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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Updating the syllabus

In the bad old days of pre-1980s academia, you could major in English literature and never be assigned a novel by Jane Austen—or so I’ve been told by more than one Janeite of that vintage. Nowadays, that’s much less likely, or so we might conclude from a recent study of U.S. college syllabi.

I have to confess that I’m not entirely confident in this study’s bona fides, since a) it was conducted by the anonymous blogger(s) of WordTips, a website that helps people cheat --ahem! -- provides solving aids for popular word games; and b) it includes on its list of “novels by women” the 1923 modernist classic Cane, whose author, Jean Toomer, was male.

But why let such petty concerns get in the way of a good story? Instead, we will turn to the findings, derived from an analysis of more than three hundred thousand EngLit syllabi found on the non-profit archive Open Syllabus.

According to WordTips, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is by far the most frequently assigned novel by a woman, showing up nearly 4,800 times—more than twice as often as the second-place finisher, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Austen arrives in sixth place, with Pride and Prejudice, which appears on more than 1,600 syllabi.

But look at the fifty most frequently assigned novels by women—well, actually, the forty-nine most frequently assigned, since Cane really doesn’t qualify—and Austen’s showing is impressive: All six of her completed novels make the list, giving her more titles than any other single writer.

According to WordTips, Austen is the fourth most-frequently assigned female novelist, putting in more than 6,200 appearances on American college syllabi. She trails only Virginia Woolf (more than 8,000 appearances, and three novels in the top forty-nine); Toni Morrison (almost 8,000 appearances, four titles in the top forty-nine); and Shelley (nearly 7,000 appearances, one title in the top forty-nine).

All in all, the full list provides an interesting snapshot of the current female literary canon, a stew whose ingredients include long-acknowledged classics, works rediscovered by 1970s and -80s feminist critics, pillars of the Black tradition, much-admired contemporary novels, and beloved YA.

Women remain underrepresented on college syllabi, research suggests, and an older version of this Open Syllabus analysis noted that Shakespeare and more than a dozen other male authors were assigned more often than any female writer of fiction or non-fiction. (That 2016 study placed Austen in fourth place among women writers, though the first two slots were occupied by the authors of popular how-to books on college writing.)

Still, today’s EngLit majors don’t seem to be living in the Austen-free academia of fifty years ago. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but at least we can say there’s progress somewhere.

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