Critical distance, but not too far

April 25, 2013

When I served as the head of an English department in North West England, I was faced with a number of what may politely be called “challenges”. But one challenge I did not face was figuring out what my department was about. We had 25 staff members specialising in most of the fields comprising English literary studies today, and we worked on the identity of the department collectively - if also at times acrimoniously.

Now I am the head of an English literary studies unit in Sweden with only a handful of staff members, teaching a relatively small number of students for most of whom English is a second language. And it is largely up to me, especially at the doctoral level, to figure out what a degree in English literary studies is actually a degree in. The “literary studies” part is easy. But what is or should be “English” today?

Anything you want it to be, is the facile answer. English is the first language of nearly half a billion people and an official second language for a great many more, and literature in English is produced today in countries as far afield as Pakistan, South Africa and Guam.

But the field is also about tradition and how language, culture, geography and history have worked together to produce that peculiar configuration we call “English literature”. And what does any of that have to do with Swedes, or with such other students as I have who come from India, China, Iraq, Libya or Greece?

The problem, according to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the Indian literary theorist, philosopher and Columbia University academic, is that in teaching English literature to non-English students, we provide an “aesthetic education” that entails a form of assent. My Iraqi student does not just learn to read Dickens; she learns to assent to the Dickens way of storytelling, and the system of thought and feeling behind it. The student learns to be imposed upon by the tradition of English literature, of which Dickens is a major representative; she learns to be colonised by it, as it were.

According to Spivak, the solution is to teach students a form of dissent to go along with the assent. But that is nothing new: a synonym for literary study is literary criticism. Whether in Mumbai, Boston or Bristol, English teachers have always taught critical distance as well as empathetic absorption. The problem has to do with the configuration of English literature itself, and the corresponding discipline of study.

In my teaching away from the UK, I find it increasingly important to put flesh and bones on that configuration, to show how English literary traditions arise from real places with real histories, customs and sensibilities. There are movements afoot to teach “global” literature in Sweden and to absorb English literary studies into global literary studies. That sounds good in the abstract, for all of us live on the globe and owe an allegiance to it such as we may not owe to particular nation states any more. But in concrete terms, I worry that it would require us to forget more about literature - English literature included - than it would encourage us to learn.

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