From its inception, the Bread Loaf Teacher Network has emphasized two things as vital to the digital writing projects its members undertake in their classrooms: one, the power of engaging students from different schools and cultures in critical dialogues about themselves and what they’re reading; and two, the grounding of those projects on contextually rich interrogations of literature and writing that happen in Bread Loaf courses. To involve students from Tombstone, Arizona, in a discussion of Nella Larsen’s Passing or Homer’s Odyssey with students from Trenton, New Jersey, or Nome, Alaska, is to ask those students to read and write about that reading with an awareness that these stories at once are, and are not, theirs—that the perspectives they bring to and see in the texts may be very different from those others bring to and see, as well as from those the texts themselves produce; (when BLTN pedagogy really strikes home, these effects happen not only across classrooms but also within them). The engaged students are invited to appreciate reading and writing as a process that takes them beyond themselves and the worlds they imagine as “known” even as it takes its passion and cue from those lives and worlds.
And so it is with the study of literature and language, at Bread Loaf as well as beyond. To enter the terrain of a text is to find—and lose—your bearings in a world, voice, form, and vision that is not finally your own. It is to look at what you know (or what you think you know) through the lens of something you do not know, learning therefore to ask new questions of both. I think it is crucial, especially in this multiculturally-oriented political moment, to understand as much as we can about how representations of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and gender operate, twist, and turn, for better or for worse. So I read and write about “spectacles of strangeness”—the “alien” Jew, Turk, African queen, sodomite—in Christopher Marlowe’s plays and the Moor in Shakespeare. That is, I read and write about representations from a culture, early modern England, whose terms are decidedly not, not yet, or not ever our own. And I do so because those differences force me to take nothing (which means a notable something in the early modern period), then or now, for granted. The same consequence would happen—though perhaps less obviously—if I were reading and writing about a contemporary text, written right beside me, by Ruth Forman or Natasha Trethewey, on the Bread Loaf School of English campus in Vermont, in July 2013.
Which is to say (and I am neither the first nor the only one to say this) that the study of literature especially, and of the humanities in general, enables, even depends upon, the process of defamiliarization: on an engagement with the differentness, historicity, and contingency that fictional and non-fictional representations offer up as they challenge us to trade established assumptions and presumptions in for a set of not so easily accommodated, predictable, or steady textual particulars. To encounter the Moor in Othello, for example, is to see a racialized, sometimes racist discourse of blackness forming around that figure; arguably though, it is also to see the Moor as a globally oriented subject “of Venice,” whose multicultural identity undoes codifications of ethnicity, place, and race. If we come to the play expecting to find the black subject clearly marked out as an alien within European society, we might leave (unexpectedly) questioning where the bounds of culture lie at any given moment, who installs and polices them, through what means, for what purpose, and for how long.
It is, in fact, the unexpected and unfamiliar that creates a bridge from past to present, text to life, providing a strategy, rather than a product, of knowing. We are very likely not Hamlet, a 30-year-old Danish prince, who is convinced (by a real or imagined ghost) that he should kill his step-father, a legitimated king. Yet we look to Hamlet to find out some things, say, about the self. We will find those things—not because what the play represents is universally or even locally true (“to be or not to be: that is the question”) but because the play exposes truth itself as a product of representation, contingent on the shape, moment, and the circumstances of its articulation (“to be or not to be” is Hamlet’s question, not Shakespeare’s, uttered at a moment in which Hamlet may or may not be speaking to or of himself). To come to terms with Hamlet is to come to terms with Hamlet, a play which shows its title character constantly constructing himself against a backdrop of social and literary forms whose picture he does not quite fit, and so with the stresses and strains—and the contextual dependency—of representation itself.
In the here and now, as in the there and then, representation is everything and everywhere. What better way, then, for students to learn to read the world than for them to cross over imaginatively, as readers and writers, into defamiliarizing textual terrains? What better way for them to learn to shape and negotiate the multivocal and multivalent discourses that define (differently) both past and present? What better way for them to cultivate the distinctness and power of their own voices and views? As students and teachers, we may (I hope we do) read and write for the pleasure. But if we’re looking for a purpose, a meaning, it inheres at least in part in the ability of literature and language to tell us a story we don’t yet know.