Ron Scollon

Suzie Wong Scollon


How to Teach Thematic Comparative Literature: A Curriculum Note for Secondary Teachers


The Idea of Comparative Literature 

Your first question is the hardest to answer: Just what is Thematic Comparative Literature?

Thematic Comparative Literature can be a lot of different things and that is one of the pleasures of it, but it isn't just doing anything you want. We feel that the main core of Thematic Comparative Literature is that in your study of literature you make comparisons across cultures (and languages), comparisons across time, and comparisons between literate and oral traditions. All of the comparisons are guided by a theme.

Literature is one of our best means of understanding minds other than our own. And by learning what others have thought we come to understand our own thought more deeply. This means that the study of literature is usually comparative in some way. You generally compare periods or styles or works written in different forms such as novels, essays, plays and poetry. Normally these comparisons are all done within a single literature such as English literature or Ancient Greek literature.

The first aspect which makes Thematic Comparative Literature different from conventional literature programs is that we emphasize comparisons of literature from different cultural traditions. We have included in our model course works from the18th Century, 19th Century, and modern American literature including contemporary American ethnic writers. We have Third World contemporary works. We have works from the oral traditions of Ancient Greece, 16th Century China, Ancient Hebrew (the Old Testament), and contemporary Tlingit and Eyak. We also include 19th Century Russia. and modern German works.

Our goal is to provide breadth more than depth. We prefer the broadest possible picture of human response to perennial issues over a narrower and more specialized local focus. By making our comparisons across cultures we like to bring to our own attention the problem of translation and interpretation that we all face with any great work of literature. For most contemporary Americans the language of even Herman Melville in the last century is almost a foreign language but it is easy to forget that. The language of our own Constitution in the 18th Century is hard for many of us to follow. We believe that it is essential for contemporary students to retain (or gain) their fluency with the English of other times as well as the thought and concepts of other times and cultures in order to live meaningfully in our present world of constant cross-cultural contact and crisis.

Finally Thematic Comparative Literature is a response to the inherent biases of many literature programs. The history of literature is often the history of a privileged elite. We try to take into account the shaping forces of gender, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic status, both as areas of study and as they influence our understanding and interpretation of literature.

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