by Hannah Clark
Required reading lists: as an English major, these are my bread and butter. Now that I’ve passed the core survey classes, I find my syllabuses populated with more and more old friends. Maybe you know how I feel: that elation when I’ve read three quarters of the reading list, or the sinking feeling I experience when I think, aren’t we going to study anything new?
Due to the liberal arts nature of my education, many of my classes repeat texts. I’ve studied The Great Gatsby three times. The idea is that, thanks to repetition, students who haven’t taken all the English courses can still sample the most “important” texts in the English language. But who picks what’s important?
I’m currently taking a Gender and Literature course at CSC. My professor, Dr. Lee, asked us a simple question: who are the most important authors in the English language? This required both an opinion and a recitation of the Western canon. All the big names made an appearance: from Wordworth to Shakespeare, and Chaucer to Dickens. I guessed at his game and made sure to mention female authors. But after Austen and Eliot, Bronte and Woolf appeared on the board, he still made a point.
“White male, white male,” he said, as he read down the list, “white female, white male…” and so it went. I realized that in my 18 years of formal education, I had never studied a female African American author. It was only as a junior, in an optional modern short-story class, I was assigned a female author who was not white.
This showed me that the composer of my curriculum is just as important as its composition. The two are directly related. I used to think the great English works were universally approved; I recognize now that they may just be university-approved. After reading Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston, I now suspect that although Shakespeare and Wordsworth are very important, there are many other equally, if not more important authors to the English language.
This class also shook my belief that I can anticipate what I will learn. Classes like “British Literature from 1066” are self-explanatory. I know what I’m expected to learn. Then, as my critical education increased, class titles turned from categories to concepts. The greatest lesson I’ve learned from these classes, like Gender and Literature, is that I don’t know anything. I can read a classic like The Great Gatsby three times and still discover new significance in its weathered pages. I assumed I had the broad swath of English and American literature under my belt, but now I see I only learned one perspective. The traditional world of academia does not encompass the whole world. Required reading lists have taught me plenty about their suggested texts, but my classes have taught me that those texts are not the only things I should be reading.