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Shooting the Canon

April 12, 2006

Shooting the Canon

Crap, I told Dr. Crazy, who may be at MLA, that I would have more of a reasoned post on the canon…and I have about 20 minutes to do it.

Here goes.  

I wondered whether for core requirements it wouldn’t be better to have more time in which to explore a fuller context of works for a given time period.  For example, instead of a high-level survey of Am. Lit. that has a smattering of poems, journals, short stories and maybe, if lucky, one play, maybe the student could be presented with a full-year immersion where more authors (of various stripes, types and orientations) could be presented in a richer context.  

Advantages (to a core curriculum student…not dealing with majors or grad students here):

  • More inclusive (of race, gender, of—dare I say—quality)
  • Richer context which would serve as a template for other or self study
  • Opportunity to make deeper, more complex connections—more works with similar themes because the course has more time


  • Since credit hours are scarce, large sections of literature are omitted (British versus American, etc.)
  • Lack of adequate exposure to necessary cultural information (the sources of allusion and reference—“Hamlet, who is Hamlet?”)
  • Mid-year transfers—scheduling

I am sure there are others, and I will update this list from comments (if anyone is out there ().

Dr. Crazy wonders:

I like the idea that the undergraduate major should give them a solid and general foundation in literature – without specializing in one identity-category or another – but how do we achieve that?

I don’t think, though, this is achievable.  Let’s jump back…what is the purpose of the core curriculum…exposure.  We are not asking for deep understanding of the structure of the tarantella (although it is nice when it comes) or an articulate appreciation of Wordsworth Tintern Abbey (again, nice if you can get it).  What we are really looking for, and I argue this from the number of core hours allotted to English (which include basic composition and sometimes grammar), is a little bit of CULTURE to rub off on the poor rubes.  Crawl off of your keg stands for just a moment while we explore the despair of the confessional poets.  

What I am arguing is that we can provide a method of reading (a template or approach) that can serve the student well after graduation.  Sure, there will be some who study a given work in a survey that years later sparks an interest.  She may very well pick up Leaves of Grass when she is 30.  She may also, with a deeper immersion, come to leaves of Grass with a deeper understanding of Victorian life because she studied Victorian and Modern British literature, learning to a deeper degree the movements and forces alive during the time period.

I can’t say that I am totally convinced of my proposal, but I get the nagging feeling that a little bit of a lot isn’t always as good as a deep amount of a bit.

  1. Dr. Crazy permalink
    April 13, 2006 4:21 pm

    Again, I see what you’re saying. I guess my question is this: What role do upper-division classes have if one gets all of the immersion stuff done in the lower-division? Also, what do we do with students who would want to take a course at the upper-division outside of their survey track – i.e., a student chooses American lit, but then really wants to take an upper-level course on the modern british novel. He/she would have little-to-no context (historical/political/social) for this upper-level course, but does that mean that he/she shouldn’t be allowed to take it? On the one hand, one might argue that he/she will have learned in the immersion-survey how to do the necessary reading legwork to catch himself up, but how many students – even if they know how to do that – at the undergraduate level will do unassigned work? Probably not many. So then, what does the instructor do? Cater to those who don’t have the background or to those who do?

    I’m just thinking out loud here, and I’m not really sure what I think. On the one hand, I agree with you that we’re teaching them a set of skills, but on the other, I’m reluctant to specialize them so early at the expense of other stuff. Hmmmm.

  2. Piss Poor Prof permalink
    April 17, 2006 2:53 pm

    The whole discussion, it seems, goes back to what do the humanities want to teach: content or skills? The obviously choice is not to choose–teach both, but with limited core requirement time and the immediate availability of ready content, I think the scale it tipping toward skills.

  3. Professor Zero permalink
    April 18, 2006 11:03 pm

    Well, I teach mostly foreign literature, so I have to give context. Fewer works, more context, is what has always worked best for me. It doesn’t mean you can’t tell them about the works they’re not reading, nor does it mean you have to give or expect seminar-style depth.

    Example: in the introduction to Latin American culture, I do not do what everyone else seems to do, namely, tell the cultural history of 20 countries from beginning to end, show slides, etc. NO. I pick some representative themes, and a representative author for each of these; then contextualize with
    other kinds of documentation and discussion.

    This allows me to sharpen research and writing skills also, by the way…

    Just my 2 cents.

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