Community Engagement, Critical Literacy, and Literary Studies (MLA, Vancouver, 8–11 January 2015)

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Modern Language Association, Special Session Roundtable
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The term "community engagement" has of late become something of an academic buzzword in the United States, accompanying and engendering innovative new pedagogy and research possibilities, as well as new conceptions of the university and its mission. There nevertheless persists a widespread stereotyping of community engagement as the latest incarnation of administrative jargon, as a fad that lacks academic rigor and amounts to nothing more than an institutionally enforced form of volunteerism or activism. Those in literary studies especially (unlike many faculty in composition and rhetoric) often struggle to identify the relevance of community engagement to their research and teaching. "What does community engagement have to do with my Lacanian reading of Virginia Woolf, my study of Chaucerian aesthetics, or my survey class on early American literature?"

Regrettably, such misconceptions have meant that the concept of community engagement is frequently regarded as a clumsy appendage to – rather than a foundation for – the study of literature. Instead, we might ask how community engagement can offer opportunities to students of literature and enable them to contribute to various local, national and global communities in meaningful, substantive ways. Importantly, we must find ways for such contributions to come from the starting point of disciplinary knowledge (rather than from the reductive stereotypes of do-gooder volunteerism or activism that are too frequently and uncritically deployed). What can literary study specifically offer the field of community engagement that other disciplines cannot? How might the critical standpoints of literary study offer a basis upon which to cultivate the agency of students? What types of new knowledge might be produced on this front?

This roundtable seeks to develop new ways of imagining these potentials of community engagement activity within literary pedagogy. We invite a range of practical, theoretical, and historical approaches to the topic. We anticipate short (6-8 minute) presentations with discussion to follow.

Roundtable organized by Dr. Andrew Lyndon Knighton and Dr. Bidhan Roy, California State University, Los Angeles.

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