Literature and Social Justice: Teaching Notes (Spring 2018)

My colleague Jenna Lay and I are co-teaching the English department's Literature and Social Justice (LSJ) graduate seminar this spring. We offer the LSJ seminar as a required course for all first-year graduate students in the department. This week, I presented this overview to introduce the broad arc of the class to the students. 

A good place to start might be the Lehigh English Department's “Literature and Social Justice Mission Statement.” This is a collectively-written document that was developed by the department’s faculty LSJ committee a few years ago that the full department then workshopped and signed off on. It's helped shape our vision of our graduate curriculum as a whole and our approach to hiring new faculty; it's also clearly informed the thinking that went into the design of the course you're now taking.

I won’t rehearse the whole of the Mission Statement here, but there are a couple of bullet points that are especially helpful in framing what we’ll be trying to do in this course. Let’s start with a relatively straightforward statement from near the beginning of the document:
We believe that the study of literature, mapping the contours of what it means to be human—our aspirations and anxieties, our histories and hopes—is essential to the work of social justice. We come to know others by the stories they tell, even as we determine who we are by the stories we tell ourselves. (source)
Of course, one of the issues we need to think about as we dive deeper into what “literature and social justice” means is what we mean by “social justice” itself. What does that term really point to, and where does it come from? There is a tradition of thinking about the idea of “social justice” in political science and philosophy, and we’ll start in our conversation today with an attempt to define the term “social justice” -- before putting “literature” back into the equation with our readings for next week. This preliminary conversation will not necessarily settle the question of what we mean by "social justice," but as we discuss terms like "distributive justice" and think about how Rawls and other thinkers have conceptualized the role of public institutions, the nation-state, and the free market in creating the conditions for justice, we'll begin to develop a common vocabulary on this topic. We'll also ponder some of the newer challenges to classic concepts of nation-based social justice that have arisen in connection with multiculturalism and globalization.

As a side bar, it’s probably worth mentioning that the term “social justice” has found a renewed energy with the younger generation of activists, many of them organizing on the internet. But sometimes that activism stumbles when people present different or non-compatible definitions of social justice. Does social justice have to be “intersectional”? Does social justice come aligned with a particular economic theory or a critique of capitalism -- or is it in fact compatible with a version of the free market? Does social justice also require a commitment to environmentalism? There’s no one answer to these questions -- and we in the room don’t have to agree on all points. But by going back to fundamentals with people like David Miller (Principles of Justice), John Rawls ("Justice as Fairness"), and Amartya Sen (A Theory of Justice), we might be able to develop tools to think about what definition of “social justice” we ourselves want to use as writers and thinkers.

Next, let’s jump to a section from near the end of the Lehigh English department’s document:
We aim to highlight how questions about literature –whether directed at minute aesthetic details or wider innovations in literary form—are often also questions about enduring political, cultural, and ethical issues. Our curriculum encourages us to talk to one another across historical boundaries, finding potential continuities and areas of commonality. To this end, our courses and our scholarship explore feminism, racism, economic exploitation, queer studies, postcolonial studies, ethics, medical humanities, and peace studies, across historical periods. (source)
This paragraph has a history; it points back to what we as faculty were thinking when, more than a decade ago, we created this concept of a department oriented to Literature and Social Justice. We were already thinking about social justice issues in silos -- race studies, gender studies, colonialism, ecocriticism, medical humanities, digital humanities -- and we were looking for ways to bring those various areas of interest into conversation with one another across historical periods. (In a conventional English department with a research orientation, it’s often the case that an early modernist would have so little in common with a modern and contemporary literature person like myself that we actually wouldn’t have much reason to talk to each other about our academic work. Here, with LSJ, we’ve tried to create an environment where we have good reasons to talk to each other -- to collaborate cross-historically and cross-regionally.)

One of the most effective ways to move towards that has been the design of the LSJ course itself, which is always co-taught -- by faculty members with expertise in different historical periods. In terms of primary texts, we also make it a point to bring texts into the course that represent debates about social justice from our particular periods; here, we’re also including some areas (i.e., American literature) that go out of our particular ‘comfort zone’. (Toni Morrison’s classic work of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark, and Saidiya Hartmann’s Scenes of Subjection are strongly grounded in American conversations about race and the legacy of slavery. They’ve been assigned in nearly every version of this course that’s been taught thus far, so we’re using them again here.)

Second, one of the most important points about the social work that literature can do in helping us think about social justice is its ability to help us hear the voices and stories of others.

The study of literature is central to the work of justice in other ways as well, for the literary imagination, as Martha Nussbaum writes, provides “an essential ingredient of an ethical stance that asks us to concern ourselves with the good of other people whose lives are distant from our own.” Developing such concern is the necessary first step in determining the roots of injustice; in exposing the conditions and beliefs that perpetuate it; and, finally, in imagining strategies and possibilities for overcoming it. (source)
In this class, we’ll dive a bit deeper into these ideas with theoretical scholarship that looks at how literature creates empathy in readers, which some critics argue is one of the basic features of any imaginative literature. But there are also some essays we’ll look at that argue against too much investment in empathy -- that suggest especially that creating a sense of emotional pathos about injustices such as lynching in the American south isn’t the same thing as actually putting forward a critique that can change those conditions. We’ll be engaging with this debate in week 4, with readings by Suzanne Keen ("A Theory of Narrative Empathy"), Lauren Berlant (The Female Complaint: the Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture), Saidiya Hartmann (Scenes of Subjection), and Martha Nussbaum (Poetic Justice: the Literary Imagination and Public Life).

In addition to helping us think about engaging with others as individuals, literature can also help us think about larger, social and political issues in inventive ways. Literature is a space where we can imagine alternate social engagements -- whether utopian or dystopian -- and use those imagined social configurations as part of an attempt to reform the real social institutions in the present world we live in. In this class we’ll see that with a number of utopian texts (including Thomas More’s Utopia itself), some of them from the early modern period and one from 19th century India.

The second unit of the course, “Colonial/Postcolonial” will attempt to bridge our respective historical periods with reference to ideas about space and globality. In recent years, early modern studies has grown increasingly interested in narratives focusing on cross-cultural encounters and the representation of non-European cultures. Contemporary literature has been shaped by those concerns as well -- and a number of postcolonial writers have actually been engaged in revisiting the historical scene of the cross-cultural encounter that first took place centuries earlier, at the dawn of the colonial moment. We’ll look at a work by the South African postcolonial writer J.M. Coetzee called Foe that is in deep dialogue with Daniel Defoe’s famous novel Robinson Crusoe -- a book set on a Caribbean island that directly thematizes slavery -- as well as another Defoe novel called Roxana. We’ll also look at Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (also a utopian text) in this context, and we’ll hopefully see ideas from that unit (week 6) in dialogue with a travel narrative written by an Indian woman writer from the late 19th century, Pandita Ramabai.

One theme that’s been particularly important to both Jenna’s research and my own is the role of religion in shaping our field’s orientation to various periods. For much of the 20th century, it was regularly assumed by critics that “religion” was in some sense the relic of an earlier historical era, and literary critics mapped that bias onto the kinds of questions they asked about works of literature. Progressive and radical thinkers in particular tended to take it as a premise that religious orthodoxies are tools of conservative and patriarchal social order. But both Jenna’s research and my own lead us to a different orientation: certain religious configurations in particular contexts can actually be tools to help marginalized groups achieve liberation. This is especially interesting with respect to women -- Jenna has worked on Catholic nuns in the early modern period, I’ve been interested in Indian women like the aforementioned Pandita Ramabai, who converted to Christianity in the late 19th century. (In the American context, one also thinks of the role of the black Church in the civil rights movement; in Latin America, one thinks of Catholic-inspired Liberation Theology along similar lines.) For some women, religious social orders and theological frameworks can be a mode of articulating feminist critiques of male domination. And religious institutions (like the Cloister) can be spaces of female autonomy from heteronormative social institutions and domestic labor.

Along those lines, we have one long novel we’ll be asking you to read at the end of March. George Eliot’s Adam Bede deals with issues of religious conversion, gender, economic inequalities, and the challenge of delivering justice under conditions of extreme power differentials in Victorian England. We hope you’ll enjoy this text -- it should dovetail with conversations we’ll be having relating early modern religious conversion as well as religious conversion in India.

There’s also something to be said about the unique power of engaging a longer text that sometimes gets left out of the conversation. When we dive deeply into a work over a long period of time, I believe something unique happens with respect to how we react to the characters and their ethical dilemmas -- they become alive to us in a special way. (Of course, most Victorian readers read novels in exactly this way -- one or two chapters in a time, serialized in literary magazines over sometimes several years.) The issue of narrative empathy we'll be discussing with reference to Suzanne Keen and others should be of interest to us as we work through Eliot.

Our final unit will take us from looking at what works of literature do, to the social role that the formation of Literature (capital “L”) plays in the modern world. We’ll be talking about the formation of literary canons -- who has historically been included (hint: white men), and who has historically been excluded (women, people of color). Sometimes these exclusions have been deliberate and conscious, but just as often canon formation was linked to more unconscious biases. The predominantly male critics of the mid-20th century thought poems should sound a certain way and be about certain topics that were of interest to themselves, so women writers who thought and wrote differently didn’t make the ‘cut.’ What happens when we dive back into the literary historical archive with a different set of criteria for inclusion? What do we do with the category of “great” literature? How do we link aesthetic values and formal qualities of literature with various social identities?

We’ll also take a week to talk about how authors themselves shape and prune their work, and what role politics can play in that process. I’ve recently been doing research on a series of 20th century writers who all decided to excise some of the most radical political poetry from their final, authorized “collected works.” Why did they do that? To what extent are we obliged to accept their decisions? What happens to our image of the modern British poet W.H. Auden or Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay if we reinsert their radical communist poetry back into their body of work?

Finally, we’ll close the course with a unit on social justice with respect to the teaching of literature. We have readings lined up from Paolo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed), bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress), and Wendy Brown (Undoing the Demos) for that week that we’re excited about, and hope you will be too.