This is interesting1: a whole graduate class at Texas A&M focused on Hild to illustrate medievalisms in British literature as a major movement. Hild is also being used at King’s College London in an MA course on the Contemporary Medieval, and in a couple of other places. It’s been my experience that for every course I hear about, there’s at least one other that I don’t, which means that Hild is probably being taught in half a dozen institutions this year.
Hold that thought.
Last August I came across English Literature By the Book, a look at the texts set by OCR, a “leading UK awarding body” that “provide GCSEs and A Levels in over 40 subjects and offer over 450 vocational qualifications” for the UK’s GCSE English Literature examinations from 1988 – 2015. In the UK, GCSE study begins when the student is about 14. So the formalisation of what is “important” literature begins early. And according to these statistics the literature that UK schoolchildren are taught is important is largely by and about men. Women wrote 29% of the prose set texts.2 (I have no idea what percentage of those books are written by women are about women. If anyone is willing to investigate further I’d be thrilled.). ELBTB doesn’t break out race of the authors but they do list nationality; it’s pretty clear the writers are overwhelmingly white. Sexual orientation is not even mentioned.3
A couple of weeks ago, I heard about the Open Syllabus Project, an “effort to make the intellectual judgment embedded in syllabi relevant to broader explorations of teaching, publishing, and intellectual history.” Essentially, the project has scraped the metadata from over a million US university syllabi and built something called Syllabus Explorer so that anyone can look at and play with the data. Naturally (hey, writing is a vainglorious profession!) I looked for Hild. I found nothing. So clearly the system isn’t perfect. But it’s still pretty interesting. People are already using it and coming up with broad trends of what’s being taught where. For example, the Washington Post have put together a comparison between the ten most-assigned books in the Ivy League and those assigned in universities as a whole. There’s a little overlap so instead of 20 titles there are 16. Of those 16 only 3 are by and about women, and only 1 by and about people of colour. White men rule.4
School, at all levels, is where we learn what’s important. We are still being taught, in the UK and US at least, that white men’s perspective—what white men think, how white men feel, and what white men believe—is overwhelmingly more important than any other. If you wonder why writers self-censor when it comes to subject matter, if you wonder why judges award literary prizes to novels by and about white men, look no further.
If you are a teacher at any level, consider putting effort into changing this. Consider what you can do to change the syllabus—any syllabus, all syllabuses5—to mirror the diversity of the world.6 Apart from the purely personal thrill of seeing Hild taught (and it really, seriously is a thrill) I’m warmed by the thought of students getting to read about a woman who has agency and smarts, who doesn’t suffer any sexual threat from anyone, who loves people of all colours and persuasions, and who always (in the end) wins. There are worse examples.7
1 The only bit I take issue with: “The novel is one that is an historical novel though Griffith is a science fiction author.” No. I’m a writer. Full stop. I’m no more an SF writer than a woman writer or a lesbian writer or a historical novelist. I write everything, but labels are like adjectives; they often diminish the impact of the noun. In this instance they qualify the word writer. I prefer that to stand on its own.
2 That Sexist Ratio again. But note that Drama is far, far worse than Prose: 96.7% of the set texts are by men.
3 Interestingly, page count is tallied: long books outnumber short. Size, apparently, does matter.
4 As with the Oscars and Emmys, it would have been to depressing to count QUILTBAG authors or subjects, ditto people with disabilities, so I didn’t bother.
5 UK and US populations are slightly different. The proportion of women is broadly similar: close to 51% in the UK and a little over 50% in the US. Race, however, is very different: only 18% of the UK identify as people colour whereas in the US it’s twice that, at 37%. In my opinion there are no good estimates of queer populations. Stonewall’s sounds about right, 5-7%. But it’s pretty much a guess.
6I tried writing syllabi, as I was taught. But it just irritated me. So, stylesheet-wise, while I still prefer millennia to millenniums (shudder) this blog is switching from syllabi to syllabuses. (For the record, I’m okay with either octopodes or octopuses.)
7 All my novels have been taught. Interestingly, none of the Aud books show up on the Open Syllabus Explorer.
8 thoughts on “Intellectual judgement buried in the syllabus”
Status, status, status :-(. The old comparisons of masculinity is alive and well. Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade started a Men’s movement in the 80s and 90s which brought feminine poetry to the fore as men engaged each other with FEELINGS. The feminine acceptance to this caused mainstream media to responded quickly and initially with positive acceptance.
As men began to react to this approach, your comment of “size does matter” rose to the fore. Perhaps the masculine “Lizard Brain” automatically reacts to the physical sizing equation, when uncomfortable acceptance of “difference” is elevated to consciousness.
A great many men were exposed to and accepted as reality the works of Sharon Olds, Ursla Le guin, Emily Dickinson, and Rumi.
This is a jumbled mess of words, but I confess since reading HILD, I have made an effort to expand my reading horizon.
Of course I vote for HILD as my favorite fiction.
Last year, we did a four week module on queer writing and queer theory for a Humanities course for “advanced” students. We taught three novels: Hiromi Goto’s The Kappa Child, Geoff Ryman’s Was, and Dionne Brand’s In Another Place, Not Here. All queer, two of them writers of colour, two of them women. Not that hard, when you come right down to it. I don’t understand colleagues who can’t be bothered to make the effort. You’re so right that limiting syllabi to books by white men needs to change drastically. Students need to be able to see themselves, as well as learning to empathize with others.
I’m going to teach a class at the University of Oregon in the fall – Women and Sport. Perhaps I’ll add HILD as optional reading. :)
Chuck, I hope that effort is its own reward!
Wendy, I so hear you on that!
I read the first pages of The Blue Place to my beginning composition classes to inspire their Descriptive essays. I read excerpts from Hild in class, and some killer sentences from Kelley’s Solitaire as examples as well. I use writing by women exclusively as examples and prompts in all my classes. If they bring it up I point out to them that they would not have noticed, let alone mentioned it, if I had used only men’s writing.
Re: Syllabus/syllabi, I feel the same about cactus/cacti. It is indeed irritating!
Oh, hear you. People don’t notice the Norm at all, even when it is overwhelming. The Other, though, may as well flash with day-glo paint.
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