The Tyranny of Chronology

Given that our department is doing a program review this year, I’ve been thinking about curriculum a good deal.  That has trickled down into how I think about individual classes.  It dawned on me this week that almost everything we teach, we approach chronologically, even when we don’t have to.  When I say we, I mean that quite literally, as I take the same approach as everyone else I know.

I mentioned this to a class this past week, and a student seemed honestly surprised that I would consider changing a class from a chronological approach.  She pointed out that she had learned how historical events had shaped many works of literature we’ve studied.  That’s certainly good to hear, given that that’s how the class is structured, but what I’m finding is that students only view literature this way (or, at least, initially view literature this way; they sometimes get beyond it).

This realization was reinforced when I started reading rough drafts of papers in two classes this past week.  In both classes, the dominant approach is to set the works in their historical context, then use that to read the works.  Such an approach is certainly valid and worthwhile, but now that I’m seeing that approach dominating, I’m beginning to get worried.  If students are only viewing the literature through one lens, they’re getting a narrow view of literature.

Granted, it’s not like we don’t use other approaches within a chronological setup for a class.  We can talk about gender in Tennessee Williams, though we almost always connect that idea back to how women and sexual minorities were treated in that historical time.  Rather than digging more deeply into sexual identity and politics, we revert back to an historical approach.

This approach leads us to talk about all works from certain time periods in the certain way, to jam literature into boxes where it might not fit.  If someone is writing just after World War I, she must have been influenced by the way to talk about the depravity of humanity, even though she could have been writing that poem because of her Uncle Joe or something she read in Shakespeare or the Bible or a popular magazine of the day.

Writers can be in conversation with writers and thinkers from all generations, and we limit them when we argue that they are only (or at least most importantly) influenced by the historical events of their day.  Just because I write in 2016 doesn’t mean I somehow fit with the other writers of my time, and it certainly doesn’t mean I draw my inspiration from events going on around me.  Sometimes I do, but I often don’t.

As long as we keep teaching our classes using this one method, students will continue to think it is the way we should read literature.  Not surprisingly, at least one of my classes this fall won’t be taught chronologically, and I’m considering changing another.  I’ll be curious to see how that changes how I talk about works I’ve taught before.  I’m looking forward to seeing what we all learn about the literature when it’s in conversation with something other than chronology.

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