Essays on Teaching the American Literatures
(from the Heath Anthology Newsletter)

Introduction: Pedagogical Notes

by Paul Lauter

Translating a changed canon into classroom practice presents many problems as we have all found out these last few years. Here I want to touch only on two, by way of a preface to the articles by Amy Ling and Andrew Wiget, which follow. These are the first in a series focused on teaching the new [read: expanded, expanding] canon. The two issues I want to consider are the superabundance of riches and the limits of our own training.

The second is, perhaps, the more obvious, but not necessarily easier to solve. I know no one in academe who does not at one time or another feel fraudulent. Vita brevis, tabula litterarum longa. And the list expands as the conception of the field broadens. One can hardly keep up even in well-defined specialties, much less in the new areas. The essays which follow and others that will be published in succeeding Newsletters are designed to help all of us by providing brief overviews of areas with which we may not altogether be familiar. They are efforts at orientation, as one might say.

In this connection, it is important, I think, to lay aside the guilt which one's ignorance can too often generate. After all, no one grows up naturally reading Asian American literature, say, any more than Chaucer or eighteenth-century British fiction. These are learned reading behaviors. Most of us needed to learn to read the Miller's Tale : as well as Pamela, not to mention Tristram Shandy. We learned, in fact, to read Keats and Dickinson. So we need places to start into territory to which graduate programs have only recently if at all introduced literature teachers.

At the same time, it is equally important not to orientalize these new texts. Oral tribal works aside, they were after all written in the common language of the United States; they arose from cultures which, in many ways, overlap those of more familiar writers. Many utilize familiar forms and literary strategies. The differences are real, especially if we think about the histories texts embed, their functions, and some of the conventions of their articulation. But such differences do not represent insurmountable barriers to the teacher serious about opening the curriculum.

A more significant difficulty is, I think, the problem of choosing among an increasingly large number of both new and old texts. Indeed, some are inclined to throw up their hands and, simply on this basis, retreat into traditional paradigms. It is certainly true that no single American literature course, or even a year's sequence, could accommodate all the works in the Heath Anthology. That fact seems to me to offer not a rationalization for despair and retreat but rather a challenge to our ingenuity for creating new curricula that are at once varied and coherent. Creative faculty have devised a number of strategies toward that goal. Thematic foci within chronological frameworks can allow the retention of important historical understanding while enabling intercultural and gender comparisons. Ideas of family and community, for example, or conceptions of human nature, development, and education may offer bases for such an approach. Tracing the evolution and changing deployment of particular forms, like the sketch or short story, provides some similar advantages.

The ingenuity of faculty will, I am sure, furnish a variety of models. I hope you will share such work with us, and also reviews of other new curricular and pedagogical developments. We will be pleased to communicate them in future issues of the Newsletter, together with additional introductions to the teaching of texts from the new canon.