Thursday, May 07, 2009

Random Responses to Wai Chee Dimock's Recent Work

Wai Chee Dimock is visiting Fredonia this week as the keynote speaker for "Remapping World Literature," the 4th annual Mary Louise White Symposium organized by the English department. I'll be on a roundtable with her and several of my colleagues in a few minutes, as we examine together the implications of her work for teaching strategies, course design, curriculum, professional development, and strategic planning in English at Fredonia. Although I'll be improvising my comments, I thought I'd better take a shot at organizing them, however haphazardly, here first. But first some ideas that aren't going to be making it into my talk. Better to get them out here so I'm not tempted to use up my 5-7 minutes on them.

Free Association

For much of my first year in grad school, I was so overwhelmed by all that I was trying to take in that I could only think associatively. It was actually a pretty pleasant experience, if exasperating, mostly because it was a shared one: all my friends in the entering class had the same condition. We'd get together and start making whatever random connections between literature, theory, music, video games, tv, film, and sports came to our minds. It was our way of making sense of what we were learning and living through, I guess. Group brainstorming, or something. Sometimes we'd even come up with good ideas, but that wasn't exactly the point.

Reading Dimock's Through Other Continents brought to mind that time in my life, but also reminded me how much had changed since then. I read it in airports and on airplanes on my way to the Reworking the University conference in Minneapolis--and I read it in one gulp, with the excitement and pleasure I associate with reading really good science fiction. And, indeed, I was reminded of science fiction on almost every page, whether it was Neal Stephenson's blend of Sumerian mythology and cyberpunk in Snow Crash, Kim Stanley Robinson's exploration of an alternate history in which Chinese and Islamic civilizations rose and fell in the centuries after the plague depopulated Europe in The Years of Rice and Salt, or efforts by Guy Gavriel Kay, Dan Simmons, and Samuel Delany, in their very different ways, to combine myth, literature and fantasy and/or science fiction. And more: I was reminded of Neil Gaiman's graphic novel series Sandman, Amitav Ghosh's mix of memoir and history In an Antique Land, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's unclassifiable Dictee.

I'm forgetting what other works I wanted to remind myself to let Dimock know about or find out if she knew about, mostly because I was borrowing a colleague's copy of her book and didn't write in it or take any notes on it. Instead, I was revelling in the feeling of witnessing ideas I'd been working on over the past decade precipitating in somebody else's solution--ideas I never would have come up with on my own, but which shared a family resemblance to those of the many writers I've been tracking whom I've been connecting to debates over globalization and literary studies. I hadn't experienced such an intellectual rush since I read Thomas Bender's A Nation Among Nations--a feeling of things falling into place, things I had figured out taking on a new significance or relating to new context, things I had never considered before taking on a new interest and urgency. So while both works inspired all kinds of free associations, they also helped me identify large-scale patterns I had been groping towards, sharpen points I wanted to make, and imagine new possibilities for connections between times and places we usually think of as disjunct.


In my contribution to today's roundtable discussion, I'm going to be highlighting some of the unexpected ways the courses I'm teaching this semester connect with issues raised by Bender's and Dimock's work. Of course, I taught Bender in my American Identities course, but it was actually the juxtaposition of class discussions on Gish Jen's Mona in the Promised Land and Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues that I'll be focusing on as a counterpoint to and way of looking differently at a key moment at the end of Samuel Delany's Atlantis: Model 1924 from my Harlem Renaissance course, which in turn will lead into a consideration of why I organized my Black Women Writers course the way I did and what it was like teaching it. My goal will be to raise the question of what we consider to be the ends of teaching world literature and make a case for a modest, minimalist starting point.

I'll use that starting point as my entry into a more programmatic proposal to reexamine the Fredonia English department curriculum, specifically the way we bridge our introductory-level world literature core (all of which is in Fredonia's general education program) with our required and elective upper-level courses, many of which are in national literatures.

But more on that later! Time to head out for the roundtable....

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