I took almost every English class the Community College offered. Two of them were composition courses while the majority were literature classes.
Anyone who has taken a literature course knows what the canon is. For those who don’t, the canon is the classics, the works that every aspiring literature studies student must read. The majority of these works are at least one hundred years old, mostly written by men, white men. During the early 90’s there was a great deal of backlash (at least in what I was reading and learning) against the canon. Several alternative anthologies and courses of study began to be popular. The most progressive and influential of these was an incorporation of cultural and women’s studies. Text from minority writers and women were making their way into mainstream college courses. Wanting more than anything to understand everything I could about writing and literature, I jumped at the opportunity to join in this revolution.
I wrote paper after paper on the subject of an exclusive and divisive canon of literature. I argued against the traditional western canon, not because the texts were in themselves not worth reading, but because I firmly (and still do) believed that they were not the only great western literature written. They told less than half of the story and the story they did tell was often from (at least in my mind) a distorted perspective. How could I consider myself a student of literature if I only read texts from dead white men? Did that make any sense when the world was peopled (past and present) by so much more? Rather than reading Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce or Spenser, I read Leslie Marmon Silko and Ralph Ellison. I read Loiuse Erdrich rather than Jane Austen. I devoured poetry by unheard of writers and completely ignored what used to make up a classical Literature education. I learned that some of what was being currently written, currently talked about was as valuable and often more so than what was written in the past.
Strangely enough, when I attended the University of Utah, the same type of forward thinking professors, the feminists and cultural studies specialists reverted to classic texts. They offered me a different perspective. I read Virginia Woolf and Thomas Moore and ate up their words as well. I discovered a wealth of rebellious, anti establishment rhetoric in texts that often were criticized for being misogynistic or racist. These professors had me thinking I was getting the education I finally deserved. It was easy to believe I had been shortchanged by my Community College experience, that I should have been reading these canonized text from the beginning and my time had been wasted by reading writers that anyone who really studied and talked about literature completely ignored. I started to believe I had not been properly prepared for what would be expected at the university level.
Then I started to write papers again and found that the arguments I had used against the traditional canon still made sense. I could use what I had learned at the community college to make quality assertions, ones I could easily support when being critical of a text. It was a fun time and one that got me equal praise and condemnation from professors and student graders. I loved getting a paper back with long notes in the margins, trying to debunk my points or adding to them. I think if I had not taken the courses, read the material counter to the canon, I would not have done as well at the University.
What I find most interesting is at the Community College, I was learning about these things. Finding them out as if for the first time. When I was at the University, I was expected to already know and understand them. Again it is an issue of perspectives-in one case, I am there to learn, to be instructed, to ask questions and to take risks. Where as in the other, I felt like I was there to show what I knew, to impress, to be heard and seen. It was not about what I had read or learned but who I had read and what I could regurgitate.
There were some instructors, usually visiting professors or graduate students, those without tenure, who fostered open discussion in classrooms, where being wrong was allowed, were not already knowing the entirety of the course was alright. I admire that kind of teaching. I feel it is where the best learning takes place.
I don’t want to imply that I learned very little of value at the University of Utah. While the Community College was the place I learned how to think, how to be critical and what to look for when I read, my university education is where I feel I became fully realized. I grew into my own skin there. I felt strong and confident in what I understood and how I expressed it.
I sometimes miss it, that feel, the college atmosphere. Whenever we go to campus, I find myself remembering individual moments, conversations, interactions. I sometimes miss having that kind of experience be the goal of my day, week and month. I don’t miss it enough to enroll again though…