A Few Thoughts on (Not Teaching) The Canon

Today I attended the first day of a two-day College Board workshop meant to provide additional training to teachers of Advanced Placement English Language and Composition. I’ve been to a number of these over the years, and College Board’s trainers tend to be better than the average presenters we get in education. The workshops also provide an opportunity to see what teachers at other schools are doing with their students.

Anyway, the only reason I bother to write about this is because of an interesting conversation/confrontation that happened almost immediately at the beginning of the session. As per usual with these things, we were to introduce ourselves–how long we’d been teaching, where we teach, the grade levels we teach, etc. The presenter also asked us to identify the book we most enjoyed “teaching.” That was the verb used–“teaching.” We were in a circle; I was one of the last people to have to introduce myself, and I heard repeatedly “I like to teach Gatsby” or “I like to teach Night” or “I like to teach To Kill a Mockingbird” or “I teach Faulkner.” I was getting a little antsy. Here’s why: 1) I don’t teach books–I don’t even know what it means to teach a book, 2) I rarely have my students read a complete book as part of their curriculum–I abridge almost everything, and 3) I’d been in this same situation more than once, and I knew that saying this was going to rub some of these English teachers the wrong way. And of course it did rub wrong, in particular two musty hags of the old school, one of whom cut me off condescendingly in mid-sentence: “So you’re saying that your kids never read a whole book?”

As pleasantly as possible, I tried to explain that I aim to expose my students to a multiplicity of voices and themes and rhetorical styles and methods, and that I didn’t see my primary job as fostering a love of literature; rather, I believe that the main duty of the English teacher is to facilitate the development of reading, composition, and thinking. I tried to explain that, even in my AP classes, most of my students are not avid readers and most of my students do not read at their grade level, and therefore struggling through 4 or 5 novels or plays over the course of one year didn’t seem as valuable to me as working through over a hundred different writers writing in a variety of styles for a variety of purposes. I tried to explain that reading a selection on slavery from 1789 by Olaudah Equiano in conjunction with a 2005 UN report on human trafficking, and then responding to these text was a far more valuable skill than wading through a dusty “classic” hunting down “universal” themes (whatever those are…).

The response, predictably was: “You mean, your 11th graders don’t read The Scarlet Letter? They don’t read Gatsby? That’s terrible!”

Why? Why should The Scarlett Letter or The Great Gatsby be so reverently “taught” to sixteen and seventeen year olds in this country? I like both of these books–I really do (although I think Gatsby is possibly the most overrated and over-read book ever published, and I’d take Hawthorne’s fabulous short stories any day over dreary Dimsdale and Hester Prynne)–but what purpose is there in making kids read them? Are they truly that relevant, or important?

I should be clear here that I am in no way at all against students reading these books; I wish that they would read these books, in fact. Only, I wish that they would love reading so much that they would be inspired to read books that they’ve heard are great or classic. But here’s the thing: I don’t think that telling a student they must read a book and that that book is a great work of literature and that they should enjoy or be inspired by that book is in any way a fair proposition. It leads only to anxiety, frustration, boredom, and then defeat.

Instead, English teachers should recognize that literature is just one part of reading and writing, and that most of our students are not going to go on to be English teachers or fiction writers. We should focus on a heteroglossic range of voices, styles, and purposes in introducing texts into the classroom. Students should be taught to respond to a variety of texts across a variety of disciplines, not to a few canonical authors. What happens more often than not in English classrooms is something like this: students are forced to read a work too complex for them to comprehend; they rely on the teacher’s interpretation to guide them through the novel (never having been taught a close-reading method that might give them access to the text); the student then writes a meaningless recapitulation of the teacher’s own “universalist” interpretation of the literary work, to the egotistical delight of the teacher who is enthralled that the student has “got it.” What’s lost is the opportunity to engage in relevant, “real-life” writing, writing that enters into an ongoing conversation in a meaningful way.

This is has been a straight-up rant–I’m sorry. I think that the following scene from Freaks and Geeks says it all better than I just did. Kim Kelly (Busy Phillips) critiques On the Road:

15 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on (Not Teaching) The Canon”

  1. Great post. Your last paragraph neatly sums up my experience in 11th grade English, which left a very bad taste in my mouth.

    And yes, I’m talking about you, Dr. Renfroe.



  2. This is a really significant post, Ed. Reminds me of a conversation I had a conversation a couple weeks ago at Union Hall with a frustrated high school English teacher. She was venting about her stuffy, canon-obsessed principal, and she didn’t really know what to teach her kids in lieu of the “classics.” Wish I had thought to point her to the ‘Klept.

    Just wondering: do you think you’d teach the same material (skewing toward excerpts and reports rather than feature-length novels) if your students were from privileged/pampered/middle-class backgrounds? My guess is no. Perhaps the other teachers at your workshop never had to “resort” to such creative solutions to keep their students engaged and reading.


  3. 1. Because the class I teach is about rhetoric–language and composition, and not literature–I would always, no matter the background of my students, focus on as many different writers and types of writing as possible, in lieu of 8 or 9 “major works.”
    2. But yes, if I taught at a school like the prep school I went to, I *would* expect my students to read from the canon; however, they would have to do it on their own time–I wouldn’t do what I see many of my colleagues doing–that is, spending 9 weeks on one novel (as a comparison, in 9 weeks my students would have read at least 20 different authors in a number of methods, styles, genres, from a number of time periods–usually somehow thematically linked–again, I believe that this is how argumentation and analysis takes place). So–
    3. How would I account for those hypothetical students reading canonical lit on their own time? The same way I do now, with my “inner-city” kids. I didn’t mention this in my post, I realize, but I *do* make my kids read American canonical literature. Only I give them choices. This year, they have to read 1-4 books per a grading quarter, from a list I’ve developed (the list includes Steinbeck, Hemingway, ZN Hurston, Ellison, Toni Morrison, Poe, Hawthorne, and a few others…but I’m always open to the student’s own suggestions and needs). The student and I choose the book together, based on a number of factors, including the student’s reading level, their interest, etc. Near the end of each quarter, the student produces a “mini-” research paper involving the book they’ve read. So far, I think this works pretty well.
    4. The other workshoppers were from similar schools, with the exception of three (of about 20). The second day led to more arguments, but my table–all relatively young teachers–rallied to my side. A younger teacher was full of gratitude toward me to see that she no longer had to plow through canonical lit that no one was enjoying, or really reading. We had an honest to god conversation at our table about Derrida, the intentional fallacy, and the ethics of literacy–that was pretty cool. But, at most of the tables, the responses were the same– “I just can’t seem to make my kids read The Scarlet Letter!” With frustration!
    Of course these kids don’t want to read that–there’s no way that it speaks to them, and they can’t access Hawthorne’s language–it’s simply above their current reading level. They’ll never build the reading skills to access it if we don’t make materials at their level available to them. Kids will read, but you have to start with books they can actually read and relate to…crawl before walking. Which brings me to–
    5. The AP Lit reading list–This is the list of works that might pop up on the Lit test. So, by the twelfth grade, seniors should’ve read most of these books–the list is RIDICULOUS. I’m finishing an MA in English, and I haven’t read even half of it. Furthermore, 75% of the books are NOT FOR TEENAGERS–I don’t mean this in a censorship way, I simply mean that most, if not all, teenagers don’t have the background knowledge or life experience to connect to these novels. Madame Bovary? The Brothers Karamazov? Pamela? Fucking Pamela! Clarissa! Jesus Christ, I had to read Clarissa last summer, and I COULDN’T. I just couldn’t! Abridged at 500 pages! And CollegeBoard thinks these kids should have read that book? Unreal…and that’s why–
    7. I think that we need to overhaul the way that people have access to college; that is, now, the keys to the kingdom are transmitted through a thoroughly archaic process that requires knowing Tess of the d’Ubervilles, but somehow eschews real-world reading and writing. It’s plainly unfair to anyone who “lives in it” everyday.


  4. I completely understand what you’re saying, but maybe it’s more a problem with AP kids at your school really not being prepared for the type of work that they should be doing.
    I think that your approach is very fair and very interesting.

    I just can’t help remembering that some of my best book memories ever came from AP English classes in high school. We read Baldwin and Camus and some of Dostoyevsky’s short stories as well as the standard canonical clunkers. Even though you’re right that teachers guide us through a number of books (I reread Gatsby a few weeks ago for the first time since high school and thought that my teacher never really pointed out just how much disdain Fitzgerald had for the moneyed classes, and then I realized just how much more I understand the workings of the world now), the rewards that come from struggling through one big text and coming out the other end able to argue with other people about it are innumerable.

    I think that you’re right, klept, about introducing kids to fun, welcoming books. I’m sure you could dedicate a whole bunch of words in a new post to the exclusion from the canon of great mystery, sci-fi, travel, and horror writers.


  5. I too was turned on to a lot of great books in my AP classes. And, obviously, I think that literature is extremely meaningful, relevant, and worthwhile. I might be repeating myself, but my major concern is that the canonical system–even though it is constantly under revision–tends to be monolithic and monoglossic. It resists and marginalizes not only new and different voices, but, as you point out, entire genres and styles.
    You are of course spot on when you guess that my students aren’t prepared for the rigors of an AP class, but–as I’m sure you can also probably guess-that doesn’t mean that they can’t succeed.
    But first I have to teach them how to read, how to *really* read. And it is important that they read a few of the “big books”–but on the whole, slugging it out through one in class is almost unbearable. I know if I’m bored, they’re bored. Consequently, I try to go to more digestible pieces, that we can try to fit within a relevant context. So, for example, this week we’re reading bits of Huck Finn, bits of Equiano, a 2005 UN report on human trafficking, and some poems by Philis Wheatley.
    I like your idea for a post on the excluded from the canon stuff. Readers, any suggestions?


  6. This is a great discussion, and it got me wondering–we all have subjects we didn’t particularly enjoy in school. Could it be because those subjects are taught in a ‘canonical’ way (relative to their own disciplines, of course)?

    Otto Phanstiel had our AP/IB chem class start out by reading *Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance*. If you’ve never read it, you should. Unfortunately, it undermined pretty much the rest of the year’s curriculum. But if more high school science teachers could teach in a way that really aimed to impart an appreciation of the rigorously uncertain joy of the scientific method–just as your de-canonized approach imparts an appreciation of real reading–maybe we wouldn’t have the scientifically illiterate population we have today.

    Similarly, I’ve been reading Ball’s *A Short Account Of The History Of Mathematics*, and it presents the evolution of mathematics in a personal way that really would have made math class a lot more interesting.

    And so on. What are your thoughts on the implications of ‘de-canonizing’ education in all disciplines?


  7. It feels like submission: Kids are not readers; the class focuses around themes, styles breadth of experience; we are not wedded to the canon; etc. It makes me sad. Not angry, just sad.

    The overall goals, it seems, are two fold. First, to simply get students to become lifelong readers. Yes, a forced march through classical literature is not the way. Second, to become intellectually curious about themes, styles, experiences, etc. so that students tackle the canon because it is just better and more thought provoking than the drivel publishing companies push out for the most part. Also, so that students can recognize additions to the canon and why new authors deserve their place next to good old Hester.

    Much of the reply of the “hags” is the idea of cultural currency. Having a canon gives us a common language. Now, perhaps “The Scarlet Letter” is not the best common word we could use, but the canon has value beyond mere “do as I say”. Talk to someone who teaches nothing but drivel and you are talking to someone who does not think.

    This reply is coming from a former high school teacher, now long time middle school teacher. What makes me sad is seeing the future of my students; taking AP English when they do not even like to read. Many of the ideas you write about come about because of the path that lead them to your class, but I don’t think you are helping it much. You are doing your job, and it makes me sad (the “hags” make me sad, too). AP English (and, from the other comments, many high school courses) is not being about the elevation of art and a curiosity to see how the clock works, but a grind of giving students tools and corpses to practice on. I see it at our local high school, and in the high school my wife teaches in. It is why I moved to the middle.

    I suspect the reply to this will be that I am naive, don’t understand, or some similar thing. Please do not lump me in with the “hags” or dismiss this because my grammar is a bit loose. I am new to this blog, and context is everything.

    I would recommend Nancie Atwell as a solution, or at least some good ideas. She has many books, most geared towards middle school, but “The Reading Zone” addresses the issue of high school, fostering reading, and teaching the skills you talk about in the later chapters. Her basic premise is workshops, independent choice reading, and in-class SSR. Atwell deals with the “required text” issue by assigning them at the start of the year, with dates, and simply letting them read. Take a look; its good.


  8. Here is what replying in anger looks like:
    Tom, darling, I really don’t know what you’re trying to say. You’re sad? So sorry. But, really pal, why are you even commenting over here? When you say that my approach to the classroom is “submission” and attest (based on a blog post!) that you “don’t think [I’m] helping it much,” all I can say to you is: fuck you. Seriously. I don’t mean that in a mean way (yes I do), but really, how else could I respond? I would ask you to walk in my shoes a bit, which perhaps you did, but your solution to the problem you saw was to go to middle school.
    You either understood nothing of what I wrote above, or, perhaps you are so resistant to the idea of a non-canonical reappraisal of language education that you convert such an idea into an act of “submission” instead of recognizing that it is the opposite idea. I’m familiar with Atwell–and it’s not a bad book–but, like Kylene Beers’s equally dim tome *When Kids Can’t Read*, it presupposes–just like you–that what Harold Bloom and some other old farts somewhere thinks is “cultural currency” is indeed cultural currency. The last time I checked, the (extremely impoverished, disadvantaged) kids I work with were in need of skills to help them access, uh, real currency. Also, you write: “AP English (and, from the other comments, many high school courses) is not being about the elevation of art and a curiosity to see how the clock works, but a grind of giving students tools and corpses to practice on.” What? Huh? What does this mean? I have no idea what you’re trying to say (I don’t really care either, by the way, you don’t need to come back and clarify). I
    hope that you teach those middle schoolers how to read and write.


    1. Submission not of students to you and your class, but you seem frustrated by the situation of your students than guided by a basic teaching philosophy. As you point out, I have only this single blog post to go by. Anger, sadness… in the end it does not seem like an ideal. No one should be forced to fight the good fight just as kids are going out the door; the system should make it easier.

      I cannot imagine Atwell and Bloom in the same room. Atwell proposes the crazy idea of choice in reading and writing while Bloom is an pompous ass who gives even good literature a bad name (plus, their ideas are diametrically opposite). don’t think Atwell even knows what cultural literacy is. Please don’t lump them together. I offered her up in that dramatically offers an alternative to the march through the required texts, but you clearly have it all under control. I thought it might offer support to the next hag attack you suffer from.

      Based on a blog post? You do have a comment section. You are putting your ideas out there. What else is there to go on? What do you expect when you put yourself out there, call people Hags and rally against the machine? That anger is going to kill you or you’ll burn out and be unable to help more kids.


  9. As a student myself, I would like to point out that a majority of my class doesn’t like to read simply because they have been submerged in the world of literature face-first by “hags” rather than taught that they can have valid thoughts about literature themselves. I remember my freshman English teacher as being exactly like the teacher from Ferris Bueler’s Day Off. If that was all I had as an example of how to read, I would hate reading too! In my humble opinion, it is not so much the relative difficulty of the books or unrelatable themes that makes students detest reading, but the methods teachers use that really kill the reading spirit. Honestly, I wish more teachers shared your opinion.


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