Fairfield Now - Fall 2009
New teaching methods in English will build bridges across cultures
By Nina Riccio, M.A.'09
One would be hard-pressed to find a college student who didn't know something about the 18th-century slave trade involving Great Britain, Africa, and the Americas, but how many have studied it while listening to NourbeSe Philips' hypnotic poem Zong, a reminder of the shocking 1781 incident in which slaves were thrown into the Atlantic in order to collect insurance money? Or understand the connection between the burgeoning slave trade and the regular appearance of coffee and sugar as staples in a British household?
And how many have thought to trace Odysseus' journey through the ancient world - or perhaps the route of Chaucer's pilgrim 2,000 years later - on a historical map with hyperlinks that show the changing political boundaries and fluctuating demographics of the era?
This September marks the dawn of an ambitious new project in the English department: a team-taught class that infuses literature from around the world with a variety of media - interactive maps with hyperlinks, poetry, film, lectures, and theatre - to ensure that students walk away understanding what they have read in the broader context of what was happening in the world at the time it was written.
"We wanted to develop a pilot course for students that introduces them to themes and a range of literature from all over the world," explained Dr. Kim Bridgford, a poet and one of the four professors spearheading the course.
The result, "Gateways: Mapping Literary Texts across a Global Continuum," will be a class of 60, quite large by Fairfield standards, and will meet as a group twice each week before breaking down into smaller discussion groups led by one of four professors.
"'Gateway' is a metaphor that can signal meaning at so many different levels," explained Dr. Gita Rajan. "It is a gateway to opening students' minds to literature, in all its cultural richness. The idea of gateway fits nicely with the University's mission of core integration: Reading becomes a way of deciphering how history, politics, geography, and culture are encoded into literary texts to infuse a context-specific view of the globe."
Students sample literature from a range of cultures and analyze them in the context of the time they were written.
The Gateway professors will take turns introducing the day's material, each speaking to his or her area of specialty.
For Dr. Rajan, that's the literature of the South Asian diaspora as well as gender studies and globalization theory.
Dr. Sally O'Driscoll will focus on 18th-century European women writers and sexuality and gender studies, while Dr. Edrik Lopez, a poet, will bring his expertise in Latina literature and 20th-century American poetry to the mix.
The class was filled shortly after sophomore registration opened last spring, but it seems that students are not the only ones excited about Gateway's global focus.
"We're all thrilled" with the scope of the project, noted Dr. Bridgford. She added that invited speakers this semester include Khaled Hosseini of The Kite Runner fame, and Junot Díz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, both of whom will visit the class itself in addition to making an appearance at the Quick Center. Films and theatre performances, as well as lectures at New York's 92nd St. Y, are also on the schedule.
"This semester's theme will be 'journey and self', and we'll examine the literature chosen with that in mind," explained Dr. Bridgford. As an example, she cited Shakespeare's The Tempest as one text that will be explored and notes that students will trace Alonso's journey from North Africa to Naples, speculating on the location of the mythical island on which he lands while exploring historical accounts of 16th-century shipwrecks that were likely to have filtered back to Shakespeare's London.
One of the first to register for the course was Stefania Cambanis '11, who is majoring in both accounting and literature. ("They both involve analysis," she said by way of explanation.) While she's eager to dive into the reading list and to meet Hosseini, the course is most appealing for another reason.
"I like the idea of a large class where everyone is there because they love literature. We'll be comparing and analyzing texts from different nations, and I think it will be a very motivating experience."
The Gateway team has been accepted this September at Soul Mountain, the Connecticut writers' retreat. At the retreat, they will discuss their roles as both teachers and as resources as they work toward their next step in the project: an educational workshop for high school teachers in neighboring Bridgeport, so that schools with great need yet few resources can have access to the materials developed. Ultimately, it may be possible to make the completed Gateway website available to struggling community colleges as well.
"I feel confident that our students are ready for this wonderfully rich course because, frankly, every student I've had has loved the challenge of performing at a superior level," said Dr. Rajan.
Image: Professors Sally O'Driscoll (left), Gita Rajan, Edrik Lopez, and Kim Bridgford offer students a more global approach to literature.