In Summary
  • In brief, we must shift our pedagogical emphasis from the past to the future of literature.
  • This need not entail a complete or even partial break with the past, but perhaps a packaging of that past in a manner that makes it light enough to carry on our shoulders as we match into the future.

The future of teaching literature at university level looks bleak, going by the low numbers of students who see literature as a potential means for entry into their futures and the labour markets.

While there are many explanations for this scenario, I am afraid that the most important one is to be found in the departments of literature in the universities that teach the discipline.

The problem, in a sentence, is how we conceive of and teach the discipline in a century whose apparent contradictions point both to the future of a highly digitalised world and to a past of identity-based forms of intolerance and of struggles for affirmation on racial, gender, and ethnic planes as well as their subsequent appearances in literature.

In this situation where universal progress is undercut by parochial interests, literature and its practitioners must adapt to its progressive elements or risk a broad-based push to irrelevance by some of the minority but influential reactionary forces.

Already, there are indications that not all players are particularly impressed with what is happening in the lecture halls and departments of literature. Policy makers and politicians continue to deride the discipline, while research funders have all but forgotten that literature exists.

In fairness, this challenge is not unique to us, even though our high priests of literature in Kenyan universities have been particularly intransigent when it comes to embracing the changes that would give the discipline longer vistas and render it still attractive to undergraduates, even against the popularity of commerce and other disciplines that seem to be more attuned to the promises of global capitalism.

The fixation with a rigid idea of literature partly explains why, even though we are living right in the middle of a digital revolution, there is nothing in many of our literature curricula that acknowledges the reality that since Mark Zuckerberg’s invention of Facebook and its subsidiary, WhatsApp, paired with the search engine Google, the cultures and practice of reading have changed for ever, the same way Google has forever altered the terrain and rubrics of research. 

And just as reading itself has changed, the theory and analytical tools of literature have also changed. Nothing points at this change more than the fading significance of structuralist modes of textual interpretation and the commensurate rise to prominence of post-structuralist tools that reject the possibility that only one story is enough to capture all our experiences.

DIVERSE FORMS OF LITERARY ARTEFACTS

The emergence of diverse forms of literary artefacts, the collapse of the artificial bifurcation of literature into the serious and the popular, and the shift from definite to amorphous sites of literary creation and appreciation perhaps point to the need to reorient the literary traditions and practices that dominate our departments of literature in Kenya.

In brief, we must shift our pedagogical emphasis from the past to the future of literature.

This need not entail a complete or even partial break with the past, but perhaps a packaging of that past in a manner that makes it light enough to carry on our shoulders as we match into the future.

My thoughts about the future of literature began forming, with increasing clarity, on three different but related occasions.

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