Thinking Beyond the Canon

The following syllabus is a manifestation of a larger rhetorical and pedagogical investigation into the possibilities of postcanonical and transcanonical literary consumption and the subsequent theoretical dissection of literary artifacts. The lens through which this possibility is explored is self-authorship, which here functions as not only a theme within literature (i.e. semi-autobiographical narratives) but as a means by which students can interrogate those narratives that comprise the existing literary canon. Through this composition-centered syllabus, class participants are encouraged to debate the perpetuation of canonicity through the production of writing and the articulation of subjective thought. The assigned literary readings grant students (and instructors) an opportunity to read non-canonical works that are highly reflective of the lives of their authors, in the vein of self-authorship, and the associated critical texts investigate where, how, or if such works can or should be integrated into the institutional canon.

Additionally, students are encouraged to interrogate the form of the syllabus itself, which remains visually so as to inspire annotations, amendments, notes, and doodles –in the name of self-authorship– that will evolve the document from its initial state.

PDF available below

A traditional syllabus, in its conception, construction, and presentation, is decidedly irreconcilable with my preferred pedagogical approach, one that proffers subjective experience as foundational to knowledge making and critical to institutional evaluation. This assessment has been largely informed by a statement by rhetorician Linda Brodkey in which she remarks, “a syllabus, even one that includes voices from other [non-canonical] quarters, is probably a better index of curricular than of pedagogical goals, a better index, that is, of what we [educators] wish students knew than of our desire to hear from them.”[1] Integration or inclusion of marginalized authors and works is certainly a response to the shortcomings of any given curriculum; yet, their presence without critical adjustments to existing pedagogy can remain neglectful of student voices and positive in-class experiences. To rectify the rupture that Brodkey observes, I have here endeavored to construct a document that will live and grow from a conscious and necessary desire to hear from students.

The visual and organizational construction of this syllabus proved most challenging, as I had already acknowledged the failures of traditional syllabi and the schism that persists amidst the curricular and the pedagogical. In an effort to abandon the form of an “index,” I imagined and realized a sort of non-fiction “chapbook” or a bare-boned “zine,” complete with wide margins, blank pages, and minimalist typography. The intention of these stylistic choices is to invite annotations, amendments, notes, drawings, and even ablation with respect to the course content, calendar, and measures of assessment, as an exercise in increased (self-)authorship for the class’ participants. I published the result via an online platform for magazines and eBooks, as it allows for increased access and legibility.

Self-authoring or -authorship, which here functions as the methodological manifestation of my own pedagogical approach, is also reflected in the course’s proposed content. Each literary work is authored by black American writers, either female or queer, voices that have long been excluded by the canon. The works themselves are largely autobiographical, from Chester Himes’ Yesterday Will Make You Cry, a deeply human telling of carceral life and the desire for meaningful connections, to Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, the coming-of-age tale of the daughter of Bajan immigrants, negotiating her layered identity in 1940s-era Brooklyn. Each literary text offered in this syllabus is firmly rooted in the subjective and cultural experiences of the author. A pedagogical response to such content, this document advocates for a kind of analysis and assessment that speaks to (and from) the reader’s own narrative, hence the heavy compositional element of the course. Here, the experience of reading as a writer and writing about reading (and writing) are called forth as a method and means of knowledge making.

In addition to these novels, choice scholarship surrounding non-canonical literature –including essays identifying the exclusionary makeup of the canon, the challenges of integrating non-canonical literature and the means by which this could be achieved, and hints to the outmoded quality of a formal canon and what could be imagined beyond (i.e. a postcanonical or transcanonical literary world)– is assigned. Responses to such scholarship as well as the novels would be produced in a variety of forms, namely free writing (in-class), small group work, discussion leadership, and longer-form compositions that will be self-assessed, peer-reviewed, and workshopped during class time. It is imperative to the self-authorship methodology of the course that tone and voice as well as presentation be discretionary with respect to the student.

         The general pedagogical goal of these exercises vis-à-vis the assigned reading is to explore potential futures of literary consumption within higher education as well as the existing form(s) of critical analysis and composition. By centering the content around historically-marginalized authors and writing through the challenges of their exclusion from the canon (and perhaps interrogating the persistence of the canon itself) from the subject position, student thought and experience claims the site of meaning making. This active participation in knowledge and meaning making is further extended to students’ individual and collective roles as contributors to the structure of the course, its content, and its relevance.

         As a testament to my desire to hear from students, I hope this syllabus begins to approach redress with respect to both the canon debate and the schism that endures amid curricula and pedagogy. I (impatiently) await a time replete with expansive, inventive, and interactive technologies that can further distance course content from the “index” of which Brodkey speaks, inviting the degree of classroom collaboration put forth by the figures of cultural literacies and radical pedagogy.

[1] Brodkey, Linda. “Difference and a Pedagogy of Difference.” Writing Permitted in Designated Areas Only, University of Minnesota Press, 1996

4 responses to “Thinking Beyond the Canon”

  1. I think this so properly extends student-centeredness in the classroom.  I get ideas for my own teaching practice from this.  I really like the distinction you raise between syllabus for curriculum vs. syllabus for pedagogy, which is, in STEM especially, a choice that is conventionally very heavily skewed towards a curriculum-focused imposition upon students.  p.s. I liked the small but cool detail of the visual, Venn-like diagrams to convey priorities in assessment–first time I seen that.

  2. Hey Flora–I really appreciate the way you insert your syllabus int o your reflections about making the syllabus, and your investments in this syllabus.  As you noted, this form is a challenge to the linearity of traditional syllabi and knowledge forms.  That you incorporated some of the pedagogical tools we used in clss to interrogate canon formation is genius.  In discussion with Cathy, we were bothexcited by the scaffolding you incorporate into your invitation to students to take responsibility for learning.  My only question is about your use of the term “self-authorship.”  What did you mean?  How is this term necessary to your class’s organization?