TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Students in English 411, Dr. Emily O. Wittman’s Advanced Studies in Comparative and Multicultural Literature class, don’t just sit and read. They judge.
Wittman has arranged her class of about 20 University of Alabama undergrads as a prize committee, mimicking the panels that select the Nobel, Booker or Pulitzer prizes in literature each year. Her class will pick the winner of the coveted Druid City Brick Award from among some of the great contemporary authors of world literature. In the process, the students will experience life as an awards judge and critic.
“I wanted to do something that would allow the students to understand the problems and the stakes of world literature as a contested field,” said Wittman, assistant professor of English at UA. “How do we describe what’s great?”
Wittman has structured her world-literature class as an awards committee for several semesters. She and recent UA graduate Danie Vollenweider recently published an article on the class in the interdisciplinary journal Then. Wittman is repeating the class structure for her fall 2011 class at UA, albeit with a different set of novels. The panel structure lends insight into how committees decide what’s deserving of honors and why the process often creates controversy.
“We talk about translation,” Wittman said. “We talk about gender. We talk about how politics figure into the awards.That doesn’t mean that in our community that’s how we want to honor our prize-winners. But we learn about what prize committees are and what they do.”
This semester, Wittman’s class started with Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake.” Other books on the class’s short list include “Life and Times of Michael K.” by South African writer J.M. Coetzee; “Changeling” by Japanese author Kenzaburō Ōe; “The Bad Girl” by recent Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa; and “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” by Austrian author Peter Handke. One of the goals of the class is to expand students’ knowledge of 20th century world literature, an area many members of the American reading public tend to overlook.
“In the United States, three percent of what we read across the board is translated, whereas in France and Germany, it’s approximately forty percent,” Wittman said. “The difference between these and our culture is astonishing. In these other countries, people move beyond national boundaries and their national language to read.”
Using the blog site PB Works and class time, the students assemble a list of key ideas and criteria they’ll be using for judging these works. Among their criteria are the phrases “forces us to care”; “Character development”; and the term “thought hijacking” – meaning a novel so provocative that it takes over the reader’s reason and imagination. In addition, students will weigh in on some “fun questions” about the works, including whether the book would make good airplane reading or what kind of rating the book would get from the Motion Picture Association of America (G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17).
“The fact that we have a chance to develop criteria together as a committee makes this class more personal and a lot different from other literature classes at UA,” said Caitlin Lopez, a junior English major.
Students will be writing reviews of the books as well as a final paper encapsulating their experience and explaining their final vote.
“We’re responsible for our own judgments,” said Chris Izor, a senior English major. “The awards make us think about literature in a more intense kind of way.”
When the votes are in – Wittman stresses that she’s a nonvoting member of this awards panel – the class will enshrine the name of the winning author on a brick outside UA’s Ferguson Student Center. And Wittman’s students will be much more aware of how to think critically about the quality of the literature they read.
“Ideally, by the end of the class, the students mature into full-blown literary critics,” Wittman said. “When you take students seriously, they rise to the occasion.They learn from each other, and they believe this class will change the way they read for the rest of their lives.They no longer read as apprentices, solely for pleasure.”
The English department is part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Its students have won national awards including Rhodes Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships and memberships on the USA Today Academic All American Team.