By Manina Jones, Lily Cho, Laura Moss, Jennifer Andrews, Michelle Coupal, and Stephanie Oliver
The conversation that follows emanated from a panel at the 2018 meetings of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) at the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, held in a classroom at the University of Regina, which itself is situated on Treaty 4 lands within the territories of the nêhiyawak, Anihšināpēk, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda, and the homeland of the Métis. In the wake of recent controversies on social media, in the press, and in public discourse over the state of “#CanLit”, the Call for Papers for this panel asked contributors to share their thoughts on what versions of Canadian literature currently emerge from the academy by way of Canadian literature survey courses. What does it mean to “survey” Canadian literature? Five participants spoke for ten minutes each, taking up aspects of the process involved in constructing the syllabus for their Canadian literature courses. Following their presentations, each speaker was interviewed by the next panellist for up to five minutes.
Introduction: Surveying Canlit
Manina Jones (University of Western Ontario)
Surveying Canlit in Four Scenes and a Counterintuitive Argument for Distance
Lily Cho (York University)
Infinitely Surveying CanLit
Laura Moss (University of British Columbia)
Surveying Canlit: Making Sense of a Crumbling Edifice
Jennifer Andrews (University of New Brunswick)
Irreconcilable Spaces: The Canlit Survey Course in the Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre Round Room
Michelle Coupal (University of Regina)
Confronting CanLit’s “Dumpster Fire” Through Backward Course Design
Stephanie Oliver (University of Alberta)
Introduction: Surveying Canlit
By Manina Jones (University of Western Ontario)
The concept for this panel emerged from recent controversies on social media, in the press, and in public discourse over the state of “#Canlit”, and in particular, what it is, who gets to decide, what it might become. It came out of curiosity about how my most respected colleagues tackle the challenge of creating course outlines for surveys of Canadian literature, and in doing so how they map and re-map the field—the shifting and contentious boundaries that define it, and the routes we travel through it—and orient ourselves within it. As ACCUTE President in the final year of my term, I seized the opportunity to ask.
In thinking about where “Canlit” happens, much conversation has taken place around high-profile authors, publishers, and social/media outlets. What about “Canlit” in the classroom, the place where many students encounter “Canlit” as a field? What, as Lily Cho asks, is the nature of the relationship between said authors, publishers, and journalists, and those of us who mediate their perspectives at post-secondary institutions?
I am interested in the idea of a situated classroom as a site of a complex interaction of historical perspectives, one marked by cultural differences, (im)migrations, and contracts from which we read Canadian literature within the complex palimpsest of “here” and “now.” When we create so-called “national survey” courses, we define and challenge historical and cultural borders and boundaries that define the field, and, potentially, open it to further inquiry.
The panel topic asked what visions and versions of Canadian literature currently emerge by way of the practical exigencies of syllabus construction in Canadian literature survey courses. The Call for Papers asked, “What does it mean to ‘survey’ Canadian literature?” Among other things, it asked participants to reflect on the practical, structural issues that influence their syllabi, the basis of their choices of texts, the notion of “coverage” of the field, the institutional contingencies of course listings, the texts that come in and out of favour over time, and the changing demographic of students.
At the heart of this discussion are issues of space, both literal and figurative. For example, the institutional, geographical, political, and disciplinary fields that come together in the making and unmaking of Canadian literature, but also the configuration of social and even architectural spaces we make in classrooms for a diversity of voices to be heard.
The panel’s participants are from institutions across Canada, and include journal and anthology editors who represent a range of specializations within the field and beyond. They include both veteran teachers and faculty members at the beginning of their careers. The structure of the panel designated each contributor as both a speaker and an interlocutor. It was meant to both model and prompt the kinds of conversations that go into challenging each other to reflect on and rethink the ways we take up the challenge of surveying Canadian literature.
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Surveying Canlit in Four Scenes and a Counterintuitive Argument for Distance
By Lily Cho (York University)
Scene 1: Just the facts
Recently, many of us (including Laura) received a query from a fact-checker for The Walrus magazine. He was checking on the veracity of a number of statements in a forthcoming review of Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, Warlight. The review included several claims, some of which I found to be spurious. The review is not yet published so we’ll see if those claims remain [the review was published in June 2018; see Nasrallah]. But the main question that the fact-checker asked was particularly telling in terms of the issues I want to explore today: is Michael Ondaatje still taught in Canlit university classrooms? The reviewer claimed that Ondaatje had fallen out of favour.
This query came to the chair of my department who then sent it out to all the Canadianists and asked for their thoughts. Laura put a version of it on Facebook. I’m sure it reached many of you in this room in similarly varied ways. The short answer, of course, is, yes, we still teach Ondaatje. Lots of Ondaatje, in fact, and not just in Canlit but also in poco. But the longer answer to this question involves unpacking some of the investments in that question and what it means to survey Canlit in the context of those investments.
Scene 2: Long-distance relationship
It is not news that the placement of any text on a syllabus is used as a proxy for relevance and canonization. But this kind of shorthand is newly telling in light of the painful convulsions that have been moving through Canlit in the past two years. For me, some of this ties back to a point that Julie Rak made at Marcelle Kosman and Hannah McGregor’s ACQL session, “TrashCan: An Anti-Canon Manifesto,” at Congress last year. In her paper, Julie suggested that the UBC Accountable awfulness can, at least in part, be traced to the growing distance between Canlit writers and critics. In fact, and I might be paraphrasing her badly here, I think she said that the backlash against UBC Accountable took the signatories by surprise because they didn’t care what critics thought.
Julie’s point has stayed with me not least because I think there is a way in which the thinking of academics would have seemed irrelevant to the immediate concerns of some of the powers behind that letter. But also because—and I say this with huge respect for Julie—I think writers do actually care a lot about what critics think.
Scene 3: The alienation of close encounters
I am at the launch for Arrival: The Story of CanLit. The always-impressive editor of Anansi, Sarah MacLachlan, is on stage to introduce the author. She talks about how she first heard of him when orders for hundreds of books of poetry come in from a guy at U of T. These orders are so consistent and clearly mean so much to the press that she names the course number in her remarks. Not only does the author of Arrival clearly have a close relationship with a number of small presses that are responsible for much of the vibrancy of Canlit, his whole book is about talking to authors. It is based on interviews, some of which unfold over years.
So, the Canlit survey prof who has talked to more Canlit authors than most, and who consistently puts cultural capital, and actual money, into the pockets of small presses and writers, produces a book that alienates most of the critics I care about.
Scene 4: No relation
I am at a launch for the Book*hug fall list where I am introduced to a fabulous poet. She tells me how much it would mean to her if someone like me would, even once, assign her book in my course. I mumble something about coverage and shuffle off in embarrassment. Here, my own failure to develop closer relationships to contemporary Canadian authors means that I have been negligent in terms of my role in canon formation and supporting authors.
* * *
These four scenes tell us:
- That the placement of a text on a university syllabus continues to be a proxy for relevance and canonization.
- That the distance between writers and university professors/Canlit critics can be extremely destructive to the field.
- That greater intimacy between writers and critics does not necessarily lead to better criticism that is constructive in the face of all of the destructiveness. Indeed, it seems to have led to more destructiveness, and more divides.
- That having almost no relationships with contemporary authors is also alienating.
These four scenes tell us a lot more than just that the placement of a text on a syllabus matters. They tell us that what looks like Canlit from the perspective of contemporary creative writers is often not what Canlit looks like from those of us who have been given the power to canonize it.
Which leaves me looking for the point of intersection between these two conceptions of the field. It seems to me that where they meet is not at the site of greater or less intimacy between writers and critics, but rather in the space that recognizes institutional power as power.
In that recognition, we have to take into account the survey as both a general description or view of a field AND as a way of seeing. To survey is to look over an entity as much as it is to provide a view of it, to account for its borders and contours. The early use of the noun in the late fifteenth century related it to the idea of supervision or to over(super)seeing. Surveying demands distance. To recognize the institutional power of the survey means understanding that greater intimacy is not the answer. It seems counterintuitive even to me (I like writers! Some of my closest friends are writers! Writers are cool! I want to be cool!), but looking at where we go from here in this moment when the field feels torn up and volatile all the time, I think we need more, not less, distance between writers and critics. If we want to keep doing surveys, and maybe we don’t but that is a different question, we have to own the alienation of that institutional power and use it to see, as best we can, the broader movements of what unfolds so that we can contribute, in rigorously grounded ways, to the intellectual transformations that will build the field.
Laura Moss: Thanks for the series of scenes Lily. I want to ask, how do you draw from the implications of the events in these four scenes in your own classroom choices and practices?
Lily Cho: These four scenes have changed my way of surveying Canlit in that I have expanded my understanding of the space of the classroom. In this expansion, I am persuaded by Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s call to widen the definition of an academic peer as a form of generous thinking. Fitzpatrick argues for a movement away from understanding academic peers solely as credentialed colleagues (178). Rather, she suggests that we can understand the intellectual peer as emerging through participation and practice (179). The classroom can be a big space, but we can make it bigger. The ways in which I am doing this are not particularly organized. I’m still figuring it out. In the classroom, I have begun to structure assignments that are not only about breaking down formal elements of a text, or grappling with thematic arguments in relation to an assigned reading, but also about the students’ experiences of reading. After years of shutting down what I thought of as the unruliness and shallowness of reader response, I am beginning to invite it as a route into critical knowledge. Outside of the classroom, I participate actively in a book club where the majority of the participants do not share my politics or opinions and are not academics. I talk a lot more about what I’m reading and why it matters with friends and colleagues who are not in my field. We are so lucky to work in field where the primary objects of our study—great books—are also of interest to a huge number of non-specialists. I have also expanded my understanding of the reading public to include people who are close to me but who cannot read English. My father, for example, cannot read any of the books I read, or any of the words I write. But I have come to understand that there are ways in which his understanding of the world he inhabits must also inform my surveying of CanLit and how literature must also be accountable to those who cannot read it.
In this expansion, my argument for distance between the writer and the critic translates into a practice of trying to strengthen the relationship between the critic and the reader. Critics must be readers first. Readers are critics. There is no reader who reads without having thoughts, opinions, and responses to their reading. In digging deeper into this connection between the reader and the critic, and expanding the community of criticism, I hope that we can see even more clearly how much surveying CanLit matters beyond the academy.
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Infinitely Surveying CanLit
By Laura Moss (University of British Columbia)
For my contribution to this ACCUTE panel on surveying Canadian literature, I have examined my own choices in the classroom over the past two decades. I have just completed my twentieth year of teaching postcolonial (mainly African but also other world literatures written in English) and Canadian literatures. Since 1998—four years at the University of Manitoba and sixteen at UBC—I have been teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in Canadian literature and in Canadian Studies. I have also gradually turned my first-year introductory Approaches to Literature class almost entirely into a study of writing from Canada. Over my years of teaching, I have never taught exactly the same Canadian literature class twice. Every year I change the combination of texts we will read, the questions we will ask, the genres we will consider, and the approaches we will take.
At the University of Manitoba, I taught courses within a specifically mandated timeframe: “Canadian Literature before 1967.” At UBC there is more flexibility in what I can teach in the survey courses, with very loose guidelines that link the many sections taught across the department each year (writing in/from Canada). While I might be focusing on environmental writing, a colleague will look mainly at war plays, another at Indigenous writing, another at transnational and Asian Canadian writing, another at love stories, and another at Vancouver poetry. I work at an institution with few restrictions on what must be covered in a survey course. This poses some problems at the senior level because you can never assume knowledge from earlier courses (who is Susanna Moodie? Sinclair Ross? SKY Lee? Jeannette Armstrong?). Yet it also lets me respond to the issues at the forefront of contemporary discourse or at least the issues that rigorously engage me at the moment. I sometimes concentrate on contemporary writing and sometimes emphasize literary history. When I began my career, I thought that there were texts that had to be taught—canonical texts. This fit within the U of M guidelines of the late 1990s pretty well.
Twenty years later, I worry much less about trying to cover it all and more about covering some things in depth and in contextual detail. Since the beginning of my teaching career, I have ensured that there is content by Indigenous writers, writers from a variety of cultural backgrounds, women writers, and writing in a variety of genres on my CanLit courses. I have always been aware that I teach a diverse body of students and it is powerful if those students see some aspects of themselves reflected in the literature we study. Range and diversity have always been hugely important to me when designing a class. My recurring motto has been John Berger’s declaration, used in Michael Ondaatje’s epigraph to In the Skin of a Lion, that “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one” (Berger 133).
I teach Canadian literature because I think that it is vital to creatively engage with the place where we are standing. There is no one set of texts that can do this best.
When Cynthia Sugars and I set out to create the critical and contextual anthology that became the two-volume Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts, we had to wrestle with the key question that was set out for this panel. How do you survey CanLit? The first table of contents we produced was exactly twice the length of the amount of space we had. Our goal, especially with Volume 1 (up to 1920), was to include work by some writers not previously included in anthologies but whose presence we thought was vital in a CanLit class. For instance, we wanted to highlight Indigenous presence in Canadian cultural production across Canadian literary history, so in Volume 1 we included an opening by Brian Maracle, writing by Joseph Brant from the end of the eighteenth century, Inuit testimony on the nineteenth-century John Franklin expedition, works by George Henry and George Copway in the mid-nineteenth, and then by E. Pauline Johnson at the end of the nineteenth. What we ended up with in our teaching anthology is an imperfect creation, as any anthology can only ever be. The same goes for surveying CanLit. It can only ever be imperfect.
Guided in this panel discussion by the Call for Papers question, “what does it really mean to survey Canadian literature?,” I decided to gather as many of my own course outlines as I could find and to survey them. (There are a few years missing—especially clustered around when I had small kids). I have compiled (and appended) two lists: (A) books taught, and (B) authors and poets whose short stories and poems I taught between 1998-2018. In one iteration of list A, I was able to see the number of times I have taught specific books—with Monkey Beach appearing more than any other work (ten times)—and some books I only taught once (e.g., A Jest of God).
Looking at my lists, I draw twelve conclusions about the “range” of what I have taught while trying to survey CanLit over the past two decades.
- I have always tried to be mindful of teaching the breadth and depth of Canadian writing. What surprised me when doing some counting of categories on these lists is that my surveys are not as “infinite” as I had thought they were when proposing the title for this presentation.
- Literary history: I had thought I had more historical depth in my classes than I actually have. Upon examination of my lists, I see that I tend to teach more of a rich chronological range of poetry than fiction, and a completely unrepresentative selection of plays.
- Genre: I teach more fiction than plays or poetry. Because I find teaching poetry more challenging than fiction, I assumed I had taught more poetry.
- Gender: I have taught virtually the same number of books by women and female identified writers as men. I am glad to see equity in this category.
- Background of author: I have shared work by writers from a range of cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds on my syllabi and in my classes.
- Region: There is a heavy West Coast bias in what I teach, with some prairie content and some Ontario content. This mirrors my own personal history and the places I have taught. I have not focused well on writing from the East Coast, with a few exceptions.
- I created an anthology and I rely on it.
- It is a challenge to keep innovating but there is so much good writing to consider and share with students.
- I have sometimes thought of my teaching as counter-canonical but I see now that my counter-canon might slowly be becoming canonical itself as I note the aging of the authors I teach regularly.
- I enjoy making each class its own discrete event.
- I appreciate having the freedom to teach what I think I should teach.
- I am aware that having the freedom to choose what I want to include is a huge responsibility.
One of the things I take most seriously in my job as a professor of Canadian literature is the responsibility to expose my students to as wide a range of literary works as the limits of my own knowledge will allow me. Surveying my course outlines over the years has been a useful exercise for me to think through how, while my versions of CanLit have always been pretty expansive and in flux, there are still some gaps in what I teach and how I teach it.
I have to admit that I feel somewhat exposed sharing my teaching lists here. I do not want these lists to be seen as my own canon of worthwhile literature. They are works of art that I value, true. But they have also fit into a pedagogical frame (thematic, historical, or genre) that I have devised at one time or another for a specific class. The texts have spoken to each other, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes with discord, as I have set them in conjunction and juxtaposition. It is this act of kenning in the act of coverage that the classroom space allows and that I think a good survey should invite.
Jennifer Andrews: Laura, you’ve made me want to go back and examine my own syllabi across the past two decades and think more about what I do and don’t teach—thank you for sharing that valuable approach. How does your role as the editor of an academic journal on CanLit shape your teaching of CanLit—has there been cross-pollination and if so, of what kind?
Laura Moss: I have learned a huge amount as the editor of Canadian Literature and it has definitely had an impact on how and what I teach. I am exposed to all kinds of new research on a variety of subfields as I read submissions and work with authors on the editing of their articles. There is especially concentrated learning with special issues. I enjoy working with guest editors on special issues because I get to see a range of responses to a focused CFP and then I get to learn from the work of my peers and colleagues. For instance, working on issue no. 227, Asian Canadian Critique Beyond the Nation (2015), brought me up to speed on the important conversations and debates going on in transnational literary studies, and I have recently been able to bring that knowledge directly into my classroom in really productive ways.
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Surveying Canlit: Making Sense of a Crumbling Edifice
By Jennifer Andrews (University of New Brunswick)
A national literature’s job is to both define and uphold the nation. But what if that nation’s foundational beliefs about itself are, well, lies? . . . Maybe, for those who still very much want to feel proud to be Canadian, it’s simply easier to call CanLit a dumpster fire. That way, you don’t have to call Canada itself a dumpster fire. . . . You . . . don’t have to acknowledge the existence of Canada’s systemic discrimination—or how your silence on that discrimination may be making you complicit in upholding it.
—Alicia Elliott, “CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire”
Having taught Canadian literature survey courses for close to twenty years, I’ve used this paper to interrogate the current state of my CanLit syllabi, focusing on a single course that I teach regularly, which examines English Canadian literature from 1970 to the present. What challenges arise when deciding what I choose to share about a field which has, over the past year, become increasingly difficult to explain given the public controversies that have arisen about the state of #CanLit? How, in particular, does one convey and simultaneously deconstruct those metanarratives that have shaped portraits of Canadian literature? Given that my home institution—the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton campus—is one in which survey courses are the primary mode through which students acquire an understanding of Canadian literature, what choices need to be made to ensure a wide range of content without relegating the work of ethnic and racially diverse authors to the margins by clustering them together? How can one adequately represent Indigenous literatures within such courses or should they be part of separate syllabi, an option that in my department has not been viable due to limitations on the number and kind of courses offered? And how do the institutional categories and declining enrolments in more traditional period courses necessitate the potential re-invention of CanLit as a discipline?
Using my one-semester survey course syllabus—which covers the period from 1970 to the present (as included in Appendix C in abbreviated form), primarily through Volume 2 of the Cynthia Sugars and Laura Moss anthology, Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts—I use this paper to reflect on institutional and departmental limitations that shape the reading list, lectures, and evaluation criteria. I also want to think about how my own schooling in CanLit and investment in the field (having been hired as a CanLit scholar) determine my continued commitment to periodized courses that emphasize the need for historical knowledge and content. Does this course serve students well in a program where they may take only one of three English Canadian literature survey courses over the duration of their degree—and only if they are majoring or honouring in English, which involves a very small group of students? Would students be better served by encountering Canadian literature through thematically focused courses that do not adhere to a historical timeline (as I do in a first-year introduction to English course that favours English Canadian texts ranging from Marilyn Dumont’s poem “Ghosted” to Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel The Underwater Welder; or in a popular third-year Special Topics course that explores the relationship between fashion, television, film, and citizenship from a comparative Canadian-American perspective that includes discussions of Anne of Green Gables, Riverdale, the Canadian and American First Ladies, and even doll brands from both sides of the border)? Given the crumbling edifice of CanLit, can or should we continue to offer English Canadian literature survey courses?
Alicia Elliott’s epigraph to my paper is an important place to begin this conversation, precisely because she focuses in on the traditional (white, Western) rationale for educating future citizens, one that can be traced back to the creation of English literature as a university discipline in nineteenth-century Britain: “A national literature’s job is to both define and uphold the nation” (3). So, the larger question one might want to pose in the case of CanLit is what kind of citizens do we want to educate? As Elliott persuasively argues, if the “foundational beliefs” of a country are exposed as “lies,” it is much easier to blame one aspect of the nation’s culture than to confront the nation broadly speaking (3). Arguably this same kind of “crisis” narrative has become increasingly familiar to those working in the neoliberal university of the twenty-first century, particularly those who teach in disciplines that are not perceived as overtly professionalizing or leading directly to secure full-time employment. I am a white settler scholar who was trained in Quebec and Ontario in the 1990s, when English departments were booming and survey courses on CanLit were a relatively new phenomenon; both situations have changed. I’ve also devoted much of my career to studying Indigenous writers, particularly those who challenge the fixity of nation-state borders. Likewise, my current project investigates American literary constructions of Canada and the tendency to romanticize what is north of the border. Through this lens, it has been increasingly easy to focus on the ways in which Canada falls short of its appearance as a “left-leaning and progressive” nation, despite looking awfully liberal in comparison with the current Trump/Pence government (Elliott 2).
Pragmatically speaking, bums in seats matter for all courses, even those intended to school citizens. As many Canadian post-secondary institutions move toward a Responsibility Centre Budget Management structure, in which units earn revenue in accordance with the number of students taught, and either thrive or flounder as a result, pressure increases to find that sweet spot of increasing enrolment numbers even as one tries to think through the pedagogical aims of course content. And context matters—teaching at a small research institution with a heavy emphasis on engineering, nursing, and law, a high student debt load, and a steady stream of outmigration due to a lack of local employment opportunities necessitates keeping a close eye on textbook costs, ensuring rental or recycling of texts if possible, and preparing students for life elsewhere, while still calibrating the course to engage with the local and the regional as a way of captivating and sustaining interest.
Over the course of my time at UNB, I have watched enrolment numbers in English flourish and then drop precipitously to the point that undergraduate courses at UNB often run with tiny groups of students or are cancelled. As Department Chair from 2013 to 2016, I was charged with being the final arbiter on whether to hold low-enrolment courses, a decision often deeply influenced by the requirements of our undergraduate degree program (which does not have a CanLit requirement); periodization and coverage became the critical criteria, with the early CanLit class covering a pre-1900 requirement (just like the pre-1900 American literature courses), leaving those courses in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries potentially more vulnerable to cancellation. Most alarmingly, what I perceived as a particularly successful and popular CanLit class (English 3698), based on solid enrolment numbers (34 students) and positive course evaluations in winter 2016, plummeted disastrously in the fall of 2017 to a class of 8 students. Moreover, the week I began to teach what I would describe as an atrophied version of 3698 was the same week that Alicia Elliott’s important blog post first appeared online. It is all too easy to be critical of a field of study one is invested in when it seems to be thriving; the foundations remain secure. It is altogether more difficult to convince students of the importance of a disciplinary field when it appears to be imploding—along with the broader area of study that houses it.
Pragmatically speaking, the winter 2016 and fall 2017 courses were virtually the same, thanks to a substantial revision I had undertaken in the summer of 2015, using Volume 2 of the Sugars-Moss anthology, which I have used with much gratitude from the time of its initial publication in December 2008. Students have repeatedly commented on the quality and accessibility of the author entries, the usefulness of the secondary materials (including figures) for illustrating key ideas, and the fact that it is not absurdly expensive; used copies of Volume 2, which is required for 3698, retail for $30 online. The course is an eclectic mix of poetry, short stories, non-fiction essays, speeches, and government documents; it includes one play, one novel, and one graphic novel, usually at the end of the semester to lighten the reading load and introduce a genre that is often overlooked in traditional CanLit courses. The class engages in a variety of key themes, signalled by the title of the week’s readings, ranging from identity politics (which appears in the opening two weeks of the course), region and nation, and “Indigeneity in Canada: Nation to Nation Relations,” to discussions of diasporic voices, the stories of Indigenous women, and ecology and globalization (Andrews 3). But I also want students to understand some of the formal innovations that have occurred in CanLit, through the introduction of thematic criticism, and the emergence of postmodern and postcolonial frameworks and texts.
Motivated by what I witnessed as a post-doc at the University of Arizona studying under Annette Kolodny, one of the creators of the Heath Anthology of American Literature, a collection that radically (in 1999) insisted upon the inclusion of Indigenous voices in early American studies, I begin the course with a brief discussion of Canada’s nationalist cultural agenda of the mid-twentieth century, epitomized by the Massey Commission, before looking at our first text: Chief Dan George’s “A Lament for Confederation.” In doing so, from the outset, the students are primed to listen for Indigenous voices and to think through more carefully how concepts such as citizenship and nationhood are constructed to accord with a white, Western settler perspective that is inherently racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic. And this thread continues throughout the course as we move to different regions of Canada and around the globe—whether exemplified by the Black male immigrant narrator of Austin Clarke’s “Canadian Experience,” who appears only to be seen by others when he jumps onto subway tracks in a Toronto station, out of desperation; the fish canning workers in Steveston authored by Daphne Marlatt, whose lives ironically parallel those of the products they package; Fred Wah’s powerfully personal understanding of hybridity through his childhood memories of the family-owned BC diner; or Dionne Brand’s reconsideration of the meanings of “Inventory” in the wake of racial oppression as exemplified by the US government’s delayed response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
By looking directly at documents like the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and engaging with excerpts from Charles Taylor’s and Neil Bissoondath’s writing, while also attending to the literature, students become much more aware of whose voices are prioritized and which ones are erased, discarded, or left out in a bid to create a singular, cohesive vision of Canada. In the concluding weeks of the course, these absences are strategically challenged yet again, through the complex hierarchy of race and class privilege which is depicted in In the Skin of a Lion—especially as manifested through language (prohibiting “foreigners” to gather if they are not speaking in English)—but also through the brutal reality of missing and murdered Indigenous women, movingly portrayed by Marie Clements in The Unnatural and Accidental Woman, whose lives were discounted because they were Aboriginal and working class. The last weeks of the course turn to global ecological issues (past and present) through the work of Rita Wong and Anne Carson, and finish with Skim by the Tamaki cousins, which resonates deeply with the students because it wrestles with (forbidden) sexual attraction between women, depression, suicide, and peer pressure, which are all too familiar subjects.
Generally, I teach to a relatively homogenized group, mostly white, middle or working class, and predominantly cis gender or queer women, with few Indigenous or Black students among the cohort (conversely I also teach an Introduction to Writing Course at the Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre, for Bridging Year students who are looking to upgrade to enter university, a group that is exclusively Indigenous). The recent Government of New Brunswick policy to help working-class families access university has had an impact on UNB’s student body but there is a pervasive belief that an English degree doesn’t offer a straight line to a job, so students often find themselves having to justify their choices more strongly with family members (which can be challenging) or have parents who themselves believe in the value of transferable skills and are less concerned about where their children initially land. The students often find the Indigenous texts toughest because they confront, especially in Clements’ play, the brutality of targeted racism, and come to the realization that they live in a nation whose institutional structures have condoned such conduct. To heighten the timeliness of what we are discussing, I bring in relevant articles from national newspapers or websites, and share video clips or use other multimedia to situate our discussions. For instance, the conversation about Al Purdy’s “Grosse Isle” begins with a visual introduction to the Parks Canada site and the examination of a clichéd promotional video of the island’s legacy—as a quarantine station for those immigrants infected with cholera and later typhus, the latter of whom were primarily Irish and trying desperately to escape the Great Famine. I also have Desire2Learn slides for every class that include a mini-biography (cribbed from or in addition to the textbook), and then pose a series of questions and/or concerns for discussion; these have been especially popular.
So where to go from here—or is that far too predictable? In my own case, I take Elliott’s advice to heart. It is all too easy to mourn “the loss of a CanLit—and a Canada—that was always an idea instead of a lived reality” and complain “about the dumpster fire in front of us forever” (4). The alternative, as Elliott argues, is “to grab some fucking fire extinguishers and put that fire out” (4). We need, in her words, to “do the work to fix the problem” and that means, pragmatically, continually thinking through and revising the choice of authors and texts we engage with and how we go about doing so (4). To not be okay with making students feel comfortable but instead challenge them to think through the stories that nation-states tell their citizens, and what literary texts bring to that table, especially when it deviates from or subverts the party line.
That said, I remain uneasy with the idea that CanLit can be “fixed.” Nor do I have a good answer for why a high enrolment class plummeted so quickly over the course of a single summer; my course was not the only one in our department, unfortunately, but that is far too easy an excuse. Nonetheless, I’m heartened by the fact that our English enrolments seem to be rebounding slightly this winter—though the numbers of the Ontario double cohort I’m sure will not be seen again. My intentions for now are simple: to change the course title and revamp the calendar description to reflect the topics I include in the syllabus, and to take away from this panel and our discussion new ideas, approaches, and types of assignments.
The last bit is the most important—teaching in a department with a strong Creative Writing stream has prompted me to contemplate introducing more creative options for students (who may, in fact, be wanting to participate in CanLit as writers). I’ve also used cellphilms (short films made on cellular phones) in my Bridging Year course with fantastic outcomes; how might these tools open up new possibilities for changing institutional structures? Perhaps the crumbling edifice has given me just the nudge—real or imagined—I needed.
Michelle Coupal: I appreciate your thoughtful approaches to teaching Canlit, Jen. I like your syllabus, particularly the way you structure readings based upon shifting identity politics, nation-to-nation relations, and the many voices narrating Canada. I want to ask you about Alicia Elliott’s view that Canlit has always been a fluctuating imaginary—now in a state of loss—in which the solution is to fix the problem by extinguishing the fire. I like fires. And I think the particular fires we are discussing today are generative. A recurring metaphor in Indigenous autobiographical fiction is fireweed because of its ability to grow and thrive in the wake of devastation (Deanna Reder). How might Canlit, like fireweed, flourish following its undoing, and do you have any ideas about what that might look like?
Jennifer Andrews: What a fabulous question—I love the idea of generative rather than merely destructive fires, because all too often we simply presume that natural phenomena that we cannot control can and should be viewed negatively rather than taking a wider and more inclusive perspective. I also like fires—literal and figurative—and as I mentioned, Elliott’s work has been very helpful in provoking me to continue to think differently about how to approach what have been rather standard English courses. Yet I also fear that simply putting the fire out as Elliott suggests might lead to overlooking the ideological structures that created these issues in the first place—racism, sexism, homophobia, and a deeply imperialized view of Canada as a benign nation, which supposedly underwent a far more virtuous creation than say the US. And universities, which often hold onto specific ideas of what curricula should convey to students, are a central part of the problem—that too is something I talk about when explaining in class how I have generated syllabus content for a specific course at a particular moment in time, which I do at the beginning of each semester.
Part of my own research right now focuses on what Canadian versions of exceptionalism look like and how they are often mobilized to present Canada as a model nation of inclusivity, so my syllabi tend to highlight the disconnection between more traditional canonical presentations of Canada and the richness of texts out there that examine different versions of Canada that might not be encountered say at a high school level (especially because teachers are often limited by the sets of texts that have been purchased for a given grade or school years ago). Given that UNB, like so many other universities, is located on unceded Indigenous lands (in our case, the traditional territory of the Wolastoqey people), it is especially important that the students I teach understand that Canada—and New Brunswick—was and is a place of colonial violence but that that circumstance has also led to the production of remarkable texts by a plethora of writers from all over the country, the fireweed that thrives despite devastation.
The most positive aspect of teaching CanLit through this approach is that students will often write me years later to say that they have continued to search out different voices because of what they first encountered in my class. UNB also benefits from having a really strong Creative Writing program at the undergraduate and graduate level, so teaching CanLit to students who are developing their own creative voices, I find, leads to a much richer set of perspectives on the pragmatic dimensions and challenges of publishing creative work in Canada. The material aspects of canonization and its lack are often top-of-mind with the creative writing students who read incredibly widely and recognize the racism, sexism, and homophobia that have traditionally shaped the publishing industry in Canada and beyond. So, my syllabi, as you’ve suggested, try to embrace what flourishes in and emerges from fire, rather than just trying to put it out.
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Irreconcilable Spaces: The Canlit Survey Course in the Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre Round Room
By Michelle Coupal (University of Regina)
For the past five years, I have taught “Survey of Canadian Literature” in the same way I was taught at Western, where I did my PhD. The Western gold standard (at least when I was there) was a coverage model that began with the “explorers,” and worked its way through the major literary periods until it ultimately landed on contemporary writers. The model does what it intends, so it works. With the opening of the Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre (ISLC) at Laurentian University came, for the first time, the opportunity to teach in the magnificent Round Room. Its supporting arched, glulam beams form a dome with a skylight at the top centre. Inspired by the wigwam, the circular room has four doors opening to the four directions. The room is filled with aromas of recent feasts and smudges. Sage, sweetgrass, cedar, tobacco, and the spectacular room seem to invite Indigenous literatures to build a fire around which to tell stories. Indeed, I had imagined teaching my Indigenous courses in this room. Thanks to the vagaries of administration, my Indigenous literatures course was scheduled in a standard classroom space, and my full-year survey of Canadian literature course was scheduled in the new ISLC Round Room.
I felt an ethical responsibility to the Indigenous space I was gifted, which seemed to require more from me than a traditional Canlit syllabus (read: largely white with nods to postcolonial and Indigenous writing). More, the recent challenges to the Canlit canon coming from Black Canadian and Indigenous scholars mean, at least to me, that my unholy alliance to a vexed canon perpetuating nationalism, neocolonialism, and settler entitlement is no longer justifiable. Yet there stands my Canlit syllabus—a candidate for Jurassic Park.
In the spirit of canon insurgency, I decided to “Indigenize” (full scare quotes) the Canlit syllabus I had taught for four years. This created a whole new set of problems with mixed results at best. The first problem is the scarcity of published Indigenous voices in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Important work is being done to bring to light little-known Indigenous voices by scholars such as Deanna Reder and my colleague, Susan Glover. The dearth of canonized Indigenous writing from this period skews early Canadian literary history toward imperial, mercantile, and settler notions of Canada as a tabula rasa, upon which values of settler domination are written.
I teach the early writing in the first term, from the so-called “explorers” through to the end of the nineteenth century. With few choices, I reasoned that I could teach early Canadian writing from an Indigenous perspective (which is what I usually do anyway). So I left the first term as it was with all the usual suspects: Cartier, Goldsmith, Richardson, Moodie, Parr Traill, Crawford, Lampman, D. C. Scott, and L. M. Montgomery. An obvious problem with this approach is employing, with a couple of exceptions, canonical settler writers to teach Indigenous and colonial history. The discussions are framed by settler rather than Indigenous writers. In the words of E. Pauline Johnson, “They but forget we Indians owned the land.” “Canadian” literary history needs radical revision—perhaps a “bright axe cleav’d moon-like thro’ the air” (Crawford) to start the process, but this is a whole other discussion.
I turned my attention to term two, which I always begin with the modernists. I stopped, stared, and chimed “A poem should not mean, but be” (Archibald MacLeish) and “it’s only by our lack of ghosts / we’re haunted” (Earle Birney). Wanting meaning and to celebrate what really haunts Canlit, I axed the modernists in their entirety. This felt good. Because I felt I should at least partially cater to student expectations—after all, they had signed up for a Canadian literature course—I decided to weave iconic women writers (Laurence, Kogawa, Munro, Atwood) with Indigenous writers (for example, Dawn Dumont, Thomas King, Jeannette Armstrong, Solomon Rat, Richard Van Camp, Eden Robinson, Katherena Vermette, and Daniel Heath Justice). I added Beatrice Chancy by George Elliott Clarke, realized I had not included a single white male in the second term—decided that was okay—and called it “Survey of Canadian Literature.”
The syllabus I created out of a deep sense of ethical responsibility and no small amount of thought ended up working in some ways, but was frankly a hot mess in others. As Audre Lorde cautions, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In fact, I had violated Gregory Younging’s third principle of Indigenous style: “Indigenous Literatures are their own cannon [sic] and not a subgroup of CanLit” (99). There is a slippery slope between inclusion and assimilation. Indeed, the story of Canlit is different from the story of Indigenous lit. The editors of Read, Listen, Tell: Indigenous Stories from Turtle Island, as their title suggests, resist post-contact borders to organize the body of Indigenous literatures. The editors respond to what they see as a “need for a critical reader that challenges the canon and prioritizes Indigenous methods, practices, and approaches” (McCall et al. 2). Indigenous epistemologies are embedded within Indigenous literatures, which means that the back-to-back teaching of Indigenous and Canadian literatures requires a paradigm shift that is often difficult to navigate, particularly for settler students.
Persisting negative attitudes and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples, alongside complex histories that many students have not been taught, make teaching Indigenous literatures in a meaningful, transformative way difficult on a good day, and more so in the context of Canlit’s domination by settler-colonial voices. Daniel Heath Justice, in Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, asks “what happens when an entire community is pathologized as having a lower degree of cultural achievement and is thus excluded from consideration of having any literature of merit at all? Given the privileged status the category of ‘literature’ holds in our broader culture, there is a profound level of shame and self-doubt associated with not having a body of writing considered as such; not to have literature is, in some ways and to some eyes, to be less than fully human” (18-19).
Like Indigenous peoples, Indigenous literatures need to be self-determining and stand on their own territories. Margery Fee opens her book Literary Land Claims with this question: “How does literature claim land?” (1). She goes on to trace how Canadian literary scholarship, discursive practices, Romantic national identity mythologies, identification with a land that Frye called in The Bush Garden “no-man’s land,” and convenient views of the imaginary or vanishing Indian conspire to “stabilize the colonial claim to land” (2). Fee contends that hegemonic writing practices in Canada become “analogous to the discovery, exploration, claiming, and mapping of actual territory. The heroic author takes over from the vanishing Indians to form a new indigenous mythology for the newcomers, who thus become indigenous themselves” (6). By claiming literary land, Canlit is arguably irreconcilably settled on Indigenous literary territory.
Even if Canlit were to want, in the words of Anne of Green Gables, to be “bosom friends” with Indigenous literatures, I am not convinced the two could coexist in harmony. Rather, and what was really productive about my experimental syllabus, the two worked best together when they revealed the fissures dividing settler and Indigenous cultures. Reconciling the two should not be the goal. Rather, Canlit and Indigenous lit might look to wampum-belt teachings where the space and differences between the two parties are respected. In this way, Canlit and Indigenous literatures might enter into a treaty relationship to open up, in the words of Willie Ermine, an “ethical space of engagement.”
Stephanie Oliver: Thank you so much for your paper, Michelle. I am interested in your argument that Canadian and Indigenous literatures “work best together when they reveal the fissures dividing settler and Indigenous cultures. Reconciling the two should not be the goal.” The statement brought to mind a pedagogical strategy that instructors sometimes use: putting writers from different eras, backgrounds, etc. “in conversation” with one another on course syllabi. Do you think there are benefits to teaching Canadian and Indigenous literatures by putting them in conversation? What about texts that may not necessarily want to be in conversation with one another?
Michelle Coupal: Thanks for your thoughtful question, Stephanie. Conversations are always good, especially if they are held in a room that is comfortable for everyone involved. The problem with putting Canadian literature into conversation with Indigenous literature is that this inevitably happens in the Canadian literature classroom, a space that is, frankly, uncomfortable for Indigenous literatures. Indigenous literatures and literary scholarship have flourished to the point that they now stand on their own and require Indigenous frameworks of thought and analysis. Indigenous literatures require their own rooms to think, dream, write, and tell stories, often in ways that bump up against traditional literary practices. I have been asked, “how can one not include Indigenous literatures in the Canlit survey course, especially when one doesn’t have an Indigenous literary scholar to teach a separate course?” Include Indigenous literatures, but do the work to teach them well. Even better, hire Indigenous literary scholars. No English department in Canada should be without at least one.
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Confronting CanLit’s “Dumpster Fire” Through Backward Course Design
By Stephanie Oliver (University of Alberta)
On July 1, 2017, I began a tenure-track position teaching Canadian literature at the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus in Camrose, Alberta. Although a position teaching Canadian literature in a small liberal arts faculty was in many ways my dream job, I began the position with great ambivalence. I knew that I was one of a very small number of tenure-track hires in Canadian literature in recent years and I was entering a field facing major criticism in the wake of CanLit’s “dumpster fire.” As Alicia Elliott points out, the CanLit dumpster fire has always been burning, but this time the fire spread on social media. It began in the fall of 2016; at the time I was working as the ACCUTE office coordinator and I had one eye on Twitter and Facebook as paper proposals began rolling in. Steven Galloway. #UBCAccountable. Boyden’s and Atwood’s Twitter responses. The backlash and Counter Letter. In December, the re-emergence of questions about Boyden’s Indigenous ancestry. In May, Hal Niedzviecki’s call for the “appropriation prize” and the list of monetary pledges from journalists.
Then came conference season, and with it, a series of reflections on the state of the discipline. Rinaldo Walcott announced that he was “quitting CanLit” at the TransCanadas conference in Toronto. Lucia Lorenzi (@empathywarrior) astutely critiqued what she called “the unbearable whiteness of CanLit” on Twitter. Paul Barrett (@Paul_Barrett) tweeted about zero attendees showing up for an ACCUTE panel on “Austin Clarke’s Critical Neglect” (a panel that I had helped schedule, and for which I was partly responsible). Later, Barrett and his fellow panellists Darcy Ballantyne, Camille Isaacs, and Kris Singh penned an essay in The Walrus calling for CanLit syllabi to move beyond token inclusions of Black Canadian writers. Amidst these discussions, Alicia Elliott and numerous other Indigenous writers, Black writers, and writers of colour used social media and other platforms to call out CanLit against the backdrop of the contentious Canada 150 celebrations.
It was within this context that I took up a privileged position in the academy and became an Assistant Professor of Canadian Literature. To adapt Lorenzi’s phrase, I became another cog in an often “unbearably white” CanLit machine. Questions like “What is my role in relation to these discussions?” now had even higher stakes. With these questions in mind, I began my new job and started designing my first Canadian literature survey course.
My CanLit syllabus was shaped not only by this social and political context, but also by the particular structures at my new institution. The CanLit course I was slated to teach in fall 2017 was already on the books as “Canadian Literature since 1950.” While I was beholden to this title and timeline, these constraints were manageable. More concerning was the course’s calendar description: “focus[ing] on the rise and fall of realism in fiction, . . . the emergence of distinctively Canadian voices among our poets,” and “the present, an age some have termed postmodernist,” the course envisioned a homogenous, “unbearably white” CanLit, listing only canonical figures such as Laurence, Atwood, Birney, Page, Purdy, and Layton (“Courses”). While I could not immediately change this description, I could design a new syllabus—but I had to do so within the context of the new Augustana calendar.
The new calendar divides each term into an intensive three-week “block” (designed for condensed courses to enable travel and experiential learning) followed by a more conventional eleven-week term. I would have only eleven weeks to teach “Canadian Literature since 1950” in a way that addressed the complex issues raised by the dumpster fire debates. Given these constraints, the questions became: Where to begin? To include or not include Atwood? How to deal with Boyden and concepts of Indigeneity? How to best address issues of cultural appropriation? And how to respond meaningfully to critiques of CanLit’s unbearable whiteness—all in only thirty classes (a number that did not include time set aside for introductions, workshops, holidays, or review)?
Rather than starting with the somewhat overwhelming task of selecting course content, I turned to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s pedagogical framework of backward design to begin my work. Also known as backward course design, this framework had been useful for me as a sessional instructor when I was developing my first courses, as I often felt the need to prioritize content coverage over other aspects of the course. In contrast to pedagogical approaches that focus on content first, backward course design invites instructors to begin by asking: What do I want students to take away from this course? Within this model of course design, instructors first develop learning objectives that focus on the skills and knowledge they want students to learn (Wiggins and McTighe 17). Next, instructors design assessments that evaluate the level of skill and knowledge students should be able to demonstrate by the end of the course (18). It is only after developing objectives and assessments that instructors choose content that fits their objectives and assessments (19). By beginning with the end in mind, instructors align learning objectives, assessments, and content in a way that prioritizes student learning while managing some of the challenges of course planning.
It is important to note that backward course design does not necessarily downplay concerns about course content; in fact, it is precisely because I was concerned with how CanLit is “covered” on syllabi that I found the approach useful for tackling concerns raised by the dumpster fire debates. According to Wiggins and McTighe, focusing on coverage typically becomes an issue when instructors teach readings and concepts—often by following a textbook, and often with the goal of cramming in as much content as possible—with little attention to the course’s broader issues, ideas, and goals (16). Emphasizing coverage thus tends to unwittingly “cover up” the course’s overarching themes and questions (230). In contrast, emphasizing what Wiggins and McTighe call “uncoverage”—the process of revealing the hidden meaning of the themes and questions raised by the course—enables students to better understand the significance of the ideas discussed (230). By systematically outlining what I wanted students to take away from the course before selecting readings, I could design what Wiggins and McTighe describe as a “purposeful survey” (16) that aims to uncover the politics of coverage in CanLit survey courses and highlight the structures of power that shape Canadian literature more broadly.
I thus began planning my “Canadian Literature since 1950” course by developing course objectives. I wanted students to become familiar with major themes, debates, and movements in Canadian literature since 1950—which, for me, included the dumpster fire debates. I also wanted students to engage with diverse examples of modern and contemporary Canadian literature from a range of authors in a variety of genres, and to understand how literary texts and works of literary criticism shape, and are shaped by, their broader social, political, and cultural contexts. Finally, I wanted students to develop their close reading, analysis, interpretation, and argumentation skills by discussing and writing about the various ways in which authors create meaning, and I wanted them to do so while strengthening their written and oral communication skills and research skills.
With these objectives in mind, I moved on to assessment. When it came to assessing students’ understanding of the issues raised by the dumpster fire debates, I asked: What was the best way for students to engage meaningfully with these debates and how would I evaluate their learning within our limited time frame? To deepen students’ understanding of the issues, I wanted them to engage actively with the debates rather than simply listening to me lecture. That said, I did not necessarily want to stage the debates in the classroom—a popular active learning strategy—as this technique risked reinscribing the white, Western modes of knowing predicated upon ideals of rational discourse and the so-called free exchange of ideas at the core of some of these controversies.
Guided by my objectives, and knowing that I would only have about ten students in my course (for some of the same reasons Jennifer outlined above), I devoted two classes near the end of the term to group presentations on the CanLit dumpster fire debates. Students were asked to contextualize, summarize, and evaluate key arguments within four recent debates, which I organized around the following topics: #UBCAccountable, Joseph Boyden, the cultural appropriation prize, and discussions about where CanLit goes from here. To ensure students understood the connections between these related controversies, I organized the presentations chronologically based on when the events occurred. To encourage students to think about how literature engages with broader social and political discussions, and to assess the knowledge and skills I wanted students to learn, I had groups analyze one literary text from the course and show how it illustrated or challenged the assigned debate. For example, the group examining the cultural appropriation prize examined how M. NourbeSe Philip’s critique of colonization and linguistic appropriation in “Discourse on the Logic of Language” reflects issues similar to those raised about Indigeneity and cultural appropriation in the wake of Niedzviecki’s Write editorial. Groups also demonstrated their ability to draw meaningful connections between the debates and facilitate productive discussions by posing two questions at the end of their presentations (e.g., In what ways are Niedzviecki’s “Winning the Appropriation Prize” editorial and Joseph Boyden’s “Open Letter to UBC” similar, and how do they differ? Why are these similarities and differences significant?). To ensure listeners also engaged actively with the debates, respondent groups were tasked with asking follow-up questions to continue the discussion after each presentation.
It was only after I planned assessments like this one—a presentation model that enabled students to engage actively with, and think deeply about, the dumpster fire debates within the time constraints of the course—that I turned to content. For the presentation assignment, I created a list of required readings for each group. These readings consisted of a “flashpoint” piece and a selection of responses that showcased various views on the topic. For example, the group presenting on the cultural appropriation prize read Niedzviecki’s “flashpoint” Write editorial alongside Alicia Elliott’s (@WordsandGuitar) early Twitter thread about the publication’s release, the statement from The Writers’ Union of Canada’s Equity Task Force, an op-ed by Jonathan Kay, and other widely circulated responses. While curating this list took time, a task that had once seemed overwhelming became not only more manageable, but also more pedagogically productive once I had a clear strategy and purpose in mind for approaching the content.
The result? Students created thoughtful presentations that carefully evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of the debates. Their work led to generative conversations, and students across the board demonstrated a high level of skill and knowledge based on what they had learned in class. Perhaps most important for me was that many students went beyond the course learning objectives by, for example, critiquing claims about the supposedly free and open nature of debate as part of their presentations. If Canadian literature instructors want to respond to Alicia Elliott’s call to deal with the raging dumpster fires, then we need to support our students in developing the skills and knowledge to do this difficult work. While backward course design may not be ideal for everyone, as a framework that raises questions about the politics of content by emphasizing the process of “uncoverage,” it may be one more tool to help.
Lily Cho: Stephanie, your discussion of backward pedagogy makes me think about the queer theorist Heather Love’s discussion of what it means to “feel backward.” Love talks about the “embarrassment of owning” (4) feelings such as shame or isolation despite the political calls for moving forward and embracing more optimistic or progressive feelings. I wonder how backward pedagogy might allow for taking up the kinds of backward feelings that make Canlit, at this moment, so difficult to inhabit and also so full of possibility.
Stephanie Oliver: Thank you for the question, Lily, and for making this provocative connection. I agree that Heather Love’s work is instructive when it comes to reimagining Canadian literature courses using backward course design. In Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2007), Love explores how queer organizers in the US in the 1970s and 1980s rejected calls to “move forward” (read: move beyond experiences of oppression) by positioning suffering, shame, depression, and other supposedly unproductive—or “backward”—feelings as central to social transformation (158). The emphasis on backward feelings not only enabled organizers to voice dissenting views and desires, but also connected the affective conditions of their political work to longer histories of queer abjection (158). The notion of backward feelings is useful for considering how Canadian literature might be surveyed differently using backward course design. Rather than extinguishing today’s dumpster fires as Elliott suggests, backward course design might contribute to the generative process of undoing that Michelle described earlier by uncovering the backward feelings at the heart of CanLit. As Love puts it, “we still have not yet begun to imagine a politics that allows for damage” (162). What would Canadian literature surveys look like if they allowed for the damage outlined in recent dumpster fire debates? How might these courses survey—or rather, uncover—backward feelings that have historically been framed as unproductive within the nationalist literary project of “defin[ing] and uphold[ing] the nation” (Elliott)? How might surveys connect the political context and affective conditions of recent dumpster fires to longer histories of abjection within CanLit? While many instructors have been grappling with these questions for a long time, the recent dumpster fires remind us that much still needs to be done—and “feeling backward” through backward course design may be a crucial part of the process.
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Given the slight differences in signification, we have chosen to retain author preference on “CanLit” or “Canlit” and so have used both throughout the panel.
Akiwenzie-Damm, Kateri. “The Cultural Appropriation Debate Is Over. It’s Time for Action.” The Globe and Mail, 19 May 2017, theglobeandmail.com/opinion/the-cultural-appropriation-debate-is-over-its-time-for-action/article35072670/. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
Barrett, Paul, et al. “The Unbearable Whiteness of CanLit.” The Walrus, 26 July 2017, thewalrus.ca/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-canlit/. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
Benaway, Gwen. “CanLit: It’s Time for the ‘No Contact’ Rule.” carte blanche, 12 June 2017, carte-blanche.org/canlit-time-no-contact-rule/. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
Berger, John. G. 1972. Vintage, 1992.
“Courses.” University of Alberta – Augustana. ualberta.ca/augustana/programs/ degree/english/courses. Accessed May 18, 2018.
Elliott, Alicia. “CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire.” Open Book, 7 Sept. 2017, open-book.ca/Columnists/CanLit-is-a-Raging-Dumpster-Fire. Accessed 17 Apr. 2018.
@empathywarrior [Lucia Lorenzi]. “The Unbearable Whiteness of CanLit. #TC4 #mikinaakominis.” Twitter, 25 May 2017, twitter.com/empathywarrior/status/867737078666326017. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
Ermine, Willie. “The Ethical Space of Engagement.” Indigenous Law Journal, vol. 6, no. 1, 2007, pp. 193-203.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Johns Hopkins UP, 2019.
Fee, Margery. Literary Land Claims: The “Indian Land Question” from Pontiac’s War to Attawapiskat. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2015.
Justice, Daniel Heath. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2018.
Kay, Jonathan. “Cultural Appropriation Should Be Debated. Too Bad Canada’s Writers Union Instead Chose to Debase Itself.” National Post, 12 May 2017, nationalpost.com/opinion/jonathan-kay-cultural-appropriation-should-be-debated-too-bad-canadas-writers-union-instead-chose-to-debase-itself. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
Lee, Jen Sookfong. “Open Letters and Closed Doors: How the Steven Galloway open letter dumpster fire forced me to acknowledge the racism and entitlement at the heart of CanLit.” 2017, The Humber Literary Review, humberliteraryreview.com/jen-sookfong-lee-essay-open-letters-and-closed-doors. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
Lorenzi, Lucia. “#CanLit at the Crossroads: Violence Is Nothing New; How We Deal With It Might Be.” Empathywarrior.ca, 25 Nov. 2016, empathywarrior.ca/2016/11/25/canlit-at-the-crossroads-violence-is-nothing-new-how-we-deal-with-it-might-be/. Accessed 5. Dec. 2019.
Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard UP, 2007.
McCall, Sophie, et al., editors. Read, Listen, Tell: Indigenous Stories from Turtle Island. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2017.
McGregor, Hannah, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, editors. Refuse: CanLit in Ruins. Book*hug, 2018.
Mount, Nick. Arrival: The Story of CanLit. Anansi, 2017.
Nasrallah, Dimitri. “What Does Michael Ondaatje Have Left to Say? The Iconic Writer’s New Novel Aims To Be Timeless, But It May Simply Be Out of Touch.” The Walrus, 11 June 11 2018, thewalrus.ca/what-does-michael-ondaatje-have-left-to-say/. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
Niedzviecki, Hal. “Winning the Appropriation Prize.” Write, vol. 45, no. 1, 2017, p. 8. CBC Radio, 15 May 2017, i.cbc.ca/1.4112279.1494602501!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/original_620/winning-the-appropriation-prize.jpg. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
@Paul_Barrett [Paul Barrett]. Twitter thread about whiteness and CanLit in response to spring academic conferences. Twitter, 29 May 2017, twitter.com/paul_barrett/status/869186966436421632. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
Philip, M. NourbeSe. “Discourse on the Logic of Language.” Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts, vol. 2, edited by Laura Moss and Cynthia Sugars, Pearson Longman, 2008, pp. 93-96.
Rak, Julie, et al. “Open Counter-Letter: Steven Galloway Case at UBC.” Google Sites, 23 Nov. 2016, sites.google.com/ualberta.ca/counterletter/home. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
Sugars, Cynthia, and Laura Moss, editors. Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts. Pearson Longman, 2009. 2 vols.
Todd, Zoe. “CanLit Heavyweights’ Letter in Support of Steven Galloway Leaves Rape Survivors Out in the Cold.” Rabble.ca, 16 Nov. 2016, rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/campus-notes/2016/11/canlit-heavyweights-letter-support-steven-galloway-leaves-rape-s. Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.
TWUC Equity Task Force. “Statement from the TWUC Equity Task Force in Response to Niedzviecki editorial ‘Winning the Appropriation Prize.’” The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing, 10 May 2017, tiahouse.ca/statement-twuc-equity-task-force-response-niedzviecki-editorial-winning-appropriation-prize/. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
UBC Accountable. “An Open Letter to UBC: Steven Galloway’s Right to Due Process.” UBC Accountable, 14 Nov. 2016, ubcaccountable.com/open-letter/steven-galloway-ubc/. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding By Design. 2nd ed, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998.
@WordsandGuitar [Alicia Elliott]. Twitter thread about receiving her copy of Write magazine and reading Niedzviecki’s editorial. Twitter, 9 May 2017, twitter.com/wordsandguitar/status/862044639263633408?lang=en. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
Younging, Gregory. Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples. Brush, 2018.
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Jennifer Andrews is Professor in the Department of English at the University of New Brunswick and the current President of ACCUTE (2018-2020). She’s been teaching Canadian literatures written in English for over two decades.
Lily Cho is an Associate Professor at York University. Her book Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada examines the relationship between Chinese restaurants and Canadian culture. Her essays have been published in journals such as Canadian Literature, Interventions, and Postmodern Culture. Her forthcoming book Mass Capture: Chinese Head Tax and the Making of Non-Citizens in Canada examines the relationship between surveillance and citizenship.
Michelle Coupal (Algonquin/French) is Canada Research Chair in Truth, Reconciliation, and Indigenous Literatures and Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Regina. Michelle taught Canadian literature and many courses on Indigenous literatures at Laurentian University (2013-2018). She is the current Past President of the Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA).
Manina Jones is Professor and Chair in the Department of English and Writing Studies at the University of Western Ontario. At the time of the panel, she was President of ACCUTE. Over the past twenty-five years, she has taught Canadian literature at Carleton University, University of Waterloo, and the University of Western Ontario.
Laura Moss is Professor of Canadian and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of British Columbia. She is also the editor of Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review and she currently holds the Brenda and David McLean Chair in Canadian Studies.
Stephanie Oliver is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus in Camrose, Alberta. She teaches Canadian, postcolonial, and diasporic literature courses and taught her first Canadian literature survey in 2017.
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Laura Moss: Some books taught in Canadian Literature classes at UofM and UBC (1998-2018)
Laura Moss: Some authors of short stories and poems taught in Canadian Literature classes (1998-2018)
Jennifer Andrews: Sample Canadian Literature syllabus, ENGL3698 (UNB, 2017-2018)
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