‘Distant Reading’ English Syllabi

There has been a great deal of interest in the Open Syllabus Project, including an article in The New York Times. I thought I’d take a look at it and see what tentative conclusions I could draw (a la Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading) about what is being taught in my field of English in the United States.

Two of the top twenty listings are handbooks, Diane Hacker’s ubiquitous The Bedford Handbook and the almost as common MLA Handbook. Excluding these and adding numbers 21 and 22, I am looking primarily at the top twenty works of literature assigned in English courses according to the admittedly limited database of the project. #22, Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” also appears at #49 due to a difference in reporting the title, so I have added the two together, the total moving the story up to #3.

The first thing that jumps out is that Allan Bloom has little to worry about. Most of the works on the list were considered ‘canonical’ even before the rise of Feminist Studies, African-American Studies and that shibboleth ‘politically correct.’  Only seven of the works aren’t by Dead White Men and only four are by African-Americans.

Significantly, though, the only living authors on the list (coming in at #16 and #20) are African-Americans, Alice Walker (“Everyday Use”) and Toni Morrison (Beloved). Add Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl at #19 and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God at #18 and you do find the bottom of the top twenty populated predominately by African-American women. The first work by an African-American male doesn’t appear until #22 and that’s a work of non-fiction, Martin Luther King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail,” followed closely by Nigerian Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart at #24. Invisible Man, the highest scoring work of fiction by an African-American male (Ralph Ellison), comes in at #27.

The #1 ranked book is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A woman does not appear after that until #8, Charlotte Perkins Gilman with “The Yellow Wallpaper.” That, plus #10, The Awakening by Kate Chopin–along with the works by African-American women, does show that Feminist scholarship has had some impact–though not nearly what one might expect. Though the list is heavily American (as might be expected from colleges in the United States), I would have expected to see something by the likes of George Eliot (her Middlemarch only reaches the bottom half of the second hundred) or Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice ranks at about #40) much higher on the list. That icon of Feminist Studies, Virginia Woolf, doesn’t enter the list until #26 with Mrs. Dalloway.

Nine of the top twenty, including Frankenstein, could have appeared on similar lists a hundred years ago. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales continues its pilgrimage at #2; Milton’s Paradise Lost is #4. Hamlet and Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” come in at #6 and #9, respectively. Oedipus Rex ranks #11 followed by Thoreau’s Walden (#11). Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shows up at #15 and Robert Browning’s delightful poem “My Last Duchess” (#17) was also certainly studied in English classes a century ago.

Five of the top twenty are all works of the first half of the twentieth century (or slightly before) or rediscovered then–and all were common items on English syllabi half a century ago. These are “Bartleby” (the rediscovery); Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (#5); the top-listed non-epical poem, T. S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” (#7); William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily (#13); and The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald (#14).

One of the things I discovered while assisting in the development of a new English curriculum to meet Common Core standards at a Brooklyn high school a few years ago was that we teachers are most comfortable teaching what we’ve been taught. Change is difficult and comes slowly.  To my eye, this list reflects two major shifts, the first resulting from the influx of new PhDs in the 1950s, World War II veterans who had attacked college and graduate school with a passion in the late 40s and early 50s. They are the ones who made Eliot and Fitzgerald and others into new standards. The second comes from the rise of Feminist Studies and African-American Studies in the 70s, something that has led to re-examination of earlier literature and the inclusion of previously obscure works into the canon. I remember a great deal of resistance to The Awakening just forty years ago, too many male professors saying it was assigned only because it was written by a woman. Today, nobody would make such an argument–the work stands on its own.

Even with those shifts, natural as time and culture move on, the top twenty is extremely conservative. So is the entire list. Thomas Pynchon, though a favorite of professors, barely cracks the top 200. David Foster Wallace doesn’t even make the top 1000. Neither does Doris Lessing. Sylvia Plath (somewhat of a shock) only reaches the middle of the third hundred.

Still, the list does reflect the vagaries of fashion. Ernest Hemingway, who always seems down when Fitzgerald is up (and vice versa) finds his highest ranked novel at the top of the second hundred. e. e. cummings has dropped out of the top 1000–but he will come back, as will Hemingway. Norman Mailer, who is not there, either, will also reappear at some point. Perhaps he needs to stay dead just a little bit longer (it hasn’t even been a decade since he left us). V. S. Naipaul will someday make the list (I predict) and Philip Roth, currently mired near the top of the 700s, will certainly rise.

Surprising (to me), Philip K. Dick, the subject of my own doctoral dissertation, does manage to appear, his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? managing to make an appearance in the mid-200s.

There’s much to be gleaned from these lists, and more as they grow. There’s also fun to be had, arguing and complaining and thinking about our own syllabi and why we choose what we do.

2 thoughts on “‘Distant Reading’ English Syllabi

  1. Pingback: The Open Syllabus Project: Friend or foe? | The Academe Blog

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