Wednesday, August 21, 2013


The ideas for "Reading the world, the globe, and the cosmos" took shape over the last four years and this work would not have been possible without the encouragement or guidance of countless people whom I am grateful for. The following is taken from the acknowledgments section of the book:

This book developed from my dissertation at Teachers College, Columbia University, USA. I am grateful to Dr. Ruth Vinz for her mentorship and guidance throughout the four years of this research, from its initial sketches to its present form. The many insights I gained from our conversations have been vital to the development of this project. I would also like to thank Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz for her consistent support in helping me discover my voice and shaping my thinking on this subject; Dr. David Hansen for pushing me to ask philosophical questions essential to this work and for powerfully expanding my thinking on cosmopolitanism and education; Dr. Gauri Viswanathan for her penetrating wisdom, whose work on the ideological institutionalization of the discipline of English literature first inspired me with ideas that have led to this book; and Dr. Sheridan Blau, whose expansive knowledge of the field of English education has provided rich layers to this work.
I am thankful for critical friends without whom this project would have been less enjoyable and less enriching. Nick Sousanis, in particular, has journeyed with me throughout my entire writing process and our regular discussions have contributed to strengthening this work. I have also been fortunate to be able to partner with Deb Sawch and Alison Villanueva on various fieldwork projects that have opened my eyes to twenty-first century education around the world.
I thank my editor, Dr. Cameron McCarthy, for his constructive comments and guidance throughout each stage of this project. I am appreciative of Chris Myers, Sophie Appel, Phyllis Korper, and the editorial staff of Peter Lang for the time and effort invested into the production of this book.
I am grateful to the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, for providing funding to conduct this research.
I owe much of this work to the unwavering support of my family. I am grateful to Wilson Tan, my husband, for his tremendous patience and the unconditional love he has shown me. I thank my parents, Dr. Richard and Tina Choo, for their love, prayers, and everyday acts of concern. Finally, I thank God for His daily provision of grace and strength and in whom all things are possible.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New publication on Literature education

 Choo, Suzanne S. (2013). Reading the world, the globe, and the cosmos: Approaches to teaching literature for the twenty-first century. New York: Peter Lang.
The purpose of this book is restore the centrality of pedagogy in governing the ways literary texts are received, experienced, and interpreted by students in the classroom. Utilizing a method of pedagogical criticism, it provides an account of core approaches to teaching literature that have emerged across history and the conceptual values informing these approaches. More importantly,

Reading the World discusses how these values have been shaped by broader global forces and key movements in the discipline of English Literature. To varying degrees, these approaches are aimed at cultivating a hospitable imagination so that students may more fully engage with multiple others in the world. Given the reality of an increasingly interconnected twenty-first century, literature pedagogy plays a vital role in schools by demonstrating how world, global, and cosmopolitan approaches to teaching literature can facilitate the prioritization of the other, challenge us to think about how we can be accountable to multiple others in the world, and push us to continually problematize the boundaries of our openness towards the other.

Advanced Praise

“While there are many published accounts of approaches to teaching literature, research on the role of reader in relation to texts, multicultural approaches to teaching literature, and critical and theoretical criticism of literature, I know of no book that provides a focused and historical discussion and presents a previously untapped focus on the centrality of pedagogy in the debates concerning the values and purposes of literature education. Reading The World, The Globe, and the Cosmos delves into the heart of how literature education has ‘come into being’ as a school subject, but one that has a contested and complex history of purpose and value.” (Ruth Vinz, Teachers College, Columbia University)

"Reading the world, the globe and the cosmos combines important historical and philosophical analysis with normative perspectives to teaching Literature for the twenty-first century. It recovers a vital role for Literature pedagogy in our time by inviting us to consider its essential connections to hospitality and hospitable ways of engaging the other.” (Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Teachers College, Columbia University)

Excerpts from the Series Editor's Forward

"With this wonderful text, Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos, we must now add Suzanne Choo to this venerable list of feminist intellectuals who want us to consider a wider range of subjects concerning globalization than we normally explore. Choo writes from the perspective that all of these logics related to globalization are now fully articulated to schooling and must pass through the pedagogical encounter in the classroom. Ultimately, globalization must be brought into dialogue with pedagogical criticism. Here the task is to construct from the encounter with literature — reaching back into previous centuries and forward into the twenty-first century — models of thoughtfulness and meaningful, empathetic relationships. [...] The project here is ambitious but urgent. The teaching of literature has often insulated the literary text from the world, recuperating and preserving the “literary” for a vain form of aesthetics. On the other hand, teaching about the world in geography, social studies, etc. has often ignored the imaginative domain of literature. Scholars like Edward Said have sought to overcome this gulf in the disciplines in such powerful ripostes as Orientalism (1979), The World, the Text and the Critic (1994), and On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain (2007). Homi Bhaba, in his Locations of Culture (1994), also points to the critically important work of the text in relation to the vigorous life world of subaltern actors. For Bhabha, texts take on their significance in an encounter with human actors at the extremes of Empire: “a literature of empire . . . played out in the wild and wordless wastes of colonial India, Africa, the Caribbean” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 102). The text then is conditioned by the play of globalization’s asymmetries.
Choo builds on these insights by introducing a form of pedagogical criticism that brings the globe into the literature classroom. Her interest here is not to describe the world as it is. Neither is it merely to improve the pedagogy of literature. Choo raises, instead, the issue of teaching new cosmopolitan values through pedagogy by integrating the “hospitable imagination.” The hospitable imagination is a space for the gestation of creative and critical reflexivity. The classroom, after all, may be the place of a kind of last stand in an age of the ever-expanding refeudalization of the public sphere. As such, it offers possibilities for elaborating networks to the world — networks for a New-World imaginative geography and the building up of subaltern knowledges. In this manner, the classroom becomes a space for the staging of a new enterprise in literature studies—for thinking about the world as we mediate aesthetics. The radical promise of Choo’s intervention here is to bring the entire range of aesthetic critique and “reply” (Paz, 1990, p. 5) to the West into a dialogue with globalization from below. Here the concatenation and plurality of voices might serve to reinvigorate the now deeply invaded space of the modern classroom where one might argue the future of humanity resides." (Cameron McCarthy, Director of Global Studies in Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Literature and Critical Values Education

The original title of my article published in ST last sunday was "The role of Literature for critical values education in the 21st century" but ST changed it to something along the lines of teaching values. I thought I'd say it upfront that I am opposed to the idea of using literature to teach values but what I do argue for is that literature is a powerful platform for the critical engagement of values. I think this becomes apparent if one reads the full article.

What's the difference? Let's start with the notion of values. The term "values" is linked to the idea of “good” as found in valere, its Latin root, referring to the good or worth of something. We can trace this concept further back to Aristotle who argues, in Nicomachean Ethics, that “Every craft and every investigation, and likewise every action and decision, seems to aim at some good; hence the good has been well described as that at which everything aims.” In other words, everything we do is grounded on a concept of value or a belief in the good of something.

For example, a book is written because the writer upholds certain beliefs about value/good of what he is saying; teachers select certain literary texts for study because they believe it is of value or good for some reason. This value can be individualistic (e.g. writing is liberating and pleasurable to oneself), instrumental (e.g. the literary text contributes to a national narrative), or other-oriented i.e. good for someone else (e.g. the writing contributes to fighting social injustice, human rights for particular groups). Of course, these are not discrete categories but may overlap. The point is that underlying everything we do – every action, every word we write, what we choose to teach in the classroom, what we teach etc. – are values or beliefs in the good of something. One can also perform out of a bad intention but that itself is a value or belief in the good of something.

Now when we talk about literature education, I am specifically referring to literature education in the public sphere which I have argued in the article is premised on criticism. Yes, we can talk about experiencing texts and so on but literature teaching and assessment have been historically established on the principles of criticism. For example, at the secondary and JC level, students are initiated into how to perform critical appreciation, practical criticism, informed response to texts etc.

To take the concept of criticism a little further, literature education equips students to critically engage with the kinds of values and belief systems inherent in texts and informing texts. In this way, criticism disrupts any naive notion of a “pure experience” or innocent reading the text. For example, a student may enjoy reading Animal Farm on my own at home but in the classroom, the teacher facilitates conversations and dialogues about the inherent values in the text e.g. the dangers of totalitarianism that Orwell highlights or the socio-political factors that informed the way the text was produced and received etc.

I think that if we want to argue for Literature education’s significance in the curriculum today, we need to return to the idea of how it equips students with the dispositions and capacities to critically engage with values in all kinds of texts. These dispositions and skills are essential as societies become increasing globally connected and hyer-mediated.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Role of Literature for Critical Values Education in the Twenty-first Century

The following is an article I wrote that was published in The Straits Times, Think Section (p. 43) on Sunday March 3, 2013.
Once the most central subject in schools in Britain and its colonies during the age of Empire, English Literature has now lost its place of prominence. This phenomenon is apparent in the case of Singapore.
That it is not a new occurrence but evidence of a steep decline over the past two decades is obvious from figures released last month, showing a fall in enrolment for ‘O’ and ‘N’ level Literature since 1992.
One can trace Literature’s decline to the period following Singapore’s independence when more emphasis was placed on the communicative aspect of English through policies such as bilingualism.
English was positioned as a first language, the language of business and a bridge language connecting different races while the study of mother tongue languages was essential to ensuring that citizens would remain rooted to “Asian” values and traditions.
Effectively, this contributed to a gulf between the study of English Language and English Literature so that the former was a key national priority while the latter was marginalised since its problematic ties to colonialism meant that English was not to be the avenue through which culture and values would be transmitted.
What the state astutely recognised then was English Literature’s inherent connection to values education. Indeed, when English Literature was first constructed as a school subject and introduced into the national system of education in Britain during the late 18th century, it was primarily a platform for the cultivation of bourgeoisie English values.
One way in which the Ministry of Education in Singapore sought to distance the subject from its colonial roots was by renaming it Literature in English so as to include a broader range of literary works from Singapore and other parts of the world.
To fully address Literature’s decline, however, there is a need to return to Literature’s foundational role as a platform for critical values education in the 21st century.
In contrast to values education that is didactic, involving the transmission of values in a top- down and fact-based manner, Literature education equips students to negotiate the multiplicity of values and belief systems of diverse cultures.
In my studies of Literature classrooms in Australia, Singapore and the United States, I have observed, for example, how a teacher “interrupted” his students’ reading of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew by getting them to compare and contrast the taming of women in other societies through various stories and plays by Jamaica Kincaid, Kyoko Mori, Maxine Hong Kingston and Stella Kon. Through this, students gained insights into the oppression of women across cultures.
In another class, the teacher had students read Shaun Tan’s graphic novel, The Arrival, centered on the experience of immigration, followed by various short stories on human rights. After that, students conducted research and simulated a forum in which they discussed various social issues from the perspective of the state, the citizen and different marginalised groups.
In both these cases, students engaged with a form of values education that was not about the acquisition of a set of normative principles but rather the cultivation of dispositions including the ability to examine issues from multiple perspectives, to appreciate ambiguity, and to make informed evaluations of values and their consequences.
While Literature education does foster aesthetic appreciation and a taste for good writing, what we often forget is that when students are asked to respond to questions such as “What makes us sympathise with Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart”, “Is justice served at the end of Macbeth”, or “How does the writer develop the sense of irony in the poem Dulce Et Decorum Est”, they need to consider the underlying beliefs determining a character’s intentions and behaviour, the different social-cultural values influencing how concepts such as justice are perceived, and the ways in which literary techniques contribute to the implied author’s philosophical proposition in the text.
In short, these are questions requiring critical engagements with values.
The reality of cultural clashes and mixings as a result of our globally interconnected world has meant that it is now difficult to sustain any singular, universal value system.
Through exposure to literary texts from around the world, students gain access to the consciousness and lived realities of other communities; they apply critical reflection and ethical reasoning as they navigate various cultural and moral ambiguities conveyed vividly through the struggles of various characters in literature and, in the process of experiencing other worlds, they develop an imagination hospitable towards the powerless and the foreign.
Far from being an impractical subject, Literature education has become even more vital in our porous, networked societies today.
In her book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities, University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum observes that economically advanced nations tend to invest their systems of education in equipping students with useful and highly applied skills suited to economic development.
“If this trend continues,” she says, “nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticise tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.”
There is a need for policymakers and educators to restore the centrality of Literature education in Singapore, but this can only occur when the significant role Literature education can play in promoting critical values education is first recognised.
The writer is an assistant professor with the English Language and Literature Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. Her research interests are in the history of Literature education as well as Literature education for global and cosmopolitan citizenship.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The storm and Adorno

The storm hit us on Sunday and for five days we were without power. It's so hard to live without power particularly in the context of modern America. If one were in a village in Nepal or Tibet, perhaps it would have been manageable to live for weeks without power because then the imagination would not expect, would not have a known reference to look to. During this time, we took a suitcase of clothes and our dog, jumped into a car and drove as far as we could get at 9 PM that night. In semi-darkness, I grabbed whatever books seemed important to me at the time. On reaching a little bed & breakfast we had stumbled upon, I found myself reading the works of Theodor Adorno and the writers of the Frankfurt school e.g. Habermas. What it must have been like, writing in exile, away from home, leaving behind one's possessions, living in uncertainty, waiting to hear the latest news about the homeland. Adorno and his Frankfurt friends had escaped to America and would face a kind of inhumanity expressed in the form of passive indifference. This was something Kant had warned against when he wrote about the ethics of hospitality. Hospitality is not simply allowing the stranger to come and live temporarily in one's country, but it is also the spirit of making that stranger feel welcome. As Gayatri Spivak mentioned when she visited our class this week, the first thing most people are told when they are allowed to stay in a foreign country is the law of return. Perhaps it was all that pent up feeling of exile or facing passive inhospitality that drove Adorno to write about ethics inherent in aesthetics. Adorno emphasized the importance of "non-identity thinking" - the moment one moves beyond a subjectivity tied to identity connected with race, ethnicity, nation-state etc, one begins to understand subjectivity in terms of what Confucius would call 'human-ness' - an affinity with the human no matter where he or she is from. This is an affinity that seeks to understand rather than judge, that seeks to value individuals not so much for their usefulness but for the value of their humanity.


A book that directly contrasts with "When we were orphans" is Sebald's "Austerlitz. This is one of the best books I've read this year. It is disorienting at first but starts to come together in the latter part of the book. All this is part of the whole sense of being lost, of losing one's childhood, of trying to piece the fragments while recognizing the fluid, slippery nature of memory. The book is an aesthetically and ethically brilliant work of memory set in the context of the holocaust.

When we were orphans

Just read this work and am appalled by it. In my opinion this is the worst of Ishiguro's work. It may be aesthetically well-written but I think it is ethically flawed primarily because it trivializes the massacre of the Chinese by the Japanese during WWII. The protagonist in his search for his mother is seemingly deluded and delusional in that his obsession causes him to ignore the reality of what is going on around him. Some could argue that this is part of Ishiguro's aesthetics, that he is not concerned about representing history but is instead exploring the instability of subjectivity which in part may reference the art for art sake's argument i.e. the work of art should be appreciated for itself not for some moral or transcendental message believed to be inherent in it. The question here concerns the ethics and responsibility of writers in adequately representing global trauma, global holocaust and global massacres without trivializing them. This is particularly so given that the book is written for western readers who may be less aware of the asian holocaust. By glossing over this event which is superficially mentioned in the background of the text, the author is complicit in the larger, political trivializing of this in the imagination of the west.