In the summer of 2002, having just purchased a one-way ticket to the Czech Republic, I had little desire to pursue graduate studies beyond the M.A. in English that I had recently completed at Colorado State University. My first venture into teaching at the university level had left me with mixed feelings. I enjoyed teaching, but I found that my students were less than enthusiastic about William Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf. Though not yet “digital natives,” the students in my introductory classes regarded literature as an artifact—something outdated but charming, like a crinoline or a 1953 Studebaker—and they failed to see how creative or expository writing skills would benefit them in a career in pharmaceuticals or civil engineering. Armed with such notions as “critical thinking” and “active reading,” I realized that these concepts remain abstractions unless tethered to real-world concerns, but I was unable or unwilling to put my own humanistic assumptions to the test.
While my decision to move to Europe was motivated, in part, by a desire to explore other avenues of teaching, it also afforded me a new and unique perspective on the sociopolitical agency of arts and letters. Over the course of the five years I spent as an English as a Second Language instructor and senior teacher at a private language school in Prague, an often neglected center of the modernist avant-garde, I came to appreciate the crucial role of art-as-action in the history of a country with one of the highest literacy rates on the continent—a quality best exemplified by the late Václav Havel, then President of the Czech Republic. A dissident playwright turned politician, Havel maintained that “[the] attempt to devote oneself to literature alone is a most deceptive thing, and … often, paradoxically, it is literature that suffers for it.” Havel’s career demonstrates that even the codes of absurdist drama are not so absurd when they function as a basis for non-violent protest. While our own everyday struggles may not encompass anything as grand as the Velvet Revolution, the philosophy of uniting the life of letters with the “literariness” of life has implications for both scholarship and pedagogy. Indeed, while working in Prague, I began to see that the communicative approach to second-language acquisition could be adapted to what we might call “literature acquisition.” The current emphasis in ESL theory on realia—relevance and authenticity—has led me to reconsider the pragmatics of the humanities, not only in my scholarly investigations into “literary agents,” but also in my pedagogical emphasis on the agencies of literature in the modern world.
Regardless of whether I am teaching composition or literature, I encourage students to take to heart this dictum (usually attributed to George Orwell): “If you cannot write well, you cannot think well, and if you cannot think well, others will do your thinking for you.” To put it another way, literacy is a function of power and vice versa. Being an effective writer and thinker allows us to participate in the conversation that surrounds us, but it also provides us with a means of checking and interceding in local, national, and international affairs. My approach to teaching expository writing encourages students to become engaged and ethical leaders by asking them to apply creative nonfiction techniques to social and political problems. One of my composition assignments, for example, asks students to develop creative nonfiction skills by drafting a dynamic proposal for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), advocating for the inclusion of a location of their choice in the list of protected World Heritage Sites. Through peer-workshops and revisions, students learn that the choices they make in writing, however subtle, affect their ability to communicate across cultural divides.
Of course, the best writers are the best readers. Like my research interests, which examine the ways in which the humanities both inform and intervene in ostensibly nonliterary discourses—topics such as “law and literature”—my approach to teaching foregrounds the relationship between word and world, text and context. In my courses on world literature, for instance, I begin the semester by asking students to consider the role of mythology in modern society. Students are often resistant to the notion that what Joseph Campbell calls “the literature of the spirit” continues to exert an influence on their world. However, by drawing upon a diverse range of texts—such as Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Franz Kafka’s parables, and Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”—students are able to gauge the politics of mythological and fantastic modes and their potential to shed light on contemporary concerns. For example, in pairing García Márquez’s short story with his 1982 Nobel Lecture, we locate the force of magical realism in its ability to offer alternative or “counterfactual” histories of modernity. Turning to the multimedia mythologies that inform their own generation, the students then theorize how fictional texts negotiate and critique the shifting borders of nationalism and globalism in the twenty-first century.
My primary goal as a teacher is to help my students understand that the humanities and the questions they raise are critical components of human existence. They are not, as many believe, ancillary to more important “professional” skills and subjects. Rather, the liberal arts ask us to question why we bother to build careers, start families, and serve the community in the first place. To this end, learners must engage with issues head-on. I consider my role in the classroom to be more of a facilitator than a lecturer. This places the burden of thought on the students themselves, who define and guide the discussion through in-class debates, online forums, and other activities that allow them to engage with texts both intellectually and creatively. Despite economic, cultural, and linguistic barriers, students begin to see that literature, at least, does not have to be another foreign language.