Saturday, August 13, 2005

On Ghose's Essay - Part II

Zulfikar Ghose: Instead, in western countries, one would be lucky to find the names [of G.V. Desani and Raja Rao] in university courses other than the ones devoted to that hideous bureaucratic invention, Third World literature, courses that are usually taken by a handful of students from racial minorities or by foreign students pathetically looking for something with which they can identify. Such courses, which purport to provide a balanced view, only perpetuate the essential distortion: they confirm the generally accepted notion that English literature consists of regional blocks that have no connection with one another and are to be seen only as pictures of those regions. Without such nationalistic identification, even this little recognition would be denied Desani and Rao.

But isn't it sad that with such world-class writers as Desani and Rao one has to place them in a nationalistic category in order to win them some attention? It is a procedure by which one's neglect can almost be guaranteed. It is like a work of art which the museum curator, finding no niche for it in the permanent galleries, places in the storage room and brings it up on some rare occasion for a temporary exhibition in which it is included not for its beauty but to make some sociopolitical point.

Wow, Ghose has really got it going on with that first sentence, which is a doozy that manages to take a shot at university bureaucracies, faculty members, multiculturalists, racial minority students, and foreign students at the same time. Indeed, Ghose displays the amazing ability to totally comprehend the reasons behind many students' course selection habits with the line that "students from racial minorities and foreign students" take classes like "Third World Literature" (and by implication, Asian-American literature?) because they are "pathetically looking for something with which they can identify." Ouch! Hey, maybe they're just choosing classes, because they're not into morning classes or only want classes on Thursday and Friday. Is that any less "pathetic"?

I think that the primary problem with this claim is that it unfairly singles out "Third World Literature" or "Asian-American Poetry" or "African-American Novels" for harsh criticism by decontextualizing them from the rest of the classes offered in English. Look, we all know the types of courses offered in college. Beyond intro courses, courses often are quite specific. For example, some English classes that will be offered at Duke University in Fall 2005 include "Seamus Heaney," "Medieval Literature to 1500," "Sexualities Film/Video," "Renaissance Enviornmentalisms," "American Literature: 1915 to 1960," etc. Even a class that has a more general-sounding title like "Contemporary American Writers" must necessarily be relegated to a limited set of works due to the time constraints of the semester. So, I'm not quite understanding why "Third World Literature" must be isolated for particular criticism. And I'm not sure why taking a class with which you can identify is so pathetic. I alawys thought that it was cool to explore one's own interests and identity, but then again, I think that Aqua's "Barbie Girl" is a cool video, so maybe I have a warped sense of coolness.

To borrow Ghose's museum analogy, most college classes feature works of art that are singled out. They are all unique and specific. It's not such a bad thing to have diverse course offerings, just as it's not such a bad thing that there is a diverse array of exhibits at museums. I don't deny that the professor who offers "Asian-American Poetry" wants "to win [the poets] some attention," though I'd dispute that would be the only or main goal. Usually, it's about exploring a subject that is also a scholarly interest with students. Also, winning attention for the author(s) and their works would be the same objective for the professor offering the class on "Seamus Heaney" or "Medieval Literature to 1500" as the professor teaching "Asian-American Poetry." Furthermore, such classes like Asian-American Poetry" may concededly not be "permanent" offerings, but they can be, provided that there are professors or grad students willing to teach them.

More importantly, Ghose seems to desire a English lit curriculum that is unified and features a limited set of writers, while at the same time, he wants it to focus on Indian writers like Desani and Rao. Paradoxically, it's almost an "Indian-power" argument that wants Indian writers to be featured but does not want them to be singled out as"Indian" in the inclusion or the teaching. Indeed, Ghose acknowledges that courses like Third World Literature may be the only way that these authors get any recognition at all, and he clearly wants these authors to get recognition.

But Ghose does not deal with the problem of exclusion, which I've touched upon before in previous posts -- for an expansion of a unified curriculum in American poetry, for example, there must eventually be an exclusion of poets, since there is only a limited number of poets that may be read in a semester or year. I think that taking out some of the "lesser" English-language writers for "greater" English-language Indian writers is what Ghose wants, but he does not want the Indian writers to be acknowledged as "Indian" but simply "great," which is ironic, considering that Ghose himself points out that they are Indian. And, actually, a changing of the curriculum has already happened to a limited extent in many relatively generalist classes that offer an ethnically/racially diverse array of authors, though less so in poetry than in other fields in English literature.

Ghose does touch upon the valid point that classes like "Third World Literature" are often not as popular with students as a class like "Shakespeare," for example. Well, one important reason is that "Shakespeare" is often a requirement for the English major. Another reason is that high school graduates have generally all had much more exposure to Shakespeare's works (as opposed to probably zero exposure to any Asian-American poets), and so there's a better chance that they'd be interested in a class called "Shakespeare." And, in general, there are fewer tenured professors willing to devote the energy and attention to teach a class in "Third World Literature" or "Asian-American Poetry," which is important, since tenured professors generally get to decide the classes that they want to teach. But perhaps most importantly, students are often taught at a relatively early age, maybe junior high or high school, that novels are more important than poems, that Ernest Hemingway is more important than Garrett Hongo, and that Asian-American poetry is not a worthwhile scholarly field of study, if it is a field of study at all. It's a tough lesson to shake, because it's one that is gradually communicated through years and years of education.

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