do think there's value to teaching some of the canon, especially given that for such a long historical stretch, it was the wealthier white men who were able to write and publish to begin with - but people get stuck and ignore more contemporary writing but a wider range of authors.

Perhaps it's time to redefine what the "literary canon" encompasses - or widen that definition.

I ended this year by teaching my 10th graders a unit on short stories; it was a unit that included Langston Hughes (“Thank You, Ma’am”), Amy Tan (“The Rules of the Game,” which is an excerpt from The Joy Luck Club), Guy de Maupassant (“The Necklace”), Edgar Allan Poe (“The Cask of Amontillado”), Richard Connell (“The Most Dangerous Game”), Roald Dahl (“Lamb to the Slaughter”), Saki (“The Interlopers”), O. Henry (“The Gift of the Magi”), and James Hurst (“The Scarlet Ibis”). It’s a good cross-section of American (including African-American and Chinese-American) and European writers. In other words, there are a range of voices from different eras, featuring writers from different ethnicities and socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

It is, I hope, a good survey of writers that students wouldn't necessarily encounter, but I know that how we define "literary canon" could be reconstructed to include some of these authors as well: Poe tends to be covered in American Literature and Gothic circles; Langston Hughes was part of a group of artists heavily involved in the Harlem Renaissance; Amy Tan emphasizes Chinese-American experiences; Roald Dahl is known for his children's literature (James and the Giant Peach; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Matilda). And so on.

I'm reconsidering starting next year with this unit because it includes elements of literature and provides a background in literary devices, analysis, and writing techniques, but I'll need to think of how I can transition between this unit and draw connections to the next (possibly Greek mythology).

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