What I Have Learned
Over the years, I have made intellectual inroads into other areas and periods of literature, which often convince me that all literature study is comparative literature and inherently cross-cultural, to use a popular term. The art, literature, music, architecture and other intellectual and artistic creations of the Middle Ages through the 18th century remain touchstones for my research in other areas. They inform and enrich my perceptions.
In the process, the expansion and integration of other disciplines have made my intellectual life more interesting for my students and me. Whether I teach “period literature" or “contemporary literature," my task is to expose students to the literature of a Hispanic culture, in the language, to (usually) non-native speakers with disparate language skills. Challenging as this set of circumstances sounds, it is not impossible.
The complexity of pedagogical tasks involved in teaching literature in its original, or native language requires professors to shift creatively from various linguistic registers and respond to gaps in students’ preparedness. In the case of my specialty, Golden Age literature, students are challenged to approach texts written from a worldview for which people today, even Spanish-speakers, have lost the key to understanding, without a guide. I am that guide. I do well as a cultural Sherpa.
What do I do when it is obvious that they yet have little knowledge or life experience to enable them to comment meaningfully about, say, a Golden Age sonnet? I attempt, as gently as possible, to learn what they are ready to learn, then gauge it against what they need to know about the subtexts of culture and history so that they can begin to make meaningful observations that will positively reinforce their eagerness to learn more. Unlike the same students in a science class, when studying literature, students usually enter the class assuming that they come already equipped to judge the readings.
For instance, unless they recognize that Venus alludes to “love" and Mars to “anger" or “war," they will not apprehend that a poem is not about the gods, but about human emotions and the complexity of romantic love. Therefore, a class in Renaissance literature necessarily requires much cultural and historical frontloading.