On a Diverse Literary Education

I was talking to a colleague this week about his recent experience with the GRE Literature in English test. This standardized exam, in case you don’t know, is used to evaluate potential students applying for graduate studies in English. About 3,000 people a year pay $150 to take this test, with their educational and professional future sometimes resting on these scores.

Even though I hold a terminal degree in Creative Writing, I periodically consider pursuing a PhD in a different humanities-related discipline, so I try to learn what I can from others who are going through the application process. The scope of the GRE Literature exam is daunting. The applicant is tested on conventions, genres, allusions, grammar and rhetoric, literary techniques, recognition of authors and literary works from the 1600s to the present day, literary and cultural history, and, of course, critical and theoretical approaches.

One of the problems with the Literature exam – and this is not a new problem for anyone in an English department as a scholar or an educator – is that the exam is so significantly weighted toward white European and American men. As I listened to my colleague list the kinds of writers and thinkers the exam did and did not include, I started to worry about my own success with the test.

Here’s the thing. I consider myself fairly well-read. But my definition of “well-read” is vastly different from the GRE’s definition of “well-read.” While my education included many of the canonic stand-bys – Shakespeare, Montaigne, Dickens, Joyce, Hemingway, Steinbeck – I feel especially lucky to have been exposed as an undergraduate to writers who don’t fit the Sacred White Patriarchal Canon: Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Denise Chávez, Maxine Hong Kingston, Zadie Smith, Chinua Achebe, Richard Wright, Audre Lorde, and more. I’m so grateful for Dr. Hellegers, who introduced me to Linda Hogan; Dr. Hunt who taught from Leslie Marmon Silko; Dr. Johnson who gave me Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; Dr. Narayanan who bequeathed Pico Iyer and Orhan Pamuk; and Dr. Lewis who taught me to appreciate graffiti and rap music as literature.

In the literature classes I teach, I take course titles like “World Literature,” for example, seriously. We read literature from all over the world, from all kinds of humans. In the first week of class, we talk about what “literature” means and what “The Canon” is and I spend all semester resisting that canon. Don’t get me wrong: we still read Shakespeare and Montaigne and Kafka and Chekhov. But we read so much more than what the GRE test considers “literature.”

Am I doing my students a disservice by resisting the canon? Perhaps my students who go on to study English in grad school may have to read a little more on their own to prepare for exams. But readers do that anyway, don’t we? And we’ve all heard of those Dead White Guys. Without the kind of diverse education I was privileged to get, I may never have heard of half my favorite writers, writers who struggle to be heard, to be taken seriously. I may not have become the kind of educator who prioritizes reading that offers both windows and mirrors to my students, no matter who they are. I may not be the person I am today, and that possibility makes me sad.

My students set on graduate school can pick up any anthology and read The Canon that supports white male privilege. I hope I can offer them a glimpse into other ways of making noise in the world. I hope that glimpse encourages them to make a little noise in their own way. I hope I can prepare them to go out and resist assumptions about literature.

And who knows? Maybe one of them will challenge the GRE to come up with a better measure of literary academic success.

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