Anthologies? Surveys? Good or Not?

I ran across an interesting blog post on survey courses and anthologies.

Anthologies definitely shape reading experiences in lots of odd ways. This is especially true of the longer works which they only excerpt. Talk about taking things out of context (and placing them in new ones)! This troubles me with certain medieval works – such as The Book of Margery Kempe again, where the Norton used to make her seem nuttier by virtue of the passages they excerpted; or with the Morte Darthur, where the excerpts made the Lancelot-Guinevere infidelity seem a large proportion of the text (which is more Tennyson’s Arthurian narrative than Malory’s) – but, BUT, I also kind of like anthologies.

And on surveys:

The sense of literary history as a linear narrative (one damned thing after another) that a survey delivers – even if the students take its components out of order, as many at my grad institution did – is hard to “unteach.” So students may very well end up thinking that The Book of Margery Kempe influenced later women autobiographical or spiritual writers because she came first, so to speak. But while she may have lived in the Middle Ages and first created her Book then, her Book is in many ways a 20th century book, because that was when it was (re)discovered and edited and printed; furthermore, she’s a late 20th century figure, not valued as a specifically literary figure until feminist critics valued her as such. Or take the case of most of Old English literature. We know nothing of who owned and kept the Beowulf manuscript, for instance, until the early modern period; it seems to have been virtually unknown in the late Middle Ages. We know more about Old English literature than Chaucer or Malory did.

It’s well-written and particularly interesting to me since many of the examples are from early Brit lit.

One thing she didn’t note, which I do tell my students, is that no one other than philologists were studying Beowulf until Tolkien. So if they hate it, they can blame him.

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