Academic journal article The Comparatist

When Comparative Literature Becomes Cultural Studies: Teaching Cultures through Genre

Academic journal article The Comparatist

When Comparative Literature Becomes Cultural Studies: Teaching Cultures through Genre

Article excerpt

A rapprochement in the classroom between the traditional elements of comparative literary study and the political and methodological imperatives posed by the turn to cultural studies is long overdue.1 The teaching of literature in the 1950s and 1960s was largely an exclusive, intrinsic enterprise, stressing period, genre, and formal features of written texts, and in the comparative context, many of the same habits were preserved.Yet in the course of the "canon wars" of the 1980s and 1990s, training in literature changed radically, from the pedagogy associated with New Criticism ("close readings," explications de texte), often formalist in inspiration, to pedagogy based on cultural studies and various reader-centered approaches (the most familiar of which appeared under the rubric of the "Pedagogy of the Oppressed"). On the scholarly front, comparative literature has in many ways led the charge because of its early attention to postcolonial studies, a classic setting for studies of meetings between dominant and nondominant cultures and for debates about the impact of national literature canons.

For the most part, however, our classroom practice has not caught up with that shift: we have few models for transferring our scholarly theories into classroom practice, whether in the classroom in general, in comparative literature, or in foreign-language literatures. Nor have we projected into the classroom the implications of our focus on textuality as a privileged material form of culture, as the larger field of cultural studies would define it. Nor, finally, have genres been reclaimed as specific, established, and extended patterns of communication within cultural contexts--the textualities that constitute channels of cultural power.

The typical offerings of an undergraduate literature major up into the 1980s, for example, were often organized around period surveys, movements, or genres. "Comparative literature" tended to be a specialization at the graduate level, in no small measure because of its preference for reading literature in original languages rather than in translation. Although the tools of formal genre and period analysis that had for decades been the backbone of pedagogy in literature classrooms were gradually abandoned, little has replaced them, except scholarly study of identity politics as it is represented in texts. There has, for example, been no systematic attention to a pedagogy that would help novice readers learn how to associate a text's narrative point of view with its identity politics--how to read identity politics out of the text, rather than adducing it from general social stereotypes.

I will argue here that "learning to read literature comparatively" and "learning to do critical cultural analysis" can andmust be put on a continuum, in a constructivist, activist, and multilayered approach to teaching students how to read literatures in cultural contexts, comparatively and otherwise. The concept of genre is, I believe, particularly fruitful for the discussion, since it provides a convenient heuristic for talking about patterns of communication and conventions that appear in all cultures (hegemonic or subaltern), albeit in different ways, and which are used as the points of "judiciousness" (Lyotard) around which nodes of cultural power and disempowerment rise.

While the following discussion is based on a large body of research on teaching and learning, I will present my suggestions as a model framework for teaching practice.2 The framework is anything but a modest proposal, however, because it works from the premise that teaching literature and cultural studies is both a necessary activity and an unaddressed need in today's postsecondary educational institutions. As I see it, the last two decades have called traditional canonicity into question but have developed few if any approaches to teaching literature compatible with a new focus on its cultural contexts. Thus, I will argue, in abandoning a blind faith in high literature and New Criticism we have sacrificed a concrete (if unacceptably limited) pedagogy for teaching students how to read texts, but we have not replaced it with a pedagogy for critical cultural studies. …

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