Culture | Critiquing the canon

The elite ideal behind McGill's English literature courses

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a great writer of English literature must be ancient and white. That’s what it seems like, at least, when scrolling through the program requirements for a major or honours degree in English Literature at McGill. Many students studying English Literature, including myself, come to notice that the program is far more focused on British, American, and Canadian literature than on non-Western authors writing in English.

Indeed, if you choose to study English Literature here, you might realize that the majority of your credits will have to be earned from studying British or North American authors, and that you will be given little time to explore the others. You might notice it when you sit staring at your screen and try to decide between a major Canadian writer, a major modernist writer (usually American or European), or three dead British men – Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer – to fulfill your credit requirements in the “Major Author” category. All non-Western authors then remain ‘minor.’ All courses that subvert the traditional canon remain optional and peripheral.

One could argue that McGill is simply fulfilling its job of teaching students a tradition that we have inherited, a tradition that Canadian society adopted and modified after its inception. As a tradition that comes to us from England, the English literary canon is a function of society’s interpretations and understandings of the past; a systematic approach to studying literature that organizes texts based on how well they represent a time period, style, or genre. But the canon is also an oversimplification of what mattered and impacted literary history before us, and thus a reductive understanding of what we should always remember. As suggested by Charles Altieri, Chair in the Department of English at University of California, Berkley, canons are almost always based on “normative claim” – a motivation to recognize, preserve, and pass on to the next generation the literature that is considered ‘the best.’

All non-Western authors then remain ‘minor.’ All courses that subvert the traditional canon remain optional and peripheral.

However, where there is little consensus on what constitutes ‘the best,’ as with something as subjective as literature, the judgement of quality is often made and enforced by those in power. Works that constitute the traditional English literary canon were first chosen as ‘the best’ by Cambridge and Oxford elites and have continued to be hand-picked by elect academic institutions since then. The canon is a representation of an exclusive ideal rather than a reality, and as such is never representative of a whole population’s literary tastes.

The traditional canon is the ideal of powerful social groups who can pass off works that promote their particular tastes and values as the objective best, turning their subjective judgements into indisputable fact. But for better or for worse, this reduction of the literary past and present to only certain figures has been so widely accepted and internalized by Western society that if McGill wants its students to obtain a ‘valuable’ degree in English Literature – that is, a degree that will give them a competitive edge in the academic market – the university must continue to pass on this tradition.

Learning about the English canon – or teaching it, for that matter – does not necessarily mean students such as myself wish to perpetuate it, nor that we agree with its ahistorical, ethnocentric values.

English Literature students in general seem to agree that McGill does a good job of teaching them what they ‘ought’ to know with a BA in English, according to popular Western standards. Manuel Cardenas, a PhD student at McGill in Comparative Literature, acknowledges that “the [McGill] English program does quite a good job of providing a thorough engagement with the accepted canon […] and allowing for opportunities beyond the canon. […] So any objections would seem to be objections with the canon in general.”

Nazanin Panah, a second-year student majoring in English Literature, agrees, saying that “modifying the program would be a little complicated, because as an ‘English’ literature program it would make sense that the core courses would be Western authors, as they’re the ones who primarily contributed to and defined the English canon, especially in the past.” Though it is impossible to deny the canon’s shortcomings, it is also very hard to disregard its literary and social significance completely. The canon has become so common that we take its validity for granted.

However, learning about the English canon – or teaching it, for that matter – does not necessarily mean students such as myself wish to perpetuate it, nor that we agree with its ahistorical, ethnocentric values. On the contrary, thorough knowledge of the traditional canon allows us to criticize it, and can even be a useful tool for deduction. Studying the canon allows us to understand the mechanisms of power that shaped it, making some works more important than others, placing some authors at the top while forgetting the rest. Even in some introductory classes such as Departmental Survey of English Literature 2 (ENGL 203), we are taught the importance of the canon as an overview of famous authors, but also of its limitations in terms of it being a very selective representation of a society in any particular period.

“Within courses sometimes, because [the literature is] outside of the ‘norm,’ the author and the narrator are conflated, and we use the authors as representatives of an entire culture.”

Still, McGill and other academic institutions can prescribe reading lists in English courses that include and represent a wider variety of social groups. What makes this difficult is the time constraint that the traditional canon already imposes on undergraduate studies. After studying the canon in detail, there is only so much time left to study other authors. This issue leads to what Panah calls “the bigger problem”; that of essentializing an author as a culture. “Within courses sometimes, because [the literature is] outside of the ‘norm,’” she explains, “the author and the narrator are conflated, and we use the authors as representatives of an entire culture.” A whole population is then palatably packaged into a singular representation for our consumption. Who doesn’t know a student who read Junot Díaz and now suddenly understands not only the Dominican-American experience, but also what it means to be Latino in America?

Sandeep Banerjee, a professor in McGill’s department of English Literature, expanded on another challenge that faces those hoping to create a non-normative syllabus. He explained that all English Literature programs follow the same syllabus in part as a function of the availability of the works themselves. “I want to teach a course on a certain author from the Caribbean, and [the] Paragraphe [bookstore] tells me they don’t have copies of his work,” he says. The strong focus on Western authors is part of a norm that has been so widely accepted that professors often lack access to necessary resources in order to offer an in-depth or expansive study of non-Western authors. Banerjee stresses that this “has to do with the literary marketplace, the publishing industry, how they feed into universities.” Banerjee argues that “we need to pursue a policy of social equity – aggressively – toward a more inclusive education,” stating that “there needs to be a certain expansion of education as a phenomenon. Not to think of education as a profit-making machine.” However, he maintains that McGill “does a good job of maintaining a balance between the normative canon and doing things that are not canonical.” Indeed, that McGill has two professors teaching postcolonial works is still an anomaly in the academic world.

The challenge that remains is derived from contested ideas about the nature of literature and canonization itself, questions that ask whether it is possible or even useful to define a discrete and stable English canon. The canon is a type of social agreement, though elite and ahistorical, that works to regulate university curriculums. No matter what we think of the canon and the values it enforces, today it remains an inevitable reality in our academic careers. That said, it may not serve the same purpose now that it once did. While the canon was created to ensure that the ‘best’ of each period in time were remembered, today it has become an indispensable tool for uncovering the hidden reality of literature’s socio-political context – revealing the power behind the pages.

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