The Intersection of Early British Literature Surveys and Anti-Racist Pedagogy

by H. Austin Whitver, Department of English

Recent political and cultural movements anchored in ethnocentric ideological beliefs pose a grave, if sometimes overlooked, threat to the English literature classroom. In his opening chapter of Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, Charles W. Mills writes, “Ethnocentrism is, of course, a negative cognitive tendency common to all peoples, not just Europeans. But with Europe’s gradual rise to global domination, the European variant becomes entrenched as an overarching, virtually unassailable framework, a conviction of exceptionalism and superiority that seems vindicated by the facts and thenceforth, circularly, shaping the perception of the fact. We rule the world because we are superior; we are superior because we rule the world.” (25).

I have been teaching long enough to see many important shifts in an attempt to combat this Eurocentrism in both textbooks for survey courses and in English departments. World Lit courses have shifted from exclusively Eurocentric readings (as almost a companion course to “Western Civ”) to being more globally representative (although still often limited by the experiences and expertise of the professor). American Lit classes have likewise expanded to include indigenous voices, slave narratives, and works from non-European immigrants.

However, there has been the least movement in the early British literature survey course. The expansion of the cannon has brought women into the syllabus, but Mills, I think, points to a central problem with the very conception of the course when it comes to the question of race.

However much we (as a discipline) have attempted to expand the cannon, the very premise of “Western Civ” is built on the reinforcement of this “exceptionalism and superiority.”

It is easy enough to frame a class on, say, Shakespeare as the exploration of an exceptional author, but the implicit narrative of a British Literature course is that it is an exceptional archipelago with artistic offerings particularly worthy of study. How can we combat this? Is it possible within the framework of the current model of the survey course? The idea (expressed by many of my students over the years) that we need to study this literature as a way of understanding our roots and cultural origins is deeply problematic, reinforcing a fictive, hegemonic origin story, but to pivot away from that mindset potentially implies that we must study this literature because it is inherently “superior,” again demonstrating Mills’ model of circular reinforcement of the Eurocentric framework. So what is to be done? How do you decolonize the colonist’s cannon?

These questions take on a different and perhaps more imperative tone when discussing teaching in the south. Alabama is one of only two states that takes the third Monday in January to commemorate Robert E. Lee as an intentional insult to the federally mandated celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the same day. The University of Alabama infamously served as the stage for George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door against integration. English classes are held in buildings named after slave owners (including the home of the English Department, Morgan Hall, named after a senator, Confederate general, and KKK leader) and buildings that stand adjacent to slave cemeteries.

In short, while racism is prevalent everywhere, it is etched in a particularly visible and overtly commemorative fashion here and elsewhere in the south. The history of this place and these spaces must be acknowledged and addressed as part of any attempt to combat racism and white supremacy in the classroom.

Attempting to be more inclusive in an Early British Literature class by doing nothing more than tossing in a couple of texts from individuals of other races, giving the syllabus a good shake, and calling it a day is clearly insufficient. Such a move is both difficult (such texts are fairly hard to come by, having not been sufficiently preserved in the time period in question) and not terribly helpful (it can easily just become tokenism).

Instead, we must think about this more holistically. These classes are filled with non-majors, individuals who are often just as uncomfortable with and even resistant to discussing difference (race, gender, sexuality, etc) as they are with reading literature.

Nonetheless, discussing these topics is vital, not only to the specific task of combating systemic racist perceptions in our students but also more widely to the whole goal of the humanities, the engagement with and understanding of “the other.”

Parameters of This Syllabus

The idea here is to construct a gen-ed Early British Lit course of the type common to many institutions. These classes are surveys of literature of the period designed for non-English-majors. With a two session a week schedule, they usually run 28-29 class periods. The course should use a standard textbook, as some institutions do not allow flexibility in that area (I will use the Norton Anthology). The syllabus below also assumes some departmental requirements on content (a survey class of this type must include “The General Prologue” and a Chaucerian tale, a day on sonnets, at least one Shakespeare play (the Norton offers us Othello or Twelfth Night), two days on Paradise Lost, etc.).

Because of these parameters, it seems unlikely that a grad student or instructor (those usually tasked with teaching these courses) under even limited oversight would be able to make an Early British lit class exclusively about race. It would be manageable for an Early American Lit class (or, even, Late American or British), but the course requirements (the remit of a general survey, often a list of strongly suggested or required readings) make that impossible in this course.

Instead, the idea here is to divide the readings into four themed quadrants (belief/religion, class, gender, race). The goal is to get students more and more used to the mental and imaginative practice of understanding other perspectives and pivot this into engaging with those in marginalized positions in society (first through class, then gender, and finally working our way to what, ideally, will be the culmination of the course, a discussion of race in the early modern period . . . and hopefully beyond).

A caveat: What follows is simply a schedule of readings. If this is all that is changed, this is simply an example of Kyoko Kishmoto’s warning in “Anti-racist pedagogy: from faculty’s self-reflection to organizing within and beyond the classroom,” that “Many academics may treat content changes as the ending rather than the entrée point for anti-racist pedagogy” (546). It must be coupled with adjustments to practice in the classroom, adjustments that rarely if ever show up on a syllabus.

There are many ways to get this ball rolling. For example, on the opening syllabus day, one can discuss the purpose of this class, either in an open discussion or stemming from a close reading of the boilerplate learning outcomes we all must print on all our syllabi. For instance, in the UA learning outcomes, we see that the class intends “to provide a broad perspective on the human condition.” It is fairly easy to see for students that simply examining the experiences of the affluent white male of the period is hardly “a broad perspective on the human condition.”

Often, in such discussions, one of the students will mention the importance of understanding people different from them, understanding “the other.” Usually, on the first day, they are more focused on the idea of “the other” as temporally different (trying to understand perspectives from 1000-400 years ago), but it is easy enough to pivot into discussing how humanity was just as varied in the past as today and what we can gain (growing as empathetic, understanding individuals) by engaging with these differences with an open and willing mind.

Schedule

  1. Introduction to the Class
  2. General Historical Survey (what I like to call a “hat rack day,” where we lay out some broad and general context that we will then use to hold and arrange the more complex material to follow)

Belief

  1. Short Anglo Saxon Poetry – (Possible selections that fit well with this topic: “Cædmon’s Hymn,” “The Dream of the Rood,” and “The Wanderer”)
  2. Everyman
  3. Christopher Marlowe – The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
  4. George Herbert and Robert Herrick – (Possible poems:  Herbert – “Easter Wings,” “Prayer (1),” “The Windows,” “Man,” “The Collar.”  Herrick – “The Argument of His Book,” “Corinna’s Going A-Maying,” “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”
  5. John Milton – Paradise Lost (For these two days, the choice of selections is very much up to the instructor.  I personally like to cover Book One through the midpoint of Book Three (giving us a look at the structure of the Epic and containing some juicy explanations of why Milton feels God let Satan free and the concept of free will)
  6. John Milton – Paradise Lost

Class

  1. Geoffrey Chaucer – “The General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales
  2. Sir Thomas More – Utopia (There are a couple choices here. You could either do both parts of Utopia, taking up this day and the following.  Alternately, you could teach one of the two parts (the first probably makes more sense in the context of this survey, but the second works better in the classroom for non-majors).
  3. Either Utopia, part two or A selection of sonnets (particularly if this is a required element for the survey class (although, see below for day 19).  Selections from Sidney, Spencer, Shakespeare, and Wroth).
  4. Ben Jonson – (Possible poems: “On Something That Walks Somewhere,” “On Lucy Countess of Bedford,” “To Penshurst”)  (Could perhaps add some Andrew Marvell to this day with some Mower poems or “Upon Appleton House.”)
  5. Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels, Part 4
  6. Alexander Pope – “The Rape of the Lock”
  7. Midterm Exam

Gender

  1. Chaucer – (Either “Wife of Bath’s Tale” or “Miller’s Tale”)
  2. Julian of Norwich and/or Margery Kempe.
  3. “Women in Power” section from the Norton.  (In particular, I like to focus on the shifts in Elizabeth I’s rhetoric in her time in power with selections like “Speech to the House of Commons, January 28, 1563,” “A Speech to a Joint Delegation of Lords and Commons, November 5, 1566,” “A Letter to King James VI of Scotland, February 14, 1587,” “Speech to the Troops at Tilbury,” and the “Golden Speech.”)
  4. There are a lot of choices for this day.  It really depends on the strengths of the instructor and the temperament of the department.  Amelia Lanyer and/or Mary Wroth are the most obvious selections.  Alternately, this would also be a good day to bring in a selection of sonnets (showing how Wroth engaged with the English sonnet tradition by pulling in Sidney / Spencer / Shakespeare / etc.).  There is also an interesting Norton section on “Gender Relations: Conflict and Council.” It is not really suitable for a whole day, but it could make an interesting part of a day.  Alternately, if the department is terribly unfriendly to this kind of syllabus, you could do two days on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night here and on the next day (and then combine Wroth, Philips, and/or Cavendish on the 21st.  This still allows you a lot of room to talk about male perception of the capability of women in the period).
  5. Katherine Philips (Possible works: “A Married State,” “Friendship’s Mystery, To My Dearest Lucasia,” and “To Mrs. M. A. at Parting,”)
  6. Margaret Cavendish (Possible works: All selections in the Norton are interesting, and I often supplement it with EEBO elements to show her interest in publishing.)
  7. Eliza Haywood and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (all selections in the Norton.)

Race

  1. Norton section on “The Wider World” (which is designed to introduce the student to colonialism and also specifically to Othello).
  2. William Shakespeare – Othello (first three acts)
  3. William Shakespeare – Othello (final two acts)
  4. Aphra Behn – Oroonoko, First Half
  5. Aphra Behn – Oroonoko, Second Half
  6. Norton section on “Liberty.” (containing discussions of slavery and writings from Oliudah Equiano).
  7. Final Discussion day (Contents very dependent on the assignments (Essays?  Projects?) chosen for the class.  If doing a final project, this could be a time to share / discuss as a class).

H. Austin Whitver, PhD is an instructor in the Department of English.