How twigs get bent: Canons and Other Intellectual Artillery

There was a six-year gap between the completion of my M.A. and the beginning of my doctoral work. In retrospect, I’m glad it happened, because the time I spent in the journalism business helped me sharpen my writing in ways academia hadn’t, it taught me to meet deadlines, and it reminded me how much I loved literature. But when I completed the M.A. in the early 90s, I was as glad to be away from academia as my professors may have been to be rid of me.  And I doubt I’m the only one.

You see, when I was doing the Master’s, one of the last courses I took was a special topics course in Canonicity. For those of you outside higher ed, that meant we would discuss how works and their authors became part of a central body of information (the canon) that becomes the focus of study in anthologies, survey courses, and the like.

Well, that’s what I thought we would be doing. Turned out that was terribly naive of me — I probably should have known better, having been at the university for a while, but I had spent most of that time taking creative writing courses and classes on particular genres and periods. Consequently, I was largely oblivious to the Theory Wars that had been going on for quite some time in my discipline.

What I actually found won’t surprise any of my peers. We were told that the canon was an instrument of oppression, a way in which The Powers That Be could set up a series of shibboleths to make sure that any possible Others could remain marginalized. I was told “quality” was merely a code word for the justification of repression, because after all, who gets to define what quality is? (Years later, I would recognize when the Wife of Bath made a similar argument.)

The avatar of this oppression was E.D. Hirsch, whose Cultural Literacy had come out relatively recently. This was the demon we were told we must slay — the demon of listmakers, the demon of exclusivity and exclusion. I remember the smiles that crossed my classmates’ and professor’s faces when one of my classmates concluded the class meeting by taking scissors to her copy of Hirsch’s book, bringing the front cover to meet the back cover, and showing us a “Christmas tree.”

As I had spent my time to that point reading stories, plays, and poems instead of “theory”, I didn’t really know how to form the questions I wanted to ask, such as:

  • Isn’t it useful to have a common cultural ground — in fact, without one, what do we really have to discuss?
  • Isn’t some of the stuff you’re talking about tossing out actually pretty good?
  • Isn’t the very “exclusionary” culture you’re decrying the same one that fosters your efforts to live a life of the mind?
  • How exclusionary can a culture be that offers its so-called shibboleths in a convenient paperback form?
  • And since, like it or not, our students will have to function in the larger Western culture, don’t we owe it to them to share some sort of lingua franca, and by acting as if there is no canon, aren’t we condemning them to that exclusion we say we oppose?

But as I said, I hadn’t put that much effort into these issues before the class started, so what I said was something about the canon as a useful tool, which caused great quantities of snickering about “phallocentric word choices” from classmates like the Christmas-tree-maker. I remember thinking, “If I wanted penis jokes, I could have spent more time in my Junior High locker room,” and if this was graduate education, well, I said it was spinach and I said to hell with it.

I stopped going to that class for a couple of weeks, getting back in time to turn in my assignments and get out of the class with a C (which in grad school terms is like an F. Maybe an F-minus.) But I graduated, even with a bad taste in my mouth, and headed into the journalism career I mentioned earlier.

In the years between rounds of grad school, I thought a couple of times about returning to academia, but I figured there probably wasn’t a place for me in a world populated by the Christmas-tree-makers. And there’s the irony, of course — the anti-canonical agenda under the aegis of diversity made the profession less intellectually diverse. Finally, though, my love for the stories, plays, and poems drove me to try again, and I was fortunate enough to find a program with professors who were intellectually honest enough to welcome intellectual diversity, and to have returned at a time in which theory was no longer so much a hill on which to die as a set of approaches to a variety of situations — which is probably all it ever should have been. Even so, I think one of the reasons I’m a medievalist is because we still deal more with the primary texts than with apparata of political change.

Twelve years later, I’m here, and I think I’m a pretty good professor. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder how many folks like me were chased away, and what the hypothetical students of those professors-who-never-were may have lost.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Education, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to How twigs get bent: Canons and Other Intellectual Artillery

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