Thursday, August 4, 2022

WITMonth Day 4 | WIT in the curriculum

Any reader of this blog will know that I often rant about the canon. The canon is a concept that I find to be tenuous at best and largely shaped by whatever people want it mean at the time. It serves its purpose (at times), but it is often used as a sledgehammer against any "new" works, with that sledgehammer banging away even more tenaciously if the author is not... in line, shall we say, with the previously established members of that canonic elite. I've written about this more times than I care to admit, to be perfectly honest.

But today's post is less about that, and more about the parallel problem that exists alongside it. Just like the canon is often used to shape the narrative of what literature is and what it can mean, so too do academic curriculums. Whether college-level, high school, or in middle/elementary school, it is rare (in the English-speaking context, about which this post will focus) to come across literature in translation. It is even more rare to come across women writers in translation.

Now, to be clear, I have not spent all that much time in the literary-minded halls of academia. I am, in fact, on an entirely separate campus from them (my university believes in a strict separation of power: humanities/social sciences on one hill, science/math/computer science on another, and medicine/medical research on a third, and agriculture is literally in a whole different city). But I've made an effort to gain a better understanding of what is taught where, and how. And I did so rather explicitly on Twitter, not too long ago.

I was surprised by the wave of answers I got, spanning decades and continents and literary traditions. But an underlying theme emerged: Most people who studied literature in an English-language context specifically studied English-language literature. Many perceive the two as entirely equivalent to such a degree that they misread my question and assumed I had asked about people who had studied "English" (I phrased my question around "literature", rather intentionally). Others thought that I meant English in the context of England-the-country, and named various Irish, Scottish, and US-based English-language writers as exceptions. I was simultaneously amused and surprised, not having expected such a vast divide.

There were, of course, exceptions. Several people responded to emphasize that their programs had a major focus on post-colonial literature. Some said that they read "plenty" of translated literature, but could not necessarily say how many works were translated compared to not. Others similarly recalled having read "lots of" women writers during their respective degrees, though there was a recurring theme of people recalling that the majority of women writers that they read had been specifically under the purview of either feminist studies modules/courses, literature-adjacent minors, or courses that explicitly focused on women's writing. Bit by bit, with over 50 different responders, I found myself acknowledging what I had long suspected:
  1. Academic, college-level literature in an English-language context overwhelmingly means works originally written in English (or proto-English languages). Even when expressly seeking to broaden horizons (particularly through the lens of post-colonial literature), it is heavily dominated by works originally written in English.
  2. Most of the translated literature students had read was European and overwhelmingly written by men.
  3. Exceptions were often from multilingual countries.
  4. While it seems that there are some improvements over the decades, even very recent graduates described gender and translation gaps. 
It's not that these were remarkable or unexpected conclusions. I came into the question assuming that these were the answers. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who could offer exceptions, but these were still largely reflective of a larger, pervasive pattern. Having, for instance, elective courses that focus on "Latin American women writers" is wonderful, but how does it wash with the fact that the mandatory course "Latin American literature" features only 10% works by women? If a student can complete an entire undergraduate degree in literature without having read a single work by 20th or 21st century writer from a literary tradition outside of English, are they truly well-versed in literature? If the study of literary works from other languages and cultures are limited to foreign language degrees (or comparable cultural studies), how can the literary tradition ever truly grow, evolve, and learn?

And of course, women writers in translation are the ones hurt the most. Their separation into women-specific courses also serves only to hurt women writers, in place of elevating them. Women's writing, after all, is not relevant only to those studying works by women. And I am hard-pressed to think of any era of literary study that cannot be filled with relevant works by women writers, whether originally in English or not. (Unless it's an author-specific course, but that's quite obviously not what I'm talking about...)

Part of the normalization of WIT has to come early, and it has to come through the classroom. A high school student in the US might read a handful of women writers in the course of their studies, but dozens of men. The vast majority will be works originally from English, but they don't have to be. Nor do they have to be by a majority of men. The literary value of a particular work is not actually intrinsic, nor is it determined by an ancient consensus. This is the part where the fuzziness of the canon comes into play. We can just decide to introduce excellent literature from around the world (and by women writers, no less!) into the curriculum, for all the value they have on an individual literary level and as an extraordinary expansion of the young readers' horizons. Christine de Pizan as a discussion on the way literature served as a conversation and statement. Simone Schwarz-Bart as an introduction to an extraordinarily rich tradition of Caribbean writing. Elsa Morante as a representation of the balance between epic history and a small-scale family story. Qiu Miaojin as a reflection of a developing literary language and cultural touchstone. Nawal El Saadawi as a voice of feminist activism and powerful narration. Svetlana Alexievich as a voice for those who might otherwise go unheard. And so many others at the college level, across every genre and literary form.

As I said earlier: I'm not a literary academic. I barely studied literature in high school. I am - as I have long claimed - just a reader. I do this for fun. But I'm a reader who knows just how extraordinary my "experiment" in reading women writers from around the world has been. Who knows just how many things I've learned and how much I've had the privilege to be able to learn them. Who knows just how many things I have yet to learn, and how many still remain out of reach due to a language gap. I spent years not realizing how many incredible women writers I could have been reading. It took years of actively trying to correct this imbalance in order to tilt the scales back. It shouldn't be so hard. Literature from around the world and literature from languages other than English or a handful of other privileged languages should be a natural part of our life, not something that we explicitly need to seek out. And women writers should not be rarities among that as well. Having women writers included in the curriculums of high school literature courses and college literary degrees won't erase the existing problems, but it can certainly go a long way toward leveling the playing field. It's time.

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