The Elephant in the Classroom: Teaching Anthologies in a Lit Survey Course

As an English professor, I’m faced with teaching these grand old classes called the “surveys,” which are either invoked with reverence, dread, or disdain, depending on where the speaker went to school (and how long ago).  These courses, typically British/American Literature I and II, World Literature/Humanities I and II, invite the widest possible approach and for this very reason are often avoided by professors.  Indeed, for decades now many academics have written these courses off as touting an elitist point of view, stressing “dead white males” over the just-as-significant marginal writers who were shut out because of their sex, race, or eccentricity.  A literature survey (they claim) of any kind bows to the idea of a “canon” of accepted writers, which all students must read, discuss, and struggle with as the basis of one’s education.  
For British literature, which is my bread and butter, the British I survey would probably include some measure of Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, a Shakespeare play (or The Sonnets), poetry by Donne, Herbert, etc., along with a smattering of Pope, Congreve, Dryden, Johnson, and maybe a novel by Behn, Defoe, Swift, or Fielding—and possibly Austen, if you want to stretch the eighteenth century into the nineteenth, as I often do.  However, is that all one needs to read/learn in a survey course of British Literature to 1800?  David Denby, the famous film critic who returned to Columbia after 20 years to retake the classic survey courses, found many professors dismissive of this “one survey fits all approach.”  A professor put him in his place by explaining, “The canon—it’s a modern American invention.  It hasn’t always been fixed.  The notion that you can make a shopping list of great works and by on top of them seems to me some fantasy of control.  At Oxford and Cambridge, you would never get to the end of the list.  You wouldn’t quantify what books should be on it.  It suggests insecurity.   It’s an American mentality” (The Great Books 204).   Of course, the canon didn’t start with Americans, though American universities certainly embraced it as a way to standardize the learning experience of so many students at so many universities.  Shouldn’t students, particularly English majors, graduate college knowing the ‘greats’ of English literature?  Shouldn’t future middle and high school English teachers have a working knowledge of Shakespeare’s art, Romantic poetry, and the aesthetics of Modernism? 

Much ink has been spilled on the subject, and many books and scholars answer these questions with a defiant no.  Indeed, some academics feel that even defining an author/work as ‘great’ is a way of controlling knowledge and limiting thought (insecurity, remember).  It denies, they would argue, a multinational/multicultural perspective since it places the center of culture squarely in England, and many works throughout English history were full of colonial and racial bias.  Some schools did away with the survey courses and replaced them with historically-focused courses that did avoided hierarchies and simply grouped works by a given number of years, or a genre, or a specific movement (the Gothic novel, the Sentimental novel, etc.).  This, they felt, would connect literature more to its historical/cultural moment and erase the anachronistic tendency to cherry pick the “great” from the merely “good,” or the “boys” from the “girls,” etc.  At my own small university, the surveys came under attack in the 90’s and were virtually removed, though when teacher certification majors were failing the literature portions of their certification tests, they were grudgingly reinstated.  

This brings me to the topic at hand: anthologies.  As the years and decades rolled on, even universities against surveys often revisited them, since a class with a broad historical perspective tracing works and movements provides useful context in the more narrowly focused courses that follow (hard to have a class in Gothic literature when students have never heard of Romanticism).  So the major anthologies of literature, namely the Norton, the Longman, the Bedford, decided to make them more representative of women, minorities, and those working in smaller, less ‘literary’ genres, such as journalism, propaganda, travel writing, children’s literature, and so forth.  The size of the anthologies ballooned (as did the price!), and many of the ‘great’ works were either cut in size or removed entirely.  Anthologies have now become a political battleground representing the latest politics and scholarship, with the Mali oral epic, the Sunjata, sharing space with a truncated Paradise Lost, and a smattering of Islamic Indian poetry (Kabir, Tukaram) alongside some Petrarch and a little Ariosto.  In short, in the Norton Anthology of World Literature you get a veritable feast of literature—so many wonderful works, all in brilliant translations, from every culture, tradition, and genre imaginable.  It’s an embarrassment or riches, and very gratifying for a teacher who can make any one of a hundred classes out of this material.  And best of all, it’s virtually guilt-free.  Everyone is least with a page.  And if we have to cut down Milton, gut Cervantes, and only pay lip service to Montagine, well, such is life. 

Having taught anthologies on and off over the years, I’ve decided not to use them again (for the foreseeable future).  I am a champion of surveys of every stripe, but I’m also sensitive to how nation and male-centric such surveys can be.  An anthology helps even the most seasoned professor make culturally informed choices that can enrich a survey—and indeed, can introduce many professors to works they’ve never even heard of.  Reading Kabir’s poetry for this first time was extremely gratifying for me and sent me to find a complete volume of his work.  And yet...I’m placing my anthologies on the shelf.  Why?  So much breadth of material is only possible by slicing away, giving us a sliver of this, a smidgen of that, a taste rather than a proper mouthful.  While all anthologies retain a few complete works—usually a play of Shakespeare, The Odyssey, a large selection from the Tale of Genji—it begs the question, “why not simply teach a few complete works and make the best of it?”  When I asked this question at the beginning of my career, some colleagues would look horrified and respond, “but you can’t leave this work out—or this one—or this one!”  Well, don’t we do that anyway by stressing the one-size-fits-all anthology?  Is spending a day on Kabir, two days on The Bhagavad Gita, three on Genesis really serving the material?  Are we really reading these works with the proper depth, attention to detail, and cultural understanding that they deserve?  If we use the buffet metaphor, our plate can only hold so much, and some students’ plates, let’s be honest, are smaller than others...

Imagine a syllabus that tries conscientiously to cover a little bit of everything: in World Lit, everything from Sumer, China, India, Greece, and Europe is given lip service, with greater or lesser detail.  While everything is there in theory, about a third of the material is missing, if not more.  How?  Well, if a student misses class, that might be the only class spent on Japanese love lyrics—or Petrarch’s Sonnets.  So that’s out the window. If weather interferes or the instructor gets sick, something has to be cut to compensate.  More cultures out the window.  And even in an ideal world where no one misses or gets sick, how much can a student understand from the “today is India, tomorrow China, and next week the Old Testament”?  No matter how carefully the class is thematically constructed, students can miss the connections and not understand the cultural or generic contexts of a work—and then we’re off.  Literature survives for a reason; it captures something vital about a given culture at a given point in time.  Yet it’s not there for anyone to see—like archeology, it requires a bit of digging, guessing, and reconstruction.  It also requires growth, the growth of living and thinking with a text over a few days or weeks.  The college semester is not ideally constructed with this kind of growth in mind, and the anthology, sadly, cripples it even further. 

Of course, many would argue that an anthology isn’t meant to be read from beginning to end.  No one in his or her right mind would even assign half of it.  Why not just teach a few works and teach them well—that is, over a number of weeks a piece?  The point of an anthology is to pick and choose, not to gorge on.  In that case, I would argue, why buy an anthology at all?  Why not simply buy 5-6 books, all works that would appear in an anthology, taking care to strike a balance between cultures and genres, and make the students read the whole thing?  Buying a $70 textbook of which, at best, you will use maybe 1/5 of, seems a bit pointless—and indeed, wasteful to many students.  And these suckers are heavy.  The print is small, the paper tissue-thin.  Used copies are all marked up by previous students with comments like “fish = sex.”    How much simpler to buy a few cheap paperbacks (and Dover versions are mere dollars a piece, though they lack footnotes and use older translations) from throughout the anthology and spend a few weeks introducing the work, reading it slowly, chapter by chapter, all within its historical perspective.  Students baffled by, say, the Daodejing now have a week or two to become familiar with its language and ideas.  You can take breaks, showing them art or other aspects of Chinese culture to highlight ideas in the book, then dive back in again.  The students are more likely to lug around a tiny paperback than a massive anthology—and they are also more likely to read it.  Even more importantly, students have a different attitude toward books than textbooks.  They are trained in high school not to read textbooks; they are taught to skim and highlight them.  But books are still books—you read them, you fold over the pages, you think of them as a complete work of art.  Giving students a few “complete works of art” is, to me, a much more sincere approach to the literature and ideas of the class.  It says “you need to read this all, not some of it, not just the ‘good parts,’ but warts and all.  It’s the only way to appreciate it.” 

I’ve taught the class both ways—with anthologies and with books.  The books are always a better class for me: more students seem to connect with the material, we have better discussions, and I ultimately make better points since I, too, get to live with (and re-evaluate) the material.  This semester I used the Norton Anthology of World Literature and my overall emotion is guilt.  We skimmed over works that needed a lot more time.  I even added a day or two for truly difficult/profound works, yet it seemed like slapping on so many band-aids on a broken leg.  Students were generally less engaged with the material and tried to ‘read’ whether or not a work was important enough to come.  Only one day on Islamic poetry?  Skip.  2 weeks on Shakespeare?  Better come to class.  For this reason, I think anthologies should be set aside—at least as an experiment—for complete works that represent the breadth and richness of a given field.  No, we can’t do it all, but what we teach has to be done in the right spirit.  Sure, I might unbalance the male/female ratio in class, or slight a marginalized culture, or spurn a major figure—but it’s all at the cost of actual learning.  I would rather read Shakespeare’s Othello scene by scene, spending time on the language and the characters, rather than merely reading the final act and rushing onto Noh drama.  Choose one or the other—there’s no right or wrong choice—but commit to teaching your students as much of the beauty and richness as possible.  When I do that, no matter who chides me for skimming over major and minor authors, I never feel guilty.  I always feel that I’ve done my job, even if that job is impossible to do correctly. 

Next semester I teach Non-Western Literature and General Humanities I, both surveys, and both with 5-6 books each.  Not an anthology in sight.  I’ll let you know how it goes...