New Canons and New Media:
American Literature in the Electronic Age

Randy Bass, Electronic Resources Editor
Heath Anthology of American Literature

{Hypertext version, expanded from the Heath Anthology of American Literature Instructor's Resource Manual}

The Heath Anthology as Technology
Electronic Texts
Engaging Reading
Texts, Contexts, and Hypertexts
Distributing the Responsibility for Making Knowledge


The Heath Anthology as Technology

see Texts and Contexts: Thematic Connections for Readers

In this brief essay, I want to suggest some of the ways that the study of American literature is enhanced and transformed with the use of electronic tools and technology resources. En route to that I want to begin with the idea that the pedagogy and methods at the heart of the Heath Anthology already have great affinity with the shape and potential of electronic environments. Another way to put this is to claim that the Heath Anthology of American Literature, with its size, richness, and multiple voices demonstrates that the study of American literature has outgrown "the book." By this I mean that from the beginning, the paradigm of American literature that held together the two Heath volumes came from some place beyond the idea that there was a single "story" of American literature to tell, or a fixed, singular narrative of the "rise" of American expression, or an agreed upon range of texts that represented the best of American creative output. As John Alberti points out, the construction of the Anthology on a multicultural and "historically-grounded rhetorical approach" marks a shift from themes and works to "an emphasis on process, on discursive confrontation, negotiation and revision." The arrangement and framing of texts within the Heath, often under headings like "Tales of Incorporation, Resistance, and Reconquest," and "Contested Boundaries," while focusing readings around these central "problems" point as well to the impossibility any longer of finding a single organization for what is really a web of interrelationships among readings. There is no longer a single point of origin with which to begin, nor a single line of literary historical development to follow, but an array of "contingent centers" that might shift from period to period and from course to course. One might read Ralph Waldo Emerson at the center of the so-called "American Renaissance," or alternatively, in parallel with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs for competing versions of self-identity and personhood, or as just another voice in a tangle of political and rhetorical cultures of the 1840's that include the voices of the rising Women's movement, antebellum reform movements such as abolitionism, and the incipient discourse of modern journalism, science, and philosophy. One instructor's focal point is another instructor's glancing look; one instructor's passing theme is another's organizational principle for the unit. The Heath Anthology particularly encourages this range of approaches because, in this sense, the view of American literature underwriting the Heath is what we might call a "post-print" paradigm: not linear but multilinear, not univocal but dialogic, organized not to tell a story, but to open up a complicated matrix of issues and perspectives.

Once an anthology ceases to be a story it also certainly ceases to be a book. That is, in the way that the phone book is not really a book, but a database, the Heath Anthology is more of a multivocal archive of American expression. In this sense, the Heath Anthology represents a new "delivery mechanism" for representing a massive shift in (as I've called it elsewhere) the relationship between "the story and the archive." I mean the phrase "the story and the archive" rather locally in the context of a single historical or analytic narrative about a period, event, biography, or cultural pattern. I also use the phrase more broadly, to imply how we define and teach larger patterns of social, cultural, and literary history and the multiplicity of voices, political and rhetorical cultures, and artifactual materials from which we draw the elements of those patterns. A syllabus can be a narrative (or "story") as can a monograph or textbook. So too can a canon.

Speaking about the impact of multiculturalism in literary studies on classroom practice, John Alberti has commented, "Clearly, the movement to change the direction and focus of study in American literature has radical practical and, therefore, theoretical implications for pedagogy, as will be evident to any teacher replacing a traditional anthology of American literature representing fifty or so authors (predominantly male, northern European, Protestant and middle- to upper-class) with the overone hundred thirty voices found in the Heath Anthology [of American Literature]--voices originating in Zuni, Spanish, Chinese and English, in the experiences of both colonized and colonizer, immigrant and Native America, rich and poor."

In the shift from a traditional to an expansive anthology there is a qualitative, not merely quantitative, change. As Kevin Kelly puts it over and over again in his influential book on society in the network age: "More is different." In a literary anthology, the difference is more than a growth from 50 to 130 authors; it is more, even, than the cultural politics of that expansion. The difference is a exponential multiplier of possibilities now that a whole new order of possible relationships, of valid textualities, and of visible cultures are at the center of knowledge reproduction in a particular field. The print versions of a literary anthology gives a material reality to the politics of knowledge production; that is, the politics of canonicity that inform the literary anthology are inseparable from the book as a material object. That fact bears seriously on the future of electronic texts and online cultural resources. The knowledge embodied within a literary anthology has everything to do with capabilities of that medium to bear the pressure of expansion within the strength of its binding, size of its font, and the thickness of pages, as well as the protocols of the genre and standards of curricula. The relationship between an anthology and its level of canonical (or noncanonical) representation perfectly exemplifies, as Peter Lyman puts it, the "phenomenological link between the technical format of a text, the rhetorical rules within which it is constructed, and its content." The point here is simple: in print, an expansive anthology can only expand as far as its physical constraints. And the Heath is crying to burst its boundaries.

So, it is with this in mind I want to explore some of the ways that electronic resources can supplement and integrate with the Heath. It is not merely that new electronic tools are useful to support the Heath Anthology, but to support the Heath's project. That is, there is a real, fundamental and logical connection between the tools of electronic textuality and knowledge on the one hand, and new forms of pedagogy, course organizations, and strategies of reading implied by the Heath Anthology, on the other. Let me briefly suggest some of these connections here.

Electronic Texts

coming soon: access to an index of online texts

In a recent paper delivered at the MLA, Paul Lauter speculated about the 10th edition of the Heath Anthology, published well into the 21st century. It would be, he asserted only half-jokingly, entirely online in electronic form, with teachers and students downloading the texts they needed at will to suit their curricular needs and intellectual interests. Whether or not that will be the case, it is already true that electronic environments can supplement the Heath Anthology directly by providing access to an even wider variety of texts that can be placed online. Now more than ever the texts in the Heath Anthology can be pointers or starting points for more texts. Many of the difficult editorial selections that are made with each edition can be eased with online access to some of the omitted texts (especially out of copyright texts). Increasingly, with more and more texts online, the Anthology serves as an organizational foreground (or front end) for the broader "archive" available throughout the Internet and in other electronic formats. Whether this extended access to additional primary texts is used by students during the semester (or for in depth semester projects), or by teachers seeking to supplement their classroom practices, it can be seen as an extension of the expansiveness that the Heath offered in the first place.

Engaging Reading

And yet, to invoke Kevin Kelley once more, "more is different." While there is inherent value in having access to a wide diversity of texts, what ultimately matters is the qualitative changes that access to that diversity enables. Regardless of how many texts are in an Anthology or online, teachers and students always have to work with the limitations of time and attention. The issues that face faculty in confronting a broadly expansive American literature is how to engage students in this abundance and diverstiy without overwhelming them. Throughout this Instructor's Manual, and throughout the Heath Anthology's electronic resources there are many perspectives and suggestions for ways to do that. And it has certainly been the experience of faculty who have worked with electronic texts and new technologies that the tools and resources of new media can play a significant role in that process of engagement.

One of the great advantages to having electronic texts available isn't simply to access them, read them online, or download them and print them. Having literary and rhetorical texts in electronic form is beneficial because it allows you to do something with them: to search them, manipulate them, annotate them, to make them into hypertexts, to write productive connections between them, to make visible (through electronic linkages) connections between them. In short, new technologies can be used to enable students to develop a more direct relationship to materials. In his online essay, "Rationale of Hypertext," Jerome McGann talks about how the ways that we study cultural texts is changing because the "scale of our tools" is changing. I think this is an important point for the use of electronic tools with novice learners as well. One of the most striking things that I've found in asking students to use electronic tools to engage with cultural and historical materials, is how these tools change the scale of the student's relationship to those materials. As faculty who have degrees in the humanities, we tend to forget (or perhaps we never knew) what it meant to feel powerless in front of a text. Electronic tools of various kinds (and student work with texts in electronic environments) help shift the balance of power between students and texts. And that would seem to be the fundamental idea behind the Heath itself.

For example, when students are working with a hypertext cd-rom on American cultural history, or an electronic (word-searchable) version of a literary text, they are able to manipulate the material according to their interest or to ask questions of it and quick results. One of my earliest experiences with this was working with an electronic text version of Frederick Douglass' Narrative. With the word searching program we were using, students could interrogate the text for rhetorical patterns, looking for example of all instances of the word "slave" and "human" in the same paragraph. (It turns out that Douglass almost never uses the word human except in the same paragraph as a form of the word "slave"--but often to different semantic effect. ) Now, as a matter of course, I have students doing various kinds of word searches with electronic versions of texts, often working in pairs to identify common language in two texts assigned for a particular class day. Once having found a common term or phrase, students must then write a short paragraph about how the word(s) function in the respective texts. The role of the electronic search tools in this process is key in my opinion. Students working with the electronic version of a primary text are able to exercise a form of control over that text that expert learners develop over many readings. My experience (and the experience of other faculty using similar tools) is not that such tools are the "easy way out," but the reverse: that such exercises tend to bring students back to their printed texts with a heightened sense of language, and a greater interest in interrogating the text for patterns.

Doing work with electronic texts is merely one among many ways for students in introductory classes to make use of new technologies. Similarly students who are using an online archive of primary materials on the World Wide Web are able to work their way through the kind of scholarly resource which only experts in the field would previously have had access. The scale of these new tools allows novice learners to get closer to seeing key texts as ideas situated in a complexity, and to use those tools as prosthetics for searching and sorting through possibilities and contengcies, en route to performing authentic analysis and synthesis. This is the phenomenon that I call the 'novice in the archive.' If one of the implications of a new American literature is a shift from "themes" to "reading practices," then student engagement with primary cultural materials in a rich electronic environment can be one path to the development of such practices. The unique opportunity with electronic, simulated archives is to create open but guided experiences for students that would be difficult or impractical to replicate in most library environments. It is, as always, not merely the access to materials that matters, but structured activities where students do sort through "possibilities and contingencies" that speak to new pedagogical practices.

Texts, Contexts, and Hypertexts

see Texts and Contexts

It is fair to say that the "rhetorically-based approach" that the Heath Anthology demands asks that students focus both inward and outward. That is, students read a wide variety of literatures that have a range of social, historical, and cultural contexts needs both to learn to read closely and to begin to acquire strategies for connecting texts to their broader contexts. John Alberti's essay emphasizes how "the rhetorical model of multicultural pedagogy, with its focus on how texts operate as part of a field of historical discursive practices" raises important questions about "integrating such socio-historical information into the classroom." Particularly, he talks about how the need for historical context to bring new and diverse texts into focus requires us to "rethink the distinction between background' and foreground' and the very concept of understanding' a text" itself." In order to help students understand texts as part of a "field of historically discursive practices" we need new strategies for helping students place a text in a field of other texts. Electronic archives provide an unusual opportunity for that to happen.

I'm not speaking of strictly literary texts, but other kinds of historical texts, such as the online archival collections at the Library of Congress' National Digital Library. Let's consider a resource like the 25,000 images of the Detroit Publishing Company's collection of views of American life from 1890-1925. How might these enhance the study of a work like Stephen Crane's Maggie, or Anzia Yezierska's The Bread Givers, by offering a visual guide to urbanization and immigration around the turn of the century? Or, might a reading of early modern voices, especially the regional writers, be read in the context of the WPA life histories; or Depression writers like Meridel LeSeuer or John Steinbeck be read in the context of an online archive of the Farm Security Administration photographs. As with the potential of electronic literary texts, the accessibility of online archives provides opportunities for students to "make knowledge" from them, connecting contextual materials to literary texts, whether through small assignments where they are asked to match passages form a literary work with photographs from the same period, or more substantive research projects where they can use primary materials that they locate on their own to build a context for the texts on which they are focusing in class.

The use of electronic materials also suggests the ways that multiple media can work together. Many American literature instructors bring slides, cassettes, videos, into class. These materials have always enhanced the study of literary texts. Electronic environments, however, offer even greater opportunities to present mulitple media: they can often present mixed media in effective "combinations" (i.e. as interactive multimedia), and they can offer students the opportunity to work with multimedia and "make" their own projects out of them. How, for example, might it enhance the study of the jazz age and texts from the 1920's to have students work with some of the growing number of excellent History of Jazz web sites and cd-roms (see, for example, Dan Morgenstern's History of Jazz)? Or to have students work with the multimedia published edition of the Survey Graphic Harlem Number journal as well as the photographs of American life from the 1920's? Or all of the above? How might an understanding of fiction and poetry in the nineteenth century be enhanced by working with an electronic version of the collections of the National Museum of American Art? Or sorting through a range of 16th-century woodcuts and maps of the new world in tandem with the literature of discovery and exploration? Interactive multimedia not only promotes the richness of the printed texts in the Heath, but affords an environment for student constructive projects, emphasizing the process of knowledge creation (rather than the mastery of a single tradition). Obviously each course context is very different in its capacity to work with mulitmedia and electronic archival materials. The point is merely that the widening cultural approach to American literature is naturally moving toward the broader more constructive pedagogies that electronic environments enable.

visit these WWW sites

Electronic environments, and the World Wide Web in particular, offer a rich context for studying the multiple ways that cultural knowledge gets appropriated and reproduced. Many important texts in the Heath are bridges between socio-culutral contexts and the reproduction of popular culture in various forms. If, for example, you were to explore the range of sites devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe and you'll find a materials that range from the scholarly to the devotional, including at least one that plays solemn church organ music in the background. The Virgin of Guadalupe web sites give a vivid glimpse into the living appropriation of cultural imate and can raise a series of central and important questions about the force of the Virgin in the new world and throughout latin catholic cultures. Looking at the web resources available on Davy Crockett or Abraham Lincoln or the Declaration of Independence, or the Federalist Papers, or Native American Tribal sites, or a whole host of other topics, offers a richly suggestive array of activities in which you could engage students in the critical dialogues of authority, power, origins, and national and cultural identity that make up the web of interrelationships through the Heath's two volumes.

Finally, if the ultimate goal of an introductory American literature course is teach students to build their own connections across diverse texts, electronic environments are very suggestive as spaces in which to represent that knowledge. Whether through standalone hypertext applications or on the Web, increasing numbers of teachers and students are experimenting with writing in nonlinear, hypertext environments. Hypertext papers and projects (whether as electronically linked traditional papers' or as virtual exhibitions of one kind or another) can help make vivid the web of connections among texts and their contexts. As with the activities above, constructive hypertext projects are further ways of engaging students in the problems and practices of the multiple literary cultures that make up American literature studies.

Distributing the Responsibility for Making Knowledge

In his "Afterword" to the second edition's Instructor's Guide, Paul Lauter addressed the issue of "power dynamics" in the classroom, and how the inevitable imbalances can be ameliorated. He says, "while differences in power cannot, in my judgement, be expunged, responsibility, can more fully and sytematically be distributed. The goal here, as Teresa McKenna has framed it, is to create a learning community in which all participants are responsible for what is learned." This concern speaks not only to issues of power, but back to issues of engagement. How can students share more in the responsibility for making knowledge? How can a student bring more information to class? How can students develop habits that interrogate texts, rather than passively receive what teachers tell them? How can students effectively teach each other, as part of a process of discovery? The answers to these kinds of questions, of course, involve teaching and learning strategies far more complicated than just hte use of interactive technologies. But technologies can be one key element in addressing them.

All of the activities implied above and many others can serve to distribute the responsibility for making knowledge in the classroom. When students work (individually or in pairs) with electronic texts, or online archives, or multimedia materials, they have the opportunity to bring their own unique information and perspective to class. Work in these media, especially in combination with the use of other "dialogic technologies," such as electronic discussion lists, email, and web conferencing programs, further enriches the ability of students to continuously engage in making connections and meaning. The open and shared nature of electronic media helps students learn to be accoutable for their ideas and puts the construction of knowledge into a public sphere. This also seems to be in the spirit of an expanded American literature and the new pedagogies implied by it.

visit the T-AMLIT listserv

The distribution of responsibility also perfectly fits new media, like the Internet, because it is a distributed, rather than a broadcast medium. The challenge for the next decade in education, I believe, is to find where a distributive medium like the web or a networked classroom, can mesh with a distributive pedagogy that believes in collaborative and constructive learning, in the context of what we might call a "distributive epistemology"--a broadly distributed sense of where we find cultural knowledge, what we count as a cultural voice, and what we consider a readable text. Whether it is in classroom practice among peers, between teachers and students, or among teachers and scholars in open electronic environments like the "Teaching the American Literatures" discussion list and complementary faculty development materials, the potential to make coherence out of expansion lies in our ability as a community to make the most of this "convergence" of distibutive effects. The Web, like Whitman, contains multitudes. Can we make the most of it?

Heath Anthology