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Comparative Scholarship/worldly Teaching

By Foster, John Burt | The Comparatist, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Comparative Scholarship/worldly Teaching

Foster, John Burt, The Comparatist

Early in our careers, I suspect, many comparatists have had to ask, "What are we supposed to teach?" For me this issue first surfaced during a job interview with a university that was building comparative literature by piggy-backing new hires partly in established departments and partly in the new program. Somehow, in the confused weeks before the MLA, I learned that I was to interview with English but not that I should also do so with Russian. So there I was, just one step past graduate school (where we were able to move quite freely among the languages, philosophy, and history) and already entangled in the uncertainties concerning where I belonged, at least in the university's day-to-day role as a teaching institution.

Does this story strike a chord? In my case, I soon found that unlike my research in French, German, and Russian, the two-fifths of me assigned to comparative teaching had to rely largely on translations. This situation even prevailed at an overseas campus in France, where students on a junior-year study abroad were generally taking third-year language courses and still not ready for much reading in French. Of course, issues of language and culture were directly relevant there, unlike at the home campus where they could seem vaguely pedantic. For comparatists in the U.S., I found, teaching and scholarship often had to exist in two separate compartments, even after the federally funded language programs of the 1960s.

So, several decades after that initiation, with world literature now on our agenda, how much has the situation changed? Here I need to distinguish between comparatists like myself, trained when the English, French, and German triad reigned supreme, so that even my Russian seemed exotic in comparison, and those comparatists I admire as interregionalists. These are the scholars with a knowledge (say) of Arabic, Bengali, or Chinese (people in the mold of Said, Spivak, or Eoyang). I like to imagine that these comparatists, with their more-or-less equal command of a Western literature alongside their knowledge of another geocultural tradition, are better suited to teach world literature with our field's ideal of even-handedness. Yet if world literature as a subject for undergraduates must also mean, at its most basic level, the literature from a worldwide sweep of regions, even these comparatists must accept the challenge of moving out into a larger variety of traditions. Obviously, a good world literature course does not have to be that inclusive, and a well-focused case study that explores a smaller number of traditions at greater depth can do a lot to expand horizons. Nonetheless, "world literature" is a label that promises a breadth of coverage that students need to encounter in some form, somewhere.

Lacking the interregional expertise just mentioned, I have still gradually edged my way from comparative to world literature. The first step in this direction was to accept the value of teaching works I knew only in translation. For several decades I have taught in an English department with established courses on Continental Fiction for majors and on World Masterpieces for the general student body. Both of them boiled down to the same thing: works from the Western tradition not originally written in English and hence taught in translation. These were ideal courses for someone with my training, given the power of the French and Russian traditions in the novel, the importance of some striking achievements in German, and the rise of modern drama. In time, however, I compromised my conscience as a comparatist by adding other figures to fill out the picture: Verga, Pirandello, and Calvino despite my limited Italian, and Ibsen, Garcia Marquez, and Kundera though I lacked meaningful Norwegian, Spanish, and Czech.

The significance of this urge to "fill out the picture" in taking me beyond "knowing what you teach in the original" finally dawned on me several years ago.

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