Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fall Teaching: "Global English" and "Converts and Rebels"

This post is partly inspired by Tim Burke's recent post, asking why more web-oriented academics don't post drafts of their syllabi on their blogs or websites.

I'm teaching two undergraduate-oriented classes this fall. One is called "Global English," and it's a senior "capstone" course, while the other is a more general, upper-level course called "Converts and Rebels: Debating Religion in Modern British Literature."

1. "Converts and Rebels" (English 395)

Here is the course description for "Converts and Rebels":

Though the modern period was generally a time when religious institutions were in decline, several major British writers from the early twentieth century had intense religious conversion experiences, leaving an impact on the literature of the period as a whole. These conversions, many of which involved Roman Catholicism, were seen as controversial by mainstream English society. Analogously, and just as importantly, several important writers found themselves falling out of religious faith in dramatic fashion, suggesting that the period as a whole was one of intense religious ferment. Is it possible to view religious conversion as a "subversive" activity? How might religious conversion relate to the aesthetics and ideological premises of literary modernism, which is so central to our understanding of this period? Writers whose work and lives will be explored in this course include T.S. Eliot (poems), James Joyce ("Portrait of the Artist"), Oscar Wilde ("Salome"), John Henry Newman ("Loss and Gain"), Salman Rushdie ("The Satanic Verses"), W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh ("Brideshead Revisited"), Graham Greene ("End of the Affair"), and Iris Murdoch ("The Bell").

In this course, I'll be building on ideas related to my first book ("Literary Secularism"), and using James Wood's "Broken Estate" as a conceptual jumping off point.

In terms of period, I decided to start with a little material based in the Victorian period. Though he's not talked about very much outside of Catholic circles, it seems to me like John Henry Newman is a key figure -- someone who had influence on quite a number of writers who converted to Catholicism, or thought about it.

I have been debating whether to bring in people who converted out of minority faith traditions to Christianity. Benjamin Disraeli seems like an obvious figure to consider, though in his case he never appeared to be especially passionate in his Anglicanism. As far as I know, he never directly addressed his personal experience of conversion, though some of his novels are clearly about figures who might be described as "crypto-Jews" (I'm using the term along lines described by Michael Ragussis). I'll also be using Ellis Hanson's "Decadence and Catholicism" to help triangulate some of the interesting questions about sexuality and religious conversion (especially Catholic conversion) circulating in the fin de siecle.

I decided against assigning C.S. Lewis for this course, though I may use a few short passages from "Surprised by Joy," and I will certainly mention his conversion experience as an important one. I haven't found his non-fiction writing related to his conversion interesting enough to have something to say about it in a classroom.

I was strongly tempted to assign The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, but decided against it at the last minute. If I do a version of this course again, I might do both The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Golden Compass -- thinking of the latter as a kind of refutation of the former.

This is a new course for me. Though I know a fair amount twentieth-century writers like Graham Greene, Salman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh, and Iris Murdoch, Victorian figures like Newman are a bit of a stretch. I'm open to suggestions for biographical and critical sources that might be relevant -- as well as primary texts or authors readers would recommend for a course like this.

2. "Global English" (English 290/Senior Seminar)

Here is the course description for this course:

The English language has traveled, and found a home in many parts of the world that were formerly colonized by Great Britain, especially Ireland, Scotland, India, Africa, and the Caribbean. With the rise of English as a literary language in those areas has come a new slate of anxieties and questions. Some writers have noted the uncomfortable fact that English seems to be tied to the history of colonial domination; it is the 'master's' language, and should be rejected. Others (like Joyce) have expressed their discomfort with English, but have nevertheless written in English with affection. It need not be an either/or proposition, and this course will aim to explore the global embrace, not without its anxieties, of English as a literary language. Along the way, a few critical terms and concepts related to linguistics will be introduced (i.e., slang, dialect, creole, patois, acrolect, and basolect, to name just a few). Authors will include a mix of short and long works by James Joyce, Arundhati Roy ("God of Small Things"), Irvine Welsh ("Trainspotting"), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ("Purple Hibiscus"), Amitav Ghosh ("Sea of Poppies"), Brian Friel ("Translations"), G.V. Desani ("All About H. Hatterr"), Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, J.M. Synge ("Playboy of the Western World"), and Ken Saro-Wiwa ("Sozaboy").

The reading list could be much longer than it is; indeed, one could easily have a whole semester's worth of material just based on language questions in any of the particular national literatures that will be at issue here -- including Ireland, Anglophone West Africa, the Caribbean, and India, respectively. I decided to make the approach of the course comparative because the overlap between different national experiences of "Englishness" seems like it might be interesting to a broad group of students. I was also tempted by Junot Diaz's "Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," though in the end bringing in the Dominican diasporic experience seemed to a bit too far afield. (Again, perhaps next time.)

We'll be using scholarship by David Crystal ("English as a Global Language"), and also Dohra Ahmed's anthology, "Rotten English." I would be grateful for any suggestions on criticism or theory here as well.

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Blogger bill benzon said...

Looks like an interesting pair of courses, Amardeep, and obviously important.

I've got an observation that might interest you. A few months ago I discovered Nollywood - the Nigerian film industry - and read a fair number of articles published English-language Nigerian papers and magazines. I frequently encountered usages that I would have marked as incorrect if they had showed up in student papers when I taught composition some years ago. The first day or two I thought, "gee, these folks need some copyediting," but then I reconsidered. I didn't have any trouble understanding what was being said, at least I don't think I did, and so I began to think that this is all perfectly acceptable in Nigerian English.

Alas, I can only recall one example, and that a rather minor one, the use of ÔÇťartiste" where I would ordinarily use "artist." The final "e" is an affectation in American English, but seems quite common in Nigerian English. There were also usages that struck me as bad grammar, but I don't recall any.

Of course, I wasn't reading fiction, drama, or poetry. I was reading journalism of one sort of another, mostly reporting and opinion pieces. But it deals with the detailed texture of the language.

11:05 PM  
Anonymous Meluhhan said...

Amardeep, Global English sounds particularly interesting. I'm pretty fascinated by the history and evolution of English, and how it came to be dominant in England. Leaving aside other, more serious books on the subject, Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue, might be a fun background read.

So in your opinion, does the lack of a governing body (a la academie francaise) help English literature by making it less dismissive of 'dialects' inspired by foreign languages or geographical separation?

(I was driven here by my banning on SM, for a comment that I thought was ironic. :/ As that's neither here nor there, please delete this bit upon moderation.)

5:00 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Meluhhan, I was not responsible for that banning; it's possible it was someone misreading your comment. I will talk to my colleagues and see. Meanwhile, if you don't mind, could you email me your usual IP address; if we can unban you, it would make it easier to have access to that address.

In any case, yes, absolutely, the English language benefits greatly from not having a central governing body controlling the language.

I haven't seen the Bill Bryson book, but I will look for it on your suggestion.

9:02 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Amardeep, fascinating. Makes me wish I could be a student forever. For the Converts and Rebels course, you might want to consider including a smattering of Schopenhauer, who argues that religion (allegory) and philosophy / science (rationality) are two variations on a single theme, namely, the essential oneness and unity of the world. Just a thought. Lastly, I hope you received my e-mail, a request, which I sent about a month ago...


11:13 AM  
Anonymous narayan said...

Your list of names doesn't quite fit the course, so I'll suggest Chesterton.

11:25 PM  
Anonymous narayan said...

and Belloc

1:35 AM  
Anonymous narayan said...

Not in global but futuristic English, along the lines of 'A Clockwork Orange', is Russell Hoban's
Riddley Walker. Might be an easier read than Hatterr.

8:29 PM  
Anonymous Buster said...

It may be hard to track down, but there is a great video conversation between CLR James and Linton Kwesi Johnson on Black British writing and the generational/historical difference between James and Johnson. Sandwich in some George Lamming, and you'd have a great primer on the Black Anglophone Caribbean writing. (It might also be fun to look at Claude McKay's earliest Jamaican poems, contrasted with how he found a new voice once he came to Harlem.)

I've also been working on a side project that touches on Eurasian Indian writing in the colonial period. Interesting stuff on ill-fitting identities and languages and an attempt to forge a radical group of Eurasian writers, more or less aligned with the IPWA. But that's probably not for this course at this point.

4:16 AM  
Anonymous benny said...

I have always loved Lewis' "Lion, Witch and Wardrobe" books. But I never read "The Golden Compass" as a refutation of Lewis' work. I'll have to check that out; sounds interesting.

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8:51 AM  
Anonymous Sharleen said...

The Global English course sounds great - teaching Sea of Poppies is going to be a lot of fun. I've heard that the audio book version does some interesting things with some of the Lascar dialect that students might find challenging - it might be useful to explore as a discussion strategy.

Re: conversion, I'm thinking of course of Gauri Viswanathan's book as a great resource. Even if you're not focusing on the figures she explores in her individual chapters, her introduction has a clear and compelling justification for paying critical attention to conversion.

Looking forward to reading about how your courses pan out this term.

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Peter Ives said...

Thanks so much for posting your Global English course description. I've been looking at the issue from the more political direction and proposing an MA course in our new Cultural Studies programme. It would probably be too much a tangent for your students, but if you or they are interested in the linguistic imperialism, cosmopolitan and politics of multilingualism issues, please let me know:

2:52 PM  
Anonymous Dohra Ahmad said...

Glad you've changed your mind about Rotten English! I've found it worthwhile to design syllabi that are as comparative as possible. In terms of material from outside the British Empire, Oscar Wao (which is more manageable in short story form) and Sapphire's Push have both worked wonderfully for me in a similar course. I'd be happy to send my syllabus if you're interested.

2:40 PM  

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