Every discipline has canonical knowledge and skills. They’re the stories and examples experts love to hate because, while they’re often canonical for a reason, they quickly lose context and rarely tell the whole story.
The best definition I can give of “canon” comes from fanfiction. (And of course, I’ll use Harry Potter as my example.) All fanfiction is divided into two categories; canon and Alternate Universe (AU). Canon fanfiction is anything that takes all the published books to be true, while AU fics write stories answering questions like, “What would happen if Harry had grown up with Sirius Black instead of the Dursleys?”
Note that canon, especially in the Harry Potter world, is a hotly debated topic. The most extreme of canon purists only count the seven books. Other writers will include things JKR’s said in interviews or published in other places (her website Pottermore, the Hogwarts textbooks she wrote, and at one point she wrote a few Daily Prophet newsletters). Now that The Cursed Child has been released, it’s created even more controversy. Some writers, who have been writing canon for years, have defined the “Sensible Universe,” where they can classify their writing as canon without having to update tiny details they made up as JKR gives us more information.
And I haven’t even mentioned the movies. I will just quickly state that, in my opinion, the movies are not canon. In fact, they’re the most expensive and widely consumed fanfiction ever. But, as with everything else, this is debated throughout the fandom.
For a somewhat more science-y example, I can tell you that they Watson and Crick story, which usually today includes Rosalind Franklin, is canon in the molecular biology world. It was a huge turning point in science and our understanding of all of molecular biology. If you go one level farther into canon, you’ll hear of Griffith, Avery and MacLeod, and Chargaff, all of whom made important discoveries about DNA. Hopefully, you’ll also hear of the beautiful, elegant, and delightfully simple Hershey-Chase experiment. It’s my favorite molecular biology experiment ever! (Yes, I’m that nerdy. I have a favorite experiment.)
But those people don’t tell the entire story of how the structure of DNA was discovered. It doesn’t tell the story of the wrong answers (Linus Pauling, you genius chemist, I’m looking at you…) and the false starts and politics of racing to find the answer. Everyone knew whoever finally got a good model for the structure of DNA would be famous forever. And James Watson and Francis Crick will be.
There are issues with canon. There are historical perspectives that need to be considered; Rosalind Franklin’s contribution wasn’t considered for a long time because she was a woman. Other stories are incomplete or missing because the people didn’t fit the mold of a scientist; there are often equity issues woven into canon stories.
And often canon stories aren’t super relevant to my students. My favorite ecological experiment is the one where Robert Payne used a crowbar to pry starfish off rocks and chucked them back into the ocean, demonstrating top-down population control and providing support for the Green World Hypothesis. But this story relies on marine ecosystems. Hi, I’m from Colorado! We’re one of the most landlocked states in the US!
If you’d asked me before spring break what I thought about canon stories, I would admit to you that I get some joy out of learning them and telling them. But I would write you something a lot like what I just wrote you. Canon can become a box that excludes other stories and people who can’t relate.
Then I started tutoring my friend Craig in genetics. He’s taking an introductory biology class at the University of Colorado Denver. I never took this kind of course (thanks, AP credits) and I never attended the Denver campus. In some ways, it’s tricky to help him because I know more science than he probably needs to, and I have to figure out what he needs to know. Craig could definitely learn everything I could possibly teach him and more, but time is limited, after all. What examples is he likely to see on the exam? How did his professor explain that one concept?
But fancy this: all the examples and stories I learned in high school, which are in turn the examples and stories I fall back on when I teach my kids, are the same examples and stories Craig learned in his class. Sure, there might be some slight variation; in order to teach incomplete dominance, his teacher used blue and white flowers instead of red and white. But in general, it was all the same. It was awesome! It meant that Craig and I felt like we were talking about the same thing, and like we had common ground to start from. In the same way that canon can exclude, people who know the canon are very much included in that discipline. Canon can be a unifying principle among a group of people.
And it was really cool that I could predict with a high degree of accuracy what he needed to know, how his definitions were worded, and which stories his professor had told.
I certainly don’t put this down to my excellent knowledge of biology content and/or teaching. I think this is a great example of the power of canon. And it raises some really interesting questions. How do certain stories spread through a culture? How do we make canon accessible to anyone?
Your homework: What canon is inherent to your discipline? What stories are left out? How does a shared canon strengthen a community, and how does it exclude outsiders?