Literature and Social Justice

Lehigh University English - Literature and Social Justice

Literature and Social Justice:  Goals of the Program

The Department of English has a focus on Literature and Social Justice, the outcome of a multi-year effort to revitalize the traditional period-based approach to literary studies and to develop an organic interest among many of our faculty members.  Like the university as a whole, the department is committed to cultivating graduates who will be engaged citizens and community members, in addition to successful professionals and life-long learners.  We also hope that our students in particular will learn to recognize how literature and other forms of cultural production uniquely intervene in questions of justice and shape our ways of being in the world.  

Syllabi from English 481: Theories of Literature and Social Justice
(Click on the link above for downloadable pdf)

Departmental Philosophy

The English Department’s focus on literature and social justice comes from a shared sentiment among department faculty that we all have obligations to our fellow human beings, to our students and colleagues, our families and neighbors, and to strangers we will never meet in places we will never go.  Our teaching and scholarship seek to approach the world as a place where people are bound to one another in a network of mutual responsibility, where the fundamental rights of all human beings must be recognized.

The study of literature is essential to this mode of ethical inquiry.  To read, write, and analyze texts is to map the contours of what it means to be human to explore people’s aspirations and anxieties, their histories and hopes.  We know others by the stories they tell, even as we determine who we are by the stories we tell ourselves.

Literature and Social Justice in Practice

Our departmental approach to literature and social justice hinges on the importance of the following core concepts:

1.  Language, Interpretation, and Form

David Aers has written that “We degrade and kill first in language,” and we recognize that, since language shapes our values even as our values shape our language, literature may serve the aims of domination as easily as the aims of justice.  The first defense against the abuse of language that enables injustice must be the skills of interpretation and analysis that literary studies offer.  The study of literature shows that it is often through aesthetic form that a text conveys it affective or ideological significance.  Literature classes challenge students to consider these formal properties of texts so as to uncover how texts resonate with their envolving experiences of self and of the world around them.

2.  The Ethical Imagination

The literary imagination provides, as Martha Nussbaum writes, “an essential ingredient of an ethical stance that asks us to concern ourselves with the good of other people whose lives are distant from our own,” the necessary first step in determining the roots of injustice; in exposing the conditions and beliefs that perpetuate it; and, finally, in imagining strategies and possibilities for overcoming it. 

More than any other discipline, literature is based in a play of imagination that animates abundant possibilities for alternate social arrangements:  atypical societies, different norms, other ways of living, utopian intuitions about more equitable, more liberated, and more just forms of social organization. 

3.  History and Culture

The literature of different historical epochs is crucial to ethical inquiry, raising questions about the very meaning of justice, the powerful legacies of injustice, and the possibilities for social transformation.  Our courses and our scholarship explore feminism, racism, economic exploitation, queer studies, postcolonial studies, ethics, medical humanities, and peace studies, across historical periods.  Our work also demonstrates that these social problems and emancipatory movements and the assumptions upon which they are founded accrue different meanings in different times and places.  As we remain committed to an historical study of English-language literature, our focus on literature and social justice offers new ways of thinking about what it means to study English literary history.  This approach retains the historical and cultural foundation of studies in English, yet it conceptualizes the project of literary study somewhat differently, by focusing on conventional periods as moments of social and literary transformation.