The Canon, The Computer, and the Pedagogic Imaginary

Randall Bass, Georgetown University

If opening the canon means changing the syllabus, what precisely is the difference between the canon and the syllabus?
John Guilloryl

Two Revolutions

I want to talk about the convergence of two revolutionary changes that have been taking place over the last twenty-five years: the revision of the canon of American literature and the shift of our world from the age of print into the age of information. Certainly, in terms of the access and delivery of information we are living in a liminal era; and it hardly seems a fluke that this transition coincides with tremendous changes in our ideas about the literary canon, language, and textuality. Yet, too little discussion has taken place about the relationship between the expansion of literary studies and the onset of the information age. As our profession tries to find answers to John Guillory's compelling question about the "difference between the canon and the syllabus" in a radically changed literary landscape, it seems useful to consider how new electronic tools of the information age can play a vital part in that search.

My purpose here, then, is twofold: (1) to address, at least sketchily, one dimension of the relationship between these two revolutionary changes, and (2) to describe two electronic resources that begin to address their relationship and that I have been developing with D. C. Heath: the Syllabus Builder for The Heath Anthology of American Literature, an electronic teaching resource designed to run on a personal computer, and the forthcoming launching of an American literature pedagogy network and discussion group, underwritten by D. C. Heath and soon to be available over the Internet for use by teachers and students. Both of these resources are aimed at utilizing some of the new tools of information access in keeping with the overall revisionist project that The Heath Anthology of American Literature was meant to address in the first place.

Teaching Literature as an Information Problem

In his essay, "Canon, Syllabus, List: A Note on the Pedagogic Imaginary," John Guillory argues that the canon and the syllabus are two entirely different things: the "syllabus," he argues, possesses "a concrete location as a list"-with concrete implications in a day to day institutional context; the "canon," on the other hand, is merely an "imaginary totality of works," with no concrete location. Furthermore, Guillory argues, "So far from being the case that the canon determines the syllabus in the simple sense that the syllabus is constrained to select only from canonical works, it is much more historically accurate to argue that the syllabus projects the canon as its imaginary totality. The imaginary list is projected out of the multiple individual syllabi functioning within individual pedagogic institutions over a relatively extended period of time" (171).

In other words, canons change as syllabi change, but they change in very different ways. Syllabi-being lists-change through the logic of substitution, displacing one text with another. On the other hand, canons-being "imaginary totalities"-change through the logic of expansion, simply adding new authors to the ones already there. If adding a "new" author has the effect of replacing some older "traditional" author, that effect is felt only in concrete locations, such as the syllabus or the table of contents of an anthology, but not "in the canon," except over time.

The problem, Guillory argues, with "misreading" the relationship between the syllabus and the canon is that it projects onto the pedagogical practice of constructing "alternative syllabi" the excessive meaning of constructing "alternative canons," binding both the opponents and defenders of the traditional canon in an endless polemic over unity: either the assertion of the unity of the traditional canon, or the reassertion of the new unity of "subcultural or counter cultural formations." More broadly, Guillory argues, this very anxious fixation on the canon (and on the syllabus as its avatar) by both its defenders and its critics can be read as symptomatic of a certain anxiety associated with the perceived unity or disunity of contemporary culture" (174). It is this preoccupation with unity that defines, in one form or another, what Guillory calls "the pedagogic imaginary," and has the effect of organizing "the discursive and institutional life of teachers in excess of the simple function of disseminating knowledge" (174).

The "canon" and the "syllabus," of course, are only part of the equation, as the revision of canons and syllabi really takes place not along some linear continuum, but inside a web of institu- tionalization with filaments that connect curricula, GRE questions, graduate school comprehensive exams, literary histories and anthologies, professional reward structures, and even the hiring categories of the MLA job list. Nonetheless, I think it is safe to assert that the "pedagogic imaginary" governs all of the points along the web. And if, eventually, the radical changes in the kinds of texts and authors that we now teach are going to be felt throughout the entire web, then what is necessary is an alternative "pedagogic imaginary" that is based on multiplicity, not unity.

That in itself is not an original thought, as it resonates many voices in the "canon debate" from any one of a variety of gestures toward pluralism to Paul Lauter's notion of American literary studies as a "comparative discipline." However, what is all too often unexplored in most discussions of canonical multiplicity is the vast array of contingencies that revolve not only around the multiplicity of texts but the multiplicity of teaching contexts.

Twenty-five years of fundamental changes in the American literary canon have begun to catalyze a larger rethinking of course structures and curricula; they have prompted the discipline to start (however slowly) moving away from traditional course organizations around periods and chronology to organization by theme and concept; they have prompted the discipline, again very slowly, to enact and experiment with new pedagogical methods, shifting from a notion of coverage to some other kind of literacy or set of literacies.

Whatever this new kind of literacy is, its many aspects present problems of information delivery. For example, if I am going to teach Native American stories in my American literature class I need to get my students enough cultural information to make sense of them; if I am going to teach my students skills in recognizing the persuasive and argumentative structures of rhetoric, and connect those structures to the world around them, then I need to find ways to get them to understand how they process information, how they assimilate and reproduce their own cultural information; if I am to get my students to integrate historical knowledge and contexts with the literature they are reading, then I have to find a way for them to gain and process that information that is not wholly external and passive. And for each of these information problems, there are contingencies that are relative to the size of the classes I teach, the grade level of the students I teach, the demographics of the population, the goals of a particular course, and the curricular contexts in which any course is offered.

If we are to operate within a different kind of pedagogic imaginary-one that is not obsessed with master lists and alternative unities-then we have to operate in the juncture of textual multiplicity and pedagogical contingency. And it is precisely at this juncture that we created the Syllabus Builder for The Heath Anthology of American Literature, an electronic resource expressly designed to be useful for teachers in accessing a wide array of critical and pedagogical information. The Syllabus Builder program for The Heath Anthology is meant not only as a useful supplement to the anthology, but also as a serious foray into the problem of designing useful electronic information for teachers, information that is responsive to the changes in the field of American literature. Syllabus Builder as a Resource for Teachers All of the needs that Syllabus Builder for The Heath Anthology was designed to meet fall into two different but related groupings: (1) an aid to faculty who are teaching authors already on their syllabus, especially authors that they might not know particularly well, or might have not been teaching long and are looking for specific, tested ideas on critical approaches, paper assignments, exam questions, and so on; and (2) as a resource for the modification, expansion, and development of syllabi, readings and pedagogies.

The Syllabus Builder (whose second edition will be available at the beginning of 1994) is comprised of several "texts." The program includes an electronically enhanced version of The Heath Anthology Instructor's Guide and an archive of some 30 syllabi solicited from instructors around the country who teach with The Heath Anthology. The course syllabi represented in Syllabus Builder include more than the skeletal reading list, but also much of the information and material that stands behind such lists. Every faculty contributor has "annotated" her or his syllabus with a running commentary about course rationale and the particular emphases of each unit. Each instructor has also included a wide array of additional materials, including guidelines for various pedagogies used in the course, discussion topics, study guides, writing assignments, and so on.

In addition to this rich assortment of teaching materials, representing a range of course types and institutions, Syllabus Builder also has a new Bibliography feature that brings together in a comprehensive form all of the secondary source references from the Instructor's Guide and from the various course syllabi. The Bibliography is designed to distinguish between those sources that are useful background for instructors to learn more about authors and issues and those secondary source readings that faculty actually assign in their courses. In this way, a single Bibliography can serve as a guide for critical and scholarly, as well as pedagogical, reference.

Binding all of these resources together is a set of navigation, orientation, and search tools that enable users to access the information in a variety of ways. The kinds of queries that an instructor might bring to Syllabus Builder range from very specific ones pertaining to a particular author, to very broad ones concerning models of course organization. If, for example, an instructor wanted to add a "new" author to a course, and was curious how other teachers incorporated that author, Syllabus Builder enables that instructor to quickly view assignments on that author in many different courses. Similarly, teachers could use the program to access ideas for writing assignments, discussion questions, or collaborative group exercises on a particular author.

However, one of the important features of Syllabus Builder is that it is not tied exclusively to authors and texts. With Syllabus Builder users can look for curricular information based on course type and format, look for course models from similar institutions, search for general and specific information on pedagogical strategies (such as reading journals, interpretive exercises, research projects), look for models of whole courses or focused units organized by theme or particular issues, or just browse through whole syllabi for new ideas on combinations of authors and course execution.

All in all, the collections accessible through Syllabus Builder represent a microcosm of the new "pedagogic imaginary". As an extension of the vast array of possible "lists" enabled through an expanded anthology like the Heath, Syllabus Builder implies no single canon, no right and best mode of curricular organization. As a fluid electronic resource, Syllabus Builder embeds critical and scholarly information on texts and authors within the contingencies of teaching contexts. Whatever canon is expressed in Syllabus Builder, to recall Guillory's words, is "projected out of multiple individual syllabi functioning within individual pedagogical institutions."

What Kind of Information is Teaching Information?

In designing Syllabis Builder for The Heath Anthology, we began with several questions.2 First of all we asked ourselves: What kind of an information system would be useful for teachers? This question in turn led us to the more basic question: What kind of information is teaching information? How is teaching knowledge, generally, organized, defined, and shared within this community of users, and more specifically, given the current state of American literary studies, what kinds of questions and problems should an electronic teaching resource address? While we tried to answer these questions for Syllabus Builder in the context of a program that was specific to a particular anthology, I believe these are the same questions we have to ask generally when we approach the problem of using electronic information exchange to create any resource directed at teachers as users.

If we think about those aspects of teaching knowledge that are transferable as teaching information, there are several broad statements that I think we can make about the nature of teaching knowledge and its exchange in an electronic format. Here are a few of those assertions:

Teaching knowledge is synthetic and multidimensional.

In the humanities, teaching, is the primary form of applied research. Any course syllabus, along with its accompanying teaching materials, represents a multidimensional synthesis of intellectual training and experiential knowledge in the classroom. Just the syllabus document, itself, represents a complex series of choices that the instructor has made, not only in the list of course readings, but choices about the effectiveness of works and approaches in classroom situations that vary according to course type, format and level, the demographics of the student population, the institutional context of the course, the expertise and perspective of the instructor, and so on. Though in some ways, teaching is just one component of professional life, it is in many ways the culminating component in which all other aspects are manifest. An electronic resource for teachers would have the ability to sort and organize information based on the variables and elements that informed these choices in the first place.

Teaching information is specific to particular communities.

Not only is teaching a highly synthetic and integrative activity but it is also entirely contextual to its communities, whether it is the institutional community, the professional community teaching in a particular field, or even the community of users who have created a curriculum around a common textbook or anthology. An electronic teaching resource is an exceptionally responsive medium for dealing with the needs of a particular community through its inherent flexibility in modifying the structure of information in light of common vocabulary, specialized curricula, and the institutional parameters that bear on teaching practice.

Teaching knowledge does not conform to the professional hierarchy of expertise.

Unlike research and scholarship by specialists, the teaching experience makes every instructor an expert on her or his own teaching style, and similarly, makes no one the authoritative expert on the best teaching style. Thus, a teaching-resource program needs to be an ongoing collaboration within a community of users whose contributions have an equal authority and value. Unlike print media, electronic information exchange facilitates this collaborative activity because of its inherent lack of hierarchical arrangement and the capability for interactive participation that can erase the boundaries between authors and users. This is especially important with an expanded canon in which our desire to teach widely and representatively means that we are often teaching texts and authors we're not specialists in and were never trained in. In that sense, while we still need to access information by experts and specialists, it is equally important to share information with other nonspecialists teaching the same material.

Teaching knowledge is different from scholarly knowledge, and the infrastructure of the profession works against its dissemination.

The infrastructure of the academic publication industry (not to mention the professional reward structure) militates against the extensive publication of information about specific classroom practices. Print is costly, rigid, and permanent; information on teaching is provisional, collaborative, experimental, and specific to particular communities. An electronic information system is perfectly suited to the dissemination and exchange of teaching knowledge, because it is dynamic, collaborative, and subject to ongoing revision.

As a stand-alone software program, Syllabus Builder tries to respond to the basic character of teaching information and the needs of a community of users sharing a common anthology text. The logical extension of Syllabus Builder is the creation of an on-line resource that is more open, expansive, and responsive to the ongoing needs of its communitv of users. This is the very kind of resource that I am collaborating with D. C. Heath to create: an open-access electronic network for teachers and readers of American literature.

Going On-Line with the Pedagogic Imaginary

In the next few months, D. C. Heath and I will launch an electronic teaching exchange network that will be available over the Internet, with host computer space provided by Georgetown University. As an integrated, on-line resource, the network will serve as both a forum for discussion and exchange as well as a reference source for pedagogical information on American literature.

The seeds for the idea of an electronic discussion network were planted last fall, when I was teaching an upper division elective called "American Literature: Alternative Frontiers." Although the course covered "frontier literature" from 1850 to the present, we began the course with Leslie Marmon Silko's novel, Ceremony. Around this time, my colleague, Lucy Maddox, saw a note about Ceremony on an electronic discussion group of Native American literature educators to which she belongs.3 The request came from a high school teacher in a small town called Unalaska, Alaska. This high school teacher was beginning a teaching unit on Silko's Ceremony with his own students. He was wondering if any teachers out there on the network were currently teaching Ceremony and if they had any students who would like to communicate with his students about the book. Lucy knew that I was currently teaching the novel and passed the request on to me. I announced it to my class, and I, along with one or two of my students, framed some short responses to the novel that were passed along the network. Soon, some of the students in Unalaska responded back. I and one of my students wrote again, prompting some more responses from the students in Unalaska. As you might imagine, Silko's novel of cultural conflict and survival read quite differently to a very multicultural group of students from a small town in Alaska than it did to a relatively homogeneous group of students in Washington, D.C.

For those involved, the exchange was stimulating and valuable, but not in itself unique or revolutionary. This kind of thing happens a great deal on this network, mostly among high school teachers talking to each other and arranging for their students to talk to each other. Yet, at the college level this kind of exchange is virtually unheard of, despite its potential to significantly change the calculus of the "canon debate" and impact on the question of the "difference between the canon and the syllabus." Here was an exchange taking place between students four or five thousand miles (and a world or two) apart. And while Silko's novel was the central text for both classes, it was not the only text: the dialogue they were creating was as important a text as Silko. What was happening was bigger than Silko's novel, bigger than "the book."

And that is indeed the whole idea behind the formation of an electronic exchange network for American literature teachers: to open the texts we teach into a wider dialogue beyond the fixation on the literary text itself, just as Syllabus Builder attempts to open the question of the canon and the syllabus beyond the fixation on substituting one text for another.

As an electronic resource, the network will combine the fluid dialogue of an electronic discussion group with the structured searching capabilities of a program like Syllabus Builder. To these ends, the network will involve three related tiers of activities:

(1) A Pedagogy Discussion Group for teachers to exchange ideas and questions about teaching an expanded American literature, with much of this dialogue being "archived,' constituting a dynamic, searchable database of information on authors, texts, biblio- graphic resources, pedagogics, etc.;
(2) A Reference Archive of Syllabi and Pedagogy that will grow out of the discussion group, and will, like Syllabus Builder, serve as a reference source for course models and teaching materials contributed by faculty around the country; and
(3) A Readers' Exchange that will serve as a forum and clearinghouse for teachers at different institutions to arrange for their students to talk to each other through networking on common texts and issues.

Overall, both the teaching-exchange network and Syllabus Builder are about the breakdown of boundaries. They are about breaking down the boundaries of expertise among teachers to create a community of discourse among colleagues; they are about breaking down the boundaries between types of institutions to create a community of discourse among users with common teaching goals; they are about breaking down boundaries between students and teachers to create a dialogue beyond the performative relationship of class papers and exams; and they are about breaking down the all too rigid boundaries between criticism, scholarship, and pedagogy.

These are, after all, the more totalizing directions implicit in the expansion of the canon, and specifically implicit in the project of The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Both of these resources are meant as tools in this liminal era that we inhabit, making whatever small contribution to the creation of a new "pedagogic imaginary" for the future.

1 John Guillory, "Canon, Syllabus, List: A Note on the Pedagogic Imaginary." (Best American Essays, ed. Susan Sontag [Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1992]).

2 Syllabus Builder was designed by a team at the Institute for Research -in Information and Scholarship at Brown University in cooperation with D. C. Heath. The team included Paul Kahn (database design), Choh Man Teng (programming), and myself.

3 The discussion group is the Native American discussion group, a subgroup of BreadNet, a collection of discussion groups sponsored by Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English. Most of the participants are secondary school teachers and their students, with some limited postsecondary participation.

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This page was prepared by Audrey Mickahail at the Center for Electronic Projects in American Culture Studies (CEPACS), housed at Georgetown University, under the direction of Randy Bass, Department of English.