Cultural Encounters In Literature

February 22, 2002

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: 865-5714

A 21st-century Tulane student reads a 17th-century French play. The student takes for granted his or her own mobility and freedom to travel--concepts that did not exist for a peasant in Moliere's day. Peasants lived and died where they were born. They had no choice. Close cultural encounters open minds and eyes. And, often, close reading of world literature provides the catalyst for the most eye-opening understandings, says Molly Rothenberg, associate professor of English and co-director of a new program in literature.

Tulane students already grasp that they live in a global world, but they may not have encountered the world's literary traditions in cultural, historical, religious and geographic context, says Rothenberg. But now they can explore literature in context--from Western, to Chinese, to Mayan, to Islamic--in an interdisciplinary literature major, which was approved by the Faculty of the Liberal Arts and Sciences in December. Literary matters form the core of the new program, says Rothenberg.

The Tulane program, however, will be different from many literature programs around the country because of its emphasis on context. "That doesn't mean we leave aside literary matters," she says. "It is literary studies, so we are concerned to help students understand formal properties of literature. But, again, within a context."

Literature's formal properties have a history, and often the properties are invented for a particular use or because there's been a change in the culture to which they're responding, says Rothenberg. Cultural encounter is a theme of the new program, she says. In the literature major's 10 courses, Rothenberg says, professors will challenge students to develop methods to analyze their relationship to new and alien cultures.

In a gateway course to the major, Global Texts and Traditions, which Rothenberg is teaching this spring, students read translations of the Bible, the Koran, Mayan literature and Zen Buddhist texts, along with literary works from China, Japan, Africa, Europe and the Americas. A major shift for Tulane with this new major is that students will read translations rather than original works. Many texts enter a culture's literary tradition in translation, says Rothenberg.

The Bible in Western culture is the most obvious example. And reading in translation offers more students access to diverse literary traditions. As students progress and focus their interests, they'll have the opportunity in other courses to read original texts, says Erec Koch, co-director of the literature program and associate professor of French and Italian.

But, initially, by examining literature in translation from several different cultures, students learn that, according to Koch, "nobody has a proprietary claim to culture."

Koch and Rothenberg organized the faculty initiative for the new major with other members of the program's executive committee--Chris Brady, assistant professor of classical studies and director of Jewish studies; Kathleen Davis, assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese; Raymond Taras, professor of political science; and Molly Travis, associate professor of English.

Faculty members from nearly 20 academic disciplines and programs, including English, French and Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, classical studies, anthropology, Jewish studies, Asian studies, philosophy, women's studies, German and Slavic studies, physics, American studies, African and African diaspora studies, political science, law and the library participated in developmental planning for the major during last spring and summer.

Also, experts in literature studies from Yale, Stanford and California-Berkeley visited Tulane to offer advice and evaluate the program's design. Several faculty members who helped design the literature major are guest lecturers in Rothenberg's course this spring. Rothenberg says that while she's using her own disciplinary background--comparative literature and English--in teaching the course, it is insufficient for the program's whole scope.

Guest lecturers also give students a broader sense of Tulane faculty members' expertise and help students choose which courses to take in the future, Rothenberg says. Among Rothenberg's guest lecturers this spring have been anthropology professor Victoria Bricker and associate professor Judith Maxwell, experts on Mayan and Guatemalan culture. Their presentations sparked discussions in the class about citizenship and linguistic, cultural and religious identity, says Rothenberg. Rothenberg says the new literature major is "both up-to-date and consonant with the mission of the liberal arts."

"For our students, living in a world shaped by global economic and political forces, acquaintance with cultures that have billions of people in them, like China and Islam, is crucial. Studying the literature of cultural encounter is an exciting way to begin the difficult work of understanding the world today," she says.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000