Pedagogy, Writing, and the Future of Comparative Literature

This paper was published in Comparative Literature in Canada:  Contemporary Scholarship, Pedagogy, and Publishing in Review.  Ed. Susan Ingram and Irene Sywenky. Lexington Books, 2020, 157-72.

The editors solicited five responses to my essay, which are included in the book. They are written by  D.R. Gamble, Heather Macfarlane, Keith O’Regan, Jan Plug, and Kevin G. Wilson.

A few years ago, I invited Vivasvan Soni, a professor at Northwestern University, to guest teach in my graduate seminar, “Affinities: Readings in Realism and Radicalism.” The discussion on Hannah Arendt’s The Human Conditionwas very animated and engaged, and he did a wonderful job of answering the student’s many comments and questions about politics, engagement, responsibility, and praxis. After the seminar, he asked me if it was a mixed Masters/PhD class. I thought that perhaps he was asking because he thought they were immature, or unprepared. I explained that it was actually a mixed class, with four undergraduates from the Literature and Critical Theory program. These are often exceptional students who joint major with Philosophy, Diaspora Studies, or Women and Gender Studies, as well as making films or visual art on the side. He said, “I thought they couldn’t be graduate students because Hannah Arendt mattered to them, not just as a critic that they needed to know about for comps or theory smarts, but as an intellectual and philosopher who was seeking to understand the human condition. Those students, they urgently want to figure out how to live, and believe that these texts hold ideas that they can learn from.”

We talked for a long time about how graduate school professionalizes students for the job market. In the process, it seems to distance them from the ideas and debates that drew them to study in the first place, focussed as they are on reading the right texts, gaining the correct credentials, and filling their cv’s. As we talked, I remembered that some of the PhD students in that class had, in fact, been a keen and committed undergraduate when I first met them. What had happened in the ensuing two years of education that made their discussion in the classroom feel less engaged, less urgent?

It was a wake-up call. No longer was it enough for me to teach canonical texts and have them write article-length essays for me to mark at the end of the semester. I wanted the experience of learning together in the classroom to be one that not only furthered their graduate school careers, but also engaged them as a group of scholars who were working together to create, shape, disseminate, and share knowledge production. I needed to rethink my teaching methods and classroom discussion. So I began to restructure the content and form of my seminars, as well as my own research and writing practices. 

What follows is divided into two parts with two sections in each. The first half is about pedagogy and writing. I posit a different approach to the form of academic writing in Comparative Literature, sharing some of the components of my “Forms of Critical Writing” seminar in which students experiment with different genres. I then expand out from the space of the classroom to argue that it is not only students who are seeking different forms for their writing. Academics are also interested in contemporary initiatives that train them to write for different publics. This leads to the second half of the paper, which makes concrete suggestions for the future of Comparative Literature. I lay out some ways that the discipline can enhance its virtual community both in Canada and internationally. The fourth and final section imagines a graduate program in Comparative Literature that takes into account some of the ideas that have surfaced in MLA discussions and the White Paper. My intellectual and emotional investment in Comparative Literature as a space of intellectual rigour, true interdisciplinarity, and critical engagement will, I hope, be evident throughout this paper.