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5ABA0008 The Canon

Credit value: 15
Module convenor: Dr Justine McConnell
Assessment: 1 x 3 hour examination (100%); coursework reassessment in exam period 3
For Semester 1 Only Study Abroad students, the exam will be replaced by an essay/essays on a subject defined by the convenor.
Teaching pattern: 2 x 1 hour classes, weekly
Pre-requisites: None

Reassessment: Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt, except in Period 3 where the exam will be replaced by an essay/essays on a subject defined by the convenor.

Module description

This module interrogates the historical, social, cultural, material, and economic parameters that have come to shape the canon. Beginning with a theoretical overview of the constructions of the canon, the module will follow a broadly historical chronology, and will consider established definitions of the canon, as well as key debates and excerpts from key texts which counter these definitions.

Central to the module will be the following questions: what are the advantages and disadvantages of the canon as an organisational principle? How has it developed? In what way does it aid or hinder our reading of literary texts included or excluded from it? In what ways does the canon satisfy the different or even divergent interests of authors, publishers and readers? To what extent is it defined by historical circumstances and political stances? Is a redefined canon possible or desirable, especially in an age of global literature?

The Canon is designed to complement the three level 5 core modules offered by Comparative Literature which have a similar cross-period and theoretical focus, and which require students to consider the culture of books and their production, alongside their historical reception and critical interpretation.

Educational aims and objectives

The module aims to explore the ideas and motivations that lie behind the formation of the canon.  Students will develop their analytical and critical skills as they examine and evaluate key debates surrounding the construction of the canon from antiquity to the present day.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students will be able to demonstrate intellectual, transferable and practical skills appropriate to a Level 5 module and in particular will be able to:

  • Demonstrate detailed knowledge of the historical, social, cultural, material, and economic parameters that have shaped the canon.
  • Identify, analyse, and communicate key concepts and theories that underpin ideas of the canon.  
  • Effectively analyse and evaluate theoretical texts that focus on canon-formation.
  • Develop independent reflections on canonical works which are informed by the analysis of concepts at an abstract level.

Core reading

The following books provide a good introduction to some of the themes of this module:

  • Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.  New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994.
  • Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics?, tr. Martin McLaughlin.  London: Jonathan Cape, 1999.
  • Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York & Oxford: OUP, 1992.

Students may wish to buy their own copies of the primary texts, but this will not be mandatory, as all texts studied are available from the library.

Additional information

This module is open to students on degree programmes other than those offered by the Department of Comparative Literature (subject to approval by the module convenor and availability of places).


The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years.


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