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Academe’s stepchild

Comparative literature is a small field that’s often misunderstood, even by neighbouring disciplines in the faculty of arts. That’s partly why it’s in crisis


Last October, Ian MacRae stood in front of a roomful of academics, administrators and students in Moncton to accept the Distinguished Dissertation Award from the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, for the best doctoral thesis in the humanities and social sciences. This was an opportunity, he’d decided, to let university administrators know in a public way that he thought his chosen field, comparative literature, had become an undervalued stepchild in the Canadian academic family.

“Literature is a verbal art,” he said. “So language, whether it’s French, Spanish, Swahili, Urdu or English, is going to affect that art. The gates to comparative literature are through the national languages and literatures.”

Like Canada itself, comparative literature is internationalist, cosmopolitan, multilingual and multicultural, he went on to explain. Yet, where the major languages – English, French, Spanish, German – prominently occupy the first floor of universities, comparative literature is seen as a minor discipline, to be found away from the action, up on the second floor.

The crowd was polite, although Dr. MacRae couldn’t decide whether that meant they were receptive or didn’t understand what he was talking about. “More than half of the people there were from the sciences,” he says, “and weren’t necessarily going to have any idea what comparative literature is.”

The epic struggles in academe are most visible as cultural ones (for example, science and engineering squaring off against the social sciences and humanities), where repercussions shudder through a university and often make waves on campuses across a country. But it also happens on a micro level, and one example is the state of comparative literature. Like a poor cousin from the backwoods, it’s under-funded, undervalued and misunderstood, lying as it does on the margins of large, firmly established English and foreign language departments. A quintessential interdisciplinary field, it suffers at a time when there is an increasing emphasis on interdisciplinarity in all fields.

Commonly abbreviated to “Comp Lit,” it is poorly understood even within the humanities. While neighboring cultures have exchanged and borrowed ideas from each other throughout history, academics turned their attention to this phenomenon in the 19th century, during the rise to power of nation-states and their practice of colonization. Suddenly scholars began studying – and making connections between – texts from the barbaric past. A pivotal figure like philologist Michel Bréal would state in 1877 that “the Ramayana and the Iliad may be based on the same premise, and it is certain that the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Nibelungenlied and the Shahnameh contain episodes that retell, under different names, the selfsame fact.”

At its simplest, Comp Lit studies the literatures of two or more linguistic, cultural or national groups, as well as the inter-relationships of literature with other arts. Typically these scholars, called comparatists, study writers’ influence outside their countries of origin, the evolution of literary movements, and relationships between literature and other arts and disciplines. For example, Dr. MacRae’s scholarly focus is on inter-American studies – the literature, language and culture of Central and Latin America, Mexico, the Caribbean, the U.S. and French and English Canada. His winning dissertation connected works by authors from Brazil, Colombia, Martinique, the U.S. and Canada to the Book of Genesis.

Despite the name, Comp Lit has less to do with comparing than it does with the idea that all literature, besides reflecting national influences and languages, is a universal human phenomenon, much like painting, music or theatre. Practising in a truly interdisciplinary field, comparatists may draw on several or all of literary and cultural theory, linguistics, history, philosophy, religion, the social and behavioral sciences, the natural sciences and the performing arts. But its eclecticism and interdisciplinary character means Comp Lit is often regarded as neither fish nor fowl, a condition keenly understood by those in the field.

“I don’t usually describe what I do as Comp Lit,” says Sarah Phillips Casteel, who was one of five academics awarded the $20,000 John Charles Polanyi Research Award by the Ontario government last year. An associate professor of English at Carleton University, Dr. Casteel did her doctorate in the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Like Dr. MacRae, she studies literatures of the United States, Latin America, Canada and the Caribbean.

“When I came to Carleton from the American graduate program, where the term was understood and accepted, I found people weren’t familiar with that paradigm,” she says. “I don’t think they knew what I was talking about when I said that I was teaching the literature of the Americas, and I’m still not sure whether they know what I’m talking about.”

If there is a predominant internal debate around Comp Lit, it’s the question of translation. In an era of globalization, English is seen as the lingua franca (even though an equally persuasive argument could be made that a facility in languages is more important than ever). Although translations have always been part of Comp Lit – no one can narrowly focus on only the three or four languages and literatures they’ve mastered – some argue that more students could be attracted to the field if language prerequisites were relaxed. But comparatists will tell you that reading texts in original languages is the heart of their discipline.

To illustrate its importance, Ian MacRae points to the example of respected Vancouver Island writer Jack Hodgins, who was influenced by the magic realism of Latin America, especially predominant Hispanic novelists Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Varga Llosa.

“In the case of Hodgins, think of the impact Latin America has had,” suggests Dr. MacRae. “In interviews he’s said that the coastline that runs outside his house on Vancouver Island goes all the way down past Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Colombia and Mario Varga Llosa’s Peru. That north-south connection is as important for Canadian literature as the CPR railroad that connects east to west. So as a literary critic trying to understand a Canadian writer, you have to understand the works he’s read. If you can read the Spanish criticism of those novels and understand Spanish cultural history, you’re going to write a more penetrating, lucid and valuable analysis of Hodgins.”

Both Drs. MacRae and Casteel have noticed another phenomenon: students often worry that specializing in Comp Lit would limit their job prospects. In part, that reflects the state of Comp Lit itself.

Haun Saussy, a professor of comparative literature at Yale University, has drawn attention to the influence of the discipline throughout academe but its corresponding lack of an institutional power base. In a 2006 state-of-the-discipline essay published in the anthology Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, he wrote that most programs “are thinly funded patchworks of committee representation, cross-listed courses, fractional job lines and volunteer service. Our ways of thinking, writing and teaching have spread like a gospel and have not been followed (despite what our friends in beleaguered language-and-literature departments may say) by an empire.”

Small wonder that after contemplating the rigorous language demands (at least three are required for doctoral studies), the health of Comp Lit departments (more have been phased out or collapsed into other departments than created over the past quarter-century) and employment outlook, many students choose other disciplines. If they do proceed with an advanced degree, many hope to land a faculty position in an English department or within one of the language departments.

“Every comparative literature applicant has two or three different versions of their CVs that they’ve massaged,” says Dr. Saussy. “And two or three different versions of their cover letters. I don’t think that’s true for applicants in more traditional fields.”

As a young scholar, Ian MacRae has been teaching in the humanities faculty of the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus and in the Canadian Studies program at University College downtown while looking for full-time work.

“Fortunately, comparatists are very versatile and flexible as teachers. I’ve taught Canadian literature, the Canadian short story, new Canadian writing, American literature, Gothic literature, Romance literature, documentary cinema …”

With almost every field embracing interdisciplinary studies, it’s possible for comparatists to eventually find a comfortable home. “Within the context of Carleton’s English department,” says Dr. Casteel, “I’ve been able to teach and do research within a Comp Lit framework, so I’m grateful for that.”

Comp Lit grads might seem a logical fit within English departments, but “English departments are not always receptive to comparative literature grads,” says Albert Braz, who holds a split appointment in comparative literature and English at the University of Alberta. Some PhDs start by teaching a course in the English department, hoping to get a job.

“But the job market isn’t so great in English either, and there’s more competition,” says Dr. Braz. “For students who can do good work in three or four different languages, they’ll probably have better luck somewhere else. A lot of them end up teaching in language departments.”

There are exceptions to this gloomy picture.

Three major Canadian awards in the humanities and social sciences went to comparatists last year: the CAGS dissertation award to Dr. MacRae, the Polanyi prize to Dr. Casteel, and the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences’ Raymond Klibansky Prize for best book in the humanities to Daniel Coleman, professor of English and cultural studies at McMaster University, for his book of comparative literature, White Civility.

On an institutional level, there are points of light. The University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature, founded by Northrop Frye in 1969, is thriving under director Roland Le Huenen, with such eminent scholars as J. Edward Chamberlin and Linda Hutcheon on faculty. Other programs include those at Université de Sherbrooke, Université de Montréal, University of Alberta, University of Western Ontario and University of British Columbia.

But more common is the case of Carleton University, which had a Comp Lit school offering undergraduate, MA and PhD programs until 2000, when it was closed for financial reasons, even though its enrolment was healthy, says Francesco Loriggio, professor of Italian and comparative studies at Carleton. (In the same period, the English department grew and acquired a PhD program.) Carleton now has an Institute of Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture offering a PhD in cultural mediations.

“Presidents and deans of faculties still think that universities should be run like businesses, that mergers are the way to go,” and that small units, even if they do a good job, “aren’t viable options,” says Dr. Loriggio. “Larger units are generally outside of the fray any time budget cuts are called for, so curricular changes usually involve smaller units. It’s much easier to impose restructuring on units that have only a few votes on faculty boards.”

The University of Alberta’s Stephen Slemon wrote in his 2003 essay (PDF), Lament for a Notion (a punning reference to George Grant’s influential 1965 treatise, Lament for a Nation), “Comparative Literature in Canada is the kid who wears glasses. He sits between grades and is accepted by neither of them … English Studies in Canada [has] arrived at a disciplinary moment of hulking self-interest, arrested development and line- management violence, while Comparative Literature Studies cower self-protectively in profound institutional crisis.”

Many young comparatists must wish it wasn’t so.

David Hayes
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