Magazine article Radical Teacher

Canon Issues and Class Contexts: Teaching American Literature from a Market Perspective

Magazine article Radical Teacher

Canon Issues and Class Contexts: Teaching American Literature from a Market Perspective

Article excerpt


How do we make class issues relevant for literature students in a way that is not just about what is inside a text, and thus conveniently distanced from their own lives and influences and choices? This question has long troubled me, especially since I teach at a selective liberal arts college, Skidmore, where the majority of students--the children of educated parents from relatively affluent communities, with an established interest in the arts--would be considered privileged. While these students are eager to study literature and earnest in their desire to consider texts that focus on socioeconomic conditions different from their own, they too often seem safely removed from any of the class tensions represented. How might I engage their class positions more fully within the parameters of a literary studies course?

As one response to this problem, I have developed an advanced course, titled Literature, Class, and Culture, which not only showcases class-oriented texts but also pays particular attention to class-inflected aspects of literary history, especially the politics of production and dissemination. Guiding questions in the course description indicate that the term class will have multiple valences:

   To what extent do class dynamics shape
   not only individual literary works, but
   also the ways in which those works
   are received and promoted? How did
   the novel come to be associated with
   the middle class, and how has it been
   seen by some as advancing bourgeois
   interests? What practical and theoretical
   problems arise in the creation of a
   working-class literature? How has the
   notion of canonicity hinged on implicit
   and explicit attitudes toward class?

Especially provocative to students, however, is the course emphasis on how texts are situated within the bookselling and critical establishments, wherein writers, publishers, critics, advertising executives, and academics participate in a complex negotiation of literary stratification that often emerges from or resonates with class attitudes and aspirations. This frame of reference broadens students' perceptions of how class as a socio-cultural phenomenon manifests itself in the literary arena. It also surprises and challenges them in its departure from the typical undergraduate English course, which privileges the internal dynamics of texts. One student wrote in an end-of-semester reflection, "I never would have thought to look at literature from this [outside] direction." Others suggested that the course not only made them "see class issues everywhere," but also redefined their notions of what literary studies itself might mean.

The course focuses particularly on the early twentieth century, when emerging readerships (notably the expansion of middle-class literacy) altered the status of books in the cultural mindset, provoked new interest in class themes as a topic for literature, and lent fresh energy and urgency to the bookselling industry. Through analyzing the critical and promotional environments within which texts were framed, the course helps students see the literary field as fluid rather than fixed, shaped in part by socioeconomic forces that may have little to do with literariness. And these issues have relevance for their own learning: on the very first day I point out that the course's title is borrowed from the American literature anthology of the same name edited by Paul Lauter and Ann Fitzgerald (Longman, 2001). That an anthology might be organized around issues of class, and that such an anthology has been far less frequently adopted in college courses than more generalized anthologies of American literature, introduces key questions about how the academic establishment itself generates and sustains interest in texts. It also links two separate avenues of investigation that are central to the course: how does the concept of class assert itself as a theme in literature, and how is it that literary texts--even those ostensibly about class--often evade examination as artifacts embedded in a class culture? …

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