alex vs academia: round 1
a quick rant about the "classics"
Whoa, remember this old thing? [my newsletter]
I haven’t abandoned it, I swear. I still have half-essays and ideas clogging up my Google drive — I just haven’t had the capacity to write them yet. But it’s the start of a new year, which always puts me in a reflective mindset. Right now I’m reading The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop by Felicia Rose Chavez1 and feeling both empowered and depressed by her journey in academia as a woman of color. There are parts that are so familiar they make me double-take, and parts so horrifying I want to set fires on her behalf.
I’m trying to follow inspiration where it strikes.
If you know me, you probably know I recently graduated from my MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. This is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done for myself — but it’s not without complication. My dirty little not-so-secret is that I am, to date, “on leave” from my bachelor’s program. “On leave” is a polite administrative category that lasts about seven years, before the institution gives up on you ever coming back.
I never meant to drop out of undergrad. It sort of just happened.
I ran into some trouble with the office of financial aid, my account was placed on hold, and I couldn’t register for my third-to-last semester. I didn’t want to just sit around doing nothing, so I enrolled in some gen ed courses through SNHU. I figured I could transfer the credits and, with a little cramming, still be on track to graduate the following year.
That was fall of 2019 — I assume we all remember what happened next.
Lockdown brought a season of personal growth. I read books and essays, listened to podcasts, connected with new friends all over the world from a house I barely left. I lost faith in a lot that year — the government, notably — but gained faith in myself, and the stories I wanted to tell.
I never resolved the issues with my FAFSA — it felt like a silly thing to worry about, when the world was burning — yet slowly but surely, the world insisted on going back to “normal.” I’m too restless to sit around like that, so I started looking into my options—it turns out, with 3/4 of a good-standing transcript and a solid admissions essay, one can begin their MFA program while “dual enrolled” in their bachelor’s.
In her book, Chavez often challenges the “canon” of literature creative writing students are so often tasked with reading and emulating. Here’s the exact passage that prompted me to get out my laptop and start typing today:
By definition, canon conjures sacred rule, authoritative law, a timeless norm by which we judge taste and culture. In his 2007 anthology Literary Genius, editor Joseph Epstein appoints twenty-five “classic” writers as definitive of Western literature. This list features twenty-two white men and three white women. “Not a very politically correct selection,” he admits in his introduction, but to have included other writers “would have opened the gates too widely.”2
When I started as an English major at Boston University, I was excited. English had always been my favorite subject in school. I loved to read and write. I wanted to be a novelist — surely, this was the responsible path towards that objective. When I was a child and said I wanted to be a writer, my family was quick to remind me that I could never support myself that way. So, I’d study to become a professor — academia was admirable, even if it didn’t pay well — and write my books on the side. The future was crystal clear. I felt good about it. I strode into the basement classroom of my first class in the English department, “Major Authors,” with the cocky swagger of someone who’d scored a perfect 5 on both AP Lang and AP Lit tests in high school.
Then, I got the syllabus.
I’d like to pause the story here to ask you, dear reader, what comes to mind when you hear the course title Major Authors? I wasn’t completely ignorant to the legacy of white supremacy in the English department — but I had always swallowed the easy lies of professors past, that “we’re studying English literature, so we must read English [and white American] authors!” It seemed logical enough. If I wanted to learn about books from other cultures, I could take elective courses dedicated to them. I figured “Major Authors” would include a lot of Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. Surely the Brontes and Austen would make an appearance, and I might be asked to read The Yellow Wallpaper (again).
Instead, I was given the following list of titles to acquire:
Grene and Lattimore, eds. Greek Tragedies Vol. I Univ. of Chicago
Homer The Odyssey, Fitzgerald tr. Random
Plato The Symposium, Gill tr. Penguin
Ovid Metamorphoses, Humphries tr. Indiana
Vergil The Aeneid, Mandelbaum tr. Random
Dante Inferno, Sinclair tr. Oxford
Purgatorio, Mandelbaum tr. Random
Paradiso, Ciardi tr. Mentor
There was also a note that “IN ADDITION, there will be extensive assignments in the Bible, although no specific edition has been ordered.”
I blinked at the paper in front of me a few times. Was I in the wrong room? I’d enrolled in some classes with the Classics department, angling towards a minor in mythology. These titles would have made sense in a class on Grecco-Roman literature. Had I mixed up my schedule?
Nope, sure enough, at the top of the page clear as day: EN 221: MAJOR AUTHORS.
“Before you ask,” the professor began. “No, there are no women on this list. It will not be changing, so don’t start.”
I looked around at the other students, desperate for someone to make eye contact with me.
“Who authored the Bible?” I asked. The professor gave a forced chuckle, as if to say, cute, but we don’t have time for humor in my Very Serious classroom. Only, I wasn’t trying to be funny.
“The class is called major authors and he has me reading Homer!” I ranted to my friends. “Homer wasn’t even a person!”
I didn’t resent being asked to read the “classics” — I’d always found something compelling about assigned reading in high school, even with the dullest books. But the audacious and inaccurate title of the course made me want to pull my hair out.
I understood, and continue to understand, the merit of this kind of study. As the professor explained farther down the syllabus, these were some of the most influential texts in Western literary history; they are referenced in much of the literature that followed. If we understood the base texts, we had the tools to understand their coded allusions in the more modern writings of Faulkner or Fitzgerald. Fine, cool, great.
Maybe I would have cut the class some more slack if the professor had agreed to let me read Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey instead. Perhaps I could have forgiven some of the outdated and ignorant takes if he hadn’t once micro-agressively written, “you don’t need to use semicolons to impress me,” in the margins of my essay (not because I had misused the punctuation mind you, but because I had dared to use it correctly).
After writing this whole spiel, I happened to pick up a book that had been collecting dust on my nightstand the last few weeks: Babel by R.F. Kuang. I’d been interested in it ever since it was announced, but I’m a stubborn lover of paperbacks who is usually willing to wait an extra year to satiate my curiosity. Within fifteen pages, I was hooked — here, Kuang captures the exact and infuriating spirit of being “Oriental” in the face of a Western education. I’ve also been reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, so the history and context of Babel was fresh in my mind.
Robin, the protagonist, is an orphaned Chinese immigrant who was saved from childhood death by a mysterious (and wealthy) European benefactor. With a new name and a new life, Robin set to work studying ancient languages with the hope of securing a seat at Oxford, fulfilling his mentor’s wishes. Along the way, Robin discovers there was nothing random about his salvation at all—his white guardian is actually his biological father, who abandoned Robin and his mother with an English-speaking nurse to live in poverty until Robin was deemed “old enough” to be taken back to England, where he would be trained and enlisted with Oxford’s “babblers,” an elite society of translators who use the magic of words to fuel the ever-expanding power of the British empire. Robin’s entire life has been scripted, since birth, to profit his oppressors. I’m only halfway through, but I feel alight. So much of what I have failed to convey in this post, Kuang renders in exquisite detail for her readers. What I’m saying is — read Babel, if you haven’t. If you struggle to understand the inherent (and intentional) displacement of power within academia; if you don’t understand why we have to keep having conversations about “diversity;” if you think that you, as an adult living in the Western world, have absolutely no blame to shoulder for the fate of the non-Western world — read Babel, and get back to me.
Back in undergrad, when we read The Aeneid, the professor asked the class for our interpretation of Dido. I suspect he was looking for a correct answer, not a fresh take. Was she a victim, or just over-dramatic?
Our professor stood at the helm of the room, stance laid-back and comfortable as undergraduates fired back and forth. “She didn’t have to kill herself for him! He didn’t ask her to do that.” “He didn’t even want to get married in the first place, she practically forced him into it!” “He didn’t betray her on purpose, he had to do the right thing for his people?” TLDR; Aeneas was honorable, Dido was a hysterical bitch.
There was only so much of that I could take. My hand shot into the air.
“But what if their roles were reversed?” I asked. “What if Dido betrayed Aeneas, and he committed suicide? Would we call her honorable, or would we still see her as the problem and Aeneas the helpless victim?”
My professor’s eyebrows went up. “Huh,” he said. For a brief, triumphant moment, I had him.
But then he followed up, “I honestly never thought of it that way.”
NEVER? I wanted to scream. You NEVER thought of it that way? How long have you been teaching this class, with your Steve-Martin-white hair and your tenure?
Now, I’m tempted to send a copy of Babel to his office, all these years later. I think I’ll save myself the $20 + shipping, though.
Like I said, I never meant to drop out of undergrad. But in the last four years, every time I’ve considered going back, I’ve thought about that class. Why would I subject myself to that again? To have old white men enforce flavorless opinions on me and reject my attempts at innovation? I’m all set, actually.
Felicia Rose Chavez didn’t drop out of undergrad. She kept going down the path of academia, meeting jackasses and “Major Authors” at every turn. Her voice in The Antiracist Writing Workshop is understandably stern; she has no patience for the pillars of “tradition” that creative writing programs claim to stand on. I can’t help but think about the person I would be if I hadn’t had to leave BU that fateful semester of junior year. How easy it would have been to just keep going, telling myself to take it a day at a time until I was done. Would I have still landed in a children’s writing program? Would I be the person I am today? Would I have another piece of paper hanging on my wall, signed by the gatekeepers, granting me access to the coveted key?
These days, I fantasize about burning down the gate. I read books by writers like Chavez, who braved the storm before me, and try to hold their lessons close to my heart. I write essays about writing and craft and keeping good faith, and I call out bullshit when I see it.
It’s easy to feel like a failure, a burn out. It’s easy to look back at the last decade of my life and zero in on all the things I failed to achieve. But when I read The Antiracist Writing Workshop, when I go back to school as a Graduate Assistant and lead lunchtime discussions about “the hero’s journey,” when I hear my friends read their stories that throw a middle finger up to the Western literary canon—I feel proud. I read books like Babel, and I feel seen. I write essays like this one and I feel, at least for a fleeting moment, like I have the power to change these tired, out-dated ways of thinking and being and creating.
Here are some buttons, if you want to buy the books I mentioned in today’s post —
Special thanks to my friend Karis, for making me send out this post. I hope to get back in the habit of weekly posting, but for now, I’m taking things one day at a time. I hope wherever you’re reading from, you’re safe and warm and comfortable. I hope this year brings good changes for us all.
That’s all I got for now. Much love,
and annotating the crap out of it. I don’t believe in “required reading,” but if I did, this title would. beat the top of the list for anyone participating in the creative writing community, in any capacity.
I’m not sure what’s more upsetting about that pulled quote—the fact that it was written as recently as 2007, or that Epstein is so uncritically aware of his own gatekeeping. Yes, God forbid we open the gates too wide! God only knows what sort of art we might “let in” to our pristine literary canon by mistake.