Beyond the Doomsday Machine: Teaching Literature Now
Literary study offers an opportunity to suspend disbelief, to imagine the world not as it is, but as it could be.
This is the line I write on the syllabus for every undergraduate English course I teach. I want to make the case to my students, most of whom are not English majors, that literature is neither a rarefied aesthetic object detached from the “real world” nor (merely) a vehicle for escapism. Rather, it is woven from the very fibers of the material world, sometimes enshrining its political and social order and other times questioning, troubling, or resisting that order. I want my students to know the secret hope I harbor (and that I believe all literature teachers must harbor on some level): that studying literature could teach them how to build a more just world.
The first time I developed an undergraduate seminar, however, I buried this sentence between other, more standard justifications for the humanities. I told students that the course was designed to “develop critical thinking skills through literary analysis” and that these skills would serve students well no matter what they chose to pursue. In doing so, I allowed a general cultural devaluation of literature to seep into my own understanding of the work I do. The goal of higher education, we are increasingly told, is to develop skills that are eventually transferrable to the workplace. Reading poetry is well and good, but what really counts is whether it helps you land that interview.
We have to be able to imagine that other possibilities exist before we can enact them; narrative shows us what those possibilities are.
The percentage of humanities majors in American higher education has been dropping steadily since the Great Recession. There are about 25 percent fewer English majors now than there were at prerecession peaks. In the midst of another period of economic instability and mass unemployment, further declines in those numbers seem all but inevitable as students seek majors that they think will lead to better-paid or more secure careers. The problem is compounded by austerity. A higher education system that was already contracting before the pandemic now faces another round of punishing budget cuts. Enrollment numbers for Fall 2020 are uncertain, with forecasters predicting an overall decline of up to 20%. Along with declines in tuition revenue, public colleges and universities face steep cuts to their state funding as more resources are (rightly) allocated to public health.
As always, humanities departments will be asked to justify their existence to skeptical politicians, administrators and nonmajor students. It will feel comfortable to defend our courses by pointing to the transferrable analytical thinking skills they build, as we can argue that these skills offer a solid return on investment. But it is clearer now than ever before that this defense of literature courses is incomplete. Critical thinking and analysis are certainly important, but students can learn these skills elsewhere. What makes studying literature in particular so essential is that it helps students move beyond analytical thinking toward imaginative thinking. Critique without vision is a recipe for cynicism. Literature can help students channel critique into transformative action and structural change.
The first time I gave my students a creative assignment, it felt radical because I had so rarely done creative work myself as an undergraduate English major. The assignment was for a course on the United States in the 1960s. My students spent the first couple weeks of the quarter practicing close reading and critical analysis, examining narratives across different media (television, film, and novels). During the second half of the course, they worked on a creative group project, designing treatments for original TV period dramas set in the 1960s. I specifically wanted them to tell stories of the 1960s that had not been adequately represented by dominant narratives of the period. My students were up for the task. One group imagined a show that tracked the life of a Black family in Los Angeles across three generations—before, during, and after the Watts riots of 1965. Another retold the story of the Vietnam War from the perspective of four women, including a former Viet Cong soldier. I wanted my students to see that narratives are not just things we analyze; they are also things that we ourselves can construct and change. Making social and political change happen requires that we revise and rewrite dominant cultural narratives. We have to be able to imagine that other possibilities exist before we can enact them; narrative shows us what those possibilities are.
By training students not only to identify injustice but also to envision radical alternatives, the literature classroom can pave the way for these moments of cultural reckoning and speed their arrival.
If there ever were a moment for this kind of imaginative thinking, it is now. Both COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement (likely the largest protest movement in United States history) have laid bare the structural deficiencies of contemporary American society — the folly of employer-based healthcare, the unsustainability and inhumanity of mass incarceration, the systematic persecution of people of color by police, and the havoc that decades of austerity has wrought. By itself, the disproportionate effect that the coronavirus has had on people of color is evidence enough of the deep structural racism in this country. Still, the very severity of the situation makes it a possible inflection point in American political life. Indian writer-activist Arundhati Roy describes the pandemic as a “portal” – a “chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves.” “Nothing could be worse,” she warns, “than a return to normality.” And we seem to be genuinely thinking beyond our doomsday machine right now. One of the most astonishing aspects of the protests has been how quickly activists have garnered cultural support for transformative demands: defunding the police and abolishing prisons. This time around, protestors are refusing to be bought off by tweaks to use-of-force guidelines or marginally more representative police departments. They want real systemic change. Likewise, the pandemic has made once-contentious ideas that were floated during the Democratic primary season (for instance, Medicare for All) seem integral to any project of postpandemic rebuilding. At this crucial juncture, we need imagination to build on the momentum generated by activists, prison abolitionists, leftist academics, and community organizers — voices that have been stifled for decades but are now increasingly heard on the megaphone. By training students not only to identify injustice but also to envision radical alternatives, the literature classroom can pave the way for these moments of cultural reckoning and speed their arrival.
What will the world on the other side of the portal look like? Literature teachers have a responsibility to explore that question with their students this fall and beyond, and it has been heartening to see that some already are. In May, Columbia University Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin described how she reimagined her African American literature course after the transition to online teaching. The end of the course focused on Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower (1993). Set in Los Angeles in 2024, the novel envisions a chaotic near future marked by extreme violence, staggering economic inequality, mass drug addiction, and environmental catastrophe. In an interview with Butler that accompanies the novel, she says that the idea behind the book was “to look at where we are now, what we are doing now, and to consider where some of our current behaviors and unattended problems might take us.” The future Butler depicts feels terrifyingly plausible, especially right now, and gives us real incentive to think hard about how we avoid this fate. In her course, Griffin also replaced the final exam with a creative response to one of the course texts. She writes that “[i]n addition to their analytical skills, which are on display in every class, I wanted my students to stretch their imaginative ones as well.” I suspect that Griffin is not alone in this desire for her students, and I expect that more literature instructors will follow her lead this fall. But the teaching habits we cultivate during this pandemic also need to carry over into our postpandemic classrooms. We must recognize and take advantage of the fact that our discipline is uniquely equipped to engage and develop students’ transformative visions for the future.
Social and political change stagnates when our imaginations fail.
Literature teaching is not a panacea — far from it. The undergraduate literature classroom is nowhere near as diverse or accessible as it should be; literature departments are not immune to institutional racism in the university, and humanistic research too often remains cloistered in the ivory tower. But when critique and imagination are paired, literature courses can revive the world of the possible. Social and political change stagnates when our imaginations fail. It is the responsibility of the writer and the critic, the teacher and the student, to continually imagine things not as they are but as they could be, to read culture for what it naturalizes and excludes — and then to rewrite it.
Arielle Stambler is a PhD candidate in English at the University of California, Los Angeles. She studies how 21st century postcolonial novels from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia imagine the concept of human rights, specifically economic and social rights. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.
Kimani Rose Honor
Kimani Rose’s photographic and literary works reflect the places she wishes to see herself and her experiences represented. Focused primarily on self-publishing, she works to make her art as accessible as possible to the communities she cares about. Kimani uses photography as a vehicle to express the complexities of life through images, focusing mostly on her own life, the lives of queer black womxn, and her community of queer black folk.
About the Artwork
Floral Refractions: Veil | Digital Photo | 12 x 8 inches | 2019
The Floral Refractions series is a project meant to capture the light and beauty of black womxn through our innate connection to nature. This is an exploration of the Divine Feminine Joy, coupled with the power of the sun.