Theses Doctoral

The Literature Assemblage: Power and the Role of the Literary Canon in the Teaching of Literature

Aston, Robert Johnathan

This dissertation focuses on understanding and investigating the role of the idea of the literary canon in the teaching of literature—especially at the secondary level. This role, in the form of “standard authors” of literary works, is as old as the field itself in U.S. schools (Applebee, 1974). While many who have argued for and against the literary canon have done so by slinging vituperative remarks at each other (Lauter, 1991; Guillory, 1993; Bloom, 1995; Cain, 2013), this study is not an argument against the canon or its bedfellows, nor does it advocate a “counter canon,” the teaching of any specific texts, or the teaching of a singular interpretive approach. In this study, I attempt to describe and interrogate forces of canon formation that intersect with the teaching of literature, and offer speculations as to how the role of the canon in the teaching of literature may be reconceptualized to better understand the manifold processes involved in selecting and teaching texts in an English classroom. The concept of the canon is much older than the discipline of the teaching of literature, dating as far back as to ancient Greek thinkers like Polycletus and Aristotle (Gorak, 1991). I briefly trace the history of the idea of the canon from antiquity to its more modern usage for imaginative literary works, appearing in the 1700s (Patey, 1988; Kramnick, 1997; Ross, 1998), and the subsequent notion of some texts being worthier than others in the teaching of literature.

I examine how social and philosophical movements gaining ground in the 1960s and 1970s led to serious criticisms of the literary canon (Smith, 1983; Lauter, 1991; Gallagher, 1997; Franke, 2011). I then posit three broad forces of canon formation in the teaching of literature: cultural forces, processes of categorization, and changing interpretive practices. To further understand how these forces shape and change the literary canon as the teaching of literature changes at the local level of teachers who at times self-govern what counts as a teachable literary text (Aston, 2017), I develop a conceptual framework based on Michel Foucault’s ideas of power relations and Manuel DeLanda’s assemblage theory (based on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari). This is again not to eliminate or suggest a counter canon, but to describe and shine a light on operations of canon formation (encoded in teaching documents, standards, and anthologies) that may at times narrow the teaching of literature while at other times expand it, pointing to the flexible and adaptive, though often contested, nature of the canon in the teaching of literature.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English Education
Thesis Advisors
Vinz, Ruth
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 27, 2018