Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter   2002:  Volume 6, Issue 4 

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Literature in the Modern Language Syllabus

Gundula M. Sharman, University of Aberdeen, Scotland



The study of literature has always played an important role in the acquisition of a foreign language, but increasingly students are reluctant to choose literature modules, particularly those dealing with pre-twentieth century texts. In order to make the literature of foreign places and from past ages more immediately relevant to the interests and the experiences of the students, new courses, aimed at reawakening the students’ interest in literature, have been designed according to thematic rather than chronological criteria.


Current trends in Modern Language programs

When browsing through the course catalogue of any Modern Languages Department in the UK, two broad tendencies can be detected, which are of a very general nature, but which nevertheless apply to most universities to a larger or lesser degree. Firstly, literature courses, once the staple diet of a foreign language degree, are becoming less popular as compared to non-literary modules on offer such as media and communication courses or socio-historically based options. Secondly, the literature, which is taught often tends to be restricted to that of the twentieth century. Naturally, these are very sweeping statements, which can be contested without any real difficulty by particular institutions, but the growing trend gives rise to sufficient concern to cause a major rethink in the development of literature courses, particularly at Honours level.

In the following I will argue that a switch from the traditional, chronological structure of modules in literature to a thematic approach will increase motivation on the part of the student, who can more easily perceive the relevance of the given literary text, and allow for interdisciplinary teaching methods by the introduction of theories from different subject areas. New approaches to teaching might also lead to a more general appreciation of literature on the part of the students and to an enrichment of the understanding of human affairs. This, after all, is the aim of all education.

Since the early seventies there has been a long-standing and well-loved debate as to whether the inclusion of literature in the foreign-language classroom is desirable and useful or not. This question is brought to a point when even native-language teachers argue that literature ought to be taught separately from language, because the particulars encountered in the appreciation of literature are more complex than mere language comprehension. Burke and Brumfit differentiate three distinct areas of potential obstacles: "to the learner of how to read literature, difficulties may appear, which result from ignorance of the language being used, of the ideas being used, or of the form being used." (1) This argument presupposes that the connections among language, ideas and form is something peculiarly literary and absent from the focus on the mastery of "pure" language, whether that be the mother-tongue or a foreign language. Be that as it may, the assumption of this argument, which defines literature as a special case in language, has trickled into the classroom in schools and is now also noticeable at university level. More and more students take a purely utilitarian approach to the study of foreign languages, and they show a growing reluctance to engage with learning activities which are not immediately perceived as useful in the "real world". The stated aim is to achieve efficient communication skills in the target language, rather than to seek knowledge and understanding of the language, the culture and mores, which shaped the people of other nations.


The case for teaching Literature

Naturally, the case for including literature in the foreign-language syllabus has been stated vociferously from the moment its value began to fall into doubt. The function of teaching literature in the Modern Languages can be divided into three categories, the importance of which is not necessarily in that order. (a) Reading extended texts in the foreign language will improve the language skills of the students, both on the level of vocabulary and of grammar; (b) the foreign texts will provide an introduction to the socio-cultural background and the political and historical developments of the country in which the text is set. This perspective will highlight the differences between the familiar and the foreign; (c) and thirdly, familiarity with period and genre in which a text is set will build a foundation upon which students can recognize and compare distinctive features common to all Western culture of any particular period. All of these can be seen as serving directly to the above stated aim of effective communication in the global workplace. The question is not whether the study of literature is useful in acquiring good communication skills in one's contacts with people of other nationalities, of which an understanding of cultural differences is after all an important part, but rather how to persuade the student that it is.

A traditional approach to teaching literature at tertiary level has been to select texts according to period and genre, such as the "Tragedies of Shakespeare", the key works of the "French Enlightenment", or the "Classical plays by Goethe and Schiller". For those students who are genuinely interested in a specific period, or an individual writer, this type of course will always be attractive, but to the majority of students this system seems to provide a hindrance rather than an aid to the appreciation of literature. The method presupposes that the modern language student wants to be acquainted with the thoughts of writers who more often than not lived in the dim and distant past and whose work shows little immediate relevance to the personal interests of the student, or indeed to the stated aim of linguistic competence in the modern world. Not only is it increasingly difficult to awaken an interest in foreign writers of past ages in the student, but, as young people tend to read less, many students need to be introduced to the pleasure of reading in the first place. Our real life experiences are complemented and enriched by the "borrowed" experience gained through reading. This has been recognized by Brumfit and Carter who state:


The first task must be to get people reading books for meaning and making connections between them, and outwards non-literary experiences, as a matter of personal need. Once this need is established, for any learners who wish to take this up, issues of the nature of the experience can follow. But we cannot analyse an experience we have never had, and the literary experience arises from thinking about books as meaningful, important patterning of experience, integrated with our own experience, both, direct and vicarious (234).


It must be our aim to encourage the student to see literature in terms of a proxy for real experience. In this way reading can indeed become a "personal need". Aesthetic concerns with genre and period of a chosen text, which of often turn out to be an obstacle to the students, fade into the background and the archetypal human issues, present in all literature, move into the fore. If literature is seen in terms of actively gaining experience, rather than the passive process of an unwilling encounter with a self-contained fictional world, the literature of all ages and places can potentially become relevant to the reader once more.


A thematic Approach

With this in mind I will outline briefly two models of literary courses in German Studies, offered at Honours level, which have been developed along thematic lines rather than according to criteria of period or genre. The idea is that the literary work, stripped of its cultural context, can offer a more immediate access to the human story (2), and only later the tutorial work in the group can be used to lead the students to an aesthetic appreciation of the text. The immediate advantage is that course tutors are free to choose any topic, which they perceive as being relevant to the interests of a particular cohort of students. Secondly, this approach allows that any theoretical framework that is so vital for the analytical work we expect the students to pursue in the study of literature is no longer restricted to literary theory, which is often regarded as too abstract and difficult at undergraduate level. On the contrary, depending on the topic, almost any theory from other disciplines can be used to appropriate the chosen literary text. In addition, a thematic design of a course lends itself to the incorporation of other art forms such as painting and photography, cinema or even music. (The transgression into a neighboring subject area, such as music or the visual arts, each with its own set of analytical tools, can of course only be in reference to a particular aspect of the chosen exposition.) But most important of all is that the course will be stimulating to the students, that they learn to appreciate the potential of literature to comment on and enlighten their own life experiences, and that, in the intensive study of a foreign text, their linguistic skills and their understanding of cultural difference will be enhanced in the time-honored fashion of teaching literature in the Modern Languages degree program.


Case study I

The first course is entitled "Love, Marriage and Adultery in German Literature and Film", and the course description reads as follows: The course will examine the discourse of love, marriage and adultery in German and Austrian literature and film of the 19th and 20th century. Emphasis will be placed on the social, cultural and economic context of love relationships and the ways in which the dominant value systems of society are reflected, criticized or subverted over the period. Particular issues to be addressed will include the significance of reputation and honor, the generation conflict, strategies in self-preservation and surrender and questions of gender and identity. The course aims to enable students to think critically about issues of relationships and marriage in the context of society, to assess how the concept of marriage as a social institution has evolved over time, and to analyze how these questions have been portrayed in the novel in German and Austrian Literature since the beginning of the 19th century.


On the reading list are Goethe’s Elective Affinities (1809), and Fontane's Effi Briest (1895), probably the most prominent novels in German literature dealing with issues of marriage and adultery, as well as a number of texts and films from the twentieth century, including Sigrid Damm's Ich bin nicht Ottilie (I am not Ottilie, 1992), which draws a nice connection to Ottilie, one of the central characters in Goethe's novel. As is immediately apparent, the theoretical framework, which can be uniformly applied to this subject, could be taken from all sorts of historical and sociological aspects, as well as psychology or psychoanalysis. The choice fell on Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving, which sets out criteria for the analysis of theoretical and practical aspects of loving and being loved. Not much explanation is needed as to why this topic is of interest to the students, but I would like to make two points. Firstly, because the focus of the course is on archetypal human relationships, rather than on the literary and social conventions of the Biedermeier, the fin-de-siècle or the post-war period, the characters of the older texts, stand side by side with those of the contemporary novels. As it was, Goethe's Ottilie gained as much of a response from the students as did Damm's. Secondly, Fromm's theoretical text itself was of great inspiration to the students, and the particular focus it provided on the literary texts (and the protagonists on film), allowed for each character to be judged using the same universal criteria.


Case Study II

The second course is called "Travel and Tourism in Germany since 1770". The course description reads as follows: This course will introduce students to selected historical, sociological, cultural and theoretical aspects of travelling and tourism in a German-speaking context, using a wide range of cultural and historical material. The focus is predominately on the effects of modernity and modernization on the experience and organization of travel and tourism. In addition, students will extend their understanding of the topic by means of independent research, setting the topics treated in their wider context and synthesizing material from a range of sources. The aim of the course is to promote knowledge and understanding of travel and tourism in major works of German-language literature, notions of genre in literary works, in particular travel literature, and the social, political and cultural aspects of travel and tourism in Germany since 1770. The reading list included excerpts of Goethe's Italienische Reise (1829), and Heinrich Heine's Die Harzreise (1831), as well as literary works by twentieth-century writers such as Heinrich Böll and Peter Handke. As before, a theoretical framework for this course could be taken from all sorts of historical and sociological, economic and environmental aspects, as well as psychology or psychoanalysis. Again the theme of travel has a general popular appeal, and all students have actual experience of travelling.


Final Thoughts

Rapid tours through literary history such as these need, of course, careful preparation and introduction. To this effect it is important that students are given a sufficient overview of historical and literary developments in Germany and Austria of the last three to four hundred years. This takes place in form of lectures on cultural developments in Germany and Austria from the late Middle Ages to the present during the first and second year of study (3). The development of a web-based reference site, which outlines the leading characteristics of the given cultural periods with links to important figures and their work, is planned for the coming year. This should aid the students in placing particularly the older works in their chronological and cultural context. Nevertheless, by designing courses along thematic rather than chronological lines, it cannot be expected that the students will gain as thorough an understanding of any particular cultural period as they formerly did. The question is, does that really matter?

In the introduction of his essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities, Walter Benjamin makes a distinction between the material content and the truth content of a novel. The material content, which is immediately accessible, will give rise to commentary, whereas the truth content appears over time, and only it can be subject to real critique.


Not the existence but for the most part the meaning of the concrete realities in the work will no doubt be hidden from the poet and the public of his time. But because what is eternal in the work stands out only against the ground of those realities, every contemporary critique, however eminent, comprehends in the work more the moving than the resting truth, more the temporal effect than the eternal being (4).


Thus, according to Benjamin, there will necessarily always be a difference in our aesthetic appreciation between a work written in a previous age and a contemporary work. If our aim is to (re)introduce the students to reading literature, which, as we know, will improve their linguistic competence, aid their understanding of foreign cultures, and which also offers a great source of inexhaustible and inexpensive pleasure, any loss in the full appreciation of the cultural context of a given novel is surely a price worth paying.



 (1) C.J. Brumfit and R.A. Carter, Literature and Language Teaching (Oxford: OUP, 1986), 174.

 (2) Incidentally, a famous precedent in German literature can be found in Ulrich Plenzdorf's Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. Unbeknown to himself, as he stripped the title pages off the book, the teenage protagonists Edgar has just such an unmediated encounter with Goethe's novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1973). After an initial disgust with the old fashioned language, he gradually learns to identify with Goethe's Werther, and his reading experience helps to clarify the problems he encounters in his life in East Berlin of the early 1970s.

 (3) In Scotland a degree in Modern Languages takes five years: two initial years at university are followed by a compulsory year abroad, after which the students enter a two year Honours program.

 (4) Walter Benjamin, "Goethe's Elective Affinities", in Walter Benjamin, Selective Writings. Vol. 1, 1913-1926 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harward UP, 1996) 297-360, 298.