Broadening the canon: the overlooked voices in the humanities

How U.Va. professors make course syllabi more diverse and representative

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Many University professors are committed to diversifying their syllabi by including the works of previously underrepresented authors

Andrew Walsh | Cavalier Daily

When composing syllabi for humanities courses, professors evaluate each text based on the potential to inform and challenge students and enrich their overall learning experience. However, when choosing texts, a professor is also choosing which historical, philosophical, and literary perspectives to share and which to exclude.

In the past, humanities syllabi have focused primarily on the works of white, male authors and consequently have disregarded contemporary and historical voices from underrepresented groups. Now, some University professors are attempting to amplify these previously neglected voices by incorporating works from a diverse assortment of authors into their classes. Though progress is being made, some professors in the humanities departments believe that there is more work to be done to integrate a more comprehensive and globalized perspective into each class, and to ensure that all students are represented in the texts they read. 

Breaking the pattern

Because the push for highlighting different perspectives within humanities classes is fairly recent, some University professors said they completed their undergraduate studies without encountering many diverse voices. This lack of familiarity poses a challenge to focusing on globalized narratives, as the humanities have long been overwhelmingly Euro-Centric. 

“Your first thoughts in any topic are the people that you know about,” said Ross Cameron, professor and director of the Undergraduate Program in the Corcoran Department of Philosophy. “So … the first people that spring to my mind are the people that I learned about as an undergraduate. And why was I taught them? Because they’re the people that my teachers learned about, and going back. And those are all white men, so of course those are going to be the first people that come to your mind.”

Cameron said that breaking this pattern of teaching hegemonic narratives is the first step to creating a more representative course, and this mindset caused him to include topics like the metaphysics of gender and race into his Introduction to Philosophy course. However, once a professor decides to incorporate different voices, there remains the issue of how to do so effectively. 

“Some of these voices are kind of forgotten, so you need to put in a lot more effort just to track them down,” Cameron said. “And broadening the kind of issues you’re talking about, there it’s even harder still, because then you’re really talking about, to some extent, retraining — learning about a whole different set of issues. The good thing about that is that it’s really interesting to do, but it’s hard and it’s time-consuming.” 

English Prof. John O’Brien said that one reason why diverse perspectives have been overlooked in the past is that people of lower social or economic classes did not have either the freedom or means to publish their works. Their thoughts were not always in wide circulation and therefore have a tendency to fall through the cracks of history. 

“The most important thing is to simply to be mindful of the fact at every turn that the works we have, particularly from the past, are by and large by elite writers who had access to tools that were denied many working people, most women and almost all people of color,” O’Brien said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. 

When teaching eras with a lack of published works from women and minorities, such as early Christianity, professors can enhance their syllabi with more modern criticisms and interpretations to give these groups a voice in the classroom. 

“It also means incorporating contemporary scholarship that’s written from broader perspectives than just the typical textbooks that tend to be written by white, male scholars, but also opening that up to more recent works written by women, written by people of color,” said Karl Shuve, associate professor and director of the undergraduate program in Religious Studies. 

Diversifying the canon

Though some core texts in literature, history, philosophy and religion have been highlighted for centuries, different writers are constantly being recovered and introduced to the academic canon — the collection of works in a certain area of the humanities that intellectuals believe are the most valuable to read and teach. Though writers like William Shakespeare and John Locke have been analyzed for centuries, people become fascinated with different texts depending on how they relate to the current historical moment.

In light of the events of this past summer, when white supremacists views were given a platform in the city of Charlottesville, some professors believe that diverse perspectives have a rightful place in humanities courses because they can speak to the issues that remain in the University and Charlottesville communities.

For example, in her History of English Literature course, English Assoc. Prof. Elizabeth Fowler looks outside of the established canon and attempts to promote a diverse perspective by including works from women and people of color who were not necessarily authors by profession, but whose contributions add to the dialogue of early modern literature. She said these voices can resonate with students in the current political and social climate. 

“There are a lot of authors who weren’t taught or put in the anthologies 20 years ago at all,” Fowler said. “People hadn’t even heard of them, but we want to teach them now. It changes in history — at certain times, certain writers become much more important because they’re speaking to us, and we’re different.”

Though many professors agree that a diverse syllabus is key, some say that it is important to continually weave the narratives of underrepresented groups into the overall narrative of the class — rather than singling out these issues and moving on from them. 

“Still, often subjects like gender or sexuality are put into a box,” said Chris Gratien, an assistant professor in the Corcoran Department of History. “What I’ve been trying to do in my lectures is integrate all of these things together more, not make the non-elite perspectives seem exceptional or alternative to the dominant narrative. We don’t have a week in my class where we talk about women … where we talk about ethnic minorities or race, it’s something that’s always in the back of our minds.”

The canons of literature, philosophy, history and religion are fluid — they shift and expand in relation to what intellectuals find compelling at the time. 

“I think that we want to have the full range of writing represented in some way,” Fowler said. “And we’re always just showing tips of icebergs because there’s so much written and we can only get to some parts of it. But we want those tips of icebergs to really speak to people and to speak to what’s below the surface.”

Effects of a globalized perspective

Many professors agree that diverse syllabi attract students of different backgrounds to the humanities department and spur participation and interest. They said that when students can recognize themselves in the texts they read, they will become more engaged with the class itself.

“I think you definitely engage more students,” Cameron said. “I think … you’re reaching a group of students that you maybe wouldn’t have naturally reached… it gives them a way of seeing philosophy that’s directly relevant to their day-to-day life. There’s still plenty of traditional issues there right, it’s not like you’re ignoring that stuff. You’re supplementing it, and I do think that goes a long way to widening the kind of people that might be engaged in the class in the first place.”

Gratien said that in humanities classes — history classes in particular — a globalized perspective can allow students to see the bigger picture and understand crucial concepts more fully.

“Coming at it from history, understanding that there are many narratives of the past, and these narratives often compete and contend … we need to be mindful of the fact that the same set of events and developments mean different things to different people,” Gratien said. “In order to emphasize that, it’s really critical to be mindful of the diversity of voices that can speak to past experiences, in that regard.”

Because the humanities are dedicated to exploring the ways that people in the past and present have archived and analyzed their personal experiences, Gratien said it is important that a wide range of experiences are offered to students in each class. For example, in his class on the history of the Middle East, Gratien includes novels and memoirs written by modern, local voices to add a level of relevance. He said this approach allows him to share the perspectives of people who grew up in this region, instead of just relying on external analysis. 

Gratien said that though it is impossible for every perspective to be shared, courses should not focus completely on the experiences of a single group. He thinks that courses should represent the multifacetedness of history itself.

“In the humanities, what we’re seeking to do is understand people’s perspectives and their subjectivities,” Gratien said. “We’re not necessarily trying to achieve an all encompassing or objective representation of the world or of the past, but rather understand the different ways in which people understand their past and present.”

A continual and conscious effort

Many professors agree that the humanities departments have made significant progress in attempting to highlight the voices of a broad range of writers and thinkers. However, some say that there is always more that can done to make classes more diverse, including ensuring that faculty members are equipped to address these issues of representation. 

“It’s not enough for all of the faculty that there are to incorporate this stuff,” Cameron said. “That’s good and that’s essential, but we also need to be broadening the classes that are offered, and part of that is going to be broadening the faculty base as well, because we need people that are able to teach these classes. It still remains the case that there’s still work to be done.”

Ultimately, the decision of how to include the voices of underrepresented groups into the greater conversation within humanities classes lies with each professor, and the decision arises at the beginning of every semester. 

“I think it’s just constantly being aware of who you’re putting on your syllabus, who you’re engaging with in class,” Shuve said. “And that can mean looking for new perspectives every year, trying to find articles or books that are written from different perspectives … every year to be making those conscious decisions about what new scholarship is out there, what new voices might I be able to include.”

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