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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2000

Pandering to the Dominant Ethos Means Death to Drama Studies

Holly Crumpton & Maureen S.G. Hawkins
We academics rightly value our autonomy in curricular matters -- after all, we are experts in our fields. Who should know better than we what should be included in our courses or curricula? That we may squabble about the fine points generally does not invalidate our sense that we have a shared understanding of our disciplines' needs, and we are usually quick to close ranks when outsiders want to poke their fingers in our disciplinary pies.

We sometimes tend, therefore, to forget two things: that our disciplines do not exist in isolation, that what we teach and how we teach it interacts with what is taught and how it is taught in other disciplines and helps to condition our world view and those of our students and our society; and that our shared understanding of our fields comes at least partly from similar academic backgrounds which have resulted in similar viewpoints -- and similar blinders.

Instead, we celebrate our openness to new ideas and point proudly to the ways in which we have rethought our disciplines and the academy in the last 30 years in response to social changes that have made us recognize that our disciplines have incorporated ideological biases which have conditioned the kinds of questions we asked and answers we sought.

Nowhere is all of this truer than in English departments.

We have queried our definition of what literature is worthy to be studied, reworking, expanding, even chucking out the "canon" in order to incorporate the works and world views of women and minorities.

We have redefined the concept of "literature" itself, turning our attention to autobiography, film and popular culture.

We have looked to the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and professional faculties to find new questions to ask of our newly redefined literature, and we have found new kinds of answers to seek.

In the process, we've accelerated the demise of the study of one of the three traditional major genres of English literature: drama.

Even before the recent changes in the discipline, dramatic literature (except for Shakespeare) was a bit of a poor relation in English departments. When English became a university discipline in the nineteenth century, melodrama's heyday, dramatic literature (save for Shakespeare) was perceived as low culture and hence unworthy of scholarly attention.

Generations of academics, teaching what they were taught and ignoring what they were not taught, have perpetuated what has been called an "unacknowledged genre hierarchy" and the ideological biases implicit in it even as they have begun to attack those biases by opening the canon and enlarging the definition of literature.

However, in recent years, financial cutbacks and new areas of study have crowded out older genre-based courses, especially drama. The resulting reduction in lower-level dramatic literature courses has led to reduced enrolments in upper-level courses in the genre, which has led to further reductions in offerings in an age in which the economics of running a university mandate full, preferably large, classes.

Economic changes in the publishing industry and the reduced demand for plays consequent on fewer courses have led to fewer, more expensive published play texts, further restricting the teaching of dramatic literature -- and thus reinforcing the ideological biases implicit in the genre hierarchy.

Because of the perpetuation of those ideological biases all of us in academia should be concerned about the demise of dramatic literature as a locus of study in Canadian university English departments.

Drama, by its very nature, is an interactively communal art form. Through a cast of actors, functioning communally, it addresses the audience, drawn together, on communal issues. This forces us to react interactively with both the cast and the rest of the audience, which encourages us to think of ourselves as members of a community, rather than as isolated individuals.

Since the invention of the printing press permitted the solitary experience of poetry and the development of prose fiction, this cannot be said of the other two major genres.

We live in an age of anomie, conditioned by an individualist ethos rooted in the Reformation, theorized in the eighteenth century, valorized by the Romantics, and, some might say, gone berserk in our own day.

The individualist ethos encourages such socially dangerous acts as attempts to privatize or abolish social services (including higher education) or put them on a user-pay basis which ignores the benefits the community as a whole derives from such benefits to individuals. The resulting anomie may foster the increasingly common random acts of violence our society is becoming prone to.

Human beings are social animals, but our societal ethos valorizes individual, competitive achievement, denies mutual responsibility, and isolates us from one another. By privileging genres that focus on individual over communal experience, we endorse that ethos.

Our claim that Canadian English departments privilege prose fiction and poetry over dramatic literature was, at first, a subjective impression, but our analysis of all courses offered by Canadian university English departments supports it. Even when film is included as dramatic literature and courses in which it is very unlikely that a given genre would be taught (the only category in which dramatic literature predominates) are included in each genre's totals, the disparity is significant.

We discovered that prose fiction must or may be taught in 36 per cent (2,967 courses), poetry must or may be taught in 35 per cent (2,915 courses) and dramatic literature must or may be taught in only 29 per cent (2,369 courses).

We reached these figures by categorising each course according to the following criteria for each genre: whether that genre constitutes the sole focus, a guaranteed aspect, a possible aspect, or an unlikely aspect of the course.

Besides the figures mentioned above, of particular concern is the sharp disparity between the number of courses which guarantee the inclusion of prose fiction (845) or poetry (899) and the number which guarantee the inclusion of dramatic literature (417).

The disparity in genre offerings may be greater than our findings suggest as we based our conclusions on university calendar descriptions. In many departments, not all courses listed in their calendars are regularly taught and not all topics listed in a calendar description will necessarily be taught. This is especially true if the topics are listed only as examples of possible course content.

In English departments, anecdotal evidence suggests that dramatic literature is the most likely genre to be eliminated from a course in which its inclusion is not guaranteed.

We complain that our students are unadventurous -- they know what they like because they like what they know. In literature, what they know best is prose fiction, film and television. Part of this is because we know what to teach because we teach what we know. Trained by generations of scholars who accepted the "unacknowledged genre hierarchy," what we know best is prose fiction and poetry, though we pride ourselves on having become open to film, television and other forms of contemporary popular culture (of which we do not consider drama to be a form).

We are products of an educational system that evaluated us on individual achievement and encouraged us to valorize individual expression. Despite, often, our best conscious efforts to the contrary, we perpetuate the individualist ethos that underlies our educational system by our very choice of genres to teach -- and then we complain bitterly that collegiality is nonexistent. We say our students, lacking any sense of responsibility to each other or to us, come to class unprepared and that our administrations fail to consult us while our governments and society refuse to recognize our contribution to societal well-being.

We would hardly be so foolish as to claim that increasing the proportion of English department offerings in dramatic literature and finding ways to increase enrolment in that area will magically restructure our society.

However, two functions of the liberal arts have always been to provide alternatives to the dominant ethos and to encourage the active consideration of such alternatives' potential for improving human life. In an age in which the dominant ethos is isolatingly individualistic, surely exposing our students -- and ourselves -- to studies which situate us within community should be a vital part of the liberal arts.

Holly Crumpton is a PhD student in the Department of English, University of Waterloo; Maureen S.G. Hawkins is a professor in the Department of English, University of Lethbridge.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.