The True Confessions of a First Year Convenor

Curriculum change: problems and possibilities. 

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Third Space Symposium: Decolonisation and the Creative Arts. ICA | Hiddingh Hall, University of Cape Town | 13-14 May 2016.

Institute for Creative Arts and Black Academic Caucus “seize the decolonial nettle.”

Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics? | New York Review of Books | 9 October 1986:

Let us begin with a few suggested definitions...The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading…”
If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school. And school should enable you to know, either well or badly, a certain number of classics among which—or in reference to which—you can then choose your classics. School is obliged to give you the instruments needed to make a choice, but the choices that count are those that occur outside and after school.
It is only by reading without bias that you might possibly come across the book that becomes your book.

What is this thing called ‘literature’, and how does it work? What does it mean to read the classics from where we are – Shakespeare and 19th-century novels transplanted to southern Africa like those street signs, DICKENS, COLERIDGE, KIPLING, set down incongruously in the suburbs of Woodstock, Observatory and Salt River? Are we dealing with ‘English literature’ or ‘literature in English’? What is the purpose of it all anyway, when others in the university are working on solar panels or vaccines for drug-resistant TB? What will be in the exam?

These are questions that all of us teaching in the big undergraduate courses must field and grapple with each year. We have to think hard about how to broach the core ideas of literary studies over thirteen weeks. How to do this in a way that is engaging and critically astute, but also so that it will not exclude any members of the student body? It is all very well to talk about how the literary work might ‘estrange’ what we think we know, and make the familiar unfamiliar. But how can theoretical ideas of productive artistic difficulty be explored in a way that does not estrange members of the student body – many of whom, at least in first year, do not have English as a first language. Over the last five years, I have suggested three things:

Reading backwards

First, that we should reverse the chronology of our first year survey course. Instead of Shakespeare and Austen, we should begin with language and subject matter closest to the experience of our students: Zadie Smith’s 21st-century campus novel, On Beauty, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s modern African classic, Half of a Yellow Sun. Then over the year, we can move back in time, ‘English’ receding and becoming stranger week by week, until eventually we arrive at the mixed-up, mongrelized language of Chaucer as spoken on a small archipelago off Scandinavia before the great vowel shift. Or even before that: the epic poem Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon riddles, which (as some students will realize) sometimes have more in common with Afrikaans than modern English.

Our medium, this thing called English, is so naturalized as the world language of commerce and governance and grant applications that we need to give a sense of it as something with and formed by history: as ‘a dialect with a navy’ (to use the proverbial answer to the question ‘What is a language?’) that has always absorbed loan words wherever it goes: trek, fundi, donga. A socio-linguistic inflection can do much to make our curriculum more interesting, more engaged and more welcoming to a wider group of students. It also opens the department up to the beauty of southern Africa’s many Englishes; to the many intellectual shapes that can be derived from the act of translation; and to the profound insight of twentieth-century linguistics: that we are language animals, and that the study of our grammars should be descriptive, not prescriptive.

Reading backwards from the cusp of the present also dispenses in some ways with the problem of origins: the question of a beginning for English Literature becomes not an arbitrary point selected by the curriculum planners, something that is left up to the individual student and how far they are willing to voyage back in time.

World language, world literature

Second, we should move away from the Cape Town to London axis that has dominated this anglophile university in the past. We should be confident to set classic, difficult books (trying to sync our syllabus to the preferences of our students, as if to their iPhones, is not a good idea) – but these should be the right classic, difficult books. There should be texts in translation from around the world: Tolstoy and Tagore and Garcia Marquez, not just Dickens and George Eliot. There should be texts in translation from the two other official languages of our city: isiXhosa and Afrikaans.

‘World literature’ is a tricky phrase: like ‘world music’ it can all too easily imply a sort of glib, multicultural tasting menu. But, to give the concept a different inflection: we need to set texts that do not trade on a certain cultural cache that some of our students have, and some don’t. That is, we need those rare classics that ‘build a world’ from first principles, where less previous understanding is necessary. These might include the bizarre modern fairy tales of Kafka or Gogol, or the philosophical allegories of Camus – all works in translation, which removes a certain series of linguistic and cultural barriers. These are complex works written in simple prose, prose that is in a sense washed clean of a certain kind of Englishness by the fact of translation, so allowing our students to approach them more equally.

(A strange argument for someone in an English Department to make – but then again, I wish it were called something different.)

The adventures of a reader

Third, there should be an element of lightness and adventure in our undertakings. Often, I believe, we academics feel compelled to perform our impeccable politics to an audience of students who are actually listening for, and needing, something very different. Something more concerned with pleasure, close reading, slowness and surprise. Many undergraduate students, I can tell, are intrigued by what we do in literary studies. Unquantifiable, non-instrumental, asking questions about the medium rather than the message – it represents an unusual space in the academy driven increasingly by ranking tables and ‘impact’ metrics.

In tired debates about ‘African’ versus ‘European’ literature in the curriculum, I always think back to an essay by Jorge Luis Borges in which he discusses the Argentine writer and tradition. He manages, at the same time, to evade any naïve cultural nationalism and also to circumvent an obsessive return to ‘the Western canon’, whether admiring or oppositional. Having remarked that there are no camels in the Koran, because for Mohammed camels were part of reality and did not need to be singled out for special mention (whereas ‘the first thing a forger, a tourist, or an Arab nationalist would do is bring on the camels, whole caravans of camels on every page’) – having made this point, he then goes on to explore the other side of the coin. He argues, with tongue in cheek, that South American writers actually have a greater right to Western literature than the inhabitants of the West: ‘We can take on all the European subjects, take them on without superstition, and with an irreverence that can have, and already has had, fortunate consequences’. The English don’t know their own history, one of Salman Rushdie’s characters remarks, because so much of it happened overseas. From our vantage points in the South we can see the European canon as it plays out across the Atlantic and Indian oceans: not just its content but also its consequences.

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