>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?