The English department’s focus on literature and social justice comes from a shared sentiment among our 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. Whether articulated in medieval Catholic theology or modern Marxist thought, in the paintings of Rembrandt or the poems of Whitman, in the woods of Concord or the sound stages of Hollywood, this ethical and philosophical perspective envisions the world as a place where people are bound to one another in a network of mutual responsibility, where the rights of all human beings must be recognized.
We believe that the study of literature, mapping the contours of what it means to be human—our aspirations and anxieties, our histories and hopes—is essential to the work of social justice. We come to know others by the stories they tell, even as we determine who we are by the stories we tell ourselves.
In our work as scholars, writers, and teachers, we often explore how literature, more than any other discipline, is based in a play of imagination that animates abundant possibilities for alternate social arrangements: atypical societies, different ways of living, utopian intuitions about more equitable, more liberated, and more just forms of social organization. Literature’s diverse inventory of aesthetic forms and strategies can move readers emotionally and recruit us to develop habits of empathy and nuanced thought. Literature can foreground the affective dimension of structures of inequality; its use of language may force readers to re-think moral rhetoric and its relationship to ethical practice; its complexly-realized worlds can embody, and thus make knowable and subject to analysis, vast economic and global structures that resist conceptualization on the basis of individual experience. Literature can lead us, as well, to understand traditional social structures from an informed, critical perspective.
In our work we also seek, through literature, to explore the nature of injustice, both as a characteristic of many socio-economic regimes and as a painful reality experienced by individuals. 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. In searching for ways to create a more just and equitable society, we must attend to the complexities of language and explore how a text’s formal properties convey its affective or ideological significance. 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 is central to the work of justice in other ways as well, for the literary imagination, as Martha Nussbaum writes, provides “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.” Developing such concern is 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. Studying the literature of different people, different places, and different times is therefore is crucial to ethical inquiry. For example, listening to the voices of the past not only enables a dynamic understanding of social justice as a concept, but also raises possibilities for social transformation unexplored in the present moment. Reading literature from different historical periods can also reveal how dominant—and often limited—conceptions of justice have powerful roots and discursive legacies: using the tools of literary analysis to uncover the constructed nature of such legacies can challenge their supremacy.
Our department seeks to enrich the practice of historicist inquiry by approaching conventional historical periods as moments of social and literary transformation. We aim to highlight how questions about literature –whether directed at minute aesthetic details or wider innovations in literary form—are often also questions about enduring political, cultural, and ethical issues. Our curriculum encourages us to talk to one another across historical boundaries, finding potential continuities and areas of commonality. To this end, 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, however, that these social problems and emancipatory movements—and the assumptions upon which they are founded— accrue different meanings in different times and places. We thus seek to make connections across discrete areas of study while also acknowledging the realities of historical and cultural difference.
Our work as scholars, writers, and teachers has meaning beyond the walls of the university, and we want our students to share the feeling that their work matters. Literature classes in our department thus challenge students to analyze texts closely while also giving attention to wider cultural and ethical landscapes. Whether a course explores a key social justice issue such as poverty or slavery, whether it focuses on a fundamental skill such as close reading, or whether it takes students into the community through experiential learning, we urge students to uncover how texts resonate with their evolving experiences of self and of the world around them. Indeed, in this framework, the study of literature emerges an important social practice occurring within a community of thinkers who are similarly engaged in networks of critical, historical, and ethical investigations.