Telling a New Narrative

We’ve been talking about making some changes to classes in our program, one of which is a core Western Literature survey.  In talking about the move to World Literature, several people (including me) have said, at one point or another, that the change will be difficult because the current narrative of the class works (or makes sense).

What we mean by that is that there’s a clear overarching structure to the course that frames the way we talk about the readings.  For example, in the second half of Western Lit., which is what I teach, I used literary periods to frame our discussions.  Since it starts in the Enlightenment (even the subtitle of the class, Enlightenment to Postmodern, reinforces the frame we’re using for the class), I talk about the debate between reason and passion, which leads into the Romantics, the Modernists, and the Postmodernists.  It’s true that this structure works.

When we’ve been trying to change to World Literature, though, there are a number of pieces that don’t fit into this narrative, save for perhaps as background or contrast.  One could talk about the Enlightenment, then essentially say, “Meanwhile, in Japan…”  That doesn’t present a coherent narrative.  Not surprisingly, some people mentioned this problem as a reason not to make the change.

However, what I’ve come to realize through this discussion is that this narrative is just a construct.  There are a whole host of ways to structure this and every other course, which means there are ways to structure it to include the writings in the new textbook.  We can do so in a way that doesn’t make them seem secondary to what we’re used to talking about.  For example, next fall, I think I’m going to use a more thematic structure to have students talk about major ideas (love and truth and so on), leading them to compare and contrast how someone in 19th century Japan thinks of justice as opposed to someone in 20th century France.  That means I’ll cut some writings I currently teach that don’t fit as easily into that structure, but it also means I’ll get to include some works that don’t fit with what I’m doing now.  The difference is that I’m choosing based on ideas that are more interesting to me than simple chronology.

Lest it sound like this epiphany has already led me to make changes in all my classes, part of what helped me realize this problem is my current U.S. Literature course.  I’ve prided myself in recent years on my inclusion of diverse authors (which is why I want to make the change in World Literature).  However, in looking at a colleague’s syllabus for U.S. Lit., I realized that my approach was not nearly as diverse as it could be.  Not surprisingly, that’s because I’ve let the chronological approach take control again.

I start with Realism and Naturalism, then move to Modernism, then on to Postmodernism.  Let’s be honest, such an approach, given the anthology’s set up, is the easiest one.  However, I’m not convinced it’s the best one.  If you look at a list of major Realists and Naturalists (James, Twain, Howells, Dreiser, Norris, Crane, London, Wharton), you’ll quickly notice that they’re all white and almost all male.  There are some “local color” writers who are largely presented as minor authors who aren’t as respected as those bigger names (they’re almost all female, for the record), so that provides a bit of diversity, but at a cost to how students perceive them.

However, at the same time, there is a wide variety of writers of color, including Asian-Americans, whom we almost never talk about until Amy Tan comes along, writing at the same time.  Because we focus on the literary periodization, we completely miss authors who speak to the American condition and tradition in very different ways.

Also, such an approach changes the way we talk about the works.  As in the case with the “local color” authors, we only talk about Twain in terms of Realism or debate whether Wharton is a Realist or Naturalist when those authors have so much more to offer.  Then there are cases like Robert Frost, who wrote during the Modernist era, yet clearly doesn’t fit with his peeers.  Thus, we end up spending a chunk of time talking about why he doesn’t fit based on when he was born rather than talking about why his poetry is great, no matter when it was written.

We need to write new narratives for our classes that go beyond some structure imposed by textbooks and anthologies or the simple fact of when or where someone was born.  We can’t ignore those facts, but they shouldn’t dominate.  Instead, we should spend our time and energy talking about what makes the work great, what in it touches our humanity, what speaks to us.  Essentially, we should talk about why it still matters to us today, not what it once was.

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