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American Studies at the Hashemite University in Jordan: an Unfulfilled Dream

Professor Al-Shalabi discusses the challenge and opportunities of teaching American Literature and Culture in a Jordanian University.

Posted 20-Feb-2014

by Nazmi Al-Shalabi, The Hashemite University Jordan

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"American Studies" is the title of an optional course in one of two study plans currently employed at the English Department in The Hashemite University in Jordan. At this institution where I teach, there are two majors in English. One is English Language and Literature and another is Literature and Cultural Studies in English. In the study plans of both majors, there are only three main courses dealing with American literature and culture: American Literature, Introduction to American Culture, and American Studies. These subjects, similar to other ones on literature, are offered for two reasons, of which the first one is to provide students with cultural awareness and the second is to help these learners with the acquisition of English they are learning as a foreign language.

I have taught these subjects a number of times, and have always emphasized the afore-mentioned objectives. I have been practicing a nontraditional methodology. I follow the learner-centered approach that emphasizes the students' interests and gives them the opportunity to voice their opinions, making as many reasonable comments as they like on the material discussed. I listen to these comments and praise respondents, urging them to go on with responding. While listening to students, I usually pick a glaring mistake from the respondent's argument, clarify it, and set it right. The reason for my acting this way is to help students with learning the grammar of this language.

I have been employing this method for many years and students have been pleased with it. This method helps students with learning English and acquiring the fluency they all aspire for. It also makes class interesting and keeps students involved. This matter of involvement is highly significant. It makes students focus on the text being discussed, and realize that they are part of this world under discussion. By virtue of this realization, they sense that the world discussed is familiar to them and that it is not as strange and mysterious as they have been taking it to be. The result is that they feel motivated and grow to be more anxious to make a comment or a remark about the topic studied.

Although I have been having no problem with the method of instruction, I have been, frankly speaking, having trouble with determining what to teach in each subject. This problem arises due to the richness and diversity of the material that can be taught as well as the lack of time, for classes cannot afford the time needed for covering all the materials included in a book as big as The Heath Anthology of American literature, The American Tradition in Literature, Concise Anthology of American literature, etc.

Taking advantage of the options available, I make my own anthology, doing my utmost to choose authors and topics that are representative ,for instance , of a literary movement or a school of thought. To take an example , in American literature I may choose authors representing the 19th century, such as Irving, Bryant, Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Poe, Thoreau, and Melville, to mention just a few names. In "Twentieth-Century American Literature", on the other hand, I choose major authors, emphasizing Twain, James, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, and Steinbeck. In "Introduction to American Culture", I pick writings dealing with the cultural components. This choice includes essays on religion, politics, history, education, language, sociology, economy, geography, etc. For "American Studies" class, I choose texts representing various disciplines because this course is interdisciplinary. Though this course is always in "some significant degree concerned with culture", [1] it has also "prided itself on its interdisciplinary strategy." [2] There is only one problem connected with the scope of American Studies. Professors who teach it have been accustomed to choosing materials focusing on the USA and forgetting about Latin America, which is unfair. This is an important matter that I myself reckon with when I choose the materials for this class.

These subjects I have been dwelling on are taught at The Hashemite University as parts of a course of studies that prepares students for a teaching certification in English literature and language. So far no chair or section in American literature within the English department has come into existence, and scholars interested in teaching American subject matter and doing research on the United States have not thought yet of forming a national organization of American Studies. In a sense, American Studies is a dream that won't be fulfilled. The English Department is expected to go on functioning the same way it has been doing for over ten years, and it won't split into English literature and American literature sections, with varying degrees of independence because traditional academic structures reject this sort of change. Even if this change occurs, it won't be welcomed, at least, by students who may claim that the study of the United States literature and culture won't help them with earning their living, that the "English" literary tradition (American and British) belongs "to a culture that has in reality colonized and dominated ours for prolonged periods of time," [3] and that this tradition represents a dominating culture that has been supporting the Israelis and divesting Arabs of their rights by its double standards, solely blamed for the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and, consequently, the tense relations between the East and the West.

I would be belittling these East-West relations by claiming that they do not affect the educational landscape. There are some scholars of English who believe that teaching British and American literatures is "an attempt towards spreading racist, reductionist, prejudiced, and hostile views which sharply conflict with the cultural and ethical codes of Arab Students (This is what Zughoul suggests in "English Departments in Third World Universities"). Other scholars, on the other hand, question the value of teaching literature, and raise questions about the number of literature courses to be included in the study plan, maintaining that literature is a waste of time, worthless, and non central to teaching the language. It is irrelevant to determine whether the preceding questions make sense or not. The value of these questions lies in their clarifying the confusing context in which American literature and American studies are received in the Arab World. This context adversely impacts scholars who stick to their colors to the disadvantage of American literature and American Studies.

Works Cited

Bradley, Sculley, et al. (edts.) The American Tradition in Literature. Vol.2 New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1967.

Lauter (edit.) The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 5th Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

McMichael, George (edit.) Concise Anthology of American Literature. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1974.

Obeidat, Marwan. "The Cultural Context of American Literature," in Journal of American Studies of Turkey 4(1996): 37-44.

Pfister, Joel. "The Americanization of Cultural Studies," Yale Journal of Criticism 4(1991): 199-229.

Zughoul, Muhammad Raji. "English Departments in Third World Universities: Language, Linguistics, or Literature?" English Teaching Forum 24,4(1986): 15.

Notes

1 See Joel Pfister, "The Americanization of Cultural Studies," Yale Journal of Criticism 4(1991):199-229.
2 Ibid., 199-229.
3 Marwan Obeidat, "The Cultural Context of American Literature,"in Journal of American Studies of Turkey,p.37-44.

 

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