Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Writing War: The Memorial Design Project

Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Writing War: The Memorial Design Project

Article excerpt

It seems a fortuitous--and frightening--time to be teaching a course on literature and art of war in the twentieth century. As an assistant professor in a small English department within Widener University's humanities division, which serves a range of students through our general education program, I am constantly mindful of making the aesthetic socially and ethically relevant. Furthermore, as a sometime-teacher in the General Education Honors Program, I am conscious not only of making the arts and humanities relevant to a diverse body of students but of challenging some very driven and engaged thinkers and writers.

My desire both to present the humanities as socially and ethically relevant and through them to challenge students to question their own deeply held beliefs led me to propose an honors colloquium entitled "Literature and Art of War in the 20th Century." Honors colloquia in our program are seminar-style classes often with an interdisciplinary design and a focus on active student participation. Students usually lead a significant portion of the class and complete less conventional, more interactive projects. (Other recent offerings in the humanities include "The American Movie Musical" and "The Material Text.") The colloquia are open only to honors students, who are required to take two in order to graduate with advanced honors. The classes meet once a week for three hours.

My course included a range of literary texts from World War I to the present (American, British, French, German) as well as the visual arts (painting, photography, sculpture, film). I drew on my own research in literature of the First and Second World Wars as well as a background in film to formulate the syllabus, and I used as a guiding framework my scholarly interest in collective and individual constructions of subjectivity in wartime.

As part of my general desire to treat such a complicated course as an experiment in intellectual tightrope-walking and to bolster and support the interdisciplinary nature of the work, I included types of assignments I had never tried before. In addition to oral presentations, a formal analysis of film, and a conventional literary interpretation/reflection paper at the end, I included a creative assignment: the Memorial Design Project. James Young notes of memorials that "as part of a nation's rites or the objects of a people's national pilgrimage, they are invested with national soul and memory . . . Once created, memorials take on lives of their own, often stubbornly resistant to the state's original intentions" (2-3). Young's statement applies even to the work created by the students. In wrestling with the assignment and what the students brought to it, I came to a renewed understanding of what I can learn from my students, my own limitations as a teacher and assessor, and the commitment necessary to treat our engagement with deep ethical issues respectfully.

It was my goal to engage explicitly with the current conflict in Iraq over the trajectory of my course. Beginning with an intellectual framework elucidated by Margot Norris in her book Writing War in the Twentieth Century, the students and I proposed in an individualized, discussion-based setting to define and employ the strategies of the arts and humanities to come to terms with the ethical and aesthetic questions raised by the experience of war. Norris writes:

   Looking back at the twentieth century, we might at first be struck
   by the incommensurability of two of its hallmarks: modern mass
   warfare and innovative art. How is the century's burgeoning of
   rich, new conceptual forms and aesthetic technologies related to
   the fact that the twentieth century has been the bloodiest century
   in the human history of the world? Was modern war a stimulus to
   aesthetic revolution, as early twentieth-century artists and
   writers claimed, or did art become increasingly aghast and defeated
   by events and spectacles beyond its powers of representation as war
   became unspeakably immense in scale and unutterably violent in
   conduct? … 
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