reThinking The Literary Canon: I’m Done — Part 1

Bury The Dead White Men

Editor’s Note: Since Jennifer wrote this article two years ago, much has changed in the young adult literature landscape, including the addition of two amazing resources for finding diverse books for our students to read. We will update this article during Summer 2020. While you’re waiting though, check out #DisruptTexts and #WeNeedDiverseBooks on Twitter.

I’m done with the dead, White guys—you know, the literary Canon we are supposed to worship and make sacrifices to. The men who stand as pinnacles of literary perfection. The ones who determine our “common heritage” in Western, specifically American, society.

I’m done with them. I will no longer make them my anchor pieces. I will no longer build a unit around their glorious and profound messages (#sarcasm). I will no longer center them in all their precious White, cishet maleness.

Why am I done? Because I refuse to continue being part of the problem. What problem? The problem of perpetuating systemic oppression and discrimination in our society—through our educational system. “What? How are we doing that?” I’m glad you asked.

I’m going to try to condense the last 5 or so years of my journey into a few paragraphs. My journey to realizing I was (and still sometimes am) part of the problem took me awhile. It didn’t happen overnight. It took so much reflection and honesty for me to come to the epiphany. Many people helped me along the way—whether actively or by sharing their wisdom on the Internet (especially Twitter). I specifically need to acknowledge several women of color and literary critics whom I follow. I don’t want to mention their names in case they don’t want the possible wave of attention; however, you can easily go through those whom I follow on Twitter.

I used to be one of those people and teachers who pushed respectability politics. I wanted my students to speak “proper” English. That was the first thing I let go. Part of this I realized when I actually wrote more and learned more about communication. I came to understand audience dictates how we communicate. Sometimes slang and cursing are the perfect words. In the last 3 or so years, I learned the phrase “code switching.” I’m learning—and still have a lot to learn—about this concept. NPR even does some work on this. Every teacher, especially ELA teachers, should learn about code switching. We can help our students learn how and when to code switch, and actually teach this using the phrase, or we can continue being guardians of the gate of standard English. Doing the latter perpetuates Whiteness and what is “acceptable” English. Since teachers are mostly White women, we then get to decide who’s allowed through those gates (and when and where and how and why). Let’s get real: English has a Germanic base, with thousands of words borrowed from other languages; then, we apply Latin grammar and punctuation rules. None of it makes a damn bit of sense. Why continue pushing “pure” English when the language is anything but? Why not allow flexibility…and teach students to do this? Why not give each student as chance to find and use their voice—in many different forms? Why force our students into the mold of Whiteness and White speech? Hell, even most White people don’t get it “right.” We need to stop pretending White people know it all.

Once I relaxed on communication (verbal and written), I began wondering about my literature choices. Now, this is something I’ve questioned since I was in high school and forced to read certain pieces (I see you Walden and The Scarlet Letter). Couple that with my natural tendency to question everything, each year I do some soul searching: Why am I teaching what I teach? I’ve always believed this is the most important question I can ask myself as an educator: Why the hell am I doing all this? I’ll give my mother-in-law credit for making me think even deeper (I think it was my third or fourth year of teaching) when she asked, “Why do high schools still teach The Great Gatsby?” I had all the right answers: the beauty of the diction and syntax, the topic of loss of the American Dream, blah, blah, blah; however, I admit it was lip-service. I do enjoy Gatsby. There are several passages I can swoon over or lose myself in. But, why am I teaching it over other pieces? I have no idea. Let me say that louder for those in the back: I HAVE NO IDEA WHY WE TEACH GATSBY (or many of our other works).

Each year, I began leaving behind more of those Canon pieces. And, guess what? My students still became excellent college students and/or contributing members to society. I’ve never taught The Scarlet Letter, and I don’t think any of my students have cursed me for the absence. When I began teaching AP, I admit I had to keep some of those pieces so my students would be prepared for that asinine test, but I was completely honest with students when I used a piece for “test prep” and really nothing else. I’ve candidly stated, “We’re reading this piece (or doing this assignment) in case you encounter it on the test or in college.” Yep, I was buying into that “common heritage” nonsense.

Ultimately, we can choose to be part of the problems in our society, or we can choose to be part of the solution. Silence is complicity. Do not sit there and tell me, “It’s 2018. We should be post-race/gender/etc. and shouldn’t focus on color/gender/etc.” We shouldn’t, but since our Founding Fathers built those problems into the foundation of our society, we have to acknowledge discrimination still exists. Racism still exists. The -isms still exist.

By continuing to teach the same pieces and authors, do we really think we will see change? Isn’t the loose definition of insanity repeating the same thing but expecting different results?

I’m tired of being “insane.” I fed up with centering DWM, while the majority of students never see themselves in a piece of literature (except maybe as a “supplemental” piece or character or worse as “one of those poor people”). I am sick of adding to the problem.

I’m rethinking ELA. I hope you’ll join me on this journey. If not, you may need to rethink teaching.

Part 2: Concerns about ditching the Canon and ideas about what to do instead.

About the author 

Jennifer Williams

I have been teaching ELA for 13+ years. In that time, I've done everything from night and summer school, co-taught, traditional, and pre-AP and AP (8th-12th grades). I also did some adjunct for 6 semesters. I've also done summer work for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, taken numerous PD courses, and taught Google Apps to different Oklahoma districts. I'm currently working on my Master's in Curriculum at Oklahoma State University.

  1. Great column. I heard J.M. Coetzee say he would only require parts of the Bible and Homer as the basis for a college literature course — the reason being that so much as flowed from those sources. I suppose a case could be made that the canon exists because humanists have tended to highlight those works that have “pedigree” (The Bible, Homer). And, I suppose one could argue that the whole concept of pedigree or analyzing the “geologic” layers within literature is problematic. But, wouldn’t we expect that in any field of endeavor the best writers of today would imitate the best writers of the past? I believe Shakespeare endorsed “stealing.”

Comments are closed.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}