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Why we must change how we teach literature

Saturday November 11 2017

Eager University students in a lecture hall.

Eager University students in a lecture hall. Literature departments must embrace change and adjust the way the subjet is taught or risk seeing their subject abandoned by students. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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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.


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.

The first one was when, on our way to a conference last year, my friend Tom Odhiambo and I saw university students of economics protesting and demanding that their entire curriculum be overhauled because it was mainly responsible for economic meltdown that continental Europe was experiencing, and that the same curriculum was responsible for the inability of economists to see the approaching meltdown and possibly forestall it. I asked myself: Where exactly has our literature curriculum led us and can our students, for instance, see any link between the dangling modifiers that we teach in stylistics and the everyday life that they lead?

The second occasion was quite recent. I was fortunate to be invited by Prof Peter Wasamba and Dr Miriam Musonye to join a small team of colleagues from Humboldt University and the University of Nairobi in a research partnership on the relationship between labour and leisure in artistic production.

One of the speakers told us that the Institute for the History and Future of Work has projected, based on its analysis of historical data from agrarian to industrial and digital revolution, that in the year 3,000, fewer people will be working for less hours to meet the needs of everyone and that disease and poverty will end some years before then.

Here we were, talking to people who were not only conscious of their past and how it informed their present knowledge systems, but who were also concerned about how the future will shape and colour their knowledge of themselves and the rest of us. Is it possible for us to think about and prepare for a literature that shall be relevant, say, in 2040?


And only last week, my third occasion of reflection came by in Prof Henry Indangasi’s innocuous eulogy of Dr Waigwa Wachira, our sadly departed elder, thespian, colleague, and well-spoken master of the English grammar and enunciation. In the many years they worked together, Indangasi “never heard (Waigwa Wachira) spouting those pedantic platitudes about Post-modernism and Post-colonialism that characterise other scholars who come from abroad.”  It may well be that some scholars, whether from abroad or elsewhere do this, but I have never heard even one do so, although I have seen a fair number of our graduate students struggling with literary theory in general; how to apprehend it and employ it as

a tool of understanding textual meaning in an educated manner. Quite often, while many students will talk about “theoretical framework” in their research proposals and dissertations, they hardly apply the same framework in other discursive chapters.

Therefore, the bigger question for me is, given that most of the literary theories that we use, including stylistics, are borrowed from other places and other disciplines, how do we best teach our students to understand their usability in our geographical and disciplinary contexts, without simplistically “spouting platitudes” about them?

Again, my answer is straightforward: let us try as much as possible to teach literature in the future tense, and only take backward glances to the extent that they help in illuminating the future.

In doing this, we need to first embrace the spirit and apply the underlying philosophy of curriculum review to determine which pedagogy will animate the soul of the courses that we design and teach. We also need to ensure that students can clearly see the link between their literary knowledge and  material futures.

We must, therefore, assign a new major role to literature, one that supplements the education and entertainment functions while emphasising the literature and livelihood component. Courses like Literature and Development, or Economics of Literature, Literature and the Internet Transactions may be necessary.

My idea is not that our literature curricula should abandon the traditional values of socio-cultural moralisation to acquiesce to the avaricious hustler mentality that is now rampant, but that they should reflect the reality that man cannot live on the word alone, but also on bread that nourishes the body.


The writer is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s literature department and the editor of the journal Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies. Email: [email protected]