Academic journal article Antipodes

Teaching Australian Literature in a Class about Literatures of Social Reform

Academic journal article Antipodes

Teaching Australian Literature in a Class about Literatures of Social Reform

Article excerpt

This article considers the theoretical and political implications of teaching Sally Morgan's My Place to American university students alongside Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. My Place is, of course, a milestone in indigenous writing in Australia in which Morgan writes of her quest to discover her hidden Aboriginal heritage, while The Jungle and Uncle Tom's Cabin are American classics whose reputations are inextricably linked to the social reforms they inspired. This article presents an intriguing thesis about proximity and identification, distance and empathy based on the experience of teaching Australian and American literature together. Indeed, its response to the question, "How does the Australian production of My Place influence its American reception?" will surprise many people. With regard to this question and the theoretical and political implications of teaching these three books together, any conclusions I might reach will, of course, be based on careful consideration of the context in which the books were read. Nonetheless, I hope that the implications of my conclusions can be generalized beyond this specific context-that is, beyond the particular students enrolled in one class at one university-and applied more freely to the teaching of Australian literature to students at any American university. Still, I feel it is imperative to begin with an accounting of the specific context, since it was from this context that my thoughts on the subject first developed.

In August 2009, I began my employment as an Assistant Professor of English at a mid-size public university in the American Midwest. One of my first assignments as a new hire was to teach a 100-level literature class with a generic title that invited the instructor to shape the class according to his or her interests and expertise. The shape of the class I eventually designed was inspired by recent research that shows that when young people choose to read a book rather than watch television, play a videogame, surf the Internet, etc., they are most often motivated by a desire for pleasure; they expect a pleasurable response that is unique to the literary form (though this is not to say they judge it to be better or worse than the pleasures of another me- dia form) (Clark and Rumbold). However, I wanted to help students value and understand literature as more than just a source of pleasure or entertainment. I hoped they would emerge from the class with an appreciation for literature as something that contributes to shaping the culture and history in which it is also a participant.

The class examined literature as an agent of social change. Students read an internationally diverse collection of books-among them My Place, The Jungle, and Uncle Tom's Cabin-each of which catalyzed a social reform of one type or another, as well as being undeniably "popular" at the time of publication. I hoped that, upon successful completion of the class, students would be able to appreciate that an individual work of literature cannot be fully understood in the absence of an understanding of the social and cultural context in which it was produced and received. And, indeed, just as the social and cultural context can shape a book, so too can a book shape its social and cultural context.

Two anecdotes related to the reception of My Place and The Jungle by students in my class are particularly relevant at this juncture. But first it is important to know that these were the first two books students read in this class. Upon completion of the second book, they were instructed to write an essay about either My Place or The Jungle on a topic of their choice. When the assignments were finally submitted, the students had divided their responses almost exactly evenly between the two books. The topics they had chosen to tackle were, on the contrary, almost as numerous as the number of essays that had been submitted. That is, with the exception of a cluster of five essays about The Jungle-one-third of all responses to this text-that were all basically about the same topic. …

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