The Department of Comparative Literature at Queens College plays a pivotal role in the College's mission "to prepare students to become leading citizens of an increasingly global society." In today's society, interactions among different cultures and societies, and across national and linguistic borders, have become everyday occurrences. The notion of an isolated national territory has increasingly given way to one of internationally linked communities. At the same time, unique cultures, customs, and traditions continue to exist, making for a complex, richly patterned universe. The ensuing diversity of literary and artistic expressions from different peoples around the globe is what Comparative Literature aims to teach. If globalization implies the movement and circulation of ideas, people, cultures, and commodities, Comparative Literature is the real and symbolic currency of that enterprise.
Comparative Literature provides a unique forum for cross-cultural awareness, because it examines the contributions of all peoples to the human adventure. By comparing and contrasting different languages and cultures, Comparative Literature invites students to expand their horizons and consider the perspectives of others; and to recognize, without glossing over tangible differences, the similarities among all members of the human race. Comparative Literature courses encourage students to question their previous modes of thinking and to welcome complexity and multiplicity into their worldviews. By the very methods of our discipline – comparison, contrast, and contextualization – we demonstrate that any balanced understanding of the world must encompass more than one point of view. As part of this, we believe that interpretation and translation – the arts of understanding one another by thinking across boundaries – are crucial to navigating the challenges of living in this now-globalized world.
As teachers and scholars of Comparative Literature, we ask students to study what is gained and what is lost in translation. This entails asking which texts have been translated and why, and how the translation of texts from one language to another has had an impact on other texts and cultures. It requires students to study languages other than English, and to commit themselves to learning how to interpret and relate to the world through another language. Our faculty is capable of reading and interpreting numerous texts in their original versions because each of us is fluent in at least two languages other than English; and this makes us – and by extension our students – aware of how different the world can look through other cultural lenses. As we teach in and of translation, we help our students to consider it as a vital mode of human interaction, and we invite them to bring their own diverse linguistic backgrounds into the classroom.
Comparative Literature, as an intellectual approach, allows students to encounter new territory as well as revisit what they had thought they already knew. Through this movement of departure and return, Comparative Literature enables students to understand that the lives of others may often be more like their own than they might have expected, and that difference is something not to avoid or reject but to welcome on its own terms.
In addition to asking students to study other languages and cultures, we ask them to understand and analyze the interaction of languages and cultures from a historical perspective. We teach works of literature that reach beyond the students' native languages and social environments in the confidence that, through these works, cultures speak to each other across traditions and centuries. We ask what is gained and lost by each culture as it comes into contact with another, and how both cultures are changed by that interaction. By posing such questions, Comparative Literature students learn to view globalization not as an inert "fact of life," but as a process that can be creatively analyzed, questioned, and negotiated.
In the Department of Comparative Literature, the faculty does much more than teach literary texts from regions around the globe. Our faculty has spent extended periods of time living and researching in those regions of the globe that we teach. Our faculty conducts research in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the United States, South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean; and is endowed with years of learning in those regions. We have first-hand and long-term knowledge of the languages, geography, populations, customs, religions, and cultures of those regions. Through this commitment to research conducted on the ground, we are better able to bring these worlds to our students at Queens College.
In order to "expand the frontiers of knowledge" central to the mission of Queens College, our students need to understand the world around them, and to communicate that understanding persuasively in clear and effective speech and writing. Comparative Literature provides students with a path towards that understanding; and towards mastering its expression through critical analysis and writing about texts from around the world, and from different historical epochs, from ancient to modern to the contemporary moment. We teach these skills of critical thinking and writing through the discipline of comparative analysis of literary texts and other cultural productions, such as art, music, and film. Comparative Literature studies the revelation or concealment of form and expression in literary and other genres that employ or imply expressive or systematic language and codes. The discipline analyzes the structuring and play of words in literature and verbal expression, generally: oral expression (orature), literature, criticism, commentary, figurative language and the like. As these elements regularly play significant roles in most of the arts, Comparative Literature likewise studies the interactions or implications of the word in arts beyond literature. Responding to the interests and needs of a culturally diverse and cosmopolitan student body in New York City, and teaching a discipline that of necessity employs the best insights of all disciplines, the Department of Comparative Literature is the nerve center of the network of programs in the Social Sciences and the Humanities at Queens College.
The skills in reading and analyzing texts that students learn in our courses are applicable to all areas of study, from Art History and Accounting to Zoology and Zen Buddhism – and indeed may be applied to everything they read and watch. Writing helps to develop their critical and analytical skills. All of our courses require students to master effective oral and written expression in English through class discussions, oral reports, journal entries, essays, and research papers. Almost all of our course offerings are devoted to intensive work on writing, requiring frequent in-class assignments and longer essays and research papers. We teach a large number of Writing Intensive courses, second only to the English Department. We teach writing as an ongoing process that requires editing and revisions, thus mirroring the very movement of thinking that is central to any kind of intellectual inquiry.
Queens College, especially since its General Education reform, aims for an inter-connected experience between specific courses and the disciplines to which they contribute. Comparative Literature is the place where students can find such an experience. Faculty not only from the Humanities (e.g., Philosophy) but also from the Social Sciences, teach in our interdisciplinary curriculum; and each member of the Department of Comparative Literature is actively engaged in interdisciplinary work. In this spirit of a reformed General Education, we have always sought to provide students with a conception of knowledge as holistic, a place where everything can be connected and is therefore neither limited or totalized. We offer courses devoted to literature and anthropology, history, photography, and critical theory. Many of our courses are variable-topics courses that explore the relationships between literature and politics, psychoanalysis, sociology, and visual art. It follows that our courses are often cross- or co-listed with courses in other departments, such as History, Music, and Anthropology; and with interdisciplinary programs such as Africana, Asian American/Pacific Islander, Irish, Jewish, Latino/a, Middle Eastern Studies, and Women's Studies. Members of our department have also taught courses in the Freshman Year Initiative program and the Macaulay Honors College. And our majors are heavily enrolled in the language departments, often pursuing study at an advanced level. We rely on and support the programs of foreign language and literature departments as essential contributors to a liberal arts education.
This is how we promote the lively exchange of knowledge, perspectives, and insights among colleagues in our department, and on the Queens College campus. We aim to give our students access to the pleasure of imaginative experience and the power of persuasive speech by contributing to the College's mission of "embracing, exploring and understanding the complexity and vitality of our increasingly inter-connected world." Comparative Literature is an excellent training ground for postgraduate study in a variety of areas: our majors have pursued careers in law, film, publishing, and education; as well as in financial investment, computer science, and related fields. In all these professions, the analytical and verbal skills they have gained through studying Comparative Literature have helped them think creatively, and to develop and present their own ideas.
This ability to enjoy and critically analyze what they have read is something all of our students can take with them into their life beyond college. Moreover, through the study of Comparative Literature, our students become aware of the need for linguistic and cultural competence that will enable them to become global citizens. If the College's mission is to teach "mutual respect, civility and open communication while ensuring the free exchange of ideas and cherishing our diversity," our department's mission is to help students experience this diversity as part of their studies. Our discipline constitutes the nexus between language, society, literature, and culture; and our department is the place where students come to learn and hone the requisite skills needed for an increasingly complex global society.