Saturday, September 3, 2011

Bi-textuality in the Canon

I think it was our own Scott MF'ing Walker who brought up Senior Colloquium the other day in our discussion of gender bias in the great English literature "canon." Since I happened to be in the archives Friday afternoon, I decided to take a quick peek into the past book lists of this class. (I would emphasize the word "quick" here--I mostly ignored the most recent history, deferring to Prof. Rosenberg's firsthand knowledge, and as for what I did examine I did so rather briskly).

I would highly recommend any other student who is interested in colloquium (it's not too late for spring semester you guys, and certainly Wyatt can take both) or simply in the history of the college to look through these folders. I was amazed by the professor's names I read as I went farther and farther back in time--names like Trippett, Powell, Fertig, Placher, and Campbell, seeing first where they began and then where they stopped. While these names changed, those of the fall semester reading list remained remarkably the same. Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Aquinas, Augustine, Machiavelli and others have persisted through the decades. (I noted with sadness that Milton didn't survive his freshman year, though perhaps he was brought back on the team at some later date). All of the names on those reading lists were, and remain on the list today, male. The spring semester started off the same way. Great names were included of course, such as Locke, Rousseau, Smith, Mill, Tolstoy, and of course Burke and Paine (which you might remember from C&T). But again I noticed all were men. This remained the same from the 1947-48 school year until the spring of 1964 when Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was added to the list. Then in 1978 Wollstonecraft made a one-year appearance, bringing the number of female authors up to two. Virginia Woolfe was added in 1979, but in the following year Stowe was dropped. Thus the "status quo" of having just a single woman author was preserved. From around here on out I began to see Prof. Rosenberg's name, and given that this was Friday afternoon and I didn't want to spend the entire day in the basement of the library, I put the file away. I assume Prof. Rosenberg can fill us in on more recent developments.

So is this an example of gender bias? If Stowe was worthy of being on the list, then why was she removed one year after Woolfe was added? Was it simply because of her gender? (Note that there certainly were other changes--but the timing here does seem suspicious to me). What names would you have added?

Two other things 1) Bi-textuality has official made the list of my favorite words and 2) Here is a quote I found about what makes a good Senior Colloquium student: "he is not afraid to attack the ideas of others...[and] he knows that occasionally he's going to be made ridiculous."

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