As the Internet proliferates, the World Wide Web has facilitated increasing transnational communication online, and automated translation services have only spurred this communication. The viral video of Indian farmers dancing to hip hop with their water buffalos in the Kiki Challenge illustrates the cultural collision already taking place online.
In an even more powerful example, Childish Gambino’s “This is America”, which indicts America for her hypocritical treatment of African-Americans, spurred numerous copy cats worldwide.
As of this writing, artists from Iraq, Canada, South Africa, India, Singapore, Korea, England, Malaysia, Brazil, the Philippines, Kenya, the Dominican Republic, Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Tanzania, and Thailand had posted their own “This is ___” in homage to Gambino. Unlike the unidirectional nature of traditional texts, some of these videos garnered sizeable viewerships and made significant political statements in their own right.
While such international exchanges are increasingly occurring online where young people spend so much of their time, the texts read in America’s classrooms, even in courses dedicated to “World Literature”, remain glaringly Anglo-centric focused on texts from Britain and the US. Why is this? This post offers a brief overview of some of the historical challenges of broadening curriculum to read across nations and cultures.
Finding Good Translated Texts. One of the first obstacles teachers face is in accessing quality translations. According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2015, only 1–2 percent of children’s books in the United States are translated. While translations from English into non-English languages proliferate, translations from English continue to outpace translations into English, a fact which reflects English language’s dominance in the publishing marketplace. Some have pointed out that this dominance of English language texts ironically contributes to provincialism among English language readers. Whatever the result, the publication of international literature, particularly in translation, constitutes one of the root problems making access to texts difficult if not impossible.
Scope. While publishing has been cited as a root problem in teaching World Literature, the vast scope of international literature also makes such an area of study impossible to master. The authoritative Norton’s anthology of World Literature includes six volumes each totaling over a thousand pages. High school compendiums of World Literature too frequently run over a thousand pages.
Educators have noted the virtual impossibility of any human being gaining expertise in all the literatures of the world. Even if teaching programs were to attempt to arm future English teachers with a grounding in literature from other parts of the world, the full scope of World Literature is simply too great to be covered.
Teacher Training. Closely related to the issue of scope, teachers weaned on a diet of British and American literature often do not have the expertise to teach a truly global literature. The foreign nature of World Literature and ingrained stereotypes of foreign national cultures make even well-intentioned students resistant to non-stereotypical images of foreign cultures.
In the English Journal’s issue on World Literature, published shortly after 9/11, the editor herself noted candidly, “I studied mostly British and American literature along with perhaps a few works by writers from predominantly Western countries,” apologizing for the reality of today’s teachers. “Most faculty members are likely to be trained in the traditional western canon,” World Literature scholar Sarah Lawall found, “[and] they are understandably uncomfortable in speaking not only from a vantage point of lesser authority but also with less cultural knowledge.”
Negotiating Cultural Differences. Educators have noted that both students and teachers reading texts from unfamiliar cultures routinely encounter issues with overcoming established stereotypes, even when the curriculum explicitly seeks to overcome bias and stereotype. These studies have found that teachers unfamiliar with the cultures they taught unwittingly perpetuated cultural stereotypes. In one elementary school lesson on a children’s book about China, the teacher asked, “Now, boys and girls, look at this picture. What kind of outfit does this man wear? Is it the same as ours?” The teacher attempted to activate the children’s background knowledge about Chinese culture through their prior knowledge. As a result, students were allowed to voice stereotypes without expansion or clarification. Students were not encouraged to take critical perspectives, and the teacher reinforced the children’s misconceptions.
Students sometimes had a hard time believing that the three-dimensional characters written by cultural insiders were authentic, as their readings were framed by existing stereotypes. Students meanwhile often believed they came to texts with no biases, and teachers and students tended to not read in a culturally reflexive manner. Studies have pointed out that bias can occur in the classroom through:
· text selection
· lesson content
· pedagogical approaches
· teacher comments
· student comments
Together, these studies suggest that issues of bias and ingrained stereotypes among teachers and students and in curricula have hampered a good reading of World Literature.
Foreign Tropes, Genres, Styles, Senses of Humor. Another challenge in teaching international literature is that the style and content are foreign. Students unfamiliar with the culture may not be able to relate to the peculiarities of the text or the main character. And the text may not speak to students’ experiences. In reading the events of a world different from their own, students of World Literature are asked to understand foreign styles and senses of humor. The stock characters are often unfamiliar to students. The settings will be foreign. Indeed, the very genres may be different. These cultural differences impact the availability and accessibility of international texts. In Quebec, a bestseller about a boy who thought his penis was too small was never translated from French into English. Un Enfant Prodige, a children’s story that ends in suicide, similarly never found an American publisher. These stories show the extent to which socials norms shape the availability of international books, including children’s books.
Narrow Definitions of Literature. Finally, narrow definitions of what counts as literature represent a final obstacle to internationalizing literature curriculum. Nigerian author and literary theorist wa Thiong‘o pointed out that strict, Western ideas of literature contribute to the lack of respect for the cultural productions of non-Western cultures, which are sometimes transmitted orally. Western literary tradition, and by extension, World Literature, has systematically excluded and engaged in the erasure of valuable cultural practices, including folk and oral tradition.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault made similar points. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that the Western understanding of literature is an ideological construction (1965). Foucault (1969) similarly asserted that literature is understood differently in different places. The importance of the author and the manner of distribution, in other words, varies from culture to culture depending on the populace’s relationship to literature; definitions of literature will vary from place to place. In keeping with this broader definition of literature to include various kinds of texts, World Literature might include not only the Bhagavad Gita but also the films of Bollywood, not only Zen parables but Japanese manga.
Given the numerous challenges facing educators in accessing texts, engaging students, and negotiating cultural differences, it is no wonder World Literature reading lists tend to recycle tried and true texts English language texts of Britain and the US. How can teachers overcome these obstacles to engage their students with international literature?