Look Over Here! Teaching Literature

Posted in Uncategorized by cpeverley on April 28, 2010

We’ve all taken literature classes. At UMD, they’re usually called “English.” In my middle and high schools they called them “Language Arts,”  and in elementary school we just called it “reading” and “writing.” But no matter what name you use, the classes almost always have the same gist: this is literature, read it. We’re taught that literature is narrative fiction (not non-fiction or poetry) that is well-written (as based on a Westernized, patriarchal, upper- or middle- class white aesthetic) with themes that are relevant to that same aesthetic. There’s a Western canon of literature from the Greeks through the Romantics and the Humanists to the Modernists, and it’s easy to identify its contents: The Iliad, The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet. The books that everyone reads if they want to know “literature.” I did had some great teachers in high school that tried to stray from this limited vision of literature, but even they were constrained by student/parent expectations and department/ school district curriculum policy. These policies and expectations generally boil down to this lesson plan: teach “literature” all semester, but you can add one “other” book of your choice.

This unfortunately-common practice is much like the practice of random inclusion we discussed in class last week. We talked about how the presence of, say, one woman of color at a conference of white feminists makes the conference neither diverse nor inclusive. The fact that not every woman at the conference is white does not necessarily make the group more open to challenging or changing the dominant perspective– to use our language from class, this presence does not say anything of the proximities of the woman of color within the movement or of the movement to the woman of color.

The same random inclusion is very popular in literature-education today. As an English major, I’m irritated by the major’s relatively specific course requirements for American and European writing (basically five or six required courses) but sole course requirement for “Literature of African Americans, Peoples of Color, Women, and/or Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals.” I think the issue is even more acute in the area of teaching English, so I looked at the requirements for the English side of the English education program. I’d like to clarify that I’m not criticizing the English or Education departments, but rather the systemic issues that make these things necessary to maintain accreditation.

There are 13 required courses: 5 core courses, 5 British and American concentration courses, and 3 miscellaneous courses. Out of the dozen or so emphases offered for English majors (from Film and New Media Studies to Mythology and Folklore), education majors have their emphases literally chosen for them: American and British. Three credits of the English-ed program are in the “Women/Minority” category, and unless the student chooses carefully from one of the miscellaneous categories, they’re likely to graduate without having taken any course with literature outside of the US and Europe.

While I understand the benefits of having some sort of consistency in curriculum across the country, I think the ethnocentricity of focusing on only the Westernized, patriarchal, upper- or middle- class white aesthetic has severe consequences in limiting the ways in which students can imagine alternative ways of thinking, knowing, and doing.


One Response

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  1. cni1 said, on April 28, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    While I have to agree with the general idea, I’d like to point out that it extends beyond reading more than what comes from dead white guys. Mention anything in regards to fantasy/science fiction in any kind of English department and you might as well ask for a blindfold and cigarette while you’re at it. Romance, mystery…genre fiction is what tends to be widely read, but no one’s jumping to refer to any of it as “literature.” It’s a very invite-only word.

    There aren’t really any English courses that cover popular fiction and its impact. None that I’ve ever seen offered at least. Outside of a college classroom, how likely are you going to see a circle of readers discussing any of the “big” names in English literature? You’re probably going to see them having a discussion on something off the New York Times Bestseller instead.

    I’d have to say that it should be equally important to branch out and sample a diversity of literature (and I’m using it in a broad sense) from all corners of the published world, and not just across race/queer lines. Certainly if you’re expecting to earn a degree in “English,” but are limited to a small, predetermined definition of what counts as it.

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