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Cynthia Sugars


Stephen Slemon

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1I found myself unsteady on a number of this volumes conceptual superordinates —postcolonialism, pedagogy, Canadian literature, and “the classroom”—and so, in a desperate bid to remind myself of the scholarly debate around at least one of our organizing problematics, I dug into the bottom drawer of my documents cabinet and came up with a file I’d begun in my first year of classroom teaching as a university-level postcolonial pedagogue. The file was called, simply, “Pedagogy,” and it contained articles on a topic that I had pursued with zeal in the late 80s and early 90s—until the moment my sabbatical leave came around in 1994, at which point I seemed to have stopped storing critical articles in that Pedagogy file, and after which my teaching evaluations took a sharp step upwards. Chronologically, the first article in the Pedagogy file was Gerald Graff’s “Taking Cover in Coverage,” from 1986; the last was Henry Giroux’s “Living Dangerously: Identity Politics and the New Cultural Racism: Towards a Critical Pedagogy of Representation,” from 1993; and in the middle of the file I found articles like Don Bialostosky’s “The English Professor in the Age of Theory,” Chandra Mohanty’s “On Race and Voice: Challenges for Liberal Education in the 1990s,” Peter McLaren’s “Multiculturalism and the Postmodern Critique: Towards a Pedagogy of Resistance and Transformation,” and—still my favourite for giving a sense of that academic period of a decade ago, and how much things have changed—Gregory Ulmer’s “Textshop for Psychoanalysis: On De-programming Freshmen Platonists.”

2I reread these articles recently in a spirit of dissonant fascination. On the one hand, I was struck by their acuteness in describing the general tenets of an emancipatory pedagogy in the humanities, and at this general level I agreed with just about everything they proposed: that the struggle over meaning is foundationally a struggle over power relations; that the classroom is a political site, and its accommodations and contestations pertain to the construction of social knowledges and the reification of social group; that merely acknowledging racial or other differences gets you nowhere in postcolonial pedagogy—for human social differences are asymmetrical and incommensurate, and they cannot be reduced to a liberal discourse of multicultural harmony. But on the other hand, at the specific level of what it was that these articles seemed to imagine as the most immediate, the most material, of obstacles to the achievement of an emancipatory, politically alert pedagogy of engagement, I found myself silently accusing these extraordinary and committed critical theorists of a certain innocence in analysis—perhaps a better term would be a certain optimism. Seen now, from the palindromic optics of 2002, the articles I had collected in the Pedagogy file struck me as curiously enthusiastic about what political work actually would be accomplished by a thorough curriculum review, for example, or by a shift from teaching the “content” to “teaching the conflicts,” or by the classroom foregrounding of the politics of culture, or by strategic teacherly self-positioning, or by celebrating resistances, and extolling agency, and practising cross-cultural respect. “Theory,” Gregory Ulmer wrote, has to be “assimilated into the humanities ... by critical interpretation and by artistic practices” (760). “The political side of culture,” claimed Henry Giroux, “must be given primacy as an act of resistance and transformation” (2; emphasis mine). But a decade of pedagogic reformations enacted along these lines has not secured postcolonial or literary or cultural studies in the university to the project of genuine social change. The powerful departmental traditionalist, the hostile department chair, the exasperated Dean of Arts who likes a little less noise in the house—these figures have not everywhere faded, but for some postcolonial pedagogues at least, these immediate, human obstacles to pedagogical innovation have at least waned in effectiveness. Or perhaps these obstructionist deans, and chairs, and departmental traditionalists are simply cunning, and find nothing in our actual practice that constitutes a hazard to that which they hold dear. We are now in the aftershock of a decade of indifferent achievement in the practice of postcolonial literary pedagogy, and one of the great projects of this scholarly collection is to attempt to confront the fact that the most persistent obstacles to a postcolonial pedagogy for the literatures in Canada do not simply reside in those human figures who will vote us down in the department meeting; they are not simply our disciplinary bosses who mean us harm; they do not forbid us to practise the art of “living dangerously” in the classroom, although the ramifications of danger are everywhere in vigilant postcolonial pedagogies, as scholars such as Arun Mukherjee tells us in her essay here. It is part of the work of this collection to attempt a more radical critique of why it is that “postcolonialism and pedagogy”—that is, the two together, in productive dissonance—do not easily come together in the study and teaching of the Canadian literatures in Canadian universities. I want now to address just one of the several arguments being made in this volume—in different voices and in different applications—about why it is that the institutional study of the literatures in Canada does not sit easily beside the general project of postcolonial pedagogical critique.

3There is a structural incommensurability between postcoloniality and the lexical and historical force of pedagogy itself in the apparatus of English and Englishness. The Oxford English Dictionary locates the first use of the word pedagogy in the practice of submission to a discipline: “this should be as a rule, or a pédagogie, unto us,” reads the 1583 quotation. Contained within the original concept of pedagogy, in English, is the implication of a determinate relation to God: Milton wrote that “the law of Moses was ordained to last untill the time of the Pedagogie of God’s people, or introduction to Christ, should be expired.” The concept of pedagogy is also associated with the concept of pedagogism, which means the condition in which exegesis overwhelms common sense (one quotation, from 1838, notes that “literature and pedagogism are in Germany identic in spirit”). And the concept of pedagogy has never been free from a dual identification with both slavery and childhood—this is carried in its association with the concept of tutelage. Indeed, the oldest of all references to the lexical massive of pedagogic understanding in the OED is to the word tuition itself: tuition means “looking after or taking care of”; it means “safe-keeping, protection, custody, care, tutelage”; and in medieval usage the word tuition is synonymous with the concept of military defence. No wonder that a number of scholars equate pedagogy itself as a mise en scène for both children at their lessons and for the figure of the colonized subject: in the language of pedagogy, they are both recalcitrant objects who must be constrained. No wonder that, in designating the paradigmatic site of learning in the West, the adjective in the term ivory tower resonates with the long history of colonialist pillage. This residual imperative to pedagogy is everywhere in evidence in the cardinal documents that define the work of literary study within liberal education. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile grounds pedagogy to the principle of guardianship guided by the great text of “nature.” John Locke’s 1693 essay Some Thoughts Concerning Education grounds pedagogy to the construction of “young Gentlemen,” not Daughters, whose work as students is to appropriate the experiences of others—for example, the poor and their wet feet—as a preliminary step towards self-consolidation in a ruling class. Thomas Macaulay’s “Minute” of 1835 grounds pedagogy in the Bengal Presidency to a coherent strategy for inculcating, through the study of English literature, an affect of cultural self-loathing, which will inform “a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (61). And the Newbolt Report on Education of 1921 grounds literary pedagogy to the marshalling of nationalism against the contradictions of class: the study of English Literature, the Report claims, will produce “a new element of national unity, linking together the mental life of all classes.” These documents are breadcrumbs along the path of literary pedagogy’s work as an exercise in social engineering: that path runs through generations of imperial and colonial subjects taught our discipline through The Queen’s Primers and the Nelson Royal Readers, and at the sick heart of everything we do in English class, K to 12 to PhD, you can hear the inalienable murmur of John Milton’s exhortation “To the Parlament of England with the Assembly”: “Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live” (232).

4This incommensurability between the place in our university teaching for the literatures in Canada and the idea of something genuinely emancipatory in our pedagogy is at the core of this collection. Diana Brydon calls postcolonial pedagogy an “‘impossible’ to fix” activity (61). Donna Pennee argues that the nation is at once anathema to, and the bedrock of, a postcolonial pedagogy for Canadian writing. This incommensurability resounds, too, in the many essays in this volume—Lisa Grekul’s is one of them—that register an asymmetry between, on the one hand, minority and diasporic peoples and their literatures, or Native peoples and their literatures, or underclass constituencies and their literatures, and, on the other hand, the corporate university itself, whose mission it is to manufacture normative national subjects and to secure the profit-taking motive. Gary Boire concludes: “radical pedagogy cannot exist within the precincts of the university—and even if it tries to come into being, it does so within a state of siege” (230). There is a performative oxymoron—perhaps it is a performative catachresis—in Boires claim: such a trope is one way of representing the kind of incommensurability that is foundational to a structure. Foundational incommensurability—not something simply “fixable”—is the focal point of this volume. Its elaboration is one of the steps in the general project of a postcolonial pedagogical critique.

5Let me sum up this single argument of this volume through a reductive formulation. The corporate university in late modernity has a social mission whose religion is capital, and there is a foundational incommensurability between that social mission and the project that Paulo Freire once called a “pedagogy of hope.”

6One of the most troubling implications of this argument, which so many contributors to this volume voice so well, is that it easily knocks on to a politics of despair. I have seen this despair at work in some modalities of that general turn in academia away from postcolonial commitments to the rising phoenix of globalization studies—as though a conceptual shift out of the colonial/postcolonial dyad could finesse the structural incommensurability between political emancipation and the relations of production in the corporate university. I have seen this despair, too, in the growing suspicion of the work of “theory”—whose promise really did outshine its achievement throughout the 90s, but whose partial failings provided too many of us with an alibi for too much pedagogical comfort. But one of the things I will take away from these essays is Terry Goldies clarifying analysis of the question “Is there a subaltern in this class(room)?”—in my view, Goldies clarification has implications for what it means to aspire to the postcolonial in pedagogical engagement. Let me restate this clarification as a polemic proposition. The constituency of a classroom for Canadian literature in a Canadian university, whatever its local specifics, inescapably comprises a conceptual syllogism. That syllogism reads as follows. Thesis: there is genuine difference within this classroom; its modes are uncountable; we cannot live up to our postcolonial commitments if we fail to inhabit the implications of that difference. Antithesis: the difference that resides within this classroom is not in itself a just representation of all human differences. There are others beyond our framework for inclusivity; those others are at the centre of the postcolonial imagination but they live beyond the horizon of our gaze; most of them labour in ways that university workers find unimaginable; their predictive and possibly inevitable futures are ones that everything in postcolonial commitment seeks most passionately to forestall. Against this thesis and antithesis—and this is my thesis for this paper—against this recalcitrance, there can be no synthesizing, third term. The impossibility of fulfilling this syllogism means that a postcolonial pedagogy for the literatures in Canada can only take place within the materiality of dialectics. This postcolonial pedagogy cannot function meaningfully either as top-down instruction or as bottom-up enablement; this pedagogy can neither disperse itself into pure cultural relativism nor rise to the propositional level of a unified and coherent postcolonialism; a postcolonial pedagogy for the literatures in Canada can only walk the line, dialectically, between identification and disidentification, between recognition and unfathomability, between accommodation and opposition, between speaking from authority and speaking truth to power. That dialectics of engagement is our insuperable situation in postcolonial pedagogy. Whatever else it will be, that dialectics must also be our strength.

7And so: beyond an innocence about the obstacles to a postcolonial pedagogy, but still in that spirit of hope which, despite all, informed generations of colonizing and colonized school children and university students, at home and away, who came to the scene of literary learning in search of something emancipatory; in that spirit that weaves its way from Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of hope through a pedagogy of theoretical relocation in Bialostosky, Giroux, Graff, McLaren, Mohanty, and Ulmer; in that spirit that presides over the work of this volumes scholarly contributors, whose collectivity Cynthia Sugars has so hopefully organized; in that spirit, I want to propose this small tenet—necessary but not sufficient—towards, if not quite for, a future-oriented, postcolonial pedagogy for Canadian literary practice. A postcolonial pedagogy, whatever its constituency, wherever it obtains, cannot do other than seek out the genuine difficulty inherent in the material it finds before itself. That difficulty is the inalienable ground zero of a postcolonial political commitment. It is a professional postcolonial pedagogue’s best hope for contributing towards a future of progressive social change.



Bialostosky, Don. “The English Professor in the Age of Theory.” Novel 19 (1986): 164-70.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Ana Maria Araújo Freire. New York: Continuum, 1997.

Giroux, Henry. “Living Dangerously: Identity Politics and the New Cultural Racism: Towards a Critical Pedagogy of Representation.” Cultural Studies 7.1 (1993): 1-27.

Graff, Gerald. “Taking Cover in Coverage.” Profession (1986): 41-45.

Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education. 1693. Ed. R.H. Quick. London: Cambridge UP, 1934.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. “Minute on Indian Education (February 2, 1835).” Imperialism dr Orientalism: A Documentary Sourcebook. Ed. Barbara Harlow and Mia Carter. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.56-62.

McLaren, Peter. “Multiculturalism and the Postmodern Critique: Towards a Pedagogy of Resistance and Transformation.” Cultural Studies 7.1 (1993): 118-46.

Milton, John. “To the Parlament of England, with the Assembly” [Preface to The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce]. Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Vol. II: 1643-1648. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.222-33.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “On Race and Voice: Challenges for Liberal Education in the 1990s.” Cultural Critique (1989-90): 179-208.

Newbolt, Henry John. The Teaching of English in England, Being the Report of the Departmental Committee Appointed by the President of the Board of Education to Inquire into the Position of English in the Educational System of England. London: HMSO, 1921.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. Émile. 1762. Trans. Barbara Foxley. London: Dent, 1974.

Ulmer, Gregory “Textshop for Psychoanalysis: On De-programming Freshmen Platonists.” College English 49.7 (1983): 756-69.


Teaches postcolonial literatures and theory at the University of Alberta. His current research comprises two book projects: a cultural history of “thugs,” and an analysis of mountaineering writing in the context of globalization

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