Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Of Can(n)ons and Curricula

The word "canon," as Robert Scholes notes, comes from the ancient Greek word κανών, denoted a hollow reed used as a measuring stick -- and thus contains both the notion of measurement as well as that of discipline ('spare the rod and spoil the child'). When, following the importation of gunpowder into Europe in the later medieval period, large guns were made that hurled missiles into the air, they became cannons, from the same root but a different route.

Literary canons, too, can be weapons in a war, a war of claims and counterclaims about which books are good -- or bad -- for students to read. Back in the Victorian era when public schooling was first established, there were a number of "set texts" -- texts that would be studied in order for students to be examined on them later -- which formed in a sense the first English canon. Among these, excerpts from the Bible were the most common, along with the inexpensive pamphlets produced by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Under later Victorian "reforms," spearheaded by the poet Matthew Arnold, a dab of imaginative literature was added: Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Milton's Paradise Lost, and the Tales of Maria Edgeworth (of Castle Rackrent fame). Arnold referred to these as the "mighty engine of literature in the education of the working classes" -- while at the same time lamenting the fact that much of its energy was wasted on merely getting pupils ready to read a newspaper. Arnold believed that great literature, even more than the Bible, had a 'civilzing' influence, and he was a hearty preacher of its gospel.

To these narrative works were later added a few selections of verse, which were to be memorized. The poetry of Felicia Hemans, particularly "Casabianca" (better known by its first line as "The boy stood on the burning deck"), along with her "The Homes of England," led the list, along with a selections from Shakespeare, Bacon, Pope, Byron, and Lamb (one can look over the entire list in Walter Low's 1876 compilation A Classified Catalogue of Educational Works). And yet, by the end of the century, literary works were once again disparaged in favor of more practical and "useful" books -- a trend which -- as with many Victorian educations notions (such as docking teachers's pay if their students did poorly on standardized tests) are being revived all over again today.

The effort to establish a single common canon of literature, however, never fully took hold at the elementary level; its time came at last with the boom in college attendance in the United States following WWII and the original GI Bill. The WW Norton company brought out its first Norton Anthology of English Literature in 1962, under the editorship of M.H. Abrams (who, amazingly, is still its 'editor emeritus' at the age of 102). You can, if you like, look over the original tables of contents for Volume I and Volume II, and (for comparison) those same volumes in the Ninth Edition used today. You may note that the 1962 edition has only one woman writer -- Katherine Mansfield -- among its 3000+ pages, while the ninth edition has 45; the first edition also had no writers of color, while the ninth has eight.

So who chooses what's in a canon? What falls out, and what comes in, and why? We should ask these questions as we approach Russ Kick's Graphic Canon, where the choices are entirely his. He has not been limited, of course, to British literature as is the Norton; the whole world is his oyster. Still, no choice is without its political dimensions, and there's no reason not to look at that aspect of his selections.


  1. I believe what goes into Russ Kicks Graphic Canon is extremely different than most anthologies. Especially Norton Anthology of English Literature, what went into it was very biased for the time period.
    1962 was a time period where women took the role of child taker and house keeper. Some exceptional women went against the grain but others "knew their place." 1962 was also a time where the black population was slowly gaining the rights they deserved when they were first born. As mentioned before, there was only one woman writer in the 1962 anthology, and black writers started to appear in the later volumes.
    Russ Kick recreates works of literature that was titled "good for the mind" by scholars and teachers and also titled "stupid and boring" by youths.
    With the help of Graphic Novel artists, Russ recreate the world of fantastic pieces such as the Odyssey and Gullivers Travels, so youth and whoever else can rediscover literature.
    These works of were written in a time of gold, a time of peril, a time of renewal. These are the canon that was chosen in Kicks books. These works usually phrased sentences in ways that makes someone read it twice before they kind of understand it. It is not enjoyable to read for most and it deters the love of literature. For me, I hated reading as a kid. I've grown to embrace it now and if I had the odyssey or Romeo and juliet in a comic book art style, I would have read more years ago. Kick really helps with this basic problem.
    Skimming through the first and second volume, I found the entries amusing, I have never heard of so many of these works. I also found that there is no entry of Walt Whitmans "O Captain! My Captain!" This could be a personal preference but I believed that poem should of made its way into Kicks anthology. So far thats the only grievance I have.
    I am excited to dive into new works and rediscover some of my favorites in a brand new way.

  2. Russ Kick's choice of literature in The Graphic Canon provides evidence of unique, and unbiased decisions. All of Kick’s choices are based on personal belief and they are not based on the author. Many pieces of literature that were and still are known as “canonical” are biased. For example, successful white men wrote or were the only ones credited for early classics. Because of this, older lists of classics discredit the possible books of women, African Americans, and working class citizens. Going back to the question asked previously, who dictates what’s in a canon could simply be answered by understanding history and the present. The literature that was chosen during specific time periods was based off of societal views of what was ‘correct’. However, these specific views were generally incorrect and lacked equality for everyone. Currently, literature that is canonical or classic provides evidence of these injustices. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic that shows the amount of inequality and lack of justice African Americans received during the 1930’s. One reason why some pieces of literature do not stay classics is because of their translations. Many books have been translated over and over again and this causes them to be overlooked, or not considered substantial enough to be a classic. Kick’s choices of literature were in my opinion, great picks. He choices are based off of what he believes is a good read, he did not base it off of what is viewed as societally correct.

  3. Russ Kick wanted to create a literary anthology that would be able to pair great stories with great visual works and he did exactly this through “The Graphic Canon”. The three-volume literature work supplies us with works spanning our human existence not only from english literature but from classics around the world. So as I flipped through Russ Kick's volumes of literature, I thought to myself, what exactly makes these pieces of work so important and better than others? As stated in this blog post, canons can be used as “weapons” in literature, some books being found to be “good” or “bad” for students. If you take a look at some banned pieces of work from our past generations, its almost astonishing. Books dedicated to supply knowledge about war, drugs, cultures, romance, etc. are not allowed to be read now a days just because of some vulgar language and information that is just too honest and hard for people to grasp the truth. For example, “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway is about an Italian soldier who falls in love at war. The book talks about epic times in battle as well as the sensual part of his relationship. It shows the the fears of not only soldiers at war but the fears they carry within their loved one. The book was published in 1929 and while it has been controversial through out the years, is now banned in most school districts around the world because of its “sexual content”. An incredible, knowledgeable piece banned because of sexual content, as if kids now a days haven't read worse. Another example is a known classic, “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D Salinger. The book is about A teenage boy that runs away to New York after being expelled from reform school. The book takes us through a first point of view of a disturbed child that has been through so much in his life and how it has shaped him into a “phony”. This book displays how young children have a fear of growing up and becoming adults. This work of art was also banned due to sexual content and bad language. Now again, not to say that any of these books are necessarily “good” or “bad” for someone to read, but by my opinion these are all classics and should be read around the world! So as I continue to read through these volumes throughout the semester I will be sure to keep in mind that these are Russ Kick's opinions on books or experts that are most important in literature around the world.

  4. After browsing through volume one of Russ Kick's Graphic Canon, I found the format and the styles to be very unique and interesting. I have never been a fan of English or literature classes in the past. I always found myself becoming lost and not understanding most of the classic books we had to read in high school, such as various Shakespeare plays. I have always been more of a visual and hands on learner. I love the way this Graphic Canon is formatted with comics and artists’ own images that they thought that the stories would have looked like. Often when I read I find myself doing the same in my head, trying to imagine what is going on. Being able to see the illustrations while reading these works of literature is going to be very helpful to me. I think I will understand more easily and start to enjoy reading these classics.
    As for the question put forth in this blog, who chooses what is in a canon, I am unsure. Prior to this class I had never heard of this type of book (a Graphic Canon), but after learning a little about it, I believe that whatever goes into the canon is entirely up to the editor and maker of that specific canon. It seems to be completely biased in that the editor chooses what he/she thinks the rest of the world should think is important. People have different opinions however, and what I might think are important novels or poems, another student in this class might disagree. There is no one person who sets rules about what books have to be put in a canon. There is no "President" of the canons. This is what makes me think that it is all based on opinion. Russ Kick has chosen what he believes to be the most important novels and poems and has composed these three volumes of Graphic Canons. As a college student who is being introduced to this literature for the first time, I am very excited to see what it holds.

  5. Russ Kick's "The Graphic Canon" takes a different approach to a graphic novel. While I skimming through it looked like any other comic book except for the fact that there were no modern day super heroes such as, Superman and Batman. Kick makes these stories seem easier to read to those who were never fans of reading large books, like myself, and took the novels and made them all the more easier to read which is helpful.
    Aside from parts of the Bible I don’t believe I’ve ever actually read a “canon” before so I was unsure of what to expect. However it seems as though it is very biased and it is whatever the editor(s) believe is right and how they feel others should see things. This doesn't mean that the editor is right in anyway but it their views on the world and how they feel others should view things too. No one person who sets the rules. There are many different people who have many different views on a canon.

  6. When I first opened The Graphic Canon by Rush Kick, I was a bit surprised. When signing up for this class, I had no idea what a “graphic canon” was. Opening the book to find hundreds of what seems to be comic interpretations of literature, I was immediately intrigued. I have never been particularly interested in books like Shakespeare and Chaucer because I always found the reading to be difficult and also boring. Seeing this graphic canon has changed my opinion. This book actually looks captivating and fun to read. Like Kelsey, I am also a hands on and visual learning, so this book is right up my alley. Its one thing to imagine the picture in your head as your reading, but its another to actually see the visuals right in front of you. I think this will bring new perspectives as to how we interpret these pieces of literature.
    A canon, according to the dictionary, is the works of a particular author or artist that are recognized as genuine. As for the question of who choses what’s in a canon, I think that it’s all about personal preference and opinion. There can’t be just one literary canon, because everyone has different thoughts and opinions on certain books. So I am not quite sure as to who exactly choses a canon. It seems that whoever choses a canon is prejudice, because not everyone is going to agree that a certain piece of literature is deemed good for you or bad for you. As we start to read the adaptations of Russ Kicks canons, I think we will get a better understanding of why he chose each piece.

  7. I believe that the deciding factor on what should be put in the canon should be decided based on the audience it is being written for. The views of what constitutes as a good piece of writing compared to a bad one changes based on the generation judging it. Many decades ago, most people saw the works of Shakespeare as timeless and amazing. Now, there are still people who believe it should be read by all, but others see it to be an annoyance to read due to the difficult language it is written in. Just as the language changes over time, so do the ideas of an enjoyable plot versus a boring plot. A story that takes place during the 1700's is very different than one based during current time. Most people like a story in which they can relate to the characters and the plot. When this is the case, people tend to buy newer books. This should be taken into when deciding what books should be put into the Graphic Canon. It should be made up of books that people actually want to read. Books that have to do with current issues and ideas that are relatable to the readers. For the Graphic Canon, technically the books that should be added are based off of what the author wants to add. It is dependent on what Russ Kick wants, but if I were him, I would base it off of what the readers want and enjoy.

  8. After completing the assigned readings, I have decided that time is the only permanent tool to measure what goes into a canon. According to Scholes, both Bennett and Hirsch were misguided in their aspirations towards creating a solid canon. I agree with Scholes because the ideas that a strong central leadership or a dictatorial academia president only results in err. If such ideals were implemented, then bias would dictate the selections based off his/her own education and the list would only conform to suit the needs for success in standardized testing. To make a student conform to a list of approved literary works would hinder his/her ability for intellectual growth. I believe a person’s imagination but be nourished with works that enlighten the mind. To base a canon solely on “classical” works would leave out pieces from new age thinkers. The creation of “The Graphic Canon” is a tool that can break the rigid structure of past canons. While I believe this canon does not do well in conveying theme, plot, and tone, the idea is monumental. It creates a new approach to learning that students may find more appealing than reading a book that’s “good for them.” To answer the question of who determines what goes into a canon and why is difficult. I personally believe a canon cannot be created and utilized for the world as a whole, but many canons should be developed according to the specific region. Components like culture, society, and time (or history) need to be taken into account to create a well-rounded “list” to bring forth new ideas. A person’s knowledge cannot grow with a stagnant rhetoric. Perhaps a committee of well-educated people within every profession should meet and discuss influential literary works and vote upon them every few years. New literature should not be overlooked because it is not yet a “classic.” My opinion is that even the format of a canon should be challenged because movies and comics fall within the definition of what a canon’s purpose is to convey. “The Graphic Canon” can even include comic book stories into it’s pages. It doesn’t seem too far fetched considering the majority of the illustrations are depicted in a comic book theme. I would also like to see depictions greek mythology because the stories are short and can be shown within a few pages like Hercules’ labors. Mary Gaide

  9. Disclosure: I still am waiting for my arrival of The Graphic Canon, Vol 1 textbook.
    Based on my interpretation, I believe Graphic Novels/Canons make it more interactive for the reader to indulge in the richness of content, rather than reading pages of texts that we are all used to. By having this approach (as Jarrod Terry said), the stories makes it easier to read in comparison of large textbooks. It's graphic concept is not better than the regular textbook perception, it depends on the reader. However, I do believe that if more people were introduced to this graphic idea earlier, maybe more students would enjoy and see the stories come to life therefore better enjoy the richness of Canons or stories more.

    The process of choosing a canon seems like a total literature recycling protocol, good stories come in, good stories come out. I believe this is because not only to portray certain ideas from stories but to respect the writers who told great stories. Russ Kick does have a tremendous amount of power choosing the Canons. I believe we should learn more about Russ Kick to have a basis in where he is coming from by picking these stories. In a recent class discussion, it was said that Kick was known to not pay authors he included in the Graphic Canon volumes.
    I believe Mary Gaide has a valuable point, "a committee of well-educated people within every profession should meet and discuss influential literary works and vote upon them every few years."

    Nathan Silva

  10. I am also still waiting on my books to come in.
    To be completely honest, I had no idea what a graphic novel was when I enrolled in this class. I'm interested to see how Kick interprets certain "classics". I feel as though a graphic novel will be much more interesting to "read" though than the classic itself but I will have to see. I was a little confused about what a canon was when it was mentioned in class but after reading the article "Aiming a Canon at the Curriculum" I realized that canons aren't just a book of classics, there's way more that goes into it like how classics are being interpreted, who is writing it, etc. I think that a lot more students would enjoy a graphic novel than a written novel but I understand why they aren't as popular. I would also like to express that "classics" shouldn't be limited to the books we were made to read in high school, I believe that classics should come from every time period including today's. I'm excited to see what this canon is all about and how these artists interpret these novels we call "classics".

  11. I was very surprised and caught a little off guard when I first opened up Volume 1 of The Graphic Canon edited by Russ Kick. I didn't really know what to expect and I wasn't too sure what was entailed in a graphic novel. As I flipped through the book, I thought that this graphic novel will be much more interesting and captivating to read than any other ordinary book. The illustrations and graphics really capture one's attention.
    To me, what goes into a canon is all about opinion and preference. Whether it includes a few classics or not is all about the opinion of who is choosing what literary pieces are going into that canon. Everyone has different views on what is necessarily a good book or a bad book, so those included in a canon will be viewed differently to others as to whether or not it belongs. That is why it is all about opinion and preference; some people might think the books included in a canon are excellent while others do not. I am not entirely sure of who chooses what exactly goes into a canon. However, I do believe whoever is writing a canon or graphic canon has the say of what goes in it.

  12. “The graphic Canon” by Russ kick seems to be a very unique book and a different way of teaching old literature. As I read some of the book the story of “Gilgamesh” stood out to me because I had read it in high school. It was much more interesting reading it with pictures then just reading the words. There were also other stories such as “The Iliad” and “Beowulf” that I recognized.
    In “Aiming A Canon at the Curriculum” there was an essay called “Modern education and the classics” that was written by Eliot and I agreed with him when he talked about the issues regarding education and societies. The only way for people to have the education they want is by having a society that does not hold them back from obtaining that education. However many people have their own different interpretations of what a society should look like. For this reason education can never be perfected and if someone changes the education system the question that comes next is “how long will that change last?”
    Bryant Ayala

  13. Russ Kick takes redesigned classic canon literature for today's generation of readers. He took such stories as Beowulf and the Odyssey and portrayed them in a way that has not been done before. In my opinion, he has changed the typical bias view that has been placed on these novels and also changed the perception of women. Primarily in the Victorian era women were viewed simply as property and child bearers. They had no prominent role in society. These selected literaturary works bring women into the spotlight and highlight the role they did play outside of their lowly household.
    Elisabeth Holloway

  14. "the Graphic Canon" is an excellent way to educate oneself of the many classic literature stories there are out there. Many of which are familiar, while some may be new to others. I had absolutely no idea what to expect when signing up for this class. However, once I received my 3 volume set in the mail I was immediately intrigued. I personally have a love for comics. I used to read them every Sunday morning when my dad would buy the news paper. Opening this book brings back memories of my high school literature classes. I really am loving the concept of graphic interpretations. I also have an appreciation for the artists' work with the layouts and color schemes.

    Marissa DeRoy

  15. When I first signed up for this class, I also had no clue what I was signing up for. When I first opened this book, it was nothing that I expected. Seeing all these comics and drawings made me think about when I was a kid and how that was the only book I would ever pick up were the ones that had drawings that made me want to keep reading.

    After reading the introduction, I now know more about it and I can't wait to see what is coming up in this book. Its a different way to read than what I am use to, and I cant wait to see how this goes.

    - Brandon Men

    1. In Robert Scholes “Aiming a Canon at the Curriculum” he argues that having a set canon as proposed by Hirsch and Bennet would not accomplish their goal of reversing what they believed to be a decline in education and would instead, among other things, limit peoples ability to be critical of these “canonized texts.” I agree with Scholes in regards to this and with his opinion that what is contained in a canon should be up to the individual who is creating that particular canon. I believe that the ability to be critical of literature is one of the most important components in creating a canon because it generates reader interest. Therefore, if there were a set canon that limited people’s ability to be critical of these “canonized texts” then I believe the literature within the canons would lose part of what caused them to be canonized in the first place.
      The works of literature contained in Russ Kick’s canon were completely up to Kick himself. Kick’s graphic canon uses graphic adaptations of the original works of literature, which make it much different than other canons. In Kick’s “Introduction to Volume 1” of his Graphic Canon he mentions that the adaptations contained in it could lead people to read the original works of literature. These adaptations are shorter and they use art as a tool to draw in the reader and make the literature easier to understand. I believe that for these reasons Kick’s Graphic Canon will cause people to read the original works of literature he chose to include because of the interest generated by the graphic adaptations contained in his Graphic Canon.

      Alex Collins


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