Challenging the Canon

I teach a lot of survey courses, often to non-English majors. Recently the idea came to my attention of the question of accessibility of some less than canonical authors and texts that still might be useful in a literature survey. I have taught a few things that aren’t staples in surveys of global literature and British literature, but Ovid’s Amores, Boethius‘ Consolation of Philosophy, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Mankind are all canonical, at least tangentially, in terms of general Western literature. With some extra annotation and lecture framing, these texts are not too hard for a student to look up either for background or for translations or secondary analysis.

I have used Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound before as well, and students generally respond well to it, although this is definitely a play where you need to use both the script and a performance. Because it isn’t a classroom standard, it’s less likely that students will have studied it previously, and some students might be more interested because this play is something new to them that they haven’t even heard of. Even Stoppard’s biggest commercial/popular hit, Shakespeare in Love, isn’t as well known to students in a first year introduction to literature class. I know this because I asked, and upon further reflection I figured out that the movie might be slightly older than some of the younger students.

There are some titles, both medieval and popular, that could have some real classroom use, but aren’t always available in accessible forms, which makes them even more likely to remain obscure. For example, the 9th century monk Sedulius Scottus wrote among other things a series of lyrics, some of which would fit nicely into either ancient or medieval traditions. For example, one of his poems (c. 81) is a debate between a rose and a lily. Not only is debate poetry a popular genre around that time, but the poem also explores some themes and images which are common like the symbolism of the two flowers, and the attempt to balance pagan and Christian ideas. The problem is that both the original Latin and the single published translation are not readily available. Neither is freely found online, and in physical book form, three copies of Sedulius Scottus: On Christian Rulers and The Poems and a single copy of Sedulii Scotti Carmina (CCCM 117) exist in the library system for the entire University System of Georgia (which includes places like the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech). There are ways to include a single poem in a syllabus, including doing my own translation, but if students get interested, their options for further exploration are quite limited.

Similarly, something like Walafrid Strabo’s Hortulus, as a botanical treatise, might get students who aren’t planning to be literature majors interested in 9th century poetry. Nursing is a popular major and learning that at one point in history lilies were considered an anti-venom in addition to their literary and cultural symbolism might be a gateway for certain students. A dual language (Latin and English) edition is the same large USG library system exists in only three copies; again, as with the lyrics of Sedulius Scottus, if a student were interested in further investigation, finding the materials to explore that text would be a struggle if their institution did not possess one of these copies. A more determined student might be able to find some additional resources, but often, if the class or assignment doesn’t directly align with the student’s major or career goals, they are less likely to be willing to take the time to seek out further information.

The problem with using something that’s not especially standard as a teaching text is not just that the primary text itself can be difficult to find. The same problem exists when a more modern text is popular, but too recent to have generated much secondary scholarship. I have previously used V.E. Schwab’s Vicious in the same general literature survey as The Real Inspector Hound. I also used novels by Kim Newman (The Secret of Drearcliff Grange School) and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. All three novels were reasonably popular (two were best-sellers) and all published within about the past ten years. My reasoning was that these were stories students might be able to get interested in, and that they wouldn’t be able to rely too much on secondary work and online summaries or study guides. Vicious was probably the most successful, and I’ll be using it again, but this time I’ll compare it to how students get on with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Drew Hayes’ The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, Vampire Accountant. All of these novels are pretty readily available, although none free should a student want their own copy. It’s my experience with novels like these that tells me that often students aren’t often willing to spend time digging into related but less direct avenues of research if they can’t find something directly on their subject within an hour at most. Of the novelists I’ve listed, only Neil Gaiman has been around long enough, been popular enough, and been viewed as literary enough to have much secondary scholarship published on his work. But the interesting thing is that the university library system doesn’t have much of that scholarship; I had to go to the public library for it. Again, limited access and/or time many students may not be willing to spend.

While student struggles with critical thinking, especially when research might be involved, have long been lamented in various academically-centered media for some time, very little, at least of what I’ve seen, has been able to come up with a particularly useful solution. Getting students more interested and invested in what they’re working with is the best solution I’ve encountered, and sometimes the best way to do that is to use things that aren’t as traditional or even canonical in the classroom or academy. The problem of resources is much larger and one individual instructors don’t have much control over, but we can at least get things started by getting students interested, since demand after all can be a pretty powerful force.

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No Clear Door or Window or Gateway

About 7 months ago, V.E. Schwab gave the annual Tolkien lecture at Oxford. Her theme was gateway stories, books that really draw someone into the world of literature, especially fantasy. Her overall thesis was two-fold: 1) She argued that stories and book considered “literary” should not be required reading for fans of a genre because forcing yourself or being forced to read something just to say you’ve read it risks killing any potential enjoyment. 2) There is no such thing as pure fantasy. To be good, proper fantasy, what a story should do is allow “the writer, and by extension the reader, to use fictional and fantastical analogs to examine the dilemmas of the real world. But it also allows the reader to escape from it. To discover a space where things are stranger, different, more.” I also had the chance to hear her speak in person around the same time, at the Decatur Book Festival 2018. In her talk she suggested that there are two general kinds of fantasy- those which provide doors (a more immersive and complete experience of the world and narrative) and windows (those which provide only a partial view of the world of the story ad require more inference on the part of the reader).

About a month and a half ago, I participated in a series of interviews with high schoolers, many of whom mentioned (often prompted) the book or story that really got them interested in literature and reading. There were connections, both in titles as well as general ideas. Several shared V.E. Schwab’s experience of Harry Potter being their gateway into fantasy and reading. Some others named Rick Riordan, particularly the Percy Jackson series. What caught my attention was not only the trends of these two series for this generation, but also how uncanonical they are in terms of the traditional “literary canon”; both series are best-selling popular fantasy fiction.

About the same time as the interviews, there was a thread bouncing around Twitter which had been started by someone asking academics and scholars about reading they considered guilty pleasures or fun junk; the majority of the responses were likely not what the author of the original Tweet had been looking for. Most of the responses that I saw were something along the lines of, “why should any reading be shameful?” and “just because something like a romance novel isn’t considered literary doesn’t mean I should feel guilty about enjoying it”. Putting these three events together in terms of both proximity and general argument, there would seem to be a bit of a trend developing where tradition and popularity converge, particularly in the realm of speculative fiction and fantasy.

All this got me thinking about what titles were my gateways since many of those mentioned above were not the ones that really got me into reading; I’m slightly older than V.E. Schwab, and now nearly old enough to be the biological parent of a high-schooler. I’m also a professional academic and scholar who tries to make time for ‘fun reading’, which in my case often leans towards the speculative, both fantasy and sci-fi. I avoided Harry Potter at first because it was on the best-seller lists, and I didn’t have much luck with enjoying titles that usually ended up there. But by the time the third novel was published, I’d gotten curious and borrowed a family member’s book club copy of the first one. This was my senior year in high school. Throughout college and a few years following, I became one of those fans who waited in line for the midnight release, and who downloaded and had to wait for the filters to buffer the movie trailers for the first film. Around the release of novel #6, I’d started to lose interest. I didn’t find out about the Percy Jackson series until I was in my early 30s, but I read all of them and enjoyed them. I tried a few of the other series as well, the Roman one and the Egyptian one; I just couldn’t get into the Egyptian mythology series, which is too bad since the actual mythology is fascinating. My point is that neither of these series could be my gateway since I’d gotten interested in reading beforehand, and neither really made me a lifelong fan of fantasy.

I agree with V.E. Schwab about the nature of fantasy and the nature of fandom. I also half agree with the Twitter thread. While I agree that there should be no shame in enjoying a book of any sort, whether we like it or not, there are some pretty clear expectations and cultural assumptions about what is canonical, popular, and literary. These things sometimes intersect, but frequently they do not.

I was always encouraged to read as a child. I don’t remember any favorites, but I do remember some series’, which I take to mean I must have liked them. I remember Dorrie the Little Witch (fantasy), Amelia Bedelia (comic but real world), and Babar (fantasy). I also remember reading C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia in the originally intended publication order which is not fully chronological in terms of narrative. I remember more about the BBC tv movie versions (late 1980s, early 1990s) than I do the books. The one novel I do remember was The Horse and His Boy which is set in the same world, but features characters that have little to do with the Pevensies. I also remember liking the Little House on the Prairie novels. With the exception of Dorrie, all of these series are well-known canonical children’s series’; I honestly don’t know if Dorrie is still especially remembered and read.

The novels that stand out to me most as my likely gateway into fantasy and reading for fun are both something I found in a used bookstore in downtown Dublin (Ireland), Chapters, which is apparently still there (Long may it prosper!).  I had two experiences here that I’m pretty sure shaped my reading habits towards what they still are 20 years later. Both times, I saw a book, picked it up, thought it looked interesting, but put it back. After repeating this a few times, I finally bought and read the book. The first one was Watership Down by Richard Adams. The second was Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett. Both of these titles are fantasy, but one is recognized as more literary than the other. Part of this may be due to Watership Down being older (1972) than the Discworld series (The Color of Magic, 1983), but the best-selling nature of many installments of the Discworld series likely also factors in. Both have also been turned into tv programs, cartoons and live-ish action.

Terry Pratchett led to Neil Gaiman which led to Gail Carriger and a years-long steampunk kick. After college, when I started getting interested in Gaiman (I think Anansi Boys was my first novel of his- I really enjoyed it), I also got interested in manga and graphic novels. This I distinctly remember and can place. In 2006, I’d moved to an area rural enough to not have a bookstore, and to have a library but one which was not terribly well stocked for my tastes. I started picking up the Shonen Jump monthly, which was still in print at the time, at the grocery store, and flipping through it. I started buying that, then subscribed, and eventually started getting into the graphic novel forms, manga first, then comic books. The interesting thing about the graphic novel world is that no matter what the form or style (manga or comic book) a significant percentage of the titles belong in some way to a genre or sub-genre of fantasy.

I’m reasonably sure that it was manga and anime that brought me away from fantasy to science fiction; not that I don’t still read fantasy; I most certainly do, but I seem to have been expanding my fun reading a bit more the past year or two.  I just can’t quite pin down a gateway. If I had to, I supposed it might be either Chaucer’s “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” (c. 1390s) or Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi (2018). I’ve also read some of the more canonical and popular science fiction but it’s never really grabbed me. I read Neoromancer because I figured I should; I didn’t enjoy it. I read Planetfall by Emma Newman because I loved her fantasy Split Worlds series. I didn’t like Planetfall.

My point? Inspired by the conversation going on about the nature of literature, popular, canonical and otherwise, examining my own reading habits and what got me started both supports the current discussion and disagrees. I definitely agree with V.E Schwab that there should be no such thing as required fan reading. Case in point: the things I’ve read because I figured I ought to, I frequently did not enjoy. V.E. Schwab is herself an exception to my general experience with best-sellers, since I don’t often agree with the general public opinion on the amazing-ness of the novel. The things that I don’t agree with quite as much is the existence of the single or few gateway books or stories. For those who have them, I say ‘good for you’. My experience suggests that it is also possible for the introduction and fandom of anything, including fantasy, also has the potential to be lot be more gradual. As far as I’ve seen, this option hasn’t been really addressed.

Big and Small Versions of the Same Project

I have made it nearly four years at my current institution without having been asked to lead a senior English major project (called ‘Capstone’). What all English majors here are asked to do, nearly always spring of their senior year, is to produce a 20-page research project in a chosen area of interest, and then pare it down to a 10 -15-minute presentation which is then given to an audience of mostly faculty and administrators. While they take a course on general methods to guide and supervise them through the process, each student also needs to find an individual advisor who is a subject specialist in or at least near their chosen subject.

Spring of 2019 was open season on the medievalist who knows a thing or two about mythology and popular culture. I can only think to blame both my Summer 2018 teaching assignment (Myth and Folklore in Literature) and the fact that I have now been in my current position long enough to have had students who started in my introductory classes be in the spring of their senior year.  I say ‘blame’ but neither the time nor the course have been negative experiences in any way. It’s just that those two things coinciding are the only factors I can think of for my sudden popularity. Whatever the reasons, I’m now going to be guiding more than one student (in slightly different capacities) through the process from beginning to end of what is essentially an article draft, then turn it into an 8-10 page conference paper. I vaguely remember some classmates in graduate school complaining about a similar assignment in a course on Greek tragic drama as ‘evil’ and me being thankful to not have been in that class. This has since become a thing that I, like most professional academics, must do on a regular basis, forwards or backwards.

One of the reasons I’m putting together a general outline for myself is that I remember sometime in my first or second year of graduate work in English, there was a talk on getting through the dissertation process in a timely way. Granted, the scale is different in my current situation, but the basic premise is the same. One of the senior faculty members who was part of the panel had handouts that included a general timeline. I found that useful and although I was nowhere close to my own dissertation at the time.

It seems like some things that seem obvious to those of us who have to do it on a regular basis are not always obvious or even clear to someone facing the situation for the first time.

I’d recommend to pretty much any first time advanced researcher The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup, and William T. Fitzgerald as it was once recommended to me. It’s user-friendly, practical, and multi-disciplinary all at once. It’s also not expensive, especially as far as textbooks go; it’s a paperback under $20. I admit I haven’t looked at the most recent edition, since I’m pretty sure my copy is at least 1 edition out of date, but it’s still the best, most useable guide for something of this sort, at least the part concerning the 20-page paper.

To my knowledge, there is no equivalent guide for turning a larger project into a more condensed presentation version.

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Particularly for the medieval side of things, for the basic areas any general project of this sort might need, here’s my basic list of primary and secondary material:

General Primary: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain

The Art of Preaching by Alanus d’Insulis

The Metalogicon by John of Salisbury

Ars Versificatoria: The Art of the Versemaker by Matthew of Vendôme

Here’s my reasoning for the above, in addition to studying the corpus of your author or genre of interest, if you’re working on anything British and medieval, you should know a little about history and some key genre theories, especially poetry and preaching. Admittedly these lists (above and below) are generic, and not necessarily what I would need for a specific project. That of course will have to depend on the nature of the proposed project.

Basic Secondary (borrowed from a 2014 post):

European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages by Ernst Robert Curtius

Medieval Narrative: An Introduction by W.A. Davenport

The Life and Times of John Trevisa, Medieval Scholar by David Fowler

Style and Consciousness in Middle English Narrative by John Ganim

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages by A.J. Minnis

Handbook of Medieval Studies: Terms, Methods, Trends. Ed. Albrecht Classen

Old English and Middle English Poetry by Derek Pearsall

Reading Middle English Literature by Thorlac Turville-Petre

The History of Linguistics in Europe from Plato to 1600 by Vivienne Law

Paris and Oxford Universities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: an Institutional and Intellectual History by Gordon Leff

I admit that some of the titles I have listed in the secondary section are possibly out of date by now or are being replaced by something more current; however, as of right now, I am not aware of anything that has fully replaced any of them. And I would also note that this list is more of an example preview, since it doesn’t include things like Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric by Copeland and Sluiter, which is an essential anthology for me, but it is specific to medieval literary criticism and theory, and not all projects might require that kind of thing. Some might, but it’s just a bit too category specific for me to put it on a general model list.

I have not included any of the many extremely useful web-based sources, because they both depend largely on the specific project/subject and there are too many to choose from. TEAMS and Lumiarium.org may be the lone exceptions.

If anyone has suggestions for any of the lists, please share!

The general process as I now understand and practice it should look something like this, based on the 16 week-long semester, a typical timing schedule for most academics, be it professor or student of most levels:

1)            Start with proposal/abstract ideas which must be flexible, since specific research on the question may not have been done previously.  (Week 1)

2)            Read the primary material, as widely as possible. (Weeks 1-5)

3)            Read the secondary material, focusing on the specific approach/subject. (Weeks 2-5)

4)            Formulate thesis and reasons (Week 6)

5)            Outline reasons with supporting citations both primary and secondary (Weeks 6-7)

6)            Draft 1 by Spring Break (Week 7-9)

7)            Revise for content (Week 9-10)

8)            Revise for structure and style (Week 11)

9)            Proofread (Week 12)

10)          Final written draft (Week 12-13) This may not be a fully complete article draft but should at least cover the main ideas and have notes for the secondary sources to be cited if not already included. I tend to use Comment boxes for this.

11)          To start moving towards the presentation, return to step 5 and eliminate any redundancies or pick one major example per point (Week 13)

12)          Make sure your current presentation draft is still cohesive, and time yourself (Week 14-15)

13)          Make any adjustments necessary, and Present or be generally ready for the eventual presentation (Week 16)