Literature in Lockdown: Does studying Literature at YSJU confirm or complicate the canon?

Literature in Lockdown is a special blog series in which our students share what they’re reading whilst face-to-face teaching is suspended at YSJU. In today’s slightly different instalment, first year student Laura Ruston reflects on the texts she’s read so far this semester, and the various ways in which they’ve confirmed or complicated her understanding of the Literary Canon.  

In recent weeks I have undergone some interesting research for the first assignment on the first-year module: Canonicity. The assignment was a reflective analysis of the canonical assumptions at work in an area of your choice. I decided to compare areas of the first year English Literature modules at YSJU. I ended up comparing Introduction to Literary Studies 1 and 2 as a whole with Theorizing Literature: Power and Identity, with the intention of discovering how canonical assumptions are either challenged or confirmed across these modules.

As part of my research, I interviewed various lecturers to help me better understand the processes they used to put our reading lists together. 

In modules such as Introduction to Literary Studies 1 and 2, the canon is introduced for us to start deconstructing the anthology we use and questioning canonical assumptions.

During the interview with Dr Fraser Mann, he explained the idea behind this:

The anthology gives you a chance to start thinking about the canon. Who’s making that choice? Where does the power lie in choosing what we consider canonical and what we consider to be non-canonical?

This begins to get us thinking about writers such as Olaudah Equiano, who is an interesting example as he is the first time the anthology engages with someone who is not white, yet he is placed almost at the end of the anthology. The way editors position the texts start to bring to light these questions about what and who is regarded as valuable in literature.

Even if there is not much diversity in the primary texts themselves, there needs to be diversity in the way we read things. Anne-Marie Evans and Sarah Lawson-Welsh’s Word Matter blog post on decolonising the curriculum discusses the idea of innovative thinking surrounding canonical texts:

We ensure that our students are encouraged to read canonical works with an understanding of their literary merit and the social, cultural, and political dynamics which have safeguarded and perpetuated the dominance of these voices and the ways in which contemporary authors, critics, and our students may question and interrogate this process.

Samuel Pepys is a good example of a voice heard in the anthology: a canonical voice. But we don’t hear Deb Willet’s voice or the poor people who are gathering their belongings as their house is being burned down, it’s all from Pepys’ account.

In Introduction to Literary Studies 2, we still see canonical writers featured on our reading list but there is also a shift towards looking at immigration, decolonising the curriculum and writers being featured whose works are usually forgotten about or excluded.

Dr Adam Stock explained the procoss used to create the module reading list:

[I]t was a conscious decision to include canonical writers and non-canonical writers, it seems appropriate at this juncture to take a step back from the canon.

This decision was made based on the premise that we would be moving onto modules such as Canonicity, where we would be exploring the constructs of the canon and how we can challenge them. It is also ensured that there is a good range of form on the module so that students can see what is of interest to them before going on to choose modules as they may be exposed to options they may not of considered.

Hard Times by Charles Dickens and North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell being included in the reading list is an interesting addition because both are considered as canonical texts yet they were both in Household Words which was originally a magazine, which is not traditionally considered a canonical form. This is an example of the diverse ways of thinking about form and leading to innovative arguments about canonical texts.

It is also interesting to note that there are plenty of poems that we could have studied from the 1930’s, yet Una Marson was chosen to be included as the module tutors wanted to challenge assumptions about processes of continuity and change involving immigration.

Theorising Literature: Power and Identity, both as a module and as a collection of texts, challengea canonical assumptions by inviting us to engage with a series of diverse forms. We are given films, plays and graphic novels on the reading list. This is symptomatic of the topics being discussed due to the module’s core interests in the relationship between power and identity, and the manifestation of the relationship in, for example, institutional racism, intersectionality and queer theory.

In the interview about this module and the question of why there are such diverse forms included in our reading list, Dr Adam Smith responded:

[T]he module is about culture generally, I think it is good practice to represent different types of form particularly in the first year because later on you could specialise in different forms.

The module has almost no texts which would be considered canonical (except perhaps The Collector by John Fowles) and deals with explicitly contemporary styles of thinking and reading. Contemporary modules are easier to put diverse forms into because of availability. Forms such as films and graphic novels are available to be studied, whereas if the module was based on the eighteenth century, none of these forms would be available to study (but eighteenth-century modules can still be diverse!  – Editor).

Dr Jo Waugh explained the processes in which she and Dr Smith put together the reading list for Theorising Literature:

Given that the focus of Theorising Literature was to give students the tools to talk about things like intersectionality and institutional racism, then I suppose this module is the other way round from some modules sometimes in that we’re thinking about the thing and then thinking what text helps us to explain that thing in literature.

The critical themes and topics must be established first and the texts are tools to help the module tutors explain the themes that are being taught in the best way possible.

The graphic novel The Nao of Brown replaced A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for the week where neurodiversity is explored. The idea to include The Nao of Brown within the reading list was to add another diverse form and it is a text by a Japanese-American writer. This was to add more diversity culturally as well which gives more depth to the topics chosen and the way those texts are read.

There are more ways to challenge canonical assumptions than by including texts by more diverse writers than canonical writers in the curriculum. Even when reading and studying canonical texts, there are more unconventional ways to analyse the texts to help deconstruct the canon and the canonical texts themselves. Some modules may challenge canonical assumptions due to the topics they are exploring that were not applicable in texts from the canon as they are dealing with more contemporary issues. Thinking about the canon and challenging it is a learning process, not just for students but for lecturers as well who are always striving to balance canonical texts and those texts that reflect their values in their reading lists.