Meg Shields, like so many university students, is no stranger to feeling underrepresented in the classroom. “I remember this one class that had no female authors in it, and the subject matter of the class even demanded the presence of female authors," she says, reflecting on a recent medieval philosophy course. “I should have said something."
Shields may not have spoken up in that specific class, but she has since found a new way to make noise around issues of representation in university curricula: SNARCon, a conference she created with other student organizers aiming to “unpack and confront norms of academic discourse." The conference took place last month at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Organized by a student collective called Students Advocating Representative Curricula (SNARC), the weekend featured featured a faculty panel on including underrepresented voices in humanities curricula, as well as several student presentations showcasing work across disparate disciplines and topics.
Shields, Emma Morris, and Kayleigh Shield—three of SNARCon’s organizers and all students at King’s—sat in the front row of the lecture hall during the two-day conference. There was a quiet thrill in hearing so many perspectives in one room, proof that their activism is both necessary and possible. The weekend’s presentations spanned from settler responsibility and challenging existing language of colonialism to (dis)ability and sexuality—differing subject matter tied together with a common thread of resistance.
“I see SNARCon as a great and subtle push-back against the idea that activists on campus do nothing but complain and don’t contribute," says Shield. “This conference showed that women and other marginalized groups are making a lot of contributions to the canon—philosophy, literature, political science. We are here and you have to acknowledge our work."
The conference felt particularly vital at a liberal arts institution like King's, where curricula—particularly in the Foundation Year Programme (FYP), the university’s first-year great books course—are often deeply indebted to the largely white and male canon of Western thought. This body of work is more reflective of historical structures of oppression than it is the history of thought itself—an unfortunate reality that is only just beginning to see change.
SNARC’s recently-published zine FYP, A History chronicles the programme’s inclusion of women thinkers on its booklist and in its lecture schedule; or, more accurately, the programme’s chronic lack of adequate female representation. From its inception in 1972 until 1980, only five texts by four female authors were studied; for three of those years, 1976-1979, there were no female-written texts on the syllabus.
The contemporary figures aren’t much more encouraging: between 2010 and 2014, FYP students studied texts written by women 33 times, compared to 259 encounters with male-authored texts. The zine’s authors are keen to point out that this year’s FYP curriculum included more female, racialized and non-western authors than ever before—a positive step forward that seems to indicate that faculty are responding to students’ demands for representation. And yet, the fact remains that the curriculum is dominated by white, male voices in a programme in which a majority of students are female-identifying.
Still, Morris sees some use in the canon—if only as confirmation of how we could be doing better.
“I see [the canon] as it stands as something to react against," she says. “Something to look at and say ‘here’s what we have, what can I draw from it and what can I reject.’ "
The question of how we should be relating to the canon extends beyond academia: though it may go unacknowledged, writers, musicians, artists and other creators all work in the shadow of a relatively homogenous body of work. There is a danger in leaning too heavily on these works—while they may display a pattern of influence that is certainly beneficial in understanding a cultural progression, canon (in any discipline) is a product of its time and therefore carries with it social baggage and a history of oppression.
Beyond specific acts like the conference, the work of groups like SNARC is therefore so vital because it exposes the depths of our canonical relationship and provokes discourse about how we are influenced by this and other canons of work that we may encounter. Though ostensibly an academic conference, SNARCon was nevertheless dominated by a sense of activism. Here are students doing brave, grassroots work that holds the possibility of effecting change on an institutional level. Here are students demanding to feel represented, uncovering previously-silenced voices and confronting ongoing forms of oppression. They show us that challenging the canon and increasing representation of marginalized perspectives in our curricula is not anachronistic; it is not simply an act of retroactive ethical imposition, but rather a sort of radical archaeology.
The work showcased at SNARCon was a testament to this process of digging, uncovering and sorting; while many presentations focused on history that is far removed from the contemporary world, the weekend’s student presentations and reception discussions were united by a fresh sense of attention and self-awareness.
“There is never a situation in which we shouldn’t be self-critical," says Shields. “And that’s one of the problems with the current canon—it’s kind of like we’re sifting into the groove that we’ve been skiing on for a while."
Shifting away from an established groove is a brave action—indeed, some of the topics addressed at the conference brought up feelings of pain and trauma—but it is only through this sort of action that narrative can change and new voices can be heard.
“We have this fear of cultural exhaustion: that nothing new is going to happen, that all we have is our canon and all we can do is reassemble fragments," says Shield. “In the conference I think we saw proof that this isn’t true. This is all new work, and the critical attitude here is so vital to creating change."
“[Our work] is about changing, for example, this narrative that women were not writing throughout a certain period, and saying that other voices were speaking and other ideas were happening and that it wasn’t just white men writing," says Shield. “There were other contributions, there were other forces at play."
Shields shares a similar point of view. “You have to do the work of illuminating the voices who aren’t in the canon, or who have been silenced by the notion of the canon, or who might not even have existed," she says. “It’s not a question of burning down the canon—it’s just remembering that the canon can be filled with so many more diverse voices. The canon is what you make it."
And, as Shields is quick to point out, the work of reconstructing the canon is ongoing. She cites the celebration of the one-year anniversary of the Wall of Women, a SNARC project that addressed the lack of female portraiture at King’s, as an example of how to avoid complacency.
“We had the [Wall of Women] birthday specifically to remind that there is still so much work to do" she says. “The ball is still very much rolling and we aren’t completely satisfied. I think that’s exciting, that we should be invigorated by that. "
Morris echoes this sentiment. “We speak about developing a critical relationship to the canon, which requires a sort of ongoing self-awareness," she says. “We’ll always be changing in how we recognize oppression and oppressive structures so I don’t think we’ll ever reach a completion point. And that’s okay."