Literature and International Relations

Article excerpt


As many scholars of literature and international relations have suggested, literature, religion, art, music and other forms of cultural representation have been central to colonialism and imperialism, war and conflict, national liberation, and globalization. But international relations courses, as reflected in curricula, syllabi and textbooks, have been slow to incorporate the study of literature and literary representation. We designed a course on literature, culture, and postcolonial politics to fill a gap in our institution's public affairs curriculum. In this article, we describe how we constructed the course and we articulate some of the questions that emerged concerning pedagogical content knowledge in an interdisciplinary context.


As Julie Thompson Klein demonstrates in her important work, Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice, the concept of interdisciplinarity enjoys a long if complicated history, with some scholars tracing the concept back to the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and others locating it in the ideas of twentieth-century "educational reforms, applied research, and movement across disciplinary boundaries" (1990: 19). Yet no matter where we locate the 'source' of interdisciplinarity, the reconceiving of knowledge bases and epistemologies in the mid- to late-twentieth century heightened our awareness of the appropriateness, if not necessity, of such inquiry. In particular, the recognition of the over-rigidity of disciplinary boundaries and the limitations of approaching problems from a single, disciplinary frame resulted in the emergence of a number of new or newly reconfigured fields or areas of study. [1] Not surprisingly, systematic attention to this 'inter' -approach to study has been qualified, with certain disciplines being much more open to integrating select perspectives than others. International relations is one field that has long embraced political science, history, and economics as crucial disciplinary perspectives to bring to bear on its examinations and study. And the field has increasingly acknowledged the central role of culture to the formation and re-formation of international politics and power relations. [2] As the works of writers as diverse as Edward Said (1978, 1993), Arjun Appadurai (1996), and Samuel Huntington (1993) have suggested, culture and cultural representation (literature, religion, art, music, etc.) have been central to colonialism and imperialism, war and conflict, and globalization. Nonetheless, international relations courses, as reflected in curricula, syllabi and textbooks, have been slow to incorporate the study of cultural factors such as literature and literary representation. [3]

Instructors who seek to incorporate literature into the international relations curriculum must resolve the dilemma, common to all interdisciplinary endeavors, of generating new knowledge and pedagogical approaches. As Klein puts it, the challenge is how to move beyond "transmitting fields of knowledge and linking existing disciplinary categories" to an "integrative transmutation that emphasize[s] the individual's learning process and the development of new conceptual approaches, new pedagogy...." (1990: 27). Our experience in constructing and teaching a course that combines literature and international politics demonstrates the difficulty and promise of developing such a new conceptual approach. In this article, we discuss the context and content of the course, and we try to articulate some of the challenges in developing a body of teaching knowledge specifically relevant to this interdisciplinary endeavor.


Several years ago we confronted these issues as we designed an upper-division course to demonstrate the connections between the study of literature and culture to the study of international politics. The institutional setting, James Madison College, is a residential college within Michigan State University. …


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