New World Literature Degree to Focus on Traditions From Around Globe

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The University of Arizona is launching a new degree in world literature, introducing students to various traditions of storytelling, narrative and expression across the world.

Combined with an intensive foreign language study, the degree program will provide in-depth insight into the literatures that live on in those languages.

As part of the College of Humanities' new Department of Public and Applied Humanities, the world literature bachelor's degree advances the college's mission to deliver multilingual education and an increasingly marketable and in-demand understanding of disparate cultures.

"This program takes another look at our world, in all its differences, disparities, clashes and conflicts, not just today, but over the ages," said Steve Martinson, professor of German studies and director of the world literature program. "It looks at the literary texts and explores the nature of these very diverse cultural landscapes."

Students in the new major will be required to take three years of a foreign language and are strongly encouraged to engage in a study-abroad component, adding experiential learning experiences to their study. Because the program draws on faculty from numerous country- and region-focused departments, students also are encouraged to consider a double major, in combination with units such as Judaic studies, Spanish, East Asian studies, Middle Eastern and North African studies, history, religious studies, Africana studies and English.

The program defines world literature as literature with an impact beyond its original language and cultural area, the product of intercultural historical events, and the circulation of ideas that connect people from across the globe. Students can explore interests in regional literatures (for example, Eastern Europe, Latin America, East Asia, West Africa and the Middle East) or national literatures (Chinese, French, Russian, Filipino, German, Italian, Arabic, Turkish) with thematic and critical studies (genre, period, gender, ethnicity, indigenous critique, cultural studies and postcolonial studies), while learning about literary theory, criticism and history in various multilingual traditions.

"World literature has a lot to do with cultures outside of English-speaking ones. We've changed the basis of how we study world literatures, while including the English-speaking tradition and literary texts," Martinson said.

Engaging the World

Students will examine the readings in relation to the historical, social, political, religious and philosophical undercurrents of that particular time and place. The cross-disciplinary focus offers students the opportunity to select from a wide range of courses and to tailor the degree to their specific personal interests.

"We're not discussing any particular text in isolation. The faculty approach literary texts from different perspectives," Martinson said. "We're building a community of different voices working collaboratively together to create a deeper understanding of what a literary text has inscribed. We're dealing with varying meanings. A text will speak to each one of us in a different and unique way."

Unique among Arizona's state universities, the UA's world literature degree requirements include two core English courses, 280 (Introduction to Literature) and 380 (Literary Analysis), sixth-semester language proficiency, 15 units of upper-division literature courses (from at least two different regions), six units of elective courses and a three-unit senior capstone that will culminate in a public presentation.

Multidisciplinary, Comparative Approach

The program naturally draws from a multidisciplinary array of units, with a 12-member faculty committee representing the various departments. 

"World literature at the UA also fills the need for a program in comparative literature, which UA has been without for a number of years," said Yaseen Noorani, an associate professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies and one of the faculty committee members. "Students who are interested in investigating the commonalities and differences of intellectual and literary traditions across the world now have a framework for doing so. Many of the primary questions regarding cultural interaction, conflict and interdependence can be better understood within this framework."

By studying a range of ancient to contemporary texts, the students will draw on a unique comparative approach. The development of intercultural literacy and strong interpretation, analytical and communication skills will serve graduates in a variety of career fields, both in the United States and international markets. 

"Students will approach other cultures by studying these literary texts. Because of that, we're better able to understand our own culture and ourselves," Martinson said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for students to really embrace the world."