>My tempestuous relationship with literature surveys and anthologies

>As I wrote in an earlier post, the recent NY Times piece on M. H. Abrams’ retirement from editing The Norton Anthology of Literature got me thinking, not for the first time, about the perils and pleasures of literature surveys and the anthologies generally used in them. There has also been some discussion in my own department about initiating survey courses, although I am glad to say, for practical reasons as much as pedagogical ones, that that is not going to happen any time soon – we just don’t have the staff to do it. Contrary to Stephen Greenblatt’s odd assertion in the NYT piece, the reluctance of some departments to offer survey courses may not be because there a shortage of generalist faculty with enough breadth to teach surveys, but rather because there is simply a shortage of faculty.* Period. (Really, sometimes I think the grand poobahs should get out more and visit a university like mine once in awhile.)

*This claim that departments and deans don’t want to pay to hire faculty with breadth to teach surveys comes in the last paragraph of the article and isn’t a direct quote. It’s possible that he said something more nuanced and was misunderstood.

So anyway, at my current university I don’t teach a Beowulf to Virginia Woolf (or Thomas Wolfe) survey, but I did TA multiple times for one as a graduate student and saw many different approaches to such surveys, and spent many hours thinking about their positive and negative qualities. Meanwhile, though liberated from the “grand narrative” kind of survey, I have actually used anthologies quite a bit in my medieval literature courses here at Rust Belt University and have found them both vexing and useful, and sometimes both at the same time.

But let’s start with surveys. I think they can be generally useful in giving students a broad historical framework into which they can fit their more particular upper-division courses, or at least apprise them of what some of the larger issues are in periods that they don’t end up studying in more depth. But unfortunately, I think too many students fail to see how sketchy and oversimplified a survey must necessarily be, in its selection of texts, in the issues it addresses, and in the narrative it constructs. It doesn’t matter if their professor tells them on the first day that everything in the class is “a bunch of lies” that their upper-division course professors will have to “unteach” them (which is what one professor I worked for did indeed say) because they will forget that or not quite understand what that means until years later. The sense of literary history as a linear narrative (one damned thing after another) that a survey delivers – even if the students take its components out of order, as many at my grad institution did – is hard to “unteach.” So students may very well end up thinking that The Book of Margery Kempe influenced later women autobiographical or spiritual writers because she came first, so to speak. But while she may have lived in the Middle Ages and first created her Book then, her Book is in many ways a 20th century book, because that was when it was (re)discovered and edited and printed; furthermore, she’s a late 20th century figure, not valued as a specifically literary figure until feminist critics valued her as such. Or take the case of most of Old English literature. We know nothing of who owned and kept the Beowulf manuscript, for instance, until the early modern period; it seems to have been virtually unknown in the late Middle Ages. We know more about Old English literature than Chaucer or Malory did.

Of course you can say that – and say it over and over – in a survey, in the hopes of undoing the problematic illusion of continuity and continuation. (Or worse, the sense of progressive replacement – i.e., the Renaissance replaced the Middle Ages and then the Enlightenment replaced the Renaissance, and so forth. That version of the story is, of course, particularly bad for the medieval period, which will always be historically first, and therefore seemingly “primitive.”) But better still would be to show the seams in that narrative fabric. If I did have to teach a broad survey course, I think I would try to disrupt the timeline somewhat, grouping texts thematically rather than chronologically. This is something that the Longman Anthology of British Literature does to some extent – and which the new edition of the Norton seems to be emulating – and which the Longman further encourages in its hefty instructor’s guide. But of course, they can only do so much of that, and usually the chronological disruptions only occur within larger periods, not across them. And if the instructor does that, how far should one go? After all, one doesn’t want to confuse students completely. We do want them to have some historical sense, don’t we? I might split the difference by putting things roughly in chronological order, but pulling a few things out of order every now and then, and by constantly asking students to think back to texts we’ve left behind (which is helpful pedagogically, too, as they won’t forget them come exam time) – and so to find thematic continuities across periods.

In my early English lit course that starts tomorrow I’ll be doing a little bit of that, but with an emphasis on the materials contexts of the manuscripts for texts we read, both then (in the Middle Ages) and now (that is, their printed editions and how they influence reception). So while my course is entirely medieval in immediate content (including Old English – which I know some people don’t refer to as “medieval”), it will also have an eye to how medieval literature in the context of the 21st century English lit classroom is a construct of that classroom and the texts made for it. Case in point: Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. To what extent is it an Anglo-Saxon text? To what extent is it a 21st century Irish text? And I’ll also provide excerpts of other translations and ask them how different translations might shape their experience of the Old English poem. Or how does reading Judith with it (in the manuscript and in my class) shape one’s reading of Beowulf? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what I’ll do in that class.

Which brings me to anthologies. Anthologies definitely shape reading experiences in lots of odd ways. This is especially true of the longer works which they only excerpt. Talk about taking things out of context (and placing them in new ones)! This troubles me with certain medieval works – such as The Book of Margery Kempe again, where the Norton used to make her seem nuttier by virtue of the passages they excerpted; or with the Morte Darthur, where the excerpts made the Lancelot-Guinevere infidelity seem a large proportion of the text (which is more Tennyson’s Arthurian narrative than Malory’s) – but, BUT, I also kind of like anthologies. For one thing, they’re a bit like medieval manuscripts: lots of different genres, including seemingly ‘non-literary’ ones, all jumbled together, and sometimes excerpted. That’s the ostensible reason why I used to assign them in my early English literature course (i.e., because they were medieval in spirit), but I also used them because they’re gosh-darn handy (if truth be told). The last time I used anthologies I also found that you could use them against themselves. I did that by assigning both the Norton and the Longman medieval break-away volumes and assigning some texts from one and some from another, which made students realize that no one anthology is the final word on what’s important. (I also called this to the students’ attention. Though I have to say that back-fired a wee bit, because certain texts are printed in full in both, which made some students insist on their indispensable importance.) Moreover, with the Norton’s formerly lousy and out of date headnotes on medieval drama, and the Longman’s much better ones (though I still had to correct some things, as I recall), I could point out how relatively recent scholarship had changed our understanding of these old texts. And where the two anthologies used the same text, but different translations, or different excerpts, I had some built-in resources for talking about editions and the effects on their reception and perceptions of the texts. Although I didn’t do the following, one could also pull out older editions of the Norton and show students how malleable the very subject of English literature has become, and discuss some of the reasons why. So, in short, one could turn a survey course – whether a survey of one period or many – into an course equally about the history of the discipline and the history of the anthology as genre.

In the end, I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t so much like survey and anthologies as dominant paradigms, but I do very much enjoy subverting them! What’s your love/hate relationship with either or both?


12 thoughts on “>My tempestuous relationship with literature surveys and anthologies

  1. >Only sort of germane, but…I have found it very difficult to engage my students in discussion of canon-formation. At best, they seem to arrive at the conclusion that in the bad old days, critics didn’t have as accurate a view as we have now of what was really important in literature, which is hardly what I was driving at. I can’t tell whether this is a sign of my own failure as a teacher or the inevitability of my students’ undergraduate sensibility. I mean, did I have an appreciation for canon-formation in my undergraduate days? Probably not until my senior year, and even then not very fully. The problem is that I have lost most of my interest in teaching my women’s literature class if we can’t talk intelligently about canon formation. But at this point I digress…

  2. >I don’t think that you’re really digressing, WN – I think that it makes perfect sense to leap to canon formation in this context, because one of the reasons that I really enjoy teaching the survey (Brit Lit II) is that it allows me to introduce students to the canon and, as Dr. V. describes, to subvert it in interesting ways. For me, part of getting students to engage with the idea of what a canon of literature is and how it is constructed happens by including literary critical sorts of readings in the survey (excerpts from Wordsworth’s preface to the lyrical ballads, Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent, Mathew Arnold’s stuff on “sweetness and light”) – I seem to recall my survey of early Brit Lit doing something similar with Donne and Pope (for example). Anyway, I go on and on here but I suppose what I’m saying is that I think the survey format allows for students to understand what literary critics do and what literary criticism is more than perhaps any other course in most curricula. Interestingly, the survey of lit. crit. here has become a smattering of theories from structuralism onward and so thus doesn’t really perform this function at all (or so my students report – I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to teach it).

  3. >Given that I’m teaching my first survey this year, I can say: blech. First semester was great (start with Hymn to Demeter, plenty of Chaucer and Dante in the Middle, even squeezed in Roman d’Eneas, and end with Don Quixote), but the one that starts next Tuesday? Milton to Zora Neale Hurston, which is all — barring the T. S. Eliot — stuff I like, but nothing I’m really qualified to teach. I’ve been putting off rereading Paradise Lost for more than a month now…But on a more theoretical level, what bugs me about anthologies is that for the most part they strike me as artificially constrained by post-medieval notions of national boundaries and the straight genealogy of the language. I’ve looked at the Romance of Arthur anthology, and that looks to be a lot better, since it gives material from the French, the German, English, Latin, Welsh, and so forth, thus giving an actual sense of how medieval literature got passed down and around.At least, I’d really rather use an anthology, if I had my druthers, that did only post-conquest stuff and had hella Anglo-Norman material in it alongside a lot of translated Insular Latin (historiography mainly).

  4. >I teach Brit Lit I, which at BUU runs from Beowulf to Paradise Lost), and I have to say that I love it–but that it’s a completely new experience for me, as is the use of an anthology. At the school where I did my undergrad and grad work, the required “survey” for majors was actually a major-authors course. So, the first semester consisted of [selections from] The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, and a Renaissance lyric poet (usually Donne). The second semester was Paradise Lost, Pope, Wordsworth, and a modernist poet. Talk about a traditional canon!And as many advantages as the major-authors course has, I definitely felt, in college, that I didn’t understand the bigger historical and intellectual narratives; by my senior year I finally felt as though I’d made most of the connections, but I always had a nagging sense that I was missing something. So I relate to my students’ desire for a narrative that is, if not “progressive” in a Whig-historical sense, at least mostly linear. I like your suggestions for subverting this expectation on their part, and emphasizing the artificiality of the canon; this is something that I only did on the last day of class last term, when I noted that 100 years ago they wouldn’t ever have taken a class like this, because the major authors in it would have been considered leisure reading–and even 50 years ago they wouldn’t have been assigned many of the American authors that we now consider canonical. I think it’s worth emphasizing this fact earlier, more often, and in more ways than I did last term.But I wonder (and yes, now I’m finally getting to my point!) both how practical it is to do this in a course that runs from the Anglo-Saxons to either the late 17th C., or at some schools the late *18th* C., and how useful it is to students who often hadn’t even heard of any of the authors they’re now reading, and who need some kind of framework with which to make sense of it all. I would never suggest that literature gets more sophisticated as time goes on, but things do shift and change and there are certain patterns that one can identify and use to give a rough shape to the course. Isn’t it perhaps more the job of upper-level classes–classes that focus on just one period or author or group of authors–to challenge the stability of the things students think they know from their surveys? Don’t get me wrong–I find the exercises you describe to be extremely appealing and pedagogically valuable at the survey level. . . but after several days wrestling with my syllabus just to adapt it from a 3-day-a-week to a 2-day-a-week course (and cutting several works in the process), it seems almost inconceivable to me that I could find time to have my students do the kind of textual comparisons that you describe. At least, in a sufficiently meaningful way.I’d love to hear more about how you manage it!

  5. >Wow, such good stuff here! Where do I begin?First of all, WN: as Crazy said, you’re not off-topic at all. In fact canon-formation issues was certainly a subtext of this post if not its explicit point. And I hear you on your students not quite getting it. Last year I was teaching The Tempest and used the Graff and Phelan edition, doing the whole “teach the controversy” thing. It had the oddest outcomes — ones I could never have expected. The students read the whole George Will – Stephen Greenblatt debate about imperialism and every single one of them sided with Greenblatt, even the conservative country boy. I asked him, are you sure? And he said, “yeah, like Greenblatt said, how is the The Tempest *not* about imperialism.” They all thought George Will was a tool. (Their word, though I like it too.) Meanwhile, I decided to play devil’s advocate and defend Will (!) and somewhere along the way started talking about the canon and the culture wars of the 80s and 90s (which I do remember vividly in the ways they trickled down to undergrads, especially since my college had a DWEM “great books” course) and so forth. Anyway, in the midst of this discussion, the conservative country boy raised his hand, and I thought he was going to change his mind — having realized, perhaps, where George Will now stood politically and ideologically, or something — but no, he said, “What the canon?”So then I realized that this is all ancient history to them — a done deal. Even for the conservative students. Which may not be a bad thing in some ways (unless the rabble rousers like Horowitz have their way and successfully stir it all up again). But they need not to become complacent, and they need to know that these things are still contested. In this particular discussion my students, once I started telling stories about the debates we used to have in college, and why, it became more real to them — I don’t seem old to them, so my lifetime must be *recent*! 🙂 And in women’s literature it’s *so* particularly important. I think that’s why I kept refering to Margery Kempe. Students should know that we have only had that text available to us since 1934 and that my advisor’s generation thought it only interesting for “background” information about “daily life” and now Kempe studies are utterly saturated with scholarship and she’s so neo-canonical that the freakin’ Norton has her! They should know how things can change and why. I think maybe the way to get it across to them it to use an example of something that’s denigrated today — say, for example, blogs! 🙂 or maybe paperback romance novels — and ask them why these aren’t usually seen as “literary.” Or something like that. Maybe then they won’t pat themselves on the back so much. Don’t know if that really solves your problem, but I certainly empathized with it.Whew, this is a whopper of a comment. Lecturess, I’m going to post a separate response to you! 🙂

  6. >Lecturess — OK, now it’s your turn for a reply. :)You wrote:But I wonder (and yes, now I’m finally getting to my point!) both how practical it is to do this in a course that runs from the Anglo-Saxons to either the late 17th C., or at some schools the late *18th* C., and how useful it is to students who often hadn’t even heard of any of the authors they’re now reading, and who need some kind of framework with which to make sense of it all.As much as I like subverting paradigms, I also agree with you that perhaps students need the paradigm first before they can learn to subvert it. So if we had a big survey — like a Brit Lit I and II — and I was teaching it, I think I’d stick mainly to chronological order and only pull some things out of sequence for comparison or illustration or what have you. (For instance, it would be really interesting to read King Alfred on language side by side with, say, Johnson and his dictionary.) But the only survey-ish class I teach now is the “Early English Literature” course which is the medieval course (or, if you prefer, Anglo-Saxon and medieval) — in other words, English lit from its beginnings to the end of the 15th century. And what I’m going to do in there *this* semester is present my selections in chronological order, but also talk about how and when people read them (or viewed or heard them), starting with their medieval contexts, but also talking about their reception (or not) in later periods. In today’s first class, I made the point that we’re closer in time to the last text on the syllabus — the Morte Darthur — than it is to the first text, Beowulf. But I’m also going to tell them, when we start reading and discussing Beowulf, about the history of the manuscript and how the late Middle Ages seems not to have known it at all (except perhaps for its keepers), so neither did Malory. I’ll tell them how the fascination with Old English language, culture, and literature did, however, begin in the early modern period (and why) and have quite a peak in the 19th century (and why). So, in other words, each text in my class will have its own history, as well as belonging to a larger history.I’ll let you and the world know how it’s going as I go along! :)Oh, and you also said:it seems almost inconceivable to me that I could find time to have my students do the kind of textual comparisons that you describe. At least, in a sufficiently meaningful way.I’d love to hear more about how you manage it!Again, in this particular class, I’m *only* covering the 8th through 15th centuries — 🙂 — so it’s a little easier to play. But seriously, the way I manage it is to give up my worship of the coverage gods. It helps that I have separate Chacuer course, so I don’t worry about him. And I find Langland impossible to teach in excerpt, so out he goes. No Julian of Norwich this time, either (in part because she makes Margery look bad, but also a question of time). And because I’ve got a theme about manuscripts contexts and reception history, that helped me picked texts that were from the same manuscript (for example, Beowulf and Judith, Gawain and Pearl, The Exeter Book) or that had interesting or vexed histories (Kempe not being re-discovered until 1934) and so forth. So in the end, we’re looking at 9 manuscripts (or the case of Malory, we’ll also talk about how Caxton’s edition shaped the text) and only 15 separate works or sets of works (e.g., Marie de France’s Lais, the Old English riddles, etc.).That’s it. It’s only a taste, but I’ve found that they do better spending more time on fewer texts, and this class will, I hope, give them a real sense of what and how books and texts meant in their periods, and how the ways we read them give us a different experience entirely than their historical audiences likely had. That might be useful for them to take to other classes, especially anything pre-1800, as well.Whew, that’s two mini-posts I’ve now written! Whee!

  7. >Ok, I want this discussion to continue too, though I always worry about chiming in the next day because I feel like the moment has passed…. Anyway, about subverting the canon in a traditional Survey I and II course without sacrificing the grand narrative that the survey is supposed to help to provide. I tend to keep chronological order and to stick to mainly canonical texts, but I think it’s possible to challenge those structures from within, I suppose. I tend to do this by paying a lot of attention to how we define the characteristics of a given period and the political/social/historical implications of defining periods in those ways. In class I completely accept that Wordsworth is a Romantic poet, for example, but at the same time we go back to Wordsworth when we reach the Victorian period and talk about the ways in which we could categorize him according to Victorian values, for example. In other words, the point is that the characteristics are a construction by critics, not something intrinsic to the literature. They are a way of organizing the texts, and students are invited to talk about the ways in which this is useful AND potentially harmful to the way that we read these texts.As much as students might ask, “what’s the canon,” as if it’s a done deal, I have found that when I ask my students on the first day of the survey and intro to lit, “what is literature” they give me a list that includes dead white men plus Jane Austen (generally). Always Mark Twain, always Shakespeare, always Dickens. And they always talk about how literature is difficult to read or boring. They may know that the canon isn’t fashionable, but I do think that they still think of Literature-capital-L in ENTIRELY pre-culture-wars ways. This may be because I’m teaching in a conservative area or because I’m teaching at the kind of institution at which I teach (students are really invested in getting cultural capital for themselves). God. I’m sorry for being such a long-winded commenter, but I really wanted to respond both to La Lecturess and to Dr. V. Thanks for getting this conversation started!

  8. >They may know that the canon isn’t fashionable, but I do think that they still think of Literature-capital-L in ENTIRELY pre-culture-wars ways. This may be because I’m teaching in a conservative area or because I’m teaching at the kind of institution at which I teach (students are really invested in getting cultural capital for themselves).Oh, that’s so true of my students as well! That’s even true of my MA students, who grumbled and complained when I assigned the Paston letters in my medieval women writers class. Why are we reading this? This isn’t literature? — that’s what they actually said. Although my first glib reply was “the course is called ‘medieval women writers’ not ‘medieval literature by women'” (hehe) we actually did have the “what is literature” discussion. In a grad seminar. At the end of the semester. And only one student really defended personal letters as worth reading and studying in an English class.So this is why actually I think talking about canon-formation (and also “what is literature”) — whether you do it with canonical texts or a mix of canonical and non — at the undergrad level, early on, is important (as you’re saying, Dr. Crazy) so that students at least have the sense that these are contested, malleable, changing, historically determined things. And also so that they don’t think the critical reading you’re teaching them is something you only do in the English “literature” classroom!Oh, and Dr. Crazy, don’t worry about the moment passing. I don’t have another big post in me at the moment (though I want to write something in response to your posts on time and space), so I, for one, could go on disussing this. Plus, since I tagged it for the teaching carnival, maybe new visitors will get something out of the comments, too.

  9. >I really liked surveys when I TA’d for them as a graduate student, and would have probably liked them a lot if I’d taken one because I really NEEDED a historical framework of some sort. (I took a couple semesters of art history, which gave me enough of a framework to hang lit on, scarily enough.)But what turned me REALLY off to surveys was teaching my first Chaucer course at the same university I’d TA’d those survey courses for. EVERY student had to take Chaucer at that point, and EVERY student entering the class had had the survey and HATED Chaucer. The survey taught them to hate Chaucer. (They’d been made to struggle with the Norton, to hear the prof pontificate without really understanding what they were getting, and so forth, I think.)Any class that universally teaches students to hate Chaucer is a class I don’t want to teach. Period.I’d love a way to give students a sense of framework without teaching just the canon and without teaching them to hate Chaucer.

  10. >Hmmmm…Bardiac, I’m wondering if we went to the same grad program. Or else many are similar. At any rate, what you said also rings true for me, though I’d forgotten, until you said it, how helpful I found it to teach surveys for the very reasons you said. Apparently I am a torn and fragmented person! 🙂

  11. >I’m enjoying the continuation of this thread, and I do think that what both Dr. V and Dr. C say about making connections back to earlier writers later in the survey is important. My students last semester kept wanting to talk about how much more “real” the characters in Shakespeare and even Jonson were than those in “those earlier works”–and I had to keep saying, well, they may seem more rounded, maybe, than those in FQ. . . but what about CT? And they had to concede that point (generally, my students really liked Chaucer, with the women, perhaps predictably, being ALL ABOUT the Wife of Bath–this was actually quite helpful in complicating their desired narrative of artistic progress, since every so often, when we’d be discussing a female character in a later work, someone would pipe up, “But she doesn’t have a personality! She’s just the property of her husband! What happened to the Wife of Bath?” )As I look back, I see a lot of opportunities to raise the issue of canonicity and canon formation–places where I may have touched on it obliquely, but didn’t bring it out front and center–and this discussion is inspiring me to do that more often. So–thanks, all!

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