The Local as the Global: Reflections on Teaching World Literature by Emad Mirmotahari

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The following essay argues for the importance of shifting world literature courses away from “survey” and toward the interrogation of categories of knowledge that typically organize the world. This is best accomplished by foregrounding minoritized literatures and beginning from “home.”

In recent years I have been searching for strategies to demystify the unruly idea of “world literature” for a general undergraduate student population in a North American university. Although this search relates to specific concerns with college pedagogy, the insights it yields can be useful beyond my particular context. Upon taking up a teaching position in 2010, I was informed by my new colleagues that while I would teach advanced undergraduate courses on world/postcolonial literatures for English majors and graduate courses, I would also teach large numbers of non-English majors seeking to fill the university’s “diversity” requirement. Only recently did I realize that these circumstances and curricular conditions are, in fact, the natural habitat of world literature, where it has the most reach and can do the most work.

Initially, as a newly minted PhD, I was zealously committed to the imperatives of world literature on its own terms and for its own sake. Admittedly, I have not foreclosed on my early goals of producing readers of literary texts who are curious about the different and the distant and, with a little luck, inspiring them to go on to become polyglots and literary scholars. I now see my job, for the most part, as a very different one: less cloistered and more student-oriented in the broadest sense. As a teacher of world literature, I am accountable to all students, and not to English majors exclusively.

The peril of the “great books” approach is that it turns world literature into the instrument of some perfunctory “multiculturalism” that requires little mental labor from students, reducing them to impassive cultural tourists.

Realizing that my world literature course may possibly be the only one of its kind that many students will take, my challenge as a new professor was configuring a one-semester course that maximizes the intellectual rewards of world literature. It is still quite common to encounter the “great books” model, the idea that world literature is an aggregate of what Margaret Cohen calls the “great unread.” The peril of this approach is that it turns world literature into the instrument of some perfunctory “multiculturalism” that requires little mental labor from students, reducing them to impassive cultural tourists. Instead of this approach, world literature courses at the introductory and general level must unsettle students by making them “unthink” their worldviews, or at the very least be conscious of them. World literature must show them the synergies between the local, national, regional, and global….see the rest of this essay go to...http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2016/may/summer-reads-2016

15 thoughts on “The Local as the Global: Reflections on Teaching World Literature by Emad Mirmotahari

  1. Thank you for posting another fascinating essay on the subject of teaching literature. This is an exploration of the difficulties and strengths of teaching world literature, or for that matter, any grouping of literature, especially if that course might be the only time students study it.

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  2. This is very interesting! I cannot imagine teaching something so important, in this (better) way, in only one semester. Bravo to the teacher with wisdom and insight. -Jennie-

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  3. I was not able to find the complete essay but I applaud the thesis. Survey courses often frustrated me. At the end of the course I often felt the breath but not the depth of the study.

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  4. Now if we can just make it clear that U.S. university programs have not and do not provide any basic foundation in Literary Criticism to the necessary extent that it informs undergrads of the true definition of Literature….Until this changes, American students are mystified as to the very meaning of what is meant by “great books”… and for so many, the light goes out before it even illuminates…

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    1. KC, So true and beautifully/perfectly stated by you is the problem with university programs. In order to know what is good and that which is mediocre, Literary Criticism as a basic tenet of study, should be a critical part of any university program. Thank you for your great comment and I hope you don’t mind if I re-blog your thoughts on an upcoming post I would like to do. 🙂

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