arts thumbBy contributor John Hill

“We live in an age when the assumption that fiction is essential in the classroom cannot be taken for granted,” says Joy Gugeler. If we are to maintain a vigorous Canadian Literature, she suggests “the task of revolutionizing Canadian teachers and students seems essential.” She will address this topic in her upcoming Arts & Humanities Colloquium presentation entitled Firing the Canon and Hiring the Reader: How to Win the Classroom War on CanLit. The talk will be held in the Malaspina Theatre on Friday, March 27, beginning at 10 am.

“It is easy to blame,” says Gugeler, but “it is much more challenging to propose a practical and inspiring alternative.” Importantly, she puts teachers at the core of any change. As social critic Noam Chomsky once said: “To safeguard a revolution, first you have to get to the teachers and the priests.” Her talk, she notes, “will leave religion out of it, but will attempt a somewhat radical overturning of the curricular aristocracy” to change the way in which Canadian Literature is taught in schools.

She proposes  that a student-centred approach, employing modern leisure reading strategies in the classroom, could radically expand opportunities for teachers by encouraging them to use new activities on and offline: collective reading and writing projects, virtual author visits, book camps, teen publications, radio and television communal reading campaigns, student-juried contests, digitally shared lesson plans, cyber seminars, mobile and digital libraries with “sample” podcasts, trailers, and more.

“To inspire generations of students to read, write, buy, publish, and teach CanLit for a lifetime,” says Gugeler, “we must present them with a wealth of Canadian novels and story collections written by authors from as varied backgrounds as their own.  They need to see their cultural, linguistic, gender, geographical, sexual, and social identities reflected, and they need help imagining the backgrounds and identities of others.

Gugeler argues that her approach gives students permission to interpret their lives through their chosen texts, and represents a sea of change in how literature could be taught. Students are not empty vessels that await pre-screened information; they possess hidden knowledge that stories evoke, stimulate, and resist. The question is not only “What does this mean?” but “What does this mean to me?” This strikes a balance between honouring a student’s experience and adding to it. She says, “If we empower students to claim authority previously only accorded by the author, text, and instructor, authority they have when reading texts of their own choosing at home, students will seek out those titles personally meaningful and imaginatively relevant, Canadian titles chief among them.”

Gugeler is from the departments of Media Studies and Creative Writing at VIU and is currently completing a doctoral thesis in Communications at Simon Fraser University, from which this talk is drawn. In the past she launched and hosted a bi-weekly radio program interviewing Canadian writers of fiction and poetry, and was on the editorial boards of a number of literary magazines. She worked for 20 years as an acquiring editor of fiction for Quarry Press, Beach Holme Publishing, Raincoast Books, and ECW Press. She has been Editor-in-Chief of three online magazines and citizen journalism news sites and publishes Portal literary magazine and helps to organize The Ralph Gustafson Distinguished Poets Lecture Series. She also founded the Canadian Children’s Book Camp that has run annually in Vancouver and Toronto for 11-17-year-olds for the last 15 years.

The Colloquium presentation on March 27 will be of special interest to teachers, future teachers, readers, writers, and those concerned about the state of Canadian culture. The illustrated talk is open to faculty, employees, and the general public. Students are especially welcome and there will be refreshments.