Comparative literature is the study of literature and other cultural expressions across linguistic and cultural boundaries. At Brown, the Department of Comparative Literature is distinct in its conviction that literary research and instruction must be international in character. The department performs a role similar to that of the study of international relations, but works with languages and artistic traditions, so as to understand cultures “from the inside.” Both the department’s undergraduate and graduate programs are held to be among the finest in the country.
It is profitable to study literary works along cross-cultural and international lines – just as one may also study other arts across frontiers. Forms of expression vary from culture to culture and from artist to artist, yet the medium of an art – for literature, that is speech and writing – remains a special resource shared by many. Every nation has its poets and songs, every continent has its novelists, bards, and chroniclers. As comparatists, department faculty seek to bridge the distances between languages, and they analyze how cultures are different from one another. In order to see beyond social and linguistic horizons, they study literary works from different societies and eras. They also look at juxtapositions between literature and other arts or disciplines.
The undergraduate programs for concentration in comparative literature enable students to study a generous range of literary works belonging to several national literatures that interest them. Students are encouraged to read widely from different literatures and to develop a focused critical understanding of important and cultural questions. The graduate program in comparative literature offers a vigorous and comprehensive examination of literature and culture. Through study of a range of materials from several literatures, it aims at an understanding of individual authors, influences, literary movements, forms, and genres in a comparative critical context. The program is flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of individual emphases in literature and culture, periods, genres, history, criticism, and theory.
Since the founding of the graduate program in 1964, comparative literature has evolved to include not only Western cultures both ancient and modern, but Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, as well. The department, in cooperation with the various literature departments and programs, offers a wide array of courses in literature, literary theory, and cultural studies. Faculty include 25 members of professorial rank with appointments wholly or partly in the department. As members of a medium-sized department in a relatively small university, graduate students enjoy unusual opportunities for close contact in and outside of the classroom. Students receive close guidance, including job-search preparation. The program offers several colloquia, lectures, and forums each year.
Although English has become the lingua franca in the worlds of business, science and diplomacy, foreign languages do matter, and they will continue to matter if people are to understand the world and its complex interactions. Languages are an indispensable tool for understanding the values and traditions of the world’s disparate and far-flung societies. Although the field of international relations addresses these issues, comparative literature plays an equal role, since the understanding of cultural and ideological difference is as central in literature and art as it is in political science and sociology. Scholars in comparative literature also possess the relevant languages and cultural background to understand other societies – as reflected in their literature, art and cultural productions. Unlike other national literature departments, comparative literature is committed to cross-cultural, transnational studies. It is the only discipline that routinely crosses borders, studies what has come to be called the construction of “the Other” in all its guises, and is concerned with both literary and social relations between societies.
The field of literary studies has become increasingly attuned to issues of politics and ideology – often bearing on matters of race, class and gender – over the past decades, but comparative literature is distinct in its conviction that language and history are central to this mission. To this end, the department consists of scholars who are trained as both “nationalists” and “internationalists,” as people who think about the bridges and the gulfs that link and separate distinct cultures. Literary theory is also a central element in Brown’s program, as it is in so many literature departments today. Brown’s approach is special, however: Its scholars of literary theory investigate the forms of literature, as well as the interconnectedness of language and knowledge.
The Department of Comparative Literature offers the study of diverse fields and cultures. Its faculty include: experts on English and American culture; classicists who study both the ancient world and its still living legacy on later periods; specialists in French and Francophone culture; scholars focused on peninsular Spain and Latin and South America; professors with German, Italian, Scandinavian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and modern Greek specialization; scholars committed to the study of post-colonialism; others interested in the philosophical principles underlying the nature of language; and scholars focusing on the history, practice, and theory of translation.
Although these groupings suggests segregated interests and bounded specialties, the department’s hallmark is inclusiveness, interrelationships, bridge-making, and multiplicity; each professor works in several areas, several literatures, and often several disciplines. Department offerings and research make frequent use of linguistics, film, painting, music, philosophy, history, sociology, political science, and even medicine. Courses span the cultures of the world and historical periods ranging from antiquity to current time.