Academic Exchange Quarterly    Fall   2003    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 7, Issue 3

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Literature and International Relations: 

The Challenges of Interdisciplinarity



Linda Racioppi,  James Madison College, Michigan State University

Linda Racioppi is Professor of International Relations at James Madison College. She has published books and articles on foreign policy, arms transfers, nationalism and ethnic conflict, women's organizing and gender politics.

Colleen Tremonte,   James Madison College, Michigan State University

Colleen Tremonte is Associate Professor of Humanities, Culture and Writing at James Madison College.  She has published articles on writing pedagogy and theory, interdisciplinary approaches to literature and film, and visual rhetoric.




As many scholars of literature and international relations have suggested, literature, religion, art, music and other forms of cultural representation have been central to colonialism and imperialism, war and conflict, national liberation, and globalization. But international relations courses, as reflected in curricula, syllabi and textbooks, have been slow to incorporate the study of literature and literary representation.  We designed a course on literature, culture, and post-colonial politics to fill a gap in our institution’s public affairs curriculum.  In this article, we describe how we constructed the course and we articulate some of the questions that emerged concerning pedagogical content knowledge in an interdisciplinary context.



Literature and International Relations: The Challenges of Interdisciplinarity


As Julie Thompson Klein demonstrates in her important work, Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice, the concept of interdisciplinarity enjoys a long if complicated history, with some scholars tracing the concept back to the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and others locating it in the ideas of twentieth-century "educational reforms, applied research, and movement across disciplinary boundaries" (1990: 19). Yet no matter where we locate the 'source' of interdisciplinarity, the reconceiving of knowledge bases and epistemologies in the mid- to late-twentieth century heightened our awareness of the appropriateness, if not necessity, of such inquiry.  In particular, the recognition of the over-rigidity of disciplinary boundaries and the limitations of approaching problems from a single, disciplinary frame resulted in the emergence of a number of new or newly reconfigured fields or areas of study.[1]  Not surprisingly, systematic attention to this 'inter' -approach to study has been qualified, with certain disciplines being much more open to integrating select perspectives than others.  International relations is one field that has long embraced political science, history, and economics as crucial disciplinary perspectives to bring to bear on its examinations and study.  And the field has increasingly acknowledged the central role of culture to the formation and re-formation of international politics and power relations.[2]  As the works of writers as diverse as Edward Said (1978, 1993), Arjun Appadurai (1996), and Samuel Huntington (1993) have suggested, culture and cultural representation (literature, religion, art, music, etc.) have been central to colonialism and imperialism, war and conflict, and globalization.  Nonetheless, international relations courses, as reflected in curricula, syllabi and textbooks, have been slow to incorporate the study of cultural factors such as literature and literary representation.[3] 


Instructors who seek to incorporate literature into the international relations curriculum must resolve the dilemma, common to all interdisciplinary endeavors, of generating new knowledge and pedagogical approaches.  As Klein puts it, the challenge is how to move beyond “transmitting fields of knowledge and linking existing disciplinary categories" to an "integrative transmutation that emphasize[s] the individual's learning process and the development of new conceptual approaches, new pedagogy . . . ." (1990: 27). Our experience in constructing and teaching a course that combines literature and international politics demonstrates the difficulty and promise of developing such a new conceptual approach.  In this article, we discuss the context and content of the course, and we try to articulate some of the challenges in developing a body of teaching knowledge specifically relevant to this interdisciplinary endeavor.



Several years ago we confronted these issues as we designed an upper-division course to demonstrate the connections between the study of literature and culture to the study of international politics.  The institutional setting, James Madison College, is a residential college within Michigan State University.  Its curriculum aims to “provide a liberal education in public affairs,” broadly understood.  Students major in one of three fields, International Relations, Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy, or Social Relations, and take courses in economics, a foreign language, and methodology.  Beyond the first-year program, the study of literary and cultural texts is not a central part of the curriculum.  Some courses do ‘use’ literary texts to illustrate ‘the human dimension’ of a political problem:  the enduring questions that literature seems to pose are attractive to public affairs analysts. However, this approach tends to treat the literary text as supplementary to the central purpose of the course. 


In the “Post-Colonial Imagination,” we sought to overcome this problem by combining the study of historical-political and literary texts as equally important means to understand the interrelationships of different forms of power.  The literary critic Bart Moore-Gilbert captures the dilemma for such an approach when he asks, “To what extent can literary texts be used as source material by historians? To what extent is it possible to combine a socio-historical and ideological reading with aesthetic criticism of literary texts?” (1996: 12)   Implicitly, Moore-Gilbert’s questions suggest two pedagogical tasks:  the need to structure the course not only to provide historical-political context for cultural texts but to stress that politics and culture are interactive processes; and the need to work through materials using strategies that lead us towards integrative, synthetic ways of knowing. 


Building on the work of Edward Said and other scholars of colonialism and post-colonialism, we sought to explore the ways in which literature and other cultural texts provided an essential means for understanding the struggle for national liberation as well as collective identity construction in international politics in the late twentieth century. We wanted to ensure that students would wrestle with the political significance of literature in the colonial and post-colonial experiences.  As Said writes,

[In the] struggle to achieve decolonization and independence from European control, literature has played a crucial role in the re-establishment of a national cultural heritage, in the re-instatement of native idioms, in the re-imagining and re-figuring of local histories, geographies, communities.... literature not only mobilized active resistance to incursions from the outside but also contributed massively as the shaper, creator, agent of illumination within the realm of the colonized. (1992)

Said argues for the power of literature as shaper of international relations, and as such, literature needs to be seen as profoundly political.[4]  But how could we, as instructors trying to blend literature, history and politics into one interdisciplinary course, operationalize Said’s insights and respond to Moore-Gilbert’s concerns?  What teaching knowledge would we need?  What texts, course structure and pedagogical strategies would lead us to synthetic ways of knowing?


Grappling with Content and Pedagogy

In designing the course, we tried to anticipate the major difficulties international relations students would have, and amongst these, we believed the most immediate problem would be how to read literature and see it as relevant to the study of international politics.  To address this issue, we made novels central to the course content,[5] and we drew heavily from theories in the field of post-colonial literary studies, an area in which we believed few students would have significant background.  Understandably, students had little familiarity with the range of different perspectives and theoretical approaches to post-colonialism much less an ability to see how such perspectives have political content and are contextual (politically).  The readings we selected were intended to help students theorize the ways in which literature could promote colonial relations as well as resist colonial control.  The concept of representation is central to much of this literature.  Of course for literary theorists, representation is not simply ‘standing in for something else’ (as in electoral representation, which international relations well understand).  It can also be more than accuracy or replication of ‘fact’.  It can be dynamic, political and constitutive of ‘reality’.  From this perspective, it is impossible to get international relations students to take literature seriously and to appreciate its political impact if they cannot accept this wider view of representation.[6]


In its first iteration, we organized the course to allow students to work in collaborative groups in which they explored (and sometimes floundered over) competing theoretical perspectives, trying to articulate and critique differing views of power and agency.  We structured both formal assignments and informal class work to force students to move continuously between theory and literature and to develop comparative strategies for analyzing the novels.  For example, the first novel students read was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  We started with this work because it is familiar to many college students and because it holds an enduring place in the “canon.”  We asked students to identify the basic narrative structure (e.g., themes, point of view, plot structure) as well as to situate the novel in its historical context (e.g., the timeframe of the narrative, the moment of the novel’s production, and the subsequent reception of the novel).  Students read critiques by Chinua Achebe, Patrick Brantlinger and Said.  We also asked students to examine Heart of Darkness through the lens of our previous discussions of representation and of post-colonial theorists such as Abdul JanMohamed and Gayatri Spivak whose work does not directly address Conrad’s novel. We hoped that if we succeeded with the novels, students would be able to apply what they learned to other types of cultural texts (e.g., film, short stories).  Each of the major out-of-class assignments asked students to do increasingly more complex work: groups researched and presented information that situated each literary or filmic text that we studied; students engaged in email dialogues that attempted to link diverse class readings by generating questions for in-class discussion; they completed a comparative analytic essay in which they applied theory to the novels or films; and they undertook major research projects that critiqued cultural artefacts in light of the theoretical readings.


Over time, the course has been modified by instructors, adding new theoretical and disciplinary perspectives, focusing on different regions of the world, incorporating film, travel literature and poetry, and trying different assignments and class formats.  The course in its different iterations has been successful:  students have been able to engage the theoretical literature, to do comparative analysis, to employ varying perspectives, and to explore literature and film as politically significant.  Instructors, however, continue to grapple with the issue of how to integrate different disciplinary approaches and how to build knowledge about post-colonialism and about teaching in this interdisciplinary context.


The Challenge of Interdisciplinary Knowledge Production

We came to realize that interdisciplinary knowledge production was an important dimension of the course.  Such knowledge production involved both students and teachers.  A crucial part of the process for students required that they develop a mastery of frames and that they apply and manipulate them.  This in itself is a great accomplishment.  But an interdisciplinary course on post-coloniality asks students to do more:  it asks them to integrate different disciplinary frames and to see their inter-disciplinary explorations as part of producing new ways of understanding post-colonialism. This, in turn, presses teachers to acquire new frames and strategies for teaching. That is, teachers cannot rely exclusively on their disciplinary background and their experience in teaching within that discipline: they must help to construct a new teaching knowledge base, or, as Lee Shulman notes, a new pedagogical content knowledge.  Such knowledge is “the blending of content and pedagogy into an understanding of how particular topics, problems, or issues are organized, represented, and adapted to the diverse interests and abilities of learners, and presented for instruction” (1987: 8). 


Developing pedagogical content knowledge demands that teachers be “able to comprehend subject matter… to elucidate subject matter in new ways, reorganize and partition it, clothe it in activities and emotions, and metaphors and exercises, and in examples and demonstrations, so that it can be grasped by students” (1987: 13).  Yet because different disciplines have varying positions on what constitutes knowledge and because they can promote competing modes of inquiry, the process of teaching interdisciplinary subject matter can be difficult. Traditionally, there have been two approaches to designing interdisciplinary courses. The “bridge-building” approach consciously retains distinct disciplinary methodologies (thus minimizing the need to overcome competing modes) whereas the “restructuring” approach contests disciplinary frames and aims to build new, cohesive modes of inquiry (Klein 1990).   A “restructuring” approach forces instructors to confront new, multifaceted content knowledge.  Neither of these approaches, however, guarantees the production of new pedagogical content knowledge.  We came to realize that a course that tried to blend literature, culture and politics, needed pedagogical content knowledge that reflects the specific character of this interdisciplinary enterprise. 


Instructors turning to the literature on colonialism and post-colonialism to provide suggestions would instead find a scholarship that is diverse but largely discipline-based.  For example, despite a range of theoretical and methodological perspectives, many of the major readers that are used in post-colonial studies courses are largely comprised of excerpts of critical readings of literature.[7]  Such sources are useful in getting students to master the content of the novels, major themes, and different theoretical takes on post-colonialism.  However, these sources, while important, often treat these areas as related but separate bodies of knowledge, obfuscating the possibilities of interdisciplinary inquiry.  Teaching that aims to integrate literary studies and international relations calls for more scholarship that illuminates interdisciplinary habits of mind and makes interdisciplinary pedagogical content knowledge transparent to instructors.


Our own experience in teaching “The Post-Colonial Imagination” suggests that three considerations are key to producing such knowledge and such scholarship.  Faculty must recognize the ways in which their own disciplinary training structures their thinking about post-colonialism, literature and international politics and profoundly shapes their teaching.  Faculty involved in interdisciplinary teaching projects should have a desire to understand other disciplinary perspectives and epistemologies.  For example, a political scientist teaching in this course should be open to learning about the various critical approaches in literary studies.  It is often through conversations with a colleague from a different background that we broaden our own research and teaching agendas. While we thought we had the same understanding of Said’s point that literature is important to the making of global politics, we soon recognized that how we saw its importance was rooted in our disciplinary backgrounds:  was literature a means used by nationalist intellectuals to serve a political end; was literature primarily an artistic expression which could represent a nationalist political story; or did literature participate in the construction of national identity and colonial power relations?  Team-teaching can be invaluable not only in helping faculty make visible to themselves their own disciplinary biases towards research, teaching and learning, but also in helping them build new expertise. Through designing and team- teaching this course, our understandings of the relationships between literature and international relations were transformed. 


Second, in teaching the course we realized that faculty must be committed to creating a learning environment that fosters interdisciplinary habits of mind.  Collaborative pedagogy seems particularly well suited to this task. Because it encourages students to recognize and build from their prior knowledge and to confront the boundaries imposed by their previous training, it allows students to support one another in navigating a new subject matter while simultaneously learning how to engage in interdisciplinary analysis.  For example, English literature majors can help international relations majors to appreciate narrative structure and rhetorical strategies, while international relations majors may help clarify theories of imperialism and colonialism.  At the same time, they are working together to acquire new conceptual tools.  To facilitate their work, our own approach to collaboration involves structured interventions. Because we act as participant-observers in this process, we are better able to see the leaps and gaps in student learning and adapt our teaching to the experiences of the classroom.  Collaborative pedagogy then helps us as teachers build and articulate pedagogical content knowledge. 


Finally, just as the faculty member creates a space for students to acknowledge their role as agents of knowledge production, so too there must be a space within the curriculum that values courses that integrate the study of literature and politics.  Constructing such a space within the undergraduate curriculum requires departmental and college-level cooperation in a range of ways, from cross-disciplinary team-teaching to cross-listed courses.  To sustain an interdisciplinary space, broader institutional support is critical in promoting an appreciation of the type of knowledge production that interdisciplinary study fosters.





[1]  See Klein: 104-117.  See also Moran 2002. 

[2]  For a discussion of  international relations’ insularity from other fields of knowledge, see Darby 1998.  Darby argues that by failing to recognize the political significance of literature and culture, international relations limits itself and its explanatory power.

[3]  Some textbooks have addressed cultural issues such as religion, ethnicity and nationalism, almost always because these are seen as contributors to conflict.  See Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations by John Baylis and Steve Smith.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press 2001; The Global Transformations Reader: An Introduction to the Globalization Debate, edited by David Held and Anthony McGrew.  London:  Blackwell, 2000.

[4] For a discussion of the debate between Said and Ernest Gellner about the role of literature and culture in colonialism, see Winifred L. Amaturo, “Literature and International Relations: The Question of Culture in the Production of International Power,” Millennium, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1995): 1-25.

[5]  Novels included, for example, Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart; Edna O’Brien, House of Splendid Isolation; Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children.

[6]  Stuart Hall can be particularly useful in helping students understand representation.  See Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed by Stuart Hall.  London:  Sage Publications/Open University, 1997.

[7]  See, for example, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffen (eds), The Post-Colonial Studies Reader.  London/New York:  Routledge 1995; and Gregory Castle (ed), Postcolonial Discourse:  An Anthology.  London:  Blackwell 2001.




            Appadurai, Arjun  (1996) Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press.

            Darby, Phillip (1998) The Fiction of Imperialism:  Reading Between International Relations and Postcolonialism.  London:  Cassell.

            Huntington, Samuel (1993) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.  New York:  Simon and Schuster.

Klein, Julie Thompson (1990) Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice.  Detroit:  Wayne State University Press.

Moore-Gilbert, Bart (1996) “Cultural Transfer in Kipling’s Writing.” Kipling Journal, Vol. 70 No. 277:  11-19.

Moran, Joe (2002) Interdisciplinarity.  London:  Routledge.

Said, Edward (1993) Culture and Imperialism.   New York:  Knopf.

 __________ (1992) “Figures, Configurations, Transfigurations,” in Commonwealth to Post-Colonial, ed. by Anna Rutherford.  Sydney: Dangaroo Press: 3-17.

___________  (1978) Orientalism.  New York:  Vintage.

Shulman, Lee (1987) “Knowledge and Teaching:  Foundations of the New Reform,” Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 57, No. 1:  1-22.


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