In the fall of 2006, I planned and taught my first course in post-colonial literature as a full-time faculty member of Kent State University's English department. (1) This essay provides a brief discussion of the teaching strategies, the literary texts, and student involvement in this particular course. Postcolonialism, in Ania Loomba's words, "helps us think about the questions of domination and resistance that have been raised by anticolonial movements and postcolonial studies worldwide" (211). As most of the postcolonial literary works represent the real life issues of postcolonial countries, postcolonialism as a field therefore serves as one of the most radical fields to teach the importance of difference. (2) This teaching of difference also implies "teaching the world"--by which I mean teaching our students about the struggles and aspirations of people outside of the United States and other industrialized nations.
My approach to teaching postcolonial texts is political: I do not only teach the politics of a particular text itself but also the socio-political circumstances that inform various postcolonial literary works.
Certainly, my own background plays a major role in shaping my students' perception of the texts and my classroom. I moved to the United States in 1996 after resigning my commission as an infantry officer in the Pakistani army. My teaching is frequently informed by my past and present cross-cultural experiences. Knowing that to some of my students I probably embody the U.S.'s most conspicuous Other, a person from a Muslim country, gives me at least, on the surface, the advantage of offering a kind of teaching about the global periphery that to them must come across as more "authentic." (3) I use my cultural background and the knowledge of my students' culture to create a sort of cultural in-between-ness that usually helps dispel their hesitance and eventually assists in building the teacher-student trust needed to create a better learning environment. (4) In the process of developing a rapport with the teacher, they also develop a sort of intellectual exchange with a teacher who, besides being their professor, is also a person from another primary and significantly postcolonial culture.
Certainly, postcolonial texts and theory offer quite a radical approach to learning about the world. But postcolonial texts alone, no matter how radical, cannot perform the task of enlightening our students without a more nuanced and informed pedagogy. In my personal teaching practice, literary texts do not constitute an end in themselves, but are rather instrumental in teaching the world. This does not imply that I completely foreclose the very "literariness" of the literary texts, but that I emphasize their intimate grounding in the world of lived experience of the global south. This teaching of the world involves an attempt on my part to encourage an ethic of global solidarity, by which I simply mean encouraging a mode of identification with the plight of the others who may be different but still share the same planet. Such an ethic aims to encourage our students to look at their own everyday practices in a critical manner and, if needed, change their practices to facilitate a greater degree of good for the rest of humanity.
Most of our students come to our classes as young individuals whose identities are still in flux. In most of the cases their identities are inextricably linked with personal and social histories that predispose them to respond to different teaching practices in varied ways. When the teaching materials are not in consonance with their previously held beliefs, they feel threatened; the "mere encounter with difference can be enough to threaten their identity-bearing beliefs and worldviews" (Bracher 26). In such situations, effective pedagogy introduces difference in our classrooms without posing it as a threat to students' personal identities, especially if the main goal of the course is to nourish a global ethic of care. Only a deeply radical pedagogy can attempt to transform our students' received knowledge into a sort of global politics of care.
In most cases the students' identities are a combination of their religious beliefs, their ideas about community, and their sense of attachment to their national identity. For such young students, the mere act of entering a postcolonial literature class can be quite a challenging event, especially because of the international, anti-foundational, and anti-imperial nature of the postcolonial texts. Under such circumstances, where students are likely to perceive the class as a threat to their own personal identity, learning can be seriously hampered. How to make this learning experience less of a trauma and more of an awakening or demystification is the right question if one is to make the class a place of social transformation.
Mark Bracher suggests that a literature class can be a perfect place for enhancing or reshaping the public aspects of student identity. This public identity includes those aspects of our students' sociopolitical identity that allow them to make sense of the world around them not just in personal terms but also in terms of their sociopolitical associations with others. In Bracher's approach to more effective teaching, both the teacher and the literary text play an important role in providing an "immediate boost to identity" (164). He explains the teacher-text combination vis-a-vis student identity in the following words:
Direct expressions of admiration or approval by the teacher or other students for a student's knowledge, understanding, insight, or sensitivity are both immediately energizing and profoundly nourishing for identity ... Literary study also offers powerful forms of implicit recognition, which results from reading, discussing and writing about aspects of character or author that are also components of or issues concerning one's own identity. (165)
What is obvious in Bracher's assertion is the importance of not just one factor, but a whole combination of factors that must come together to make a classroom a place for innovative learning. My pedagogical practices are also informed by John Tagg's emphasis on the importance of a "deep approach to learning," that is, a mode of teaching that encourages "introducing variety into the objects of thought, of triangulating reality by looking at it from different angles" (76). l-he text, the teacher, and the entire class become instrumental as a learning community in making literary study an experience that can encourage students to look at the world from the perspective of the other--a feat that postcolonial literature is aptly equipped to accomplish.
Before designing the course, I did some preliminary research about my future students. I learned, through university databases and from my senior colleagues, that most of my students come from the small manufacturing towns of Northeastern Ohio. A considerable number of them are also first generation college students. (5) Hence, their lived experiences probably predisposed them toward being a receptive audience in my class. As most of them had already experienced the noxious effects of neoliberal globalization (6) that had robbed their hometowns of the manufacturing jobs (7), a critique of the ravages of high capital did not constitute a threat to their identity. If anything, it was more likely to solidify their views about the unjust consequences of the current socio-economic order and, maybe, with the right kind of texts and interactive strategies, make them more amenable to developing a more global and sympathetic worldview.
Implicit in this emphasis on an ethic of global care and solidarity is the importance of recognizing the presence of an undeniable link between the study of literature and our lived experience. Hence, my aim was to use literary and theoretical texts about European colonialism and creatively connect them to the current stage of high capitalism by introducing and discussing the U.S.'s role in maintaining neo-imperialism. This part of the course is usually the hardest to teach, for unlike the critique of European colonialism that students can discuss with a detached perspective, teaching the complicity of their own nation in the imperial project is the biggest threat to their personal identity.
In thinking about this student body, I decided to use only novels as my primary texts, simply because a novel provides a better chance of a sustained discussion not just of the text but also of the material circumstances in which it was produced. I also wanted to use geographically diverse books. Ngugi's Devil on the Cross and Djebar's So Vast the Prison were used to teach about the struggles of two African nations; Cooke's Hayati: My Life helped in teaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Similarly, Hosseini's The Kite Runner took us to another important yet neglected part of the world, Afghanistan. These choices also allowed me to incorporate a few of the major strains of postcolonial studies. Where Devil on the Cross attempts to represent postcolonial struggles of the African nation-state and provides an imaginative critique of the neoliberal economic order, So Vast the Prison foregrounds the gendered struggle of women in a postcolonial nation-state and provides a voice to the usually silenced female subject of the Islamic postcolonial nation-state. In these two novels alone one can cover the economic and feminist concerns of postcolonial studies. All of the novels are helpful in discussing native resistance to oppression in the past and the present.
The study of this selected body of literature was centered on a major assignment termed the Community Reading Project. I divided the students-based on their chosen novel--into small communities of readers. These groups were required to read their chosen novels together and then serve as experts on the novel in classroom discussions. The groups were also required to meet five times during the semester to discuss the novel outside of class. (8) Each meeting was headed by one of the members, and he or she had to announce the time and place of their meeting so I could pay them a surprise visit. While each reading group introduced its book to the larger class, they were also required to turn in a written report at the end of the semester. This report had two main components: notes by individual discussion leaders as an individual assignment, and a report written collaboratively by the group. Students were also encouraged to invite outside members from their immediate community to join their reading community, and were offered extra credit points for this.
I ended up with a class of twenty-one students. While there was not much ethnic diversity in the class (I had only one African-American student), the class was evenly balanced in terms of gender. Also, almost all the students were English majors and lived on campus. On the first day of class, I informed my students that the texts that they would be reading would focus primarily on the silenced voices of the global periphery, and that while I would sometimes draw comparisons with mainstream Western works and history, it was not intended to be any kind of balanced juxtaposition. Our approach to discussing all our chosen texts was "hermeneutical," and by this I mean a way of reading that uses the text as a clue in exploring the material circumstances that form, in Fredric Jameson's words, the "raw material" for a particular text. (9) Thus, when we discussed Devil on the Cross, the novel also became a clue in researching the colonial history of Kenya and its tribal divisions, a history that then informed our reading of the novel. This approach was quite handy in discussing all of my chosen texts, and the student reading groups were consequently active in researching and sharing these raw materials with their peers.
Ngugi's Devil on the Cross was the first novel discussed in the class. Set in postcolonial Kenya, this particular novel is a perfect text for introducing the day-to-day struggles of citizens of Kenya in their postcolonial national life. While narrowly focused on the life and struggles of Jacinta Wariinga, the novel's female protagonist, Ngugi also provides an overt critique of high capitalism, especially the neoliberal market system. The novel is also helpful in explaining that while colonialism might have ended with Kenya's independence, the economic exploitation of Kenya at the hands of both international capitalism and a native elite is still a reality. The novel thus complicates the overall view of Africa as a failed place and also helps explain the complicity of Western powers in the postcolonial troubles of Kenya in particular, and Africa in general. I supplemented our class discussion with an educational video from our library which provided a brief account of Kenyan culture and history. An excerpt from Achille Mbembe's On the Postcolony provided insights into understanding the history of Africa and its postcolonial struggles that rival representations common in Western history texts.
The most surprising aspect of studying Devil on the Cross turned out to be the contributions of the reading group responsible for this particular novel. During the second week of our discussion of the novel, this reading group provided well-researched background information about Kenya, about the author and his other works, and about the novel. As we progressed into our discussion, it became evident that the students had taken it upon themselves to educate each other about the novel, while I took up the role of being just another member of the group--a role that allowed me to participate in the discussion from within instead of offering my views as the authoritative teacher. By the time we finished discussing the novel, the reading group members and their other classmates were so deeply immersed in this work that they could have taught the novel and, by extension, the main aspects of Kenyan history to any of their peers.
It is interesting to note here the importance of implicit recognition, by which I mean that almost all the students in my class--mostly middle-class Americans--learned to be sympathetic to the two working-class characters in the novel, Jacinta Wariinga and Muturi. They also openly spoke out about the need for lateral alliances--represented by the working-class characters of the novel--against the power of global capitalism. Hence, by taking charge of the novel, my students, who would have otherwise been uncomfortable had I tried to teach them the virtues of economic justice and equity, found themselves supporting the socialist system that the novel posited as the only true alternative to the rapacious aspects of high capitalism. As we concluded our discussion of the novel, terms such as neoliberalism, exploitation, division of labor, multiple histories, and gender difference had become a part of our everyday classroom vocabulary. We were now ready to tackle Assia Djebar's So Vast the Prison.
Originally written in French and set in contemporary Algeria, Djebar's novel tells the story of a female experience in postcolonial Algeria through the voice of its narrator, Isma. The novel is also a good example of historical retrieval and its importance for personal and national identity formation. I supplemented the novel with a viewing of the film Battle of Algiers, which provided a brief overview of the violent history of the Algerian freedom struggle against the French. The reading group provided the necessary details of Djebar's life, basic information about Algerian history and geography, and the particular aspects of the novel. The most important aspect of this novel's in-class discussion turned out to be the role of language in defining personal and national identity. The students related the narrator's attempt at tracing the roots of Berber language to similar attempts by African Americans seeking out their personal and cultural histories in order to articulate their identities. Once again, the students took charge of their learning process and I became a participant in their project.
This particular novel also helped to provide the class with a more complex picture of the gender divide in traditional Islamic societies, and students started to see the struggles of Algerian Muslim women as central to the Algerian national project. They also began to understand that lasting change in Algeria could only be accomplished through the struggles and persistence of Algerians themselves and that this change could not be mandated from the West alone.
Teaching Qurratulain Hyder's River of Fire turned out to be one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences in the class. A novel that covers two thousand years of India's history through the experiences of four recurring characters, River of Fire requires quite a lot of preparatory work before the novel can be discussed in class. At 428 pages long, the novel is a complex weaving of two thousand years of India's temporal and spatial history. What complicated reading the novel even further was the use of numerous unglossed Hindi and Urdu words. Because of the heavy demands of this book, I assigned one extra student to this group. Amongst themselves, this reading community compiled a glossary, a historical timeline of India, and a detailed geographic map that juxtaposed the current names of places with their ancient names as used in the novel. In my own class presentation of the book, I primarily focused on the author's attempt to imagine a collective history of India and the end of this collective narrative in 1947, the year of the partition of the Subcontinent into India and Pakistan. In our discussion, the students--as informed by the reading group--also learned the key concepts of Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism, three of India's major religions, as well as the particularities of Indian Christianity and the Parsi faith, l-bus, while the novel became a pedagogical tool in teaching the overarching historical narrative of one of the oldest civilizations in the world, it also helped us understand the aftermath of the partition of the country into two. As we concluded River of Fire, the next two weeks discussing Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, a more contemporary popular novel, seemed like a respite well earned.
Written in first person narrative, The Kite Runner, a beguilingly simple novel, deals with painful and complex aspects of modern Afghanistan. The students were more than enthusiastic about the novel because its setting figures prominently in the national news and is where U.S. troops are currently deployed. For me, however, the novel became a tool not only to teach about Afghanistan, but also about the politics of representation, especially the novel's unproblematic representation of "Operation Enduring Freedom." While the reading group provided the necessary background information, I supplemented our discussion with the history of the Soviet-Afghan war and the U.S. role therein. This explanation of Afghan history allowed my students to understand the necessary historical preconditions--the destruction of Afghan social structures--that made it possible for the Taliban to rise to power. Implicit also in this discussion was the role that the CIA and several other U.S. allies played in escalating the war. Hence, while the novel evoked for us the human experiences of two estranged brothers and the narrator's struggles to redeem himself by rescuing his half-brother's son, the reading group's background research helped the class as a whole understand the existential circumstances of the modern Afghan tragedy. After we discussed the Kite Runner, it was obvious that Afghanistan was no longer just another hostile place for my students, but rather a country that needed international help to survive the aftermath of a war in which all major Western powers had participated through their Afghan warlord proxies. (10)
Miriam Cooke's Hayati: My Life was the last novel that we discussed in our class. A novel about Palestine, Hayati, in the words of one of its reviewers, is a work that "uses artful prose to create stories shaped by the complexities of human interaction giving readers insights into lives of Palestinians" (Han 91). The novel is a non-linear narrative of the lives of three generations of Palestinian women written in the form of overlapping diary entries. While various Palestinian-Israeli conflicts frame their struggles, the narrative is mostly focused on the lives of its female characters. As I learned later, this was the first time my students were exposed to a novel that dealt specifically with Palestinian lives.
Mindful of Bracher's analysis of the nature of students' identity bearing traits and of threats perceived by them in the classroom, I introduced the "raw materials" of the novel by first asking my students about their views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not surprisingly, their views were based on the representation of the conflict in the U.S. media and were dangerously lopsided in favor of Israel. This broadly shared perspective indicated that a blunt questioning of this picture would make them withdraw into the safety of their beliefs and turn the reading of this novel in its very materiality into a threatening experience for them. Hence, the first major assignment, before even starting to read the book, was to educate students about both sides of the conflict. (11) I divided the class into three roughly equal groups and each group was assigned to present historical details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I also supplemented this research by providing a handout excerpt from Edward Said's The Question of Palestine as it provides the necessary details of Palestinian history and struggles from a Palestinian point of view.
By the time we got to discussing the book itself, the students had educated each other about the main aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian history. The presenters also provided their colleagues with copies of several maps of Israel and the occupied territories--maps that enabled the students to imagine spatially as they read the narratives. Students' engagement with the novel and the history it portrays became, then, both spatial and temporal. It enabled them to imagine the movement of the novel's characters across a specific landscape, armed with a knowledge of its attendant politicized nature at the time of specific, large historical events.
Reading Hayati: My Life also allowed for a great degree of what Bracher calls "implicit recognition" (165) within the text. Though Cooke's female characters share "a common condition of suffering, which is caused by war" (Hocine 146), without directly attributing their suffering to any direct Israeli actions, some students could see in the resilience of these characters a mirror of their own everyday struggles. Hence, despite the politically charged position this novel takes as it goes against the current of mainstream approaches to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the students' own identities were engaged with the struggles of the characters as struggles which can be understood on a larger human scale as well as in their particularity. Though teaching this novel posed special challenges because it directs our empathy and understanding towards a people for whom the media and public opinion have little sympathy, reading and discussing Hayati also captured and summarized the work the class did over the whole semester. Most importantly, it revealed the relation between knowledge and engagement as one learns about life and about fiction.
While teaching these four novels turned out to be a really fruitful experience in exploring postcolonial realities, what made it most rewarding was students' active participation in the Community Reading Project. This pedagogical format helped create a space for them to connect history to their own lives while developing a better understanding of the world around them and empathy for global struggles for liberation. After this class, students informed me that they enjoyed the reading groups both for their intellectual as well as communal values, and they recommended that I use this particular strategy for all my world literature courses. They also suggested that I include some short fiction in order to make the course even more diverse, and as a result I have now decided to replace two novels with an anthology of world literature in my current World Literature course. (12)
Though I am not sure that all the students left this class with a mission to change the world, I know they parted with a more complex world-view, and maybe, I hope, with an awareness of their reciprocal responsibility to other world citizens. This recognition of one's responsibility, singly and collectively, for making the world a more just and equitable place can only be accomplished if we in the field of humanities understand that the most important role of humanities, as Gayatri Spivak suggests, is "the empowerment of an informed imagination" (2), especially about the global periphery.
The Battle of Algiers. Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo. Film. Stella Productions, 1966.
Bracher, Mark. Radical Pedagogy. New York: Palgrave, 2006.
Cooke, Miriam. Hayati: My Life. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
Djebar, Assia. So Vast the Prison. Trans. Betsy Wing. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999.
Han, Carolyn. Hayati: My Life. Review. ASQ Vol. 24 (4), 2002: 91-93.
Hocine, Chabha. Hayati. Review. World Literature Today Vol. 76 (1), 2002: 146-147.
Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003.
Hyder, Qurratulain. River of Fire. New York: New Directions, 1998.
Kenya. Video Recording. Journal Films, 1990.
Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Ngugi, Wa Thiong'o. Devil on the Cross. Oxford: Heinemann Press, 1982.
Said, Edward. The Question of Palestine. 1979. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Spivak, Gayatri C. Other Asias. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
Tagg, John. The Learning Paradigm College. Bolton: Anker Publishing, 2003.
(1) I use the term "postcolonial" knowing that the "post" of the "postcolonial" is a heavily debated subject. For all practical purposes, I do understand that even though direct European colonial rule has ended, postcolonial nation-states are still caught in client-state status in the current phase of neoliberal capital.
(2) By "difference" I simply mean anything that comes across as different from the student's own personal and social identity. Hence, the aim of the course is to make my students realize that any difference--gender, race, sexuality, class, ethnicity, religion, etc.--need not be simply a reason for exclusion, but rather could be important in enhancing their understanding of their own identities and the larger culture within which they live.
(3) I am using the word "authentic" advisedly here only from the point of view of my students. Personally I do understand that in most of the cases, invocation of an authentic cultural self is highly motivated and often a fiction.
(4) During my earlier teaching assignments I had learned that my students were worried about my credentials to teach an English class. I therefore spend some time explaining the history of my own education and even show them some of my publications to dispel any such fears.
(5) According to the most recent student survey of Kent State University, forty eight percent of recent freshmen (on both the Kent campus and six regional campuses) are first generation college students.
(6) In fact, one of my best students informed me that since Wal-Mart established a foothold in their community, the historical downtown businesses had pretty much closed shop and Wal-Mart had become the biggest employer in his hometown. Hence from his parents' generation to his the town had been changed from a vibrant community of industrial middle-class workers to one where manufacturing jobs have vanished and been replaced by low paying service industry jobs.
(7) According to a Cleveland nonprofit organization "Ohio lost 14,653 jobs from 1999 through 2003 as a direct result of NAFTA." Details are available at http://www.policymattersohio.org/ media/ABJ_trade.pdf.
(8) Luckily this worked perfectly as all the students in this particular class lived on campus. I had, however, also planned to offer an alternative assignment for the students who did not live close to campus and could have not effectively participated in the project.
(9) Fredric Jameson uses this useful concept in two of his major works: The Political Unconscious and Postmodernism: Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.
(10) In the future, if I teach this particular novel again, I will definitely use the recently released movie version of the novel as another pedagogical tool.
(11) Mostly I do not intentionally try to balance my views on the subject. In this particular case, because of the centrality of the Palestinian problem to the American consciousness, I encouraged my students to read both sides of the conflict and then bring that knowledge to bear upon the text itself. Still, I did not assign any particular texts representing the Israeli point of view, but was open to any materials that the students themselves brought in for the class discussion.
(12) I have found The Bedford Anthology of World Literature, Vol. 6 quite useful for my courses.…