Comparative Literature and English

Hands-On with Postcolonial Literatures and Theory


Ever wondered what classes at AUP are like? An AUP education combines rigorous academic study with an emphasis on experiential learning, helping students apply what they learn to tackling global problems. In this series of three articles, we take a look behind the scenes of one class: Postcolonial Literatures and Theory.

Learning at AUP goes beyond the classroom. No matter their field of study, AUP professors supplement traditional lectures and discussions with experiential learning opportunities, letting students gain real-world experience via hands-on scenarios. Learning continues out in the city of Paris and beyond, where theory gets put into practice. One class that demonstrates this well is Postcolonial Literatures and Theory from the Department of Comparative Literature; the lesson structure is complemented by a Cultural Program study trip to Le Havre and guest lectures from blogger-activist Grace Ly and theater professional Jocelyn Brudey. The class is a great example of how a liberal arts curriculum fosters in students a deeper understanding of the complex sociopolitical fabric of the modern world. 

No sincere investigation of your place in the world today is complete without a certain awareness of postcolonial studies,” says Professor Sneharika Roy. Postcolonial theory helps students rethink the underlying power dynamics of everyday language; dichotomies – such as traditional and modern, or East and West – break down under critical examination, revealed as entrenched in the colonial era. Roy notes that an appreciation of postcolonial theory allows students to “imagine and engage with globalization in more culturally inclusive and empowering ways.” The discipline emerged from two schools of thought: that of French poststructuralist intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault and Anglophone thinkers such as Edward Said and Homi Bhabha.

The texts included in the course reading list span cultural and linguistic divides, encouraging students to view history from multiple angles while developing an appreciation of culturally diverse literature. One of the key texts covered is Aimé Césaire’s Journal of a Homecoming – a book students are encouraged to read in both English and French – which expresses the author’s thoughts on black identity in colonial contexts through a combination of prose and poetry. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade by Assia Djebar, a detailed account of a young girl’s experience growing up in colonial Algeria, is another core example.

It is a particularly powerful experience because we can literally ‘touch’ the colonial past through the various architectural traces in Paris and archival documents written by 19th-century slave traders in former slave ports like Le Havre.

Sneharika Roy Professor, Comparative Literature and English department

Postcolonial academics reassess the linguistic dynamics created during the colonial era that are still reflected in modern academic discourse and sociopolitical interactions. “It helps us understand how power and knowledge – pouvoir and savoir – constantly intersect in the colonial context,” says Roy. Said’s concept of Orientalism, for example, critiques the exoticization embedded in the geopolitical term “the Orient,” which roughly encompasses Asia and the Middle East. He argues the concept has been adopted by former colonial powers as a continuing method of cultural oppression. In class, a close reading of Said’s text is coupled with a modern example of postcolonial pushback against this linguistic violence; Grace Ly – a blogger, novelist and activist – visited the class to discuss her web series, La Petite Banane, which explores the specifics of her international identity as a Chinese Cambodian who grew up in France. Other topics covered in the curriculum include the need for intersectionality put forward by transnational feminist writers such as Chandra Mohanty and Gayatri Spivak, and Stuart Hall’s work on hybridity.

Colonial history, often with a violent nature, is evident in the University’s Parisian surroundings. Extending learning beyond the classroom allows students to both critique their understanding of French colonial history and develop an image of France beyond berets and baguettes. “It is a particularly powerful experience because we can literally ‘touch’ the colonial past through the various architectural traces in Paris and archival documents written by 19th-century slave traders in former slave ports like Le Havre,” explains Roy, mentioning a Cultural Program study trip associated with the class.

The course listing describes the class as having an “anti-academic thrust,” referring to its emphasis on dismantling and reanalyzing commonly accepted academic wisdom. There is a social element to class discussions; students are encouraged to intertwine their personal stories and interpretations of Parisian monuments – including statues, metro stations and street names – into the theory they engage with. The final research paper is replaced by a “scrapbooking” project: a physical, artistic expression of the student’s personal reaction to the postcolonial ideas being discussed. Multimedia in nature, the project consists of a five-item physical compilation – a booklet, for example, or a box of objects – accompanied by a handwritten testimony, and includes an optional audiovisual element, in which students record their thoughts on the subject to camera. Students’ scrapbooks must include a reference to a peer in at least one of these items, further emphasizing the social dimension of the class.

AUP is uniquely placed, as an American institution in an international context, to offer an education that brings theory to life, encouraging students to engage firsthand with what they study while drawing on the varied worldviews of their classmates. Postcolonial Literatures and Theory, with its emphasis on deconstructing language and elevating underrepresented voices, is a prime example of this ethos in action. The following two articles take a closer look at the experiential elements of the course. Check back soon to read student writer Isabel Guigui’s reaction to Grace Ly’s class talk, which will then be followed by Professor Roy’s account of the Le Havre study trip and the accompanying in-class performance by actor and theater director Jocelyn Brudey.