“What’s on Your Syllabus?” Decolonizing the Classical Essay Curriculum –Jenny Spinner

9780820354248If you gather a bunch of teaching essayists—or essaying teachers—into a room, chances are that at some point, somebody is going to ask what’s on the syllabus. That happened recently in an online room on Facebook, specifically in the room that calls itself “Essaying the 21st Century.” The late William Bradley started this group, and it’s one of my favorite social media spaces, the perfect place for writers, teachers, and scholars of the essay to connect online with others who share a penchant for the form.

In a recent post, Joe Bonomo, an essayist and creative nonfiction professor at Northern Illinois University, uploaded a picture of his well-worn copy of Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. After expressing the love that many people have for Lopate’s tome, Bonomo wondered aloud if there might be something better out there, given the fact that the collection, now over twenty-five years old, is short on diversity of writers and of forms within the form. Bonomo wrote that one of the reasons the Lopate book has been his go-to for years is that it helps his students understand that the work they produce is “part of a centuries-old tradition.” Suggestions followed, and in their wake settled a number of unasked questions, the same sort of questions that drive many debates about literary canons and syllabi: What are the pedagogical goals of the essay courses we teach? What essay models exist that can inspire our students to reach those goals? And—perhaps the most potentially polarizing question of them all—how do we address the goal of decolonizing the essay curriculum by putting together diverse, inclusive syllabi that challenge the notion of the essay as a white (privileged, educated, middle-aged) man’s genre?

A proliferation of diverse women’s voices in the genre—and what led the New York Times to ask in 2014, “Is this a golden age for women essayists?”—has made achieving that latter goal much easier in the last decade or so. That has not always been the case. Rigorous, expansive discussion of the essay form is a fairly recent phenomenon, recent enough that many of us essay scholars came of age during a real dearth in nonfiction studies. Women, and writers of color in general, were largely absent for most of the twentieth century not only from scant critical studies of the essay but also from the anthologies we read and the syllabi that guided the courses we took. Even The Best American Essay series has historically underrepresented women in its pages (I wrote about that here for Assay). In many ways then, as scholars and teachers, we have had to act deliberately in our attempts not to repeat our own education.

For me, that has meant devoting my professional life’s work to upending a historical and critical perspective of the essay that has largely excluded women. It has meant actively working against the commonly held, or at least critically unexamined, idea that despite their recent success, women essayists have not always been such active participants in and shapers of the genre (they have). It has also meant making women essayists like Margaret Cavendish, Eliza Haywood, Ann Plato, Fanny Fern, Gertrude Bustill Mossell, Agnes Repplier, Zitkala-Sa, and Rebecca West, to name just a few, a core part of the essay’s narrative in courses I teach, rather than sprinkling them alongside a master narrative to be consulted only if there is time (We all know, in any given course, there is never enough time. Subversion restarts the clock.)

The overall objectives of a particular essay course will certainly dictate the amount of course space, if any, an instructor spends discussing the history of the modern essay. It may be reasonable that the name “Montaigne,” or “Marie de Gournay,” for that matter, may never cross the lips of teacher or students in a contemporary essay course focused on the lyric essay or flash nonfiction. (Reasonable, but not encouraged.) It may also be the case that the essay’s utilitarian function in many first-year composition classrooms means that, depending on their own educational background and professional interests, some teachers of the essay may not be all that invested in the genre as a genre. In her book, Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies, Nicole B. Wallack doesn’t let these teachers off the hook. She imagines an “essay-centered curriculum” for students that places the essay front and center in the writing classroom. In this model, where the essay is an art form, not merely a function, “students would learn the history of the essay in different periods and cultures; they would be expected to read the genre’s major practitioners and innovators and learn about how and where subgenres of the essay have arisen” (210). Such reading, she argues, would allow students to “deepen their understanding of the plasticity and responsiveness of a genre—the essay—one that enjoys a long history as an intellectual and creative practice, a substantive theoretical literature, and a wide and varied group of practitioners” (200).

Like Wallack, I believe there is enormous value in helping our students situate their own storytelling, and the challenges of personal writing, in the larger, historical context of the essay genre. To do that, however, the women and the writers of color who have often been left out of the canon must be let back in. They are essential to this discussion not only because of their rightful place in the essay canon but also because of what we learn by understanding the obstacles they had to hurdle in order to write of themselves, as themselves, particularly in earlier centuries. In a creative nonfiction workshop that I taught last year, for example, a brief discussion about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women essayists moved into a much longer one about “taboo” personal topics for women writers today and the personal and professional risks that women still take when writing about such topics.

Juanita Rodgers Comfort, in her article “Becoming a Writerly Self: College Writers Engaging Black Feminist Essays,” makes the case, too, that essays by black women, for instance, help students to understand “the multiple locations from which the authors speak as African American women (gendered, cultural, economic, generational, spiritual)” (554). This kind of positioning is exactly how and why earlier women essayists were able to find success in the genre. In the case of essays by women of color, Comfort argues, directing students to interrogate such authorship issues can also lead them to develop a “racialized consciousness” (544), impacting their own narratives as well, whatever the students’ racial identities. I certainly found that to be the case in an all-white creative nonfiction workshop after introducing students to Plato, Mossell, and Zora Neale Hurston, whose work we read alongside Dionne Irving Bremyer’s moving essay, “Treading Water.” Many of the personal narratives the students constructed demonstrated an awareness of race that had been invisible to them before reading these essays. In another course that I taught, a graduate seminar on women essayists, students were embarrassed by how few women essayists they could name, fascinated, and irritated, by two centuries of omission of women from the essay canon by editors and critics, and eager to participate in recovery work themselves by contributing women essayists’ biographies to Patrick Madden’s marvelous Quotidiana website.

My copy of The Art of the Personal Essay, like Bonomo’s, is now well worn and dog-eared, its margins filled with years of pencil scribblings. Lopate speculates in the anthology’s introduction, after apologizing for what he hopes is not “a sexist oversight but a reflection of the facts of the situation” (liii), that women once eschewed the personal essay because they could make more money writing poetry and novels and plays; the essays they did write, he contends, “were usually impersonal or passionately polemical” (liii):

The personal essay, for all its protestations of littleness and marginality, in fact leans on a tone of easy, gentlemanly, ‘natural’ authority which comes from being in the world—the tone precisely most difficult for women, especially those raised traditionally, to assert.  There is perhaps in the very notion of the generalist amateur, comfortably talking about anything and everything, a certain masculine arrogance.  Until recently, it was easier for women writers either to conceal themselves behind their characters in novels and plays or to fight against the tyranny of men in polemical treatises than to adopt the light irony or immodestly confessional self-exposure of the personal essayist.  (liii)

For these reasons, Lopate concludes, “There were no female Hazlitts and Lambs” (liii). The first time I read this sentence, as a homework assignment for a long-ago graduate workshop, I wrote next to it, “investigate this.” A year or so later, I met Lopate in person and pressed him further. “Find them!” he encouraged me. And, while it took more than a decade, I eventually did, publishing last winter Of Women and the Essay: An Anthology from 1655 to 2000. The book contains forty-six American and British women essayists writing in English, an Appendix of two hundred more women, and stands as an open invitation for others to investigate more, find more.

In a 2001 article for the inaugural issue of the journal Pedagogy, “How It Is: Teaching Women’s Poetry in British Romanticism Classes,” Harriet Kramer Linkin writes about the infusion of recently discovered British women poets into British Romanticism classes, and the upending, really, of the British Romanticism canon in the late 1980s, thanks to those discoveries.

Linkin includes in her article responses from a range of instructors teaching this new curriculum ten years out in the late 1990s. Their summary responses capture their “worries,” struggles” and “concerns” but also the largely positive impact of the inclusion of women in their courses (113). Ultimately, Linkin concludes—though she calls it “Not Quite a Conclusion”—“these voices express a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for engaging the work, as well as a sense of renewal about the mission of teaching, of taking delight in the process of discovery” (113). I have similar hopes for the essay, for our scholarship, for our classrooms. Those hopes rest, though, on all of us who teach the essay committing to the hard work of reshaping our essay courses, and ultimately, the essay canon. On the upside, if ever there is a genre suited to discovery, to dynamic questioning, to movement backward and forward all at once, it is the essay. So, “What else is out there?” Let’s keep posing that question, to ourselves, and others.

Works Cited

Comfort, Juanita Rodgers. “Becoming a Writerly Self: College Writers Engaging Black Feminist Essays. CCC, vol. 51, no. 4, 2000, pp. 540-599.

Linkin, Harriet Kramer. “How It is: Teaching Women’s Poetry in British Romanticism Classes.” Pedagogy, vol. 1, no. 1, 2001, pp. 91-115.

Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay. Anchor Books, 1995.

Strayed, Cheryl, and Benjamin Moser. “Is This a Golden Age for Women Essayists?” The New York Times Sunday Book Review, 12 Oct. 2014, p. 27.

Wallack, Nicole B. Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies” Utah State UP, 2017.


Jenny Spinner is an associate professor of English and director of the Writing Center at Saint Joseph’s University and a Senior Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. She earned a PhD and MA in English from the University of Connecticut and an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from The Pennsylvania State University. She is the author of Of Women and the Essay: An Anthology from 1655 to 2000 (2018) and co-author with her twin sister Jackie Spinner of Tell Them I Didnt Cry (2006). Her essays have appeared in Brevity, Fourth Genre, The Washington Post and on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” among others. 

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