Frau Tech commented the following to my previous post, and asked the following, and I want to respond:
"What would be your criteria to determine whether a book should be part of the repertoire? For instance, my school never read Jane Austen. Later when I read some, no literature from that era (no Bronte sister, no George Elliot) seems pretty lacking, as was my exposure to female authors. But how do you determine what makes the cut? If something is not as well written as other stuff, but adds a particular historical perspective or cultural perspective that the students aren't exposed to normally, does it make it worth it?"
So, what would be my criteria? What is worthy of making it to a syllabus?
Before I get to my actual choices of texts, I want to talk a little bit about what goes into making a syllabus for a literature course, just in general. (I know a lot of people in English read over here, but many of the people who read this blog do not teach English, and so I feel like this is useful.) The things that I consider when I put a syllabus together for, say, my Intro to Lit course (which is closest in kind to high school English classes) are the following:
- I think about what students "should" read, if this is the only literature course they'll ever take. What that means is that I try to offer them historical breadth, a coverage of genres (poetry, fiction, drama - and film, for it is the 21st century after all), terms for discussing the literature that we cover, and techniques for analyzing literature across genres and historical periods, with the hope being that they will use these techniques if they ever again decide to read some literature. The thing is, reading literature is hard work and one does actually need instruction in order to do it well and to get all of the nuances in a book that one picks up. The point of a literature course is to teach students those skills so that they can use them in their lives after the class is over. It's not just to have a book club, contrary to what a lot of people (not you guys, just in general) seem to think.
- I think about how the texts that I choose will fit together. While I don't choose things that neatly fit (sequels, adaptations, rewritings), I do try to choose things that explore similar themes and that have something to say to one another. For example, take Shakespeare's play Hamlet. One of the major issues in the play is the ability, or the inability, to act. This play would work well with a story like "Bartleby, the Scrivener," a poem like Yeats's "September 1913," and a film like Fight Club. Further, if I were going to teach a course using the above texts, I might trace things like the representation of masculinity, how form contributes to our understanding of main themes, etc. The point is, you don't just choose disparate things that don't fit. You try to create a narrative for the course with the texts that you choose, even if it's not stated explicitly.
- I think about what I can reasonably expect that my students will actually read and how to make sure that they read everything that I assign. If I assign a 300 page novel in an intro-level class for only two class periods that will meet over the course of a week, I can be pretty sure that most of them won't actually read it. If I assign a difficult poem on the same day that a paper is due, it is almost certain that students won't look at the poem at all before they sit down in their desks for class that day. So, designing a syllabus is both about what I believe they should read and about what I want them to read as well as being about how to get them to read those things, because it's really important that they read the literature for themselves. If they don't, they will do poorly, and they'll really miss the point of the whole course. This is not like assigning a reading from a textbook, where if they don't read they can pick up the highlights from the lecture. Even if I lecture, and if they're there and attentive and take good notes, if they don't read the literature, they're not learning what they're supposed to learn in the class.
Seriously. I'm really going to get to my Dream Curriculum. But before I do, I want to respond to the last part of Frau Tech's comment: "But how do you determine what makes the cut? If something is not as well written as other stuff, but adds a particular historical perspective or cultural perspective that the students aren't exposed to normally, does it make it worth it?" I'll tell you how I do this in my courses for students at the undergrad level. First, if something adds important historical or cultural perspective, even if it's not beautifully written, yes, sometimes that is syllabus-worthy. Even if I hate it. But further, I'll say that sometimes I put things on my syllabi that I hate and that don't even necessarily add all that much historical or cultural context from my personal perspective, but they are things that other writers reference, or they are things that the critics will reference, and so students need to be familiar with them. A syllabus is not about "great writing" or even a "great story." Sure, it's cool when those things happen. But a syllabus, in large part, is about what you need to know. It's about cultural capital (cf. John Guillory). And so no, my students don't "need" to read excerpts from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria because of its inherent quality as a piece of writing, or even for historical or cultural context, but they sure as hell should know where the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" comes from and understand why that matters as a reaction against Wordsworth's assertion that poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility." And yes, they need to know how all of that relates to Keats's theory of "negative capability" as well as to Eliot's theory of poetry as intrinsically impersonal. None of this is a) gorgeous prose, b) fun (or even very interesting) to read, or c) providing important historical or cultural context in terms of showing how people lived at the time or thought or whatever. But it nevertheless matters if we're going to understand the aesthetics of literary representation. And yeah, if you're studying literature, sometimes you need to read stuff that you don't believe is well written or terribly interesting, taken in isolation. Such as a book like this, for example.
(Though I'd also argue that "well written" or "interesting" are value judgments that we make based on experience, and so if we are in a context where Jane Austen is presented as the gold standard of "well written" then Charlotte Bronte will always end up being judged a writer who fails in her execution - as Virginia Woolf did judge her, incidentally - just as an example. In other words, what counts as "well written" isn't some objective fact, but rather it is shaped by what we are told counts as "great writing" (cf. Longinus, who was then followed by fancy d00ds such as Burke, Schiller, Kant, etc.) and the people who have most often had the power to do the telling for all but the past 30-40 years have pretty much been white upper-class men who were classically educated. So the fact of the matter is, some things may seem "poorly written" to us because we've interpellated those values. This is a huge issue when we consider the place of women's fiction from the 19th century in the canon, for example, so novels like _Ruth Hall_ and _Lady Audley's Secret_ are completely unfamiliar to a lot of readers because some d00d somewhere along the line basically decided they were "chick lit" and not literature, even though each of the novels does have its merits.)
At any rate, sometimes we need to engage with texts that appear to be of lower quality (however we define that), mainly because if we don't, we can't actually be part of a conversation that means something and that actually investigates what makes something "good writing" or "literature." In fact, I'd say that is a very good reason to put Catcher in the Rye on a syllabus - because whatever you think of Salinger's novel, it presents a voice and narrative that challenges what people historically had considered "literature" or "literary writing." That book can allow students to have a conversation about what makes something "literature," and that's exactly what should be happening in classrooms where people study literature. It's important to note, however, that Catcher isn't the only book that could do this. A book like The Bell Jar could achieve exactly the same thing, as could any number of other books.
So what should make the cut? In my undergrad classes, I determine what makes the cut basically by trying to choose what students need to know (not necessarily what I want to teach), plus what will give them historical/cultural context (not necessarily what I want to teach), plus what I think is most awesome (which ends up being maybe only a quarter of what ends up on a lower-division syllabus for me). But I suppose the short answer is this: how you determine what makes the cut has everything to do with what we call "the canon," and "the canon" does change based on the needs of a particular historical moment, but at the same time it remains quite fixed for long stretches of time, in that it's very difficult to oust a work (or author) from the canon once it's firmly entrenched. So, for example, one of the results of the culture wars was greater inclusion of writers of color on syllabi, but that doesn't mean that we've gotten rid of Salinger. Instead, those "other" writers have been squeezed in (a Gwendolyn Brooks poem here, a Black Boy there) and Catcher in the Rye remains where it's been for the past 30 years. In other words, I highly doubt that Catcher in the Rye will disappear from high schools tomorrow or even next year, whatever the impact of Salinger's death.
But so now, finally, Crazy's Dream High School Curriculum. This is tough as I feel like my high school experience was a gajillion years ago, and I don't really know how high schools typically set things up now, and I also know it varies district by district, state by state. With that being the case, here are things that I think that I would love for students to see at some point in high school, in no particular order, and not divided up by grade. I am clearly leaving things out, and I'm also failing to include a lot of YA stuff that I know gets taught just because I'm not terribly familiar with a lot of it.
- The Odyssey
- poems by Sappho
- Oedipus Rex (or Medea)
- selections from The Canterbury Tales
- The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano
- Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
- poems by Anne Bradstreet
- The House of the Seven Gables or The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (In high school, I personally preferred The House of the Seven Gables, and I feel like I only really "got" The Scarlet Letter when I read it in my late 20s. I don't think I was ready for it at 16, but I know some people really prefer TSL, so whatever. I suppose the point that I would make regarding this is that just because something by an author is superior to something else, it still doesn't necessarily mean that one should assign the superior thing. The Waves may be Woolf's best novel, but sticking that on a high school syllabus will likely produce a lot of students who despise Woolf and never read her again, and in fact, who may stop reading altogether. Literature courses are not supposed to produce that result.)
- Bartleby, the Scrivener by Melville
- selections from Emerson
- selections from Thoreau
- Little Women by Alcott
- Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew by Henry James.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- poems by the Romantics, but most especially by Keats, for Keats RULES
- poems by Tennyson, the Brownings, Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins (whom I love with a love that is pure and true)
- A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens
- Tess of the D'urbervilles by Hardy
- Huck Finn by Twain
- The Coquette by Hannah Foster
- Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest.
- Summer or House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (but please NOT Ethan Frome)
- The Professor's House by Willa Cather
- The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway (I like it better than A Farewell to Arms and HUGELY better than that stupid story where he chases around the fish. What's it called? Ah yes. The Old Man and the Sea.)
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- selections from Joyce's Dubliners
- selections from Woolf's A Room of One's Own, or, alternatively, some of her short stories (NOT To the Lighthouse or any other of the novels, not because I don't love them but because I really don't think most people under the age of 18 can actually enjoy them)
- selections from W.E.B. Dubois, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison
- Cane by Jean Toomer
- poems by Yeats, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, the WWI poets, Ezra Pound, H.D., W.H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney.... I could go on, but those would make me happy
- The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield
- A Rose for Emily by Faulkner
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin (or, if one couldn't strap that on, her short story "The Story of an Hour" is brilliant, is only like 3 pages long, and does much of the same work)
- Krapp's Last Tape by Beckett (I think a shorter and in some ways more fun choice than Waiting for Godot, though I did love Godot in high school)
- The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
- Stories by Nadine Gordimer
- Stories by Salman Rushdie
- The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
- The House on Mango Street by Cisneros
- The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
- The Bluest Eye (or Sula) by Toni Morrison
What occurs to me as I write this list is that I could go on forever. It's already way too long, even though it's also incomplete, and half of what I've put on it would cause huge controversies in many American school districts. The point is, anybody can come up with a list of books they think that people should read. It will vary by personal taste, training, and the outcome that one wants to achieve. I'll note that these are not all things I read in high school, and I'll go further and note that they are not all things I'd ever teach in my classes now, even when teaching classes outside my specialization (which I do regularly). Basically, I made a list comprised of texts I love (a) or texts that I don't love but that have served me well (b). Who the hell knows. But it's a pointless exercise anyway, because teachers don't have a whole heck of a lot of power over high school curricula.