Literary canons are flawed, & our courses should reflect that

literary canon ed

Introductory English classes, like ENGL100 and 200, are typically composed of texts by white men. While these texts are pulled from the literary canon, and no doubt have merit, they aren’t diverse. And that’s a problem.

Queen’s has Indigenous Lit and Women’s Lit courses, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that our introductory courses often teach primarily white, male-authored texts. Courses like ENGL100 should also include Indigenous texts and female authors.

Some professors claim the canon doesn’t include more diverse texts because, during specific time periods throughout history, it was only acceptable for white men to write and publish. Yet our separate Indigenous and Women’s Lit classes prove this wrong—there are diverse texts out there from time periods beyond the present.

Introductory courses don’t focus on a single time period either; they give you a broad scope of the field of English literature. By that logic, Indigenous and Women’s Lit texts should be included.

That said, it’s still important to have separate courses dedicated to these topics. We have individual courses for Modernism and Shakespeare, so it makes sense to have separate Indigenous and Women’s courses for those interested in learning more.

Still, students are more likely to choose these individual courses if they’re exposed to similarly diverse material in first-year survey courses or, better yet, in high school.

Professors should also beware of primarily teaching pain narratives when it comes to diverse texts. It’s easy to only teach an Indigenous text about colonialism or a women’s text about sexism—and these topics are important to discuss—but that shouldn’t be all that’s taught. We need texts that celebrate people’s personhood and strengths too.

It’s also important to acknowledge that we need to diversify our literature courses even further to include underrepresented texts like those about LBGTQ communities or people with disabilities. Criticism courses, which teach subjects like queer theory and feminist theory, also give readers the tools to look at and criticize texts with different lenses.

Our English literature courses are more diverse than they were 100 years ago, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue improving them. Straying away from the traditional literary canon when it comes to our introductory courses broadens students’ understanding of literature and prepares them for classes like Indigenous Lit that they may not have previously considered taking.

Our conception of history is constantly changing; our English courses need to change with it.

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