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The lingering canon — II

Most professors, and especially policymakers in Pakistani universities, fail to realise that English Studies in Pakistan is a legacy of colonial policies, and continues the agenda of neo-Victorianism

The lingering canon — II

In the previous part of this essay, I had argued that Western universities, particularly American ones, can challenge the idea of an authoritative canon of “English” literature, because they take certain freedoms and modes of thinking as granted. I argued that in Pakistan, English Studies is a colonial legacy, and while many institutions have moved on from this hangover to reassess and revise their curricula, many more lack the vision to do so due to administrative incompetence.

I asked: can departments in Pakistan dare imagine taking Shakespeare — one example of a canonised author — out of their syllabi?

While we may never have the intellectual courage to ask that question, Western academia keeps evaluating the issue of canonised teaching. In June 2017, Jessica Cox, a lecturer at Brunel University, analysed the rise of a new canon in English Studies in a study titled “Canonization, Colonization, and the Rise of Neo-Victorianism”, which was published in English, a journal at Oxford University. Earlier, in 2008, a journal titled Neo-Victorian Studies was launched, which reflects the lingering presence of a Victorian influence in the canonisation of literature.

Several departments in Pakistan teach an undergraduate course titled “History of English Literature.” When this course was devised, its purpose had been to introduce students to the supremacy of the British canon.

However, I will not accuse policymakers in Pakistani universities of possessing any knowledge of the neo-Victorian agenda. Their policies and syllabi simply conform with this agenda out of well-meaning ignorance. It is interesting and pertinent to explore the continued presence of the “canon” in the curricula.

As pointed out by Michael Warner, an American literary critic, in 1985, it was with the establishment of the Modern Languages Association (MLA) that English Studies in the United States faced the existential divide between the career teacher and the philologist mainly trained in the German tradition. The philologist emphasised a linguistic and historicist contextualisation of language, which resulted in literature and semantics (the generation of meaning, i.e. the all-important exercise of interpreting the text) becoming less important than before. With interpretation becoming secondary, the role of the career professor — without the validation of specialised degrees — was challenged, and increasingly diminished with time. In Pakistan, this struggle was not even recognised until the Higher Education Commission was reformed during the Musharraf era.

Thus, it was as late as the dawn of the 20th century that English Studies in Pakistan confronted the spectre of the professor who went to class, talked about irrelevancies while teaching Macbeth (inter-textuality is a very necessary tool but when used to distract students and impress upon them a false sense of competence, it becomes dangerous), and walked out with a satisfying career without publications or evidence of academic merit.

Read also: The lingering canon

Since this happened a century too late compared with the rest of the world, the sudden introduction of critical theory in classrooms became a botched project, and even today at leading universities, the systematic teaching of theory is a largely neglected part of the syllabus. This is based in the belief that the teaching of literature is largely a humanist vocation, and one is born with a talent for it; so there is no need for specialised pedagogical training. The other reason is the poor and substandard quality of coursework and research in local PhD programmes.

Whereas professors in the West realised early on that the revised conception of English Studies was a permanent and necessary event, policymakers in many Pakistani universities (here, Punjab University and FC College must be singled out as notable exceptions) still struggle with introducing fresh courses (even those related to indigenous literatures) into the curricula. Therefore, most English departments in the country refuse to decolonise — or far less radically, even ‘revise’ — their syllabi.

I must now turn to a specific example to demonstrate the debilitating presence of canonical thought in Pakistani English Studies. Several departments in Pakistan teach an undergraduate course titled “History of English Literature.” When this course was devised, its purpose had been to introduce students to the supremacy of the British canon. In the historical backdrop of the Anglo-Saxon empire valiantly establishing its roots in Books of Albion, Beowulf and later Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, imperious symbols of the rise of a resilient nation and its literature were introduced. It impressed upon students the objective, humanist values of British English literature in all its glory.

Currently, it merely lists major authors, their main works, and addresses the horrendous question: what are the major characteristics of a literary period? Furthermore, the teachers assigned to this course have been known either not to take classes, or to reduce the course to dividing the various literary ages among the students for presentations, which results in students rote-learning ‘facts’ without acquiring an analytical perspective.

Any attempts at removing this useless course (which many universities have successfully done) are met with stubborn resistance rooted in apologies for past practices, born out of ignorance of the processes through which those past practices were instituted. The course does not serve any purpose but to act as a filler. Its ostensible aim of historically contextualising texts is already fulfilled across courses, as ideally the instructor introduces the authors, their eras, and the critical work around the text before beginning any new course or module.

One more example is pertinent here. This relates to what many view, suspiciously, as the relentless advent and advance of ‘theory’ in the aftermath of New Critical close reading. In such a reading of the text, it is scrutinised for its inherent tensions, and the interpretative endeavour revolves around the exhaustive analysis of some one aspect of the text. A typical 15-page seminar paper, for example, may analyse only two to three lines of a text, or even just one word from one line. The purpose is to instil in students the rigour necessary for intensive teasing out of meaning, and to teach them the possibility that there can be no final meaning.

This practice, prevalent in the US since the 1980s, stands in direct antagonism to the systems of belief in which the professors I have alluded to earlier are invested. They have been brought up to believe in one final interpretation of a text. For them, the text they are teaching is canonical, therefore its status is unquestionable, and its meaning is a given which they must teach the class. This flawed understanding of literary teaching is the reason that literary studies in Pakistan have been stagnant for many years, and over the past 30 years at least, not one home-bred professor has made any mark on critical studies of literature.

I have argued in these two essays that most professors, and especially policymakers in Pakistani universities, suffer from myopia which prevents them from recognising the obvious that has been staring them in the eye for several decades. They fail to realise that English Studies in Pakistan is a legacy of colonial policies, and continues the agenda of neo-Victorianism. They fear the foreign qualified PhD scholar who stands to upset their neatly ordered apple cart with his or her competence and vision for revision. With the collusion of equally stunted administrators, they succeed in keeping English Studies situated in the 19th century when the British colonial administrator — the role model of all administrators in postcolonial Pakistan — envisioned the teaching of literature as the solution to subversion.


Mahboob Ahmad

The author is pursuing a PhD in English in the US


  • Adnan Ashraf Warraich

    This polemical article is full of flawed and myopic arguments. Mehboob sb, at the very outset, seems to have a firm belief in the American universities, the trends in the research prevalent in the western world which indicate the paradox in his thinking i.e. he proposes to get rid of the representative texts of the Western world by labelling them as the remnants of the Raj but wants to follow American model of teaching and research in the field of English Studies. There is no doubt about the colonial motives behind the initiation of the teaching of English literature in Indian subcontinent but things have move on a great deal.

  • Adnan Ashraf Warraich

    Mehboob sb also seems to be averse to the teaching of Shakespearean Studies or some of his plays which are included the course of Classical Drama in almost all the Pakistani universities having English literature programs. I would like to know about his suggestions for the dramatists to be included in this particular course. Or does he want the teaching of Classical Literature do be discarded? If that is the case then how the students of English Studies are supposed to be the familiar with the development of different genres?

  • Adnan Ashraf Warraich

    The writer should have gathered the data about the practice and history of teaching in the field of English literature. He is not the first one who is doing a PhD from an American university. The teachers like Prof. Sajjad Sheikh and Dr. Riaz Hassan had foreign degrees much before the HEC era of a race of publications bereft of quality.

  • Any discussion of teaching of English in Pakistan (and India and Bangladesh) must take into account the primary fact that the existing teaching attempts two very different tasks simultaneous: teaching the English language (in a supposedly comprehensive manner), and teaching English literature (in a highly selective manner). Can these two tasks be accomplished in the manner we have adopted? I don’t think so. ‘Functional English’ has a bad odor for many, but that is the need of the country and also the desire of most of the students. And that can be done without bringing in Shakespeare and Milton.
    Most students in England, or the United States, are exposed to Shakespeare and other ‘great ones’ from childhood and in different ways. Films. Plays. School performances. Cultural t.v. Even at home. Their needs are different. An African-American can rightly demand a course on ‘Black’ Writers to be given priority over Milton in their instruction. Not so a Pakistani doing a Masters in English.

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