The Most Commonly Taught Lit

Gwen John, "Dorelia by Lamplight, at Toulouse"

Gwen John, “Dorelia by Lamplight, at Toulouse”


The Washington Post last week alerted me to the Open Syllabus Project, which looks at the works most commonly taught in our nation’s colleges. One can separate the works into the disciplines that teach them so, of course, I checked out the literature offerings. The list is interesting although it’s dangerous to conclude too much from it.

The project collected all the syllabi it could find on-line. The creators explain how they tabulated the results:

If a work appears on a syllabus, it counts for the purposes of Teaching Score and other indicators of frequency.  If a work appears 10 times on a syllabus, it counts only once.  If it appears in ‘suggested reading’ or some other secondary list, it still counts. Our methods can’t reliably distinguish primary from secondary reading (yet).

Overall, the two works that did the best were Plato’s Republic and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Nothing unexpected there. In the literature category, I’ve listed below the top 50 works, excluding writing guides, assigned in English classes:

A couple of corrections were necessary, however. Some works were listed multiple times (Huckleberry Finn and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, and Songs of Innocence and Experience; Bartleby and Bartleby the Scrivener; Canterbury Tales and The General Prologue) so I recalibrated the totals. Canterbury Tales came in first and Shakespeare, of course, ran away with top author honors. Here they are:

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience
Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yellow Wallpaper
Sophocles, Oedipus
W. S. Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby
Kate Chopin, Awakening
Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess”
William Faulkner, “Rose for Emily”
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Jonathan Swift, “Modest Proposal”
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Alice Walker, “Everyday Use”
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Martin Luther King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Homer, The Odyssey
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland
Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery”
Shakespeare, Othello
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko
Alexander Pope, Rape of the Lock
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads
Sophocles, Antigone
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
Franz Kafka, “Metamorphosis”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter
Susan Glaspell, Trifles
Bram Stoker, Dracula
Melville, Moby Dick
Thomas More, Utopia
Declaration of Independence
Oscar Wilde, Importance of Being Earnest
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene
Shakespeare, Henry V
Sophocles, Oedipus

Many of the works are staples in Composition, Composition & Literature, and Introduction to Literature classes (the essays, poems, and short stories). I suspect that early British Literature surveys are underrepresented or we would see Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and other such works. While my own syllabi are not on-line, I have taught 40 of these 50 works at one time or another.

At the very least, the list suggests canonical works are alive and well. I am particularly delighted to see The Canterbury Tales and Paradise Lost in the top five.

One other thought: The Washington Post article separated out the top ten literary works taught by ivy league colleges vs. everyone else. While there were some works in common, I was startled to see Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Spenser’s Faerie Queene. And while I love Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I would have expected Emma or Pride and Prejudice instead. These college, I suspect, teach more topic classes, fewer general education.


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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