Racism and the (History of the) Teaching of English Literature

An image of a blue, black, and white book cover, with the title "Professing Literature: An Institutional History" and Gerald Graff's name on prominent display. The image in between the title and author's name is a book splayed open, seen from the side, on a solid black background.

from http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41xnXzmzpGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

This discussion of Professing Literature: An Institutional History by Gerald Graff[1] is based on the idea that, as stated by David Gillborn, “the most dangerous form of ‘white supremacy’ is not the obvious and extreme fascistic posturing of small neo-nazi groups, but rather the taken-for-granted routine privileging of white interests that goes unremarked in the political mainstream” (485).[2] This subtle, heightened form of white supremacy can be found easily throughout the history (and contemporary) teaching of English in the United States, yet – disturbingly – in his history of English studies in the U.S. academy, Graff elides and sometimes even excuses this racism.

Graff paints an idealized history in which the field-coverage principle[3] allows for the accommodation of “disruptive” areas such as “contemporary literature, black studies, feminism, Marxism, and deconstruction” without “paralyzing” the whole of the department (7). (Ableist use of dis/ability as a metaphor aside, shouldn’t the goal of these areas and methods of study be precisely to disturb the entire department structurally, rather than to merely be ‘tacked on’ to avoid challenging anyone’s privilege?) He writes that newer (and presumably, according to his analysis, less racist) critics in English will encounter protests from “senior” (and presumably, according to his analysis, more racist) faculty members, but when these people (men) retire, “his replacement [will] most likely [be] somebody who had quietly assimilated the [new] critical methods, with the offensive prejudices smoothed away” (194).

The narrative this creates is one of relentless positivism: it creates a story in which the history of English teaching is shaped by a linear progression of always getting better, always getting less racist, misogynist, etc., simply by the progression of time and the waiting for racist, misogynist, etc., faculty to retire. This is enormously problematic, as is any argument that constructs history as a progressive “it gets better” (Dan Savage? Ick!) narrative.

(“‘The civil rights movement happened, Obama got elected, hooray, let’s all be ‘colorblind’ and postracial!’


Equally alarmingly, Graff dismisses concerns about the whiteness and maleness and straightness and ableist-ness and middle classness and need-I-go-on-ness of the literary canon. He comforts readers by claiming that, “it was up to each instructor (within increasingly flexible limits) to determine method and ideology without correlation to one another” (9). In other words, a hegemonic canon is fine, because you never know who’s teaching it: you might have an anti-racist professor in there somewhere, and that makes it all better.

A still from the movie Toy Story with Buzz Lightyear gesturing outward and Woody looking despairingly in the direction he is pointing to. The text readers "RACISM... RACISM EVERYWHERE."

from http://www.memecreator.org/static/images/memes/248743.jpg

Oddly enough, Graff acknowledges later that there is a question of “whether the effectiveness of teaching can be fairly measured apart from the institutional forms that shape it” (227). Surely not. Surely an evaluation of all teaching is subject to an evaluation of the institutions in which this teaching occurs. And if this is the case, it is a problem greater than relying on individual teachers to subvert it that the canon is what the canon is, with the occasional obligatory Baldwin and the rarer, partially obligatory Walker tacked on.

Tacking on has been a revolutionary, radical starting point – for example, adding women’s studies programs into English programs, as Graff mentioned above – but that is what it has been: a starting point. We cannot write off the vast history of oppression within English education (and education more broadly) – Who are most of our professors? What texts do we make our students read? What dialect of English do we make them write in? Who has and has had unfettered access to “higher” education,  anyway? – by taking permanent solace in a starting point.

A picture of white male politicians in suits laughing hard with drinks in hand. White text reads "AND THEN I SAID LET'S LOWER TUITION!"

from http://carmenkynard.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Screen-shot-2012-02-15-at-1.04.04-PM.png

So what do I propose? That any history of English education in the U.S. examine that history through postcolonial, queer feminist, and critical disability lenses. The results will be more complicated than narrating the debates between white men over the years (which is most of Graff’s book), but such a reading would also be infinitely more rewarding.


[1] Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

[2] Gillborn, David. “Education Policy as an Act of White Supremacy: Whiteness, Critical Race Theory and Education Reform.” Journal of Education Policy 20.4 (2005): 485-505.

[3] This principle states that the prominence of different fields within English departments encourage an expanded breadth of coverage of topics while discouraging interaction between interrelated but discretely listed fields (6-7).

6 thoughts on “Racism and the (History of the) Teaching of English Literature

  1. Lindsey Albracht (she/her/hers)

    Hi Jennifer,

    You make a lot of really good points in this post, but I didn’t read Graff’s description of the field coverage model as his implicit defense of it. To me, it seemed that he was attempting to expose its origin, but not really for the purpose of validation. He says that the “assumption implicit in the humanist myth and the field-coverage principle has been that literature teaches itself…[u]nfortunately, the assumption has never proved true…” (9-10), and he goes on to regret that “literary studies have not yet found a way to institutionalize the lesson of recent criticism that no text is an island, that every work of literature is a rejoinder in a conversation or dialogue that it presupposes but may or may not mention explicitly” (10). These two comments are dated (this book was written in 1987), but they seem to oppose – rather than to endorse—an imperfect structure as it currently exists (or, rather, existed in 1987). Am I reading this too hopefully?

    There are other reasons that I think that Graff’s project is to explain – rather than to enthuse about – where we are in 1987. While I can see what you mean about his “relentless positivism,” I also think that his overall thesis reads as “understand and teach the points of conflict” rather than “continue doing what you’re doing in your own little box, don’t challenge your own thinking, don’t talk to anyone who isn’t in your field, wait for the dinosaurs to retire and leave the department, and all will be well.” In fact, near the end of the book, he argues this explicitly:

    Rather than try to insulate the curriculum from political conflicts, a more realistic strategy would be to recognize the existence of such conflicts and try to foreground whatever may be instructive in them within the curriculum itself. If the curriculum is always going to be determined by trade-offs, why not try to let students in on whatever matters of principle are at issue in them? (251-252).

    He also ends the book by calling for a greater degree of collaborative thinking across the field. He wants people to talk to each other, not only to avoid redundancy, but also to strategize collaboratively for new ways of organizing, hiring, teaching, researching, etc.

    I do take issue with his assertion at the end of the book that “the most formidable obstacle to change is structural rather than ideological” (262), however, because I feel like these two things are not mutually exclusive (i.e. Ideology informs structure, right? Structural configuration is bound up with ideology, and structure cannot be separated from ideology, so a structural reshaping would need to acknowledge its own ideological goals and assumptions, which is something that the field wasn’t doing well in 1987, which seems to me to be the reason for Graff’s book in the first place…so, maybe I’m misreading this claim, but I had trouble with this.) But at the end of the book, it seems that he says that the easiest solution – the thing that’s most likely to happen right now – is for things to go on the way that they have (i.e. tacking on, not talking to each other, not learning that much about what our colleagues do and how our ideologies might conflict or intersect, etc.), but that doesn’t seem to be what he wants. I think it’s simply not within the purview of this particular project for him to suggest an alternative, and maybe that is a big limitation of the book. So your proposal to re-read this history through lenses (as Graff does, but doesn’t explicitly admit to doing) seems really apt and important to me. It also doesn’t seem like it would conflict with Graff’s project but, rather, that it would build on it. I haven’t started the Underwood book yet, but perhaps (hopefully?) he does a bit of this work since it was written much more recently. What do you / y’all think?

    1. Jenn Polish Post author

      Hi Lindsey,

      You rock. 🙂

      You’re right, I didn’t read this hopefully. You’re also right about his conclusion that we should introduce students to conflicts and increase chatter across fields, and I do love that. However, my main reason for reading his book so non-hopefully is that he didn’t give his readers the conflicted views! He only gave the conflicts of white men talking to white men (so far as I know – to be fair, I didn’t google every guy in the book [though I did google many, and many of them had interesting beards)]. I’m pretty sure there have been other intense and fruitful debates and movements within departments led by people of color, women, and on and on. He doesn’t really discuss these views and their impact on the history of English departments. It seems to me that the history of English departmental formation is drenched in racism, for example, and he didn’t really discuss that either (except for a few fleeting references that weren’t really fleshed out). He gave the dominant narratives and dominant debates throughout his book. So, in total, even though you’re completely right about his ideas and call for us to engage students in conflict (which is great), he replicates the same thing he cautions against by not giving his readers (students?) insight into the racial and sex(ual?) conflicts that have undoubtedly been part and parcel with the history and current state of our discipline.

      Does that make sense?

      Can’t wait to see you tomorrow (in like, all my classes!)!

  2. Lindsey Albracht (she/her/hers)

    Hi Jennifer,

    Yeah — that completely makes sense. That’s a good point. He doesn’t seem to model what he’s advocating. At least, he doesn’t do it very seriously. It’s particularly bananas (and, perhaps, telling?) to me, as a Comp/Rhet person, that he almost completely omits the role and function of Comp in the post-WWII academy, too (which is — as I see it — includes a history that is intrinsically bound up in the conflicts that arise between the New Critics and the scholar / critics who come after them…but that’s a topic for another time). But, again, maybe this is because so much of his book — at least the first 200 pages of it, roughly — describes a time before the academy was even considering that, maybe, JUST MAYBE, the project of literary studies isn’t to locate some imaginary, neutral, dispassionate capital-T “Truth” in a text. I think this feels so obvious to us now, and maybe even Graff is a little behind the times, but is it possible that he’s writing to an audience of Old Guard colleagues rather than to graduate students, younger faculty, and non-academic critics who have already moved past New Criticism as, like, a thing? I don’t know. I think thinking about his audience is potentially a really interesting entry point, though.

    All of that said, I’m not defending Graff completely or saying that this book is without its flaws, but I guess I think of it more as a semi-progressive artifact that could have been a much more extensive project than he made it. I see this flicker of hope / resistance in a few places. They’re too glancing, but they’re there. He critiques Helen Vendler’s ultra-conservative “teach your students to love what you love” address at the MLA in 1980, pointing out the false choice that she gives between “prizing literature for itself or for its historical contexts” (254). He (too briefly) lays out the argument that “[some] feminists…[argue] that the basic frameworks of logic and rationality are not universal but gender specific, that discourse as traditionally conceived is male,” and gives Gail Godwin’s NY Times Book Review attack on Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Norton Anthology of Literature by Women as evidence of this conflict playing out in real time (259-260). I’m not letting him entirely off the hook, and I’m not saying that he shouldn’t have done more to incorporate some of these arguments more fully or, at the very least, to admit his own biases. But I could see how doing this could be tricky for him — especially considering his audience and the cultural moment in which he’s writing. Now I want to know more about this book’s reception at the time it was written, though!

    See you in, like, 45 minutes!

  3. Matthew K. Gold (he/him)

    Thank you both for getting our online discussions off to such a fantastic start. Both Jennifer’s post and Lindsey’s responses to it in the ensuing discussion model thoughtful engagement with our readings.

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