Teaching the Canon.

AuthorPalumbo-Liu, David
PositionPOINT COUNTERPOINT - Interview

The debate over the emerging Global Canon falls within the scope of the academy, comprised of individuals who play a critical role in determining the leading works of art and literature. We engaged two professors in a discussion of the ever shifting, and increasingly global nature of literature curricula in their college classrooms. We questioned them about the specific goals of their literature classes, what role non-western writers played in class discussions, and how the diverse backgrounds of their students influenced the classroom dynamic. We began the conversation, in the form of an e-mail exchange, moderated by World Policy Journal editors, with a simple question: What goals do you have as professors of world literature, with respect to your students' curricula and their lives beyond the classroom?

PALUMBO-LIU: First, to present literature in its historical context, regionally, nationally and globally, to show the connection between the particular "local" situation of the work of literature, its relation to broader contexts and even the notion of "universal" values. Often this is dialectical-by discussing the particular and the universal, we find our senses of both modified. Second, to present literature as literature; that is, as a specific way of putting language together that is unique to literature. This is done with due respect to the fact that different cultures have alternative discourses, which approximate what western society understands literature to be. I attempt to raise the question regarding the kinds of social and cultural functions literature performs, and how these functions are manifested elsewhere. My hope is that if I meet these objectives, they will have a kind of ethical effect--that [my students'] assumptions about the world, of how "other people" act, about other values, ways of thinking, would be different.

HORTA: I agree with David. There is an ethical component to the study of literature and foreign literature in particular, a thinking through of assumptions pertaining to others and other cultures. Historically, in the postwar United States, comparative literature has been concerned with the task of fashioning world citizens. I think we must ask critically what it might mean to be a citizen of many cultures, and of the world. In my freshman seminars on literature, we read seminal texts by philosophers and political theorists on cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism.

In this context, my work is born of the...

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