Instructor: Emily Wittman
Course: World Literature (EN 411)
Making significant use of Web 2.0 technology, I run my English 411 course, a senior-level seminar in comparative & world literature, as a prize-granting panel, modeled loosely on the Nobel Prize committee. We read seven or eight critically acclaimed contemporary novels from across the globe, rank them according to criteria we come up with ourselves, and then vote collectively for a winner at the end of our course.
What are your favorite teaching strategies in this class?
Throughout the semester students in the course discuss — in class and anonymously on the wiki — the merits of several critically acclaimed contemporary novels from across the world. On the first few days of class, students come up with criteria for literary greatness; on the last day they use these criteria to decide which novel should win our prize.
I encourage students to evaluate a novel without discussing whether or not they like it. We also have fun considering the ways in which publications tell us how to read them — how big is the font? Is the cover embossed? How thick are the pages? Did a university press publish it? How strong is the spine? How much does it weigh?
What challenges does this course present?
Again, it is difficult for all of us to consider a book with reference to the criteria, as opposed to considering whether or not we like it. Teaching contemporary novels can be particularly problematic in this respect. Novels are intimately linked with the pleasure principle, and so our tendency to care about, or even imagine ourselves into novels, is only exacerbated when the novels describe contemporary situations and places.
Undergraduate students are acutely aware of the literary canon and often have surprisingly conservative views about what belongs in it. I quite sneakily push them back to what I consider meritorious literature. After all, I pick the novels! We always read something by J.M. Coetzee, and the students love his creepy Nobel Prize acceptance speech, as well as the other Coetzee paratexts and epitexts.
What are your solutions?
The fun thing about this course is that all the materials are there to help us, viz. the aforementioned epitexts. We have Nobel Prize lectures, the presentations of the Nobel Prize, book reviews, interviews, etc. The students are all equal voting committee members. I am a non-voting member, and I qualify my interventions. Our questions are teased and answered in a democratic and — such are students’ passions when a book they love is at stake — highly demotic fashion.
Additionally, the books we read in EN 411 are certainly some of the most experimental these students have ever read. Importantly — and this is on the syllabus — they have to check their baggage at the door. There is no way around it. Contemporary world literature is full of explicit sex, violence, and disturbing themes. I tell them the course is not for them if they can’t handle that. But I also tell them that we will need to consider why there is such hot-button material in these books.
Have you introduced something new to enrich or enliven this course?
Well, the first few times that I taught it, I struggled to think of a good prize for our winner. Finally, one class wanted to dedicate a brick on the Crimson Promenade to our winner. When you’re walking in that area, look out for the EN 411 brick honoring the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun. Maybe it will be the oddest and most interesting prize he will have received among so many accolades.
What skills do you emphasize?
I make use of their chief skill: Evaluation. Millennials evaluate. They rank their purchases, their books, their professors, and each other. They evaluate daily with their Facebook and Instagram “likes.” Look at Amazon reviews. They turn into reviews of reviews, which later readers then thumb up or down. The rest of us entered this world of evaluation cautiously, fearing for our safety and modesty. We are, for the most part, fine with most of this evaluation now, but millennials have always faced evaluation in the public sphere. I find teaching millennials exciting and fascinating in their approach to knowledge.
What else do you want students to leave your course knowing?
I want students to know that learning is not just top down; it’s lateral as well. Students teach each other as much as professors teach them. I’m not saying that I advocate some unproductive “guide on-the-side” approach, but sometimes the professor becomes the student. And often the group knows more than the individual.
I also want students to understand that navigating the world republic of letters is an activity that is productively shared. There is also a sad tendency in the humanities to value individual work over shared projects. This has everything to do with evaluation for grades, for students, and then promotion for faculty. I bump up against this tendency with some regularity. Indeed, this course led to a co-authored article with a talented undergraduate, Danie Vollenweider, published in the journal Then.
Wittman is an associate professor of English and the director of the comparative & world literature program at UA.