State of the Discipline Comparative Literature in Canada
Karin Beeler & Sarah Shewchuk
An interview with Dr. Karin Beeler, President of the Canadian Comparative Literature Association. 15 July 2010.
1. What is the Canadian Comparative Literature Association (CCLA)?
The CCLA is a Canadian scholarly association with over 100 members. The association was founded in 1969 and is a member of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. The CCLA provides a forum for scholars across Canada interested in Comparative Literature and organizes yearly meetings at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. CCLA members are also members of the International Comparative Literature Association (ICLA) and receive the ICLA’s bulletin in addition to the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature /Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée (CRCL; a journal founded by the association in 1974). The CRCL is the CCLA’s journal and is currently housed at the University of Alberta and edited by Dr. Jonathan Hart, Professor of English and Comparative Literature.
The CCLA includes an executive committee consisting of the President, Vice President, Treasurer and Secretary. The board includes the CCLA executive, the editor of the CRCL and four regional members.
Information about the association’s annual meeting / conference can be found on the website along with membership information and other calls for papers that might be of interest to comparatists.
2. What is the history of the Association?
The association was founded in 1969 by Dr. Eva Kushner who was also President of the ICLA from 1979-82 and President of the International Federation for Modern Languages and Literatures (1996-99). Dr. Kushner helped detach the CCLA from the ACLA and integrate it in the ICLA and among Canadian learned societies. She hasprovided some important information about the early years of the association in her article, “The Early Years,” published in the CRCL June 2009 issue. The first president of the CCLA (1969-71) was Professor Eugene Joliat from the French department at the University of Toronto. Another member who was very active in the early years of the CCLA was Philip Stratford, whose work highlighted comparative Canadian studies.
Over the years membership in the CCLA has grown to include a strong contingent of graduate students as well as faculty from national literature departments who appreciate the cross-cultural and intermedia connections that comparative literature studies encourage. Recent CCLA conferences reflect a rising interest in other visual media like film and television. Comparatists continue to explore the relationship between literature and a variety of art forms, including painting, sculpture, advertising and opera.
3. Each year the CCLA meets at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. How does the Association decide upon the topic of that year’s meeting?
As a participating association in the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences conference (formerly known as the Learned Societies meetings), the CCLA holds a conference and its annual general meeting near the end of May or early June, depending on the dates suggested by the Congress organizers. The most recent meeting took place in June 2010 at Concordia University in Montreal on the topic of “Connexions Comparative / Comparative Connections” (2010); the 2009 conference focused on “Comparative Spaces: Changing Territories / Espaces comparés: territoires en mutation”; the 2008 topic was Crossing Borders: Global Comparative Connections / Traverser les frontières: Les rapports globaux comparés. The topic for each year’s meeting intersects with the general topic proposed by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which organizes the annual Congress event that brings together over 70 different scholarly associations. Normally the Vice President of the association presents the topic to the members of the executive before sending out the call for papers.
4. What is the purpose of the Association’s annual conference? What takes place during the Annual General Meeting?
The annual conference is a forum for scholars of Comparative Literature to present their research and to engage in a scholarly exchange of ideas. The program spans three days and consists of presentations by faculty and students interested in comparative studies with a literary or media focus. There is usually a keynote address by a distinguished scholar known for his or her work in comparative studies. The CCLA also holds its Annual General Meeting, which includes an election every two years for the President, Vice President and Secretary. The Treasurer’s term is 5 years. Regional representatives are elected when positions become vacant. The CCLA executive and board also meet with Federation representatives to discuss developments with federal government policies and granting agencies.
5. Describe Congress. What is the role of Congress in the life of Canada’s academic community?
“Congress” (formerly referred to as “The Learneds”) is an important venue for scholars in the Humanities and Social Sciences to connect with fellow researchers in their respective disciplines. However, Congress also encourages scholars to cross disciplinary boundaries by attending presentations offered through other scholarly associations. It is a place for scholars at all ranks to share their research and to receive feedback. It is in fact an excellent way for junior scholars to become more aware of the multi-faceted aspects of academic life (research, teaching and service). Graduate students and junior faculty can interact with mid-career and senior faculty who could well be on their future hiring committees. Congress always includes a large book fair where scholars can talk to publishers’ representatives about future textbook orders or about their own research projects.
6. What role do professional associations such as the CCLA play in the lives of academics? What is the relationship of the CCLA to other associations around the world, such as the ICLA, the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) and the British Comparative Literature Association (BCLA)?
The CCLA fosters a sense of community for individual scholars working in related fields and also for scholars whose interests cover different areas. The CCLA has an ongoing connection to the ICLA. Comparatists may meet one another at various Comparative Literature conferences or help with the organization of panels and conference events. For example, the 2011 conference of the ACLA will be held in Vancouver, B.C. 31 March-2 April, and a number of CCLA members are involved in planning for this conference as well. This is an excellent illustration of how comparative affiliations transcend national boundaries. I am not aware of too many connections with the BCLA; although, I have presented a paper at a BCLA conference. I believe that a British association offers North American comparatists, in particular, an opportunity to interact with comparatists from the U.K. and Europe. It is always valuable to connect with Comparative Literature scholars from different parts of the world; otherwise, we can become too parochial in our focus.
7. Why is it important for graduate students to become involved in an association like the CCLA?
Joining an association like the CCLA gives graduate students a sense of how their own research, teaching and career aspirations are part of a larger academic community. Through the annual CCLA conference at Congress, they can contribute new knowledge to an established field and engage in an exchange of ideas with scholars from different Canadian regions or from international institutions. The annual CCLA conference and the association’s reception or soirée provide networking opportunities for future employment. Some travel funding is also available to student presenters who attend the Annual General Meeting of the CCLA at Congress. Another benefit of being a member of the CCLA is that members receive copies of the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature; members are encouraged to submit articles to the journal for possible publication. Various calls for papers and professional announcements pertinent to members of the association are sent out via email, thus facilitating access to conferences or events that appeal to comparatists.
8. Describe your educational background.
I completed an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta. My master’s level thesis focused on the work of two Canadian writers: Margaret Laurence and Anne Hébert. I found that even though these writers had different cultural affiliations (English-Canadian and Quebecois, respectively), their narrative worlds created powerful expressions of language and identity for their female protagonists. My doctoral dissertation examined images of Canada in British, French and German literatures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This work addressed how European ideas were superimposed onto the landscape of Canada as represented in the fiction and travel literature of the time. Canada was often constructed as a tabula rasa by foreign cultures that were trying to re-assert their own patriotic, religious and aesthetic principles.
What initially attracted me to the field of Comparative Literature was the ability to bring together seemingly disparate elements in a unique way. I have always been interested in the relationship between older phenomena or traditions (e.g. ancient mythology) and how these elements are refashioned in a different cultural context. This intersection between the old and the new informs my current work in the fields of television and film studies. I am intrigued by how ancient mythology or older literary forms are reflected in current television series (e.g. Charmed,Smallville) and films (Shrek;Premonition). I am also exploring some of the special or bonus features that facilitate play for the viewer of films on DVD.
9. The topic of this issue of Inquire is Bold Inquiry: New Directions in Comparative Literature. In what directions do you see Comparative Literature moving in Canada in the future?
Comparative Literature continues to offer scholars a way of crossing national, linguistic and disciplinary boundaries. Scholars of Comparative Literature often examine works from cultures that are quite different from one another, and since many comparatists are multilingual, they appreciate the nuances of different textual translations. The term “comparative literature” may appear to limit the scope of comparative literary study to literature, but within the membership of the CCLA, we have always had scholars who are keen to explore the connections between literature and other arts. One could argue that multi-media technology has added a new dimension to the analysis and presentation of interdisciplinary issues that have fascinated comparatists for centuries.
In the Canadian academic context, comparative literature studies has been taught within departments of Comparative Literature and as a program of study that draws on the expertise of professors who have affiliations with various literature departments. Comparative approaches can result in new contributions to knowledge because of the flexibility and synergy created through the juxtaposition of different cultures or disciplines. Comparative studies can build bridges between global cultures without erasing the importance of historical or local differences.
10. What advice do you have for graduate students who are just beginning their careers in Comparative Literature?
Develop your comparative studies interests but also try to teach and publish in areas that would be of interest to national literature departments. Many comparatists, including myself, are based in national literature departments (e.g. English) and so some of our teaching and research may also focus on a particular literature at times, even though we still tend to take into account comparative connections across cultures or across different media. Be strategic and attend conferences in areas that relate to your research area but remain cognizant of how your research can be integrated into existing departmental frameworks or teaching areas.
Note: The CCLA conference and Annual General Meeting will take place at Congress at the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University 28 May-4 June 2011. The theme is Coasts and Continents: Exploring people and places. Further information is available at the website. -Ed.
As President of the Canadian Comparative Literature Association Dr. Karin Beeler has organized two Canadian Comparative Literature Association conferences. Her books Seers, Witches and Psychics on Screen: An Analysis of Women Visionary Characters in Recent Television and Film (2008) and Tattoos, Desire and Violence: Marks of Resistance in Literature, Film and Television (2006) reflect her longstanding fascination with different cultures and various artistic media. She has also served as the Acting Director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) and is the Chair of the UNBC English Department.
Sarah Shewchuk is a PhD Candidate in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Alberta. Her doctoral research into Holocaust literature is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the University of Alberta and the Dan David Foundation. Trained as an opera singer, Sarah’s other research interests include the relationship between literature, music and the visual arts.