I believe in the synchronicity of language and literature, for one can hardly be studied apart from the other (1). I have taught a wide variety of literature and culture courses in both English and Portuguese, as well as Portuguese language courses, but rather than divide language instruction and literature surveys into two distinct pedagogical practices, I prefer to approach all my teaching, whether at the level of basic Portuguese or advanced seminars in literature, as courses in cultural literacy.
Cultural literacy implies not only fluency of language but of knowledge as well. I accordingly design my courses to promote the positive knowledge of other cultures as well as a critical stance towards one’s own culture. This double-directioned approach works well in both traditional foreign language acquisition courses and literature courses. For example, when I introduce the concept of plurals in my basic Portuguese course, I use the short poem by Arnaldo Antunes: “Neto e neta são netos, no masculino. Filho e filha são filhos, no masculino. Pai e mãe são pais, no masculino. Avô e avó são avós” (2). This simple yet hard-to-translate poem not only illustrates well the grammatical lesson I am teaching, but it also simultaneously raises questions of how patriarchal discourse is linguistically embedded. Despite my students’ limited abilities to express themselves this early in the semester, they “get” the paradox of the poem and we are able to talk, albeit at a very basic level, about gender and patriarchal structures in both Luso-Brazilian and U.S. culture. Our seemingly benign discussion of a standard grammatical principle doubles as a lesson in cultural literacy.
In my literature and cultural studies courses there are, unfortunately, no defamiliarizing mechanisms as automatic and immediate as a foreign language. While many of my literature students would claim a high level of fluency on the first day of class, I adopt a variety of different kinds of cultural “texts” that challenge my students to rethink themselves and culture in new ways. In an introductory seminar on cultural theory I taught at Bryant University, an especially elucidating moment occurred when I asked my students to read Bruce Springstein’s song “Born in the U.S.A.” in the context of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Foucault. The activity defamiliarized this well-known song and my students returned to class eager to discuss the song’s ironies and historical context, which they had not previously considered. The activity furthermore inspired my students, who were mostly business and accounting majors, to reconsider the value and role of literary theory—not as a set of doctrinal truths but rather a series of questions that can open literature and culture to new ways of understanding and make my students more savvy readers of the world.
An additional example of how I encourage cultural literacy comes from a survey course on Brazilian literature that I have taught in Portuguese at Brown and Brigham Young Universities. I assigned my students to read a popular 1960s fotonovela (3), “O Preço da Liberdade” [The Price of Happiness], alongside Clarice Lispector's collection Laços de família [Family Ties] from the same period. Reading the fotonovela enabled my students to more fully understand the idealized myths and mores concerning women, men, relationships, and marriage that Clarice Lispector investigates in her groundbreaking stories. The pairing of popular fotonovela and serious fiction led my students to discuss the relationship between high and low art in the context of both Brazil and the United States, and our class session ended with an increased awareness of the ways that literature and popular culture reflect and influence social attitudes.
To gauge the effectiveness of my teaching, that is, the degree to which my students are developing cultural literacy, I utilize a variety of assessment methods. In my literature courses I ask my students to keep journals in which they are required to copy down and reflect on passages from assigned readings that they find meaningful, and I frequently ask students to share their entries with the rest of the class. These are consistently productive moments that allow students to personalize course materials, and the passages they choose to share often serve as springboards to the day’s discussion while promoting my students’ own investment in the course. I also give my students frequent short writing assignments to encourage them to reflect further upon assigned texts and class discussions. These writing assignments allow me to see how well students understand course materials, and they also give me an opportunity to provide individualized feedback to my students. Before giving a writing assignment, I provide my students with a rubric that clearly states the goals and assessment methods for the assignment. I find that creating a rubric is an essential step in developing a writing assignment as it forces me to articulate clearly the goals of the assignment, and because it allows me to evaluate better a student’s work and provide concrete evidence of that assessment. Moreover, utilizing rubrics helps to make the learning process more transparent for my students.
In my language classes, nearly every day I include some kind of a creative activity that serves—like a writing assignment for a literature class—as a way for my students to engage with and produce meaning based on class materials. I invite my students to create dramatic dialogues, invent stories, interview one another, write poetry, write letters, imagine conversations in Brazil, in Portugal, in restaurants, in taxis, on the Sugarloaf, etc., in effect, to “perform” the language and culture they are learning. These daily performances provide me with immediate and meaningful opportunities to assess oral proficiency and the progress of my students’ linguistic and cultural fluency. I also use regular quizzes/tests to measure my students’ understanding of grammatical principles. These exams are useful tools that help me identify students’ weaknesses and strengths and after each exam I adjust my classroom assignments to address weaknesses that have surfaced.
Reflecting on my basic Portuguese courses, I believe that for some students the process of learning Portuguese, or any other language, can be intimidating precisely because language is not merely a tool one acquires. Learning a foreign language may be unnerving and challenging because education itself involves risk. Students in both language acquisition courses and literature courses must open themselves to unfamiliar modes of self-expression and self-identification that are undoubtedly different from the linguistic and cultural worlds they typically inhabit. I believe that language and literature courses open the door to cultural literacy, which is as much a portal to a new sense of self as it is the doorway to a new culture.
1. Nelson H. Vieira, “Content, Content, Content: Teaching Portuguese as a Foreign Language,” in Brown University’s The Teaching Exchange, Vol. 10, No. 1, September 2005. http://www.brown.edu/Administration/Sheridan_Center/pubs/teachingExchange/author_index.html#v2
2. Here is a rough approximation of the poem: “A grandson and a granddaughter are grandsons, in the masculine. A son and a daughter are sons, in the masculine. A father and a mother are fathers, in the masculine. A grandfather and a grandmother are grandmothers.”
3. Fotonovelas or photonovels are popular throughout Latin America, Northern Africa, France, and Italy. They often present dramatic love stories told in photographs with balloon captions presenting the dialogue.