Unpacking the role of the literary canon in English studies
Bookworms everywhere will agree that literature shapes us into the people that we are, from picture books to the novels that fill our shelves today. While everyone’s taste in books may differ, it is likely that our libraries are more similar than we realize. In fact, I’m sure that if you pluck five people off Main Street, put them in a room together and tell them to discuss the books they read in school, they will have plenty to talk about.
If you haven’t figured it out already, I am talking about the literary canon; a rotating group of texts and writers that are said to be the most important in their respective time period or genre. While the literary canon has arguably affected everyone in some shape or form, it has especially impacted those involved in English literature. Students and educators in English all have close yet varied relationships to the literary canon, which influence their careers and educations.
I sat down with Karen Bamford, a professor in the Mt. A English department. Some of her teaching and research areas involve Shakespeare, gender and drama in the Modern and Renaissance periods. Bamford said that she had to be very selective about what materials she put on the course syllabus for her current women’s literature course due to the time constraints of the semester. She said this was “hard because there are so many wonderful books.” On the choices she ultimately made, Bamford said, “I wanted to make sure the students had Toni Morrison’s Beloved, an African-American writer who addresses important issues of race relations; Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, because Atwood writes about issues that are very much in the news right now; and then Virginia Woolf, who is so important to the tradition of women’s writing in the 20th century.”
Renée Belliveau, a Mt. A English alumna and 2017 masters of English graduate from the University of Waterloo, currently works in the Mt. A library in archives. “Graduate courses are much less standardized and therefore have more potential for variety,” she said when asked how her experience with the literary canon differed from her undergraduate program to her graduate program. “I took courses on the rhetoric of Indigenous treaties in Canada, on the representation of refugees in literature, and on Black print culture in the 19th century, to name a few.” Belliveau said that some of her courses were more focused on the canon than others, but that “Professors have more freedom to teach obscure texts.”
Andrea Beverley, a professor in both English and Canadian studies, has been at Mt. A since 2013. “Although I do think it’s neat to introduce students to texts that a lot of people have talked about as a way of bringing them into the conversation, I also think that it’s crucial to be troubling the categories we are working with,” she said.
Alex Duchemin, a fourth-year English student and hopeful future school teacher, will have had a lot of engagement with the literary canon in her education and throughout her future career. “I definitely want to choose children’s literature that doesn’t have misrepresentation of female and male roles,” she said. “I want kids to grow up thinking that they can do everything and I don’t want stories to create limitations for them.” What Duchemin touches on is important because the literary canon will significantly impact new generations of readers, and heavily influence their educational experiences.
It’s important not to see the literary canon as static. It can move and shift based on what students, educators and readers feel is important. As Bamford wisely said, “Canons are good starts, but the saddest thing would be if anyone was ever satisfied with the canon.… It should just be the start.”