Teaching in Context/Reading on the Margins:
Will students more thoroughly understand the social and sexual complexities of Viola’s multi-layered disguise if they read Twelfth Night alongside the early sixteenth century polemical debates over cross-dressing? Is their understanding of the early modern canon complicated or reified when we include on the syllabus contemporaneously popularbut since marginalizedtexts, such as broadside ballads or travel narratives? Do we as university teachers feel that we are teaching popular texts and contexts at the expense of what students ‘need to know’ when they finish the term? This paper will address some of the crucial issues surrounding the opportunities and limits of using non-canonical literature in the Renaissance undergraduate classroom.
While trends in the academy usually do not readily filter into the undergraduate classroom, recent scholarly interest in early modern cultural studies has provided university teachers with two crucial tools: (1) a definition of the key issues important to Renaissance culture at large; (2) a more widespread availability of texts on the fringe of the literary canon. Just as we are more equipped than ever to ground canonical texts in their historical moment, so are we able to complicate the canon by having our students read literary texts that have traditionally been excluded from the undergraduate curriculum. The introduction of cultural contexts both enriches and complicates canonical literature, allowing our students to see that literary study of the familiar texts of the period is still relevant; it has not, indeed, all been said before. Showing students the wide array of works, since deemed non-canonical, that proliferated in the period will necessarily allow them to think beyond Shakespeare when defining the period. Those of us who take cultural studies seriously in our scholarship must show our students the depth of the field. We should resist the temptationand it is a temptationto replicate our own undergraduate training when we teach. Otherwise, the study of Renaissance literature runs the risk of being boiled down, homogeneous, and rehashed. Teaching canonical works in cultural context and including non-canonical literature on the syllabus, I would argue, are part of the same project. By acknowledging the role crafting a syllabus plays in canon formation, we will necessarily participate in the important project of rethinking the early modern curriculum.
Curricular Exclusion and The Politics of Stagnancy
While it is not my intention here to discuss the intricacies of the ongoing debate over canon formation, I do want to point to some questions relevant to a discussion of teaching non-canonical Renaissance literature: Why, by and large, does the current undergraduate Renaissance curriculum so closely resemble that of decades past? At a time when the labors of cultural critics have brought innumerable new works into print and digital information technology has allowed access to texts never before enjoyed by students, why are undergraduate courses still so grounded in the canon? When we do include non-canonical or non-literary texts, are we using them to stand for a background that ultimately privileges the more properly ‘literary’ and ‘canonical.’
Why texts get left off of syllabi is the subject of great debate. The systematic exclusion of authors who belong to identified minorities (racial, gendered, economic) seems to be one of the hallmarks of canon formation. Early modern ‘working class’ authors such as Thomas Deloney and Anthony Mundaywildly popular in their own time, but since pushed to the margins of the canonhave gained some notice by scholars, but it is unlikely that they are showing up on undergraduate syllabi in any regular sense. And certainly, when we discuss the Renaissance canon, it is only recently that female authors such as Mary Wroth, Amelia Lanyer, and Katherine Philips have inched their way in. But simply because they have been included in anthologies of literature, does not guarantee that they are being read and taught. When thinking about the early modern canon and who gets included, the class and gender of the author can be only part of the story. As John Guillory has rightly pointed out, ‘the historical process of canon formation, even or especially at the moment of institutional judgement, is too complex to be reduced to determination by the single factor of the social identity of the author’ (1993:17). To be sure, many socially privileged male authors (Fulke Greville, Thomas Nashe), are regularly excluded from the curriculum, just as commoners (Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare) are ever present. The ‘social identity of an author’ cannot fully explain why texts are not taught to undergraduates. It can never explain why one text by Spenser will always be privileged over another. Why The Shepheard’s Calendar, for example, but not A View of the Present State of Ireland?
This leads to another reason some works are excluded: they are simply not as ‘good’ as those texts that have stood the test of time and, the logic goes, have ‘earned’ their rightful place in the canon. Many texts are left out of the canon because they have not been recognized for their aesthetic achievement. As the late Anthony Easthope defines it, literary study has historically been based upon several assumption, one of which was that ‘the great literary text was intrinsically great, containing within itself its own perfection and not dependent on anything outside of it’ (1997: 4). Similarly, John Guillory identifies the ‘historical narrative of inclusion’ that operates when ‘the canonical judgements of dominant groups have been typically justified by an appeal to transcendent norms of judgement’ (1993:260). In other words, the privileging of a select set of works on the curriculum (sometimes called ‘classics’ and in America often referred to as ‘great books’ ), is absolutely reliant on their systematic mystification as ‘great.’
Refutations of this logic are deep. Many follow Barbara Hernstein Smith’s argument that valuing a work is unavoidable but always and necessarily ‘contingent’ on numerous factors. When evaluating a text, ‘the agents are innumerable and unspecifiable; the activity is continuous and ongoing’ (1988:1). When we see that a text has retained its ‘canonical’ (or marginal) status over time, we must acknowledge that this has nothing to do with the text itself, but instead we should investigate who is doing the evaluating when and what for. (Even as I write this, I am aware of the passive syntactical construction of ‘the exclusion of texts’ ). Easthope asserts that ‘no attempt to show that the great text is great and will always stay great because it secretes some magical literary ingredient, some special internal feature, has ever succeeded. The reason is that the text exists as it is read, and the text itself cannot guarantee how it will be read’ (1997:4). We need to acknowledge the position of the subject in the process of canonization; we need, I think, to see that we are the subject.
I would suggest that the pervasiveness of certain authors and texts in the undergraduate curriculum is a result of an institutional laziness (changes to the curriculum notoriously operate at a snail’s pace) that is steeped in the traditional liberal-arts ideals of endowing students with a certain ‘cultural literacy.’ These texts are, in short, what they ‘need to know.’ Of course, this begs a question: in studying the literature of a particular historical period in England, why do they need to know Shakespeare and not Thomas Middleton (I would argue that Middletons plays gives us a sort of cultural insight that those of Shakespeare never do)? The answer to this question is entirely unsatisfying and, ultimately, evacuated even of an argument grounded in aesthetics: they ‘need to know’ Shakespeare because they always have needed to know it. Or perhaps more accurately, because we always have needed to know it. As Agger asserts, ‘the endurance of cultural expressions has everything to do with the sociology of cultural knowledge and nothing to do with intrinsic merit, whatever that might be’ (1992:37). More precisely, it is the ‘sociology’ of our ‘cultural knowledge’ as university teachers, it is our very status as insiders, that ironically perpetuates the canon. In The Production of English Renaissance Culture, the authors note that we are implicated in the process of reproduction because we have access to that process (Miller, O’Dair, Weber, 1994: 11). Even the most forward-thinking cultural studies scholars among us whose academic work is on the cutting edge of the field have certainly fallen back on teaching the texts we were taught and the way we were taught them.
Interrogating the assumptions embedded in the undergraduate curriculumas well as our own pedagogical choicesis one important way to begin to dismantle the institutional reification of the canon. This charge is especially crucial for those of us who teach Renaissance studies, because it is in this field that the curriculum can seem so immovable under the weight of ‘great literature.’ As hard as it is for some to swallow, ‘even Shakespeares greatness may fade unless people go on treating him as great’ (Easthope, 1997:4). One of the ways university curricula participate in continuing to ‘treat Shakespeare as great’ is in demanding that students take a single author study of the playwright. Shakespeare is, as Chris Ringrose indicates in the inaugural issue of this journal, ‘the most common compulsory course in the UK’ (2000:5). I suspect that holds true for American universities as well. At the large public university where I received my graduate training, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton were all requirements for the undergraduate English major. It should be noted that these courses were the only single-author requirements. I would be reluctant to suggest that these courses remain requirementsprivileged over American authors such as Melville, Faulker, or Morrisonas a result of a conspiracy against American literature. While the ‘great’ British authors’ enduring position in the American curriculum participates in the systematic exclusion of countless texts, the arguments to keep them on the curriculum as compulsory is ultimately more benevolent, however misguided. The permanent position of the ‘great authors’ may have less to do with a deliberate attempt to exclude certain authors and more to do with a politics of stagnancy: an unwillingness to really investigate our own role in shaping curricula, coupled with a desire to send our students in world armed with knowledge of ‘important texts.’
There is another, perhaps more mercenary, reason curricular change is so hard to affect. Those of us who are committed to rethinking the canon vis-à-vis the curriculum acknowledge what stake we have in job security and advancing our own careers. For young lecturers, often those most invested in institutional change, it can be unpopular or even politically dangerous to speak out against the curriculum as it stands, as they meet resistance from their older colleagues who might be protective of a traditional programme of study. I am currently an untenured faculty; a serious and sustained attempt to shake up the curriculum at large, even if that is what I desired, would not be the most professionally savvy route for me. While I may meekly assert my views on the traditional curriculum, I am not sure I have the power to really change it. However, institutional change is never quick or painless, and it rarely comes from the top down. We do not necessarily have to set out to tear down the thick and ancient structure of the canonical curriculum to participate in its reorganisation. We simply need to acknowledge that the literary canon, and the curriculum that perpetuates it, is a malleable entity. As Agger reminds us, ‘the attempt to expand the canon per se, regardless of the degree of rhetorical self-consciousness involved, is political action. At least it challenges the preponderance of the dominant canon and the educational institution that administers it. It makes curriculum a contested terrain’ (1992:12). The important point here is in the recognition that the curriculum can and should be ‘contested,’ not that it must be dismantled. After all, when we insist on institutional change to the curriculum, when we suggest ‘that marginality carries with it a moral prerogative that outweighs individual choice and academic freedom’ (Link, 1999:29), we seem to propose an imperative that smacks of the same sort of hegemonic logic that we are resisting. As James W. Carey has articulated, rethinking the canon does not imply that ‘we can afford to stop reading “the classics” .... There will be no progress in this field that does not seriously articulate with, engage, and build upon the effects tradition we have inherited’ (1996:92). It is unclear how we would untangle ourselves from the study of canonical literature, even if we wanted to. Just as Scott Wilson asserts that ‘disciplinary changes take a long time,’ he also reminds us that we do need to work with the discipline of literary studies as it is widely defined in order to effectively complicate it: ‘It is very important to study texts that have been given “literary” status with all that implies. Indeed, the importance arises precisely as a result of their demystification’ (1995: 8-9). It is in its very position of relativism to the traditional canon that brings meaning to cultural studies, and ultimately makes sense to our students, the inheritors of that tradition.
Teaching in Context/Reading on the Margins
So, where do we go from here as teachers of early modern literature? How do we resist curricular inertia? An important place to start is in the acknowledgement that what we choose to put on our syllabi and do in our classrooms matters a great deal; it is the one place where we can instigate change. The construction of courses and instruction of students in many ways is the most powerful tool we have. Approaching the field of early modern studies as one that takes into serious consideration the multiplicity of texts and contexts enables us not only to share with our students the exciting new ways that the field has changed in the last twenty years, but also to put into question traditional approaches to the field. What follows is a discussion of what ‘teaching in context’ and ‘reading of the margin’ means and how it might work in an undergraduate classroom.
The first step to teaching in context, is in the understanding of our own educational context as well as that of our students. It is important to acknowledge our students’ backgrounds, needs, and expectations in the process of crafting a syllabus and these are all factors that will vary from university to university. The school at which I teach in the Northeastern U.S., is what is called a ‘comprehensive university.’ That is, it is fairly large (approximately 10, 000 students), state-funded institution, with a wide variety of majors and several programs granting Master’s and professional degrees. My students are ethnically, racially, and economically diverse; there is a wide range of both academic preparedness and commitment. The curriculum that I entered into/inherited is traditional and fairly typical of those of similar institutions. I regularly teach English Literature to the Neo-Classic Period; Literature of the English Renaissance; Donne, Jonson, and their Contemporaries; Shakespeare; and Milton. Almost all of my students come to the university and to the major with some familiarity with Shakespeare, and many have read and studied a fair number of plays. But most cannot name another author from the early modern period. Teaching literature with a large degree of historical specificity, as far as I can tell, is still not widespread in the public high schools. Thus, I do not encounter much resistance on their part to teaching in context; nor do they seem to mind if I replace canonical works with popular texts. Not having a wide knowledge of treasured Renaissance authors, if I substitute Thomas Deloneys popular prose romances for Philip Sidneys Arcadia, the students would not necessarily notice.
Many of my students are planning a career in either primary or secondary education. Those who will be pursuing a career as English teachers must take an exam for which they will be asked questions on well-known, canonical works. Will I be doing these students a disservice by adding ‘non-canonical’ texts to the syllabus (because inevitably some canonical ones will be pushed out)? Is it my responsibility to teach to the test? Or is it my responsibility to expose them to a wide variety of textual productions so that they will in turn be able to rethink the way they teach in secondary schools? I would argue that when we teach to the test, we necessarily consolidate the permanence of the canon. If we give them the tools to read texts from a historically distant field, they should in turn be able to study the exam reading list on their own. While we may certainly compose a syllabus that includes well-known and ‘highly valued’ works, the chosen texts should also complicate these works, and perhaps unsettle any firm expectations of what the study of Renaissance literature is. I wholeheartedly believe that one of the things students expect when they come to the university is to have their horizons expanded, to see the familiar in a new light. Many are desperate to have their university experience be different from, not a replication of, their secondary schooling.
Just as it is clear that we cannot simply ignore canonical works in the crafting of syllabi, it is also crucial that we teach these texts in the cultural milieu in which they were written, as well as understanding the concerns of our particular cultural moment. In so doing, we acknowledge that ‘the text cannot interpret itself, is always read in a context, is always caught up in a world of human uses, interests and purposes’ (Easthope, 1997: 4). In this sense, we recognize the assumptions and agendas that we bring to the texts. It can be entirely empowering for students to realize that their own experiences and interests remake the texts. Similarly useful is teaching texts in their own cultural context. When students realize that what they are reading is one of a whole host of cultural productions, the burden of feeling the ‘magic’ of the text is lifted. Teaching literature in its cultural context is vital because the very act of doing so calls into question the traditional assumptions of literary studies that privileges the literary text over all. When we look at texts in context, we need to be careful of the pitfalls that might ensue: ‘when teaching texts . . . where is the privileged site of discussion? What value are we to place on surrounding information? Is there any way in which we can speak of those vexed terms “text” and “context” without falling back on the ancient habit of treating “history” as mere “background”, background to some purer aesthetic encounter?’ (Punter, 1997: 65). When we teach Shakespeare and we introduce the history of the plays, are we merely treating context as background, where ‘the context functions,’ as Scott Wilson has so perfectly put it, ‘like the setting to a brilliant gem’ (1995: 8)?
While I certainly endorse the endeavor of teaching in context in the undergraduate classroom, I also want to acknowledge its limits and perhaps offer solutions. First, the texts are less readily available. While recent literary anthologies are beginning to include non-canonical texts and indeed to provide introductions on the historical background of key issues, truly marginal texts are more difficult to come by. Even on the internet, we see fewer non-literary and non-canonical texts than we might imagine (meanwhile, web sites devoted to Shakespeare are rapidly expanding). For example, a text outlining the litany of social ills in England, such as Philip Stubbes’ Anatomie of Abuses, while clearly instructive for looking at the popular genre of polemic as well as the preoccupations of the culture, is not easily found. The introduction of these texts requires more work on our part. We may have to photocopy texts to share with our students; we may have to select passages that are particularly fruitful in presenting a given context. And this means that we have to rethink the relationship between our scholarly work and our teaching. If, in preparing for my courses, I employ the same level of rigor as when I examine texts for my own research projects, then I have tapped into innumerable resources for presenting a contextual-studies approach for the undergraduates.
Teaching and research are not, and indeed should not be, mutually exclusive endeavors. For instance, in my own early research on the issue of cross-dressing in early modern London, I came across several texts that I now use regularly when I teach Twelfth Night. Issues of sexuality and cross-dressing on the Renaissance stage may be passé in terms of scholarship, but these issues still breathe new life into the undergraduate classroom, especially if we give our students access to the texts in question. When discussing the issue of Viola’s disguise as Cesario in the play, I assign several excerpts from authors that reveal contemporaneous attitudes towards cross-dressing to indicate that donning clothes of the opposite gender was indeed a culturally loaded act. They read a biblical excerpt from Deuteronomy expressing that those who wear garments that which pertaineth to the opposite sex are abomination unto the Lord thy God (22:5). Thus, when Viola exclaims that her disguise is a wickedness / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much, we see not just Violas concern that she has made a muddle of her romantic situation, but also a cultural expression of cross dressing as bestial, unnatural, and blasphemous (2.1. 26-27). And while many students know that female roles were indeed performed by boy actors (a fact that is news to many American students, even though Lisa Jardine claims ‘every schoolchild’ is aware of it), they are not necessarily familiar with the anxiety this instilled in Puritans, who expressed their displeasure in anti-theatrical polemic (1991: 57). I also include on the reading list excerpts from the Puritan theologian John Rainolds Overthrow of Stage-Playes (1599) and Philip Stubbes The Anatomie of Abuses (1583) to draw attention to this debate. It comes as some surprise to students that, as Rainolds assumes, ‘the apparell of wemen . . . is a great provocation of men to lust and lecherie,’ which ‘provoketh’ and ‘entiseth’ them to certain unnamed ‘villanies’ (1972: 97). Philip Stubbes is less cagey in his rhetoric: fueled by the lust engendered by seeing women on stage, ‘every mate sorts to his mate . . . and in their secret conclaves covertly they play the Sodomites, or worse’ (1973: N8v). By reading the polemics against cross-dressing, students will not only have a firmer grasp on the issues stirred up by the multiple level of disguise the text asks us to grapple with, but they also have a larger context for the prudish Malvolio, who Maria asserts ‘sometimes . . . is a kind of puritan’ (2.3.40).
If we tell our students in lecture that certain early modern writers regarded cross-dressing with suspicion, they will gain new knowledge. But, if we include excerpts from these authors as part of their reading assignments they draw their own connections, giving them a more immediate and personal access to the cultural context. Thus, the world surrounding the play inevitably has a role in the making of the play. Just as inclusion of the material contexts make the plays themselves, as Stephen Orgel suggests, ‘unquestionably look unfamiliar’ to students, it also allows the plays ‘to respond to us in new ways, revealing as much about our own preconceptions and resistances as they do about Shakespeare’s cultural milieu’ (1995:69). They then are able to see how Shakespeare is participating in a cultural conversation that would have been familiar to his contemporaries, but one that also matters to us. The texts bring up very contemporary issues of defining sexual identity and the relation between sexuality and discourses of morality. The ability to think critically about the issues in the distant historical past will hopefully allow them to assess the relation they have to these issues in their own culture. Further, reading the productions of the cultural contextwhich are often facsimile reproductions of the ‘original’ textspresents the students with written works that have not been modified and regulated by centuries of editors. This makes a discussion of authorship and Renaissance print culture all the more concrete.
There is a danger, however, in treating these texts as works evacuated of aesthetic ‘value’ when placed next to the ‘gem’ of Shakespeare, and indeed it is often difficult to treat something like Stubbes or Rainolds’ works as ‘literature.’ Because they are not ‘literary’ texts, they seem somehow less subjective, less open to interpretation, and therefore requiring less analysis. This argument, however, is predicated on the assumption that there is such a thing as a text that is immune to the conditions (cultural, commercial, rhetorical) of its own production. In fact, it is the very act of close reading ‘non-literary’ texts that allows us to see how they shape the culture, including the production of more traditional literary texts. Indeed, as Stephen Orgel suggests, the non-literary texts demand careful analysis of language because ‘they are no more neutral and objective than literary texts are, and their claims and assumptions, and the agendas of their authors, need no less to be taken into account’ (1995:61). Even if these texts are not properly ‘literary,’ this does not mean they are not imaginative, highly crafted, or operating within rhetorical conventions that assume a particular audience. In my teaching, it is the understanding of those factorsand not the label of ‘poem,’ ‘play,’ or ‘prose narrative’that enables effective textual analysis. In this sense, Chris Ringroses strong assertion rings true: the ‘adoption of a special aesthetic realm called “the literary” is self-defeating, isolationist, absurd’ (2000: 4).
While students may be unfamiliar with reading non-canonical or non- ‘literary’ texts, there are ways to enable them to see that their developing skills of reading are widely applicable. We should encourage them to read all cultural productions as literary scholars would, with close attention to the tone, diction, and issues. Below is an example of a question from a take-home final exam for an upper-division course, ‘Literature of the English Renaissance,’ in which students are asked to analyse three passages from texts that take up the issue of early English exploration to the New World:
Drawing on the language of the passages, discuss how the texts help to construct English nationalism. How is England or the Englishman figured in each of the texts? How are the foreign lands/ people portrayed? In what ways do this portrayal help foster English patriotism? What are the assumptions of the authors? What are their motives? In what ways are the two passages you chose working toward similar goals? How does the language reflect this? Be sure to refer specifically to the given passage. You may also refer to other parts of the text(s), but try to be as specific as possible about details to demonstrate your knowledge of the texts.
From Walter Raleighs The Discovery of the Empire of Guiana (1596)
I am resolved that if there were but a small army a foot in Guiana, marching towards Manoa, the chief city of Inca, [the ruler of Guiana] would yield to Her Majesty by composition so many hundred thousand pounds yearly, as should both defend all enemies abroad, and defray all expenses at home, and that he would besides pay a garrison of three or four thousand soldiers very royally to defend him against other nations.
From Thomas Hariots A Brief and True Report of Virginia (1585)
In respect of us they are a people poor, and for want of skill and judgement in the knowledge and use of our things, do esteem our trifles before things of greater value . . . And by how much they upon due of consideration shall find our manner of knowledges and crafts to exceed theirs in perfection, and speed for doing or execution, by so much the more it is probable that they should desire our friendship and love, and shall have the greater respect for pleasing and obeying us. Whereby may be hoped, if means of good government be used, that they may in short time to be brought to civility and the embracing of true religion.
From Michael Draytons “Ode. To the Virginian Voyage” (1606)
By asking students to attend closely to the language of each of the passages, and by placing Draytons ‘imaginative’ , ‘literary’ poem on equal footing with the ‘true’ ‘reports’ from Raleigh and Hariot, we are insisting that they value them equally as written cultural productions. The rhetorical strategies and lofty language of Hariot and Raleigh are no less crafted than that of Drayton, even as his text takes the form of a poem. In asking the same questions of all three texts, we are encouraging them to blur the lines between the literary and the non-literary. And, finally, by having them look at the texts in relation to questions of colonisation and nation formation, we enable them to see the crucial role textual productions play in forming the cultural assumptions and attitudes of England. It then becomes clear that texts are not simply reflections of the culture but participate in important ways in the cultures constitution.
Anotherperhaps accidentalbenefit of teaching non-canonical texts is that the number of cases of plagiarism is reduced. Piracy of information from internet sites is a pervasive problem at my university and many across the country. And while there are numerous ways to create writing assignments that curtail plagiarism (a topic for another article), one of the best ways is to resist the temptation to rehash the same topics and questions from widely known texts. If a teacher asks her students to discuss the issue of ‘vision’ in King Lear (a topic I remember from my secondary school days), she, in short, is asking for trouble. Entering the keywords ‘King Lear’ and ‘vision’ on a well-known search engine result in upwards of 10,000 hits. This, sadly, is how I discovered that one of my students papers was plagiarized. (’vision in King Lear’ was not one of my paper topics, which was the big tip off). But if she asks her students to look at Lears misogynistic invective against his daughters in the context of the way that women are defended in Amelia Lanyers Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum and Jane Angers Her Protection for Women, it is highly unlikely they will be able to locate much in the way of prefabricated essays. While I wouldn’t advocate assigning non-canonical texts for the purpose of ridding the world of plagiarism, the inclusion of these texts will necessarily force us to rethink the way we design assignments. By asking students to look at a particular issue from multiple perspectives, we are training them to think, speak, and write more critically and more complexly about their objects of inquiry. For me, this is a crucial, if not the most crucial, pedagogical objective.
Finally, I would argue that we must be open and honest
with our students about our pedagogical philosophies and approaches. When
students are aware that texts do not simply magically appear on the syllabus,
that each work that they read is a deliberate choice on our part and each
text that is excluded has been omitted by us, then they begin to
foster an awareness of what it means to be a critic of work. They should
be included in discussions of the canon (they should be made aware that
there is an ongoing debate about their very education) and we should try
to discover their background and expectations in regard to the curriculum.
When we acknowledge our students role in our making of the syllabus,
we see that ‘teaching the Renaissance’ does not have to be a rigid act
that is done to the students by an expert. It is rather is an endeavor
that is malleable and must include them in the conversation.