Different PhD programs take different approaches for students writing candidacy exams (the final step before students embark on writing their dissertations). Some of these differences are institutional, and some of them may be disciplinary. My former department required students to work with their committee members to develop reading lists in three areas upon which they would be examined. My current department, in contrast, requires that students choose one existing list that has been created and approved by the department. The former approach has the merit of requiring students to wholeheartedly engage with their field(s) as they develop the process, while the latter mostly offers up a wall of books that a student has to jump through. No wonder we refer to candidacy exams as a “hurdle.”
The arguments in favour of the Wall of Books approach basically stem from the belief that there are universal standards in the discipline that must be met before they can be considered a scholar in their own right. There are, we are told, certain books that any serious student or even avid reader “must” read. But, as any Top 100 list demonstrates, there is no genuine consensus on what these works are. Thus, what a student really learns from a predetermined candidacy reading list has little to do with literature or literacy, and an awful lot to do with which groups are in power in a department at any given time.
My department offers our PhD students a choice from sixteen different reading lists ranging, alphabetically, from “American Literature” to “Women’s Writing in English”. The Canadian Literature list includes 125 works in seven categories (actually, a few more, as some give a series of and/or choices). After one month of my own Can Lit reading project, I think that I’ve read two or possibly three of these (I chose the wrong L. M. Montgomery book…). Like all other lists, our Can Lit list is incredibly idiosyncratic (you can find the names of former faculty members and former students on there, for instance) and, in truth, it hasn’t been all that helpful to me as a guide for this project.
The truth is, there is no such thing as a “must” read book, except by compulsion – and a list like this is one of the few places that we can compel students to repeat our educational experience (assigned books in courses is another). Moreover, as many students come to learn only too late, exam lists don’t reflect a consensus of what is “best” in a field like Canadian Literature so much as they enable an examining committee to ask certain kinds of questions. Thus, there must be books about X, Y, and Z in order to facilitate questions about X, Y, and Z that can be meaningfully answered on an exam. Once you’ve seen how the list is put together, it can really sap your enthusiasm for a book. It turns it into brussel sprouts: something you’re told is good for you.
The other day, my friend Barbara recommended that I read Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), the Governor General’s Award-winning play from 1988. This would flow nicely, she noted, from Ryan North’s take on Romeo and Juliet. I hesitated because, and this is true, I knew it was on our Can Lit list. I could already tell that it was placed there because it allows certain questions to be asked: the relationship of colony to colonizer; gendered aspects of performance; tragedy and comedy; irony and post-modernism. Barbara, I feared, was asking me to eat brussel sprouts.
So, the whole thing started out shaky. Then it didn’t help that I genuinely disliked the play’s opening act. The lead, Constance Ledbelly, is an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University, hired, apparently, before finishing her own dissertation (it was the eighties…). The play has a very broad understanding of how academia works – Constance is banished to Regina for some reason – even within the confines of a farce. The whole first act had me worried. By the time Constance gets sucked into the worlds of Othello and Romeo and Juliet, however, it turned the corner. Indeed, Constance’s constant interruptions of dumb Shakespearian plot contrivances becomes genuinely funny – even possibly hilarious. It may lack Ryan North’s robots, but the engagement with Shakespeare is almost as interesting.
Barbara noted to me that Canadian authors seem to really enjoy rewriting Shakespeare. That might be true, but it seems like everyone likes rewriting Shakespeare. I mean, even West Side Story was able to improve on Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare remains the ultimate source of literary neuroses, for writers, readers, and, most especially, PhD examiners. So, if you want your book to be read by English Literature PhD candidates in decades hence, might I suggest a rewriting of The Two Gentlemen of Verona?
One thing I learned about Canada from this book: Desdemona is a lot tougher than roadkill on the 401.