CL History Comparative Literature and the Arts through an Interdisciplinary Lens

Cristina Santos


The study of Comparative Literature has traditionally been defined as comparing aspects of works drawn from two or more national literatures. This area of research has been made possible by the assumption that literary works produced in any language or from any culture share structures or modalities that can be identified, analysed and made accessible through translations. Moreover, research in this area has evolved from the practice of the comparative study of literatures to focus increasingly on the investigation of theoretical assumptions underlying this activity of comparative literary investigation. While such disciplines as history, philosophy, psychology and sociology have traditionally been treated as sources informing the study of individual literary works, this view has been revised. Literature is now considered as a system that incorporates elements of other disciplines, while retaining aesthetic features that make it autonomous. Aesthetic features are, of course, not limited to literature, but extend to the other arts. Following this principle of interconnectedness between literature, art and culture, Brock University incorporates the study of artistic expression in forms other than literature in its Master of Arts in Studies in Comparative Literature and Arts further emphasizing the interdisciplinary nature of the degree.


The goals of the Program and its faculty include introducing students to literary and aesthetic theories as well as works of literature and art which they have not necessarily encountered previously. At times this may mean that students are becoming aware of the possibility of reading works with which they are familiar from a new critical comparative perspective. In order to emphasize the Program's focus on Comparative Literature and the Arts, the three mandatory theory courses taken in the first term of the degree are specifically constructed in order to expose students to the current scholarship on comparative literary theory as well as interdisciplinary studies between literature and the arts. The main theory course (5P01) is paired with a workshop model in 5P02: this model emphasizes the relationship between theory and how scholars in the field are applying these theories. The instructor in 5P01 essentially works in tandem with the main coordinator of 5P02 in constructing the syllabi and the courses are scheduled on different days so that the students may be exposed to in-class discussion on the theory before attending the workshop hosted by a guest-speaker in 5P02. As a method of approaching the theory material, students are asked to explore questions arising from critical theory (5P01) and then applying this theory in specific case studies of primary texts (5P02). The curriculum of these two courses intrinsically mimics the link between research and scholarship in comparative and interdisciplinary theory.


The third theory course, 5P03, further builds on these interconnections by exposing students to the inter-relatedness of the arts, specifically fine arts, drama and music. In all three theory courses students are expected to produce reflection papers and in-class presentations on the course topics as well as a final paper that incorporates a theoretical approach discussed throughout the course. Students are constantly asked to reflect on the implications of these problems and issues that arise from a critical interdisciplinary dialogue, such as the nature of textuality, questions of identity, and the nature of power to name a few.


In undertaking their own research projects, students will be capable of determining whether they will use critical theory as their methodological approach to their topic or as a representation of their particular interpretation of their approach to the text. This enables the students to determine the extent to which each methodology or approach provides a way of reading written and visual texts that would not otherwise be available. This shift in critical approach is at times evidenced with the mid-March submission of the student’s revised Major Research Paper proposal — a revised proposal which tends to demonstrate a more complex treatment of the argument/topic not present in their original proposal.


Essentially, it is our aim to highlight for students that comparative work produced in a specific discipline is different from comparative work in an interdisciplinary environment. Considering also the fact that often the works being studied were written in a different language, students need to consider questions of translation and cultural coding while also recognizing what Saussy has called “the riskiness of the category of the universal” (ix). The Program also brings together students with knowledge and skills from a variety of disciplines and creates an environment in which they can profitably interact not only with a dynamic group of professors but also a vibrant group of fellow students. This comparative methodology and interdisciplinarity is the essential focus of the goals of the Program, and it has been our experience that students have excelled and flourished in such an academic environment.


Brock’s is a Masters program that admits students from a range of undergraduate programs with a variety of intellectual experiences as well as professional world experience. We have had students who have come directly to the Program from an undergraduate degree or even after completing a different Masters degree (e.g., Spanish or Philosophy) but we have also had students who have returned to academia after having professional careers (e.g., translators, theatre performers and film industry). Recognizing this diversity of academic and professional backgrounds, the Program attempts to bring these students together by focusing on comparativism, issues in translation, inter-relations among literatures and between literatures and arts while also building on the student's strengths and addressing their weaknesses.


 The Program and its faculty believe in providing students with the opportunity for them to consider interdisciplinary and trans-cultural approaches to texts in a broadly defined manner. Since 2009 the Program has hosted an annual Colloquium that showcases the interdisciplinary work being done by national and international scholars by inviting them to speak at the University. Some alumni have even returned as speakers at this annual Colloquium to share their current scholarship. Overall, the outcome for the students enrolled in the Program is, very often, a new found confidence and capability for scholarship expressed through their participation at national and international conferences in which they often apply this same interdisciplinary approach.


As such, our priority has been to deliberately create courses specifically for the Program rather than choosing from existing courses in other programs — thereby creating a coherent comparative program of both literatures and arts that crosses both disciplines and faculties. Recognizing the complexities of interdisciplinary and comparative work paired with the class dynamic of having students from differing academic backgrounds, the course of study begins with introductory theory courses that expound key concepts in contemporary critical theory as applied to dramatic arts, visual arts, and music. In the theory course dealing with the arts, the materials may be presented by adopting the diachronic model of artist and audience as the basis for the examination of the modes of production, reception and analysis of art from its inception to its cultural, institutional or ideological transformation. The approaches to the coursework in the program can also be production-oriented, focusing on the critical, written, visual or performative text (the exhibition catalogue, the theatrical production, performance art, music, opera, or public art). Theoretical readings may address questions of the representation and role of the artist, the forms of the artifact, the implications of space and environment, and discussions of audience, critical reception and the commodification of art. As a result, students are able to develop a cross-disciplinary understanding of how works of art — or cultural production in general — evolve, are disseminated, received and interpreted.


Charles Taylor spoke of the self’s need to exist and communicate within “webs of interlocution” (36); the same notion could be applied to the field of interdisciplinary comparative literature and the arts. If one aspires to undertake a comparative study in interdisciplinarity, then one must be cognizant and prepared to cross not only geographical and political borders but also cultural and linguistic boundaries. There must be an “umbrella” of language that allows for such a comparative study to cross boundaries of genre, language and culture, and for the opportunity to think critically across disciplines. As a result, new knowledge arises from the examination of familiar texts from a new interdisciplinary comparative perspective which leads to the discovery of new insights and unsuspected connections while trying to avoid hierarchical prejudices of the “canon,” literary/artistic Culture/culture or even “ghettoization” (Saussy x) — in essence, a shift toward pluralities and away from binaries. This type of critical research intrinsically requires a reflection on the implications of these problems and issues that arise from a critical interdisciplinary dialogue.


The Program, founded in 2005, is now in its eighth year The Dean of Humanities, Cecil Abrahams, struck a committee in 1992 to investigate the feasibility of an M.A. Program in one of the disciplines in the Humanities. Initially the committee reported to the faculty that, in its estimation, the only department that was favourably positioned was the French section of the Department of French, Italian and Spanish. An alternative to an M.A. in French was an M.A. in Humanities, which would draw resources from various departments. After considerable consultation, the French section came to the conclusion that, while it had strength in several areas, there were also several gaps, most notably in medieval studies. This assessment was confirmed by the report of an external examiner. A year or two later, Vice-President Academic Susan Clark approved a tenure-track appointment in French medieval literature, which enabled the department to proceed with concrete planning for this degree. Several factors contributed to the abandonment of this project, including the unexpected departure of the recently appointed medievalist. Another important factor was the conclusion that, without additional resources, the French undergraduate program would be compromised.


Nevertheless, interest in offering an M.A. remained. This interest was given impetus by the Report of the President's Task Force on Planning and Priorities, which stressed the importance of moving Brock University towards comprehensive university status. To this end, another committee was struck by Dean John Sivell for the purpose of identifying new M.A. programs, especially those of an interdisciplinary nature. It was at this point that a potential M.A. in Comparative Literature, possibly housed in the Department of French, Italian and Spanish, was proposed. This initiative appeared to coincide nicely with recent conferences organized by colleagues in the department. For example, two international conferences on French literature were organized: Les exilés, marginaux et parias dans les littératures francophones (1992) and La présence de l'Autre (1994). In 2000, the first International Conference on Image and Imagery was held, attracting 85 speakers from 12 countries. The second Image and Imagery Conference on Frames, Borders, and Limits, held in November 2002, attracted 65 participants from 7 countries. In addition, an International Conference on Storytelling was organized in 1999, bringing 44 participants from 9 countries. Building on the success of the first, a second conference on Storytelling in the Americas was held in 2001, attracting 82 speakers from 10 countries.


On the initiative of several colleagues in the newly created Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures, a core committee was formed in September 2002 to discuss the possibility of a degree in Comparative Literatures, an initiative which evolved to integrate the study of the Fine and Performing Arts, becoming an M.A. in Studies in Comparative Literatures and Arts. A program committee was struck, and frequent meetings were held by subgroups to prepare the formal proposal. It was the distinct feature of including the arts in the study of comparative literatures that made our Program stand out amongst other similar degrees offered at other institutions. Although the concept of the degree is innovative in the context of North American universities, there is a well-established tradition in European universities of studying aesthetics as a discipline embracing both literature and the fine arts. In Italy, comparable degree programs are offered at the following institutes: The Centre for International Study of Aesthetics at the University of Palermo, and the Department of Philosophy and Aesthetics at the University of Bologna. In France, there is the Center for Studies in Revolution and Romanticism at the University of Angers, and the Program in Cultures and Civilizations of the Western World at Jean-Monet University, St. Etienne.


But where do we stand today under the current climate of budgetary cuts and constant justification of work being done in the Humanities, especially those programs involved in the dissemination and teaching of languages and literatures? The academic year 2012-13 posed a great challenge for our Program with an anomalous low enrolment year, which, paired with the present budgetary environment placed it in a precarious situation. Nevertheless, with support from both the Dean of Humanities and Dean of Graduate Studies, the Program followed up with a very successful intake year for 2013-14. This was accomplished, in part, by a more aggressive recruitment endeavour which included personal visits to Canadian universities to speak with potential students and their advisors. As an interdisciplinary program with no permanent roster of professors but a rather participating faculty there are additional challenges to administering such a program, and the success of doing so lies, in part, in the commitment and generosity of the members involved in the delivery of the Program and the mentorship of its students. Although the University does not hold a doctoral program in Comparative Literature and Arts, in 2011 it welcomed its first group of students into the PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities — a logical progression from the M.A. in Comparative Literature and Arts.


Comparative Literature is needed now more than ever due to its commitment to interdisciplinarity and intercultural study, and especially during a time when individuals doing work in the Humanities find themselves having to justify their “product” due to budgetary scrutiny. The larger community of comparatist scholars recognizes the complexity of human expression in that there is no universal definition to the human experience, and it is in these investigating networks of being and expression that we come to know oneself as another in this age of globalization.


Works Cited


Saussy, Haun. “Preface.” Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Ed. Haun Saussy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. vii-xiii. Print.

Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989. Print.




Cristina Santos is an Associate Professor at Brock University where she teaches in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures. Her current research and scholarship reflects an interest in investigating the monstrous depictions of women as aberrations of feminine nature vis-à-vis the socio-culturally proscribed norm. She also investigates the construct of the "monstrous" in testimony as the construction of a personal and communal sense of identity that challenges official history.




Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

Brought to you by Graduate Students from the Program in Comparative Literature
at the University of Alberta

ISSN 1923-5879
Email: inquire [at]

Join the Discussion