Why we must change how we teach lit­er­a­ture

Daily Nation (Kenya) - - THE WEEKEND - BY GOD­WIN SIUNDU

The fu­ture of teach­ing lit­er­a­ture at uni­ver­sity level looks bleak, go­ing by the low num­bers of stu­dents who see lit­er­a­ture as a po­ten­tial means for en­try into their fu­tures and the labour mar­kets. While there are many ex­pla­na­tions for this sce­nario, I am afraid that the most im­por­tant one is to be found in the depart­ments of lit­er­a­ture in the univer­si­ties that teach the dis­ci­pline.

The prob­lem, in a sen­tence, is how we con­ceive of and teach the dis­ci­pline in a cen­tury whose ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tions point both to the fu­ture of a highly dig­i­talised world and to a past of iden­ti­ty­based forms of in­tol­er­ance and of strug­gles for af­fir­ma­tion on racial, gen­der, and eth­nic planes as well as their sub­se­quent ap­pear­ances in lit­er­a­ture.

In this sit­u­a­tion where uni­ver­sal progress is un­der­cut by parochial in­ter­ests, lit­er­a­ture and its prac­ti­tion­ers must adapt to its pro­gres­sive el­e­ments or risk a broad-based push to ir­rel­e­vance by some of the mi­nor­ity but in­flu­en­tial re­ac­tionary forces.

Al­ready, there are in­di­ca­tions that not all play­ers are par­tic­u­larly im­pressed with what is hap­pen­ing in the lec­ture halls and depart­ments of lit­er­a­ture. Pol­icy mak­ers and politi­cians con­tinue to de­ride the dis­ci­pline, while re­search fun­ders have all but for­got­ten that lit­er­a­ture ex­ists.

In fair­ness, this chal­lenge is not unique to us, even though our high priests of lit­er­a­ture in Kenyan univer­si­ties have been par­tic­u­larly in­tran­si­gent when it comes to em­brac­ing the changes that would give the dis­ci­pline longer vis­tas and ren­der it still at­trac­tive to un­der­grad­u­ates, even against the pop­u­lar­ity of com­merce and other dis­ci­plines that seem to be more at­tuned to the prom­ises of global cap­i­tal­ism.

The fix­a­tion with a rigid idea of lit­er­a­ture partly ex­plains why, even though we are living right in the mid­dle of a dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, there is noth­ing in many of our lit­er­a­ture cur­ric­ula that ac­knowl­edges the re­al­ity that since Mark Zucker­berg’s in­ven­tion of Face­book and its sub­sidiary, What­sapp, paired with the search en­gine Google, the cul­tures and prac­tice of read­ing have changed for ever, the same way Google has for­ever al­tered the ter­rain and rubrics of re­search.

And just as read­ing it­self has changed, the the­ory and an­a­lyt­i­cal tools of lit­er­a­ture have also changed. Noth­ing points at this change more than the fad­ing sig­nif­i­cance of struc­tural­ist modes of tex­tual in­ter­pre­ta­tion and the com­men­su­rate rise to promi­nence of post-struc­tural­ist tools that re­ject the pos­si­bil­ity that only one story is enough to cap­ture all our ex­pe­ri­ences.

The emer­gence of di­verse forms of lit­er­ary arte­facts, the col­lapse of the ar­ti­fi­cial bi­fur­ca­tion of lit­er­a­ture into the se­ri­ous and the pop­u­lar, and the shift from def­i­nite to amor­phous sites of lit­er­ary cre­ation and ap­pre­ci­a­tion per­haps point to the need to re­ori­ent the lit­er­ary tra­di­tions and prac­tices that dom­i­nate our depart­ments of lit­er­a­ture in Kenya.

In brief, we must shift our ped­a­gog­i­cal em­pha­sis from the past to the fu­ture of lit­er­a­ture. This need not en­tail a com­plete or even par­tial break with the past, but per­haps a pack­ag­ing of that past in a man­ner that makes it light enough to carry on our shoul­ders as we match into the fu­ture.

My thoughts about the fu­ture of lit­er­a­ture be­gan form­ing, with in­creas­ing clar­ity, on three dif­fer­ent but re­lated oc­ca­sions. The first one was when, on our way to a con­fer­ence last year, my friend Tom Od­hi­ambo and I saw uni­ver­sity stu­dents of eco­nom­ics protest­ing and de­mand­ing that their en­tire cur­ricu­lum be over­hauled be­cause it was mainly re­spon­si­ble for eco­nomic melt­down that con­ti­nen­tal Europe was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, and that the same cur­ricu­lum was re­spon­si­ble for the in­abil­ity of econ­o­mists to see the ap­proach­ing melt­down and pos­si­bly fore­stall it. I asked my­self: Where ex­actly has our lit­er­a­ture cur­ricu­lum led us and can our stu­dents, for in­stance, see any link be­tween the dan­gling mod­i­fiers that we teach in stylis­tics and the ev­ery­day life that they lead?

The sec­ond oc­ca­sion was quite re­cent. I was for­tu­nate to be in­vited by Prof Peter Wasamba and Dr Miriam Mu­sonye to join a small team of col­leagues from Hum­boldt Uni­ver­sity and the Uni­ver­sity of Nairobi in a re­search part­ner­ship on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween labour and leisure in artis­tic pro­duc­tion.

One of the speak­ers told us that the In­sti­tute for the His­tory and Fu­ture of Work has pro­jected, based on its anal­y­sis of his­tor­i­cal data from agrar­ian to in­dus­trial and dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, that in the year 3,000, fewer peo­ple will be work­ing for less hours to meet the needs of ev­ery­one and that dis­ease and poverty will end some years be­fore then.

Here we were, talk­ing to peo­ple who were not only con­scious of their past and how it in­formed their present knowl­edge sys­tems, but who were also con­cerned about how the fu­ture will shape and colour their knowl­edge of them­selves and the rest of us. Is it pos­si­ble for us to think about and pre­pare for a lit­er­a­ture that shall be rel­e­vant, say, in 2040?

And only last week, my third oc­ca­sion of re­flec­tion came by in Prof Henry In­dan­gasi’s in­nocu­ous eu­logy of Dr Waigwa Wachira, our sadly de­parted el­der, thes­pian, col­league, and well-spo­ken mas­ter of the English gram­mar and enun­ci­a­tion. In the many years they worked to­gether, In­dan­gasi “never heard (Waigwa Wachira) spout­ing those pedan­tic plat­i­tudes about Post­mod­ernism and Post-colo­nial­ism that char­ac­terise other schol­ars who come from abroad.” It may well be that some schol­ars, whether from abroad or else­where do this, but I have never heard even one do so, al­though I have seen a fair num­ber of our grad­u­ate stu­dents strug­gling with lit­er­ary the­ory in gen­eral; how to ap­pre­hend it and em­ploy it as

Univer­si­ties have failed to re­spond to the dis­rup­tion of the read­ing cul­ture among stu­dents caused by changes in taste and tech­nol­ogy

a tool of un­der­stand­ing tex­tual mean­ing in an ed­u­cated man­ner. Quite of­ten, while many stu­dents will talk about “the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work” in their re­search pro­pos­als and dis­ser­ta­tions, they hardly ap­ply the same frame­work in other dis­cur­sive chap­ters.

There­fore, the big­ger ques­tion for me is, given that most of the lit­er­ary the­o­ries that we use, in­clud­ing stylis­tics, are bor­rowed from other places and other dis­ci­plines, how do we best teach our stu­dents to un­der­stand their us­abil­ity in our ge­o­graph­i­cal and dis­ci­plinary con­texts, with­out sim­plis­ti­cally “spout­ing plat­i­tudes” about them?

Again, my an­swer is straight­for­ward: let us try as much as pos­si­ble to teach lit­er­a­ture in the fu­ture tense, and only take back­ward glances to the ex­tent that they help in il­lu­mi­nat­ing the fu­ture.

In do­ing this, we need to first em­brace the spirit and ap­ply the un­der­ly­ing phi­los­o­phy of cur­ricu­lum re­view to de­ter­mine which ped­a­gogy will an­i­mate the soul of the cour­ses that we de­sign and teach. We also need to en­sure that stu­dents can clearly see the link be­tween their lit­er­ary knowl­edge and ma­te­rial fu­tures.

We must, there­fore, as­sign a new ma­jor role to lit­er­a­ture, one that sup­ple­ments the ed­u­ca­tion and en­ter­tain­ment func­tions while em­pha­sis­ing the lit­er­a­ture and liveli­hood com­po­nent. Cour­ses like Lit­er­a­ture and De­vel­op­ment, or Eco­nom­ics of Lit­er­a­ture, Lit­er­a­ture and the In­ter­net Trans­ac­tions may be nec­es­sary.

My idea is not that our lit­er­a­ture cur­ric­ula should aban­don the tra­di­tional val­ues of so­cio-cul­tural moral­i­sa­tion to ac­qui­esce to the avari­cious hustler men­tal­ity that is now ram­pant, but that they should re­flect the re­al­ity that man can­not live on the word alone, but also on bread that nour­ishes the body.

The writer is a se­nior lec­turer at the Uni­ver­sity of Nairobi’s lit­er­a­ture depart­ment and the edi­tor of the jour­nal East­ern African Lit­er­ary and Cul­tural Stud­ies. Email: god­wins57@gmail.com


Ea­ger Uni­ver­sity stu­dents in a lec­ture hall. Lit­er­a­ture depart­ments must em­brace change and ad­just the way the sub­jet is taught or risk see­ing their sub­ject aban­doned by stu­dents.

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