Students explore the broad scope of comparative literature and humanities

February 2, 2018

How does one study the human experience? At Brandeis, the Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature and Culture allows students to explore culture and texts to find new ways of thinking about the world. Prof. Matthew Fraleigh is the undergraduate advising head for the Comparative Literature and Culture program, as well as the chair of the masters program of Comparative Humanities on campus.

“Humans are at the center of humanities. Human culture and human texts are at the center of inquiry,” Fraleigh said. “There is a comparative dimension that is inherent in the humanities. By saying comparative humanities, we are putting that comparative dimension into perspective.”

Brandeis offers both a major and a minor in Comparative Literature, and Fraleigh described the program as cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary. Students can take courses for the degree in a variety of departments, including upper division classes in foreign languages and film. Majors are required to take two upper-division classes taught in a language other than English, which include GRK 115B “Ancient Greek Drama” and CHIN 120A, “Readings in Contemporary Chinese Literature: Advanced Chinese Language.”

As an undergraduate at Stanford University, Fraleigh started on the pre-med track, but switched to biology and Asian languages after falling in love with medieval Japanese literature and history. “[The] unexpected synergies got me really excited. I wanted to the study the literary culture in more detail. When I took more and more classes, I found my passion,” Fraleigh said.

As a Brandeis associate professor of East Asian Literature and Culture, Fraleigh primarily researches the analysis of Japanese literature, specifically a “body” of Japanese literature written in traditional Mandarin. Fraleigh refers to his studies as cross-temporal, covering from the late 17th century to the first half of the 19th century. “I am interested in how the texts written by Japanese intellectuals in the early-modern period relate in an orthodox and unorthodox setting,” he said. These unorthodox texts “playfully depart from the normal practices in writing poetry that have fun playing with boundaries,” Farleigh added.

Two Japanese literature courses have stood out to Fraleigh since he began teaching at Brandeis in 2006: JAPN 120, “Reading in Modern Japanese Literature,” a class taught in Japanese with the analysis of different sets of texts each week and JAPN 130, “The Literature of Multicultural Japan,” which looked at ethnic minorities in Japan and the heterogeneity of the culture.

Brandeis also offers a graduate program for Comparative Humanities for those who wish to further explore the depths of the humanities. Talia Franks ’18, the Undergraduate Departmental Representative (UDR) for Comparative Literature, will begin the M.A. in Comparative Humanities at Brandeis next fall. After receiving a recommendation for the masters program from one of her advisors, Prof. David Powelstock, who was the chair of the program at the time, she decided to apply. “The departments are closely linked, so it seemed like a natural transition into a graduate program that was already linked to my interests,” Franks wrote to The Brandeis Hoot.

Graduate student Xinyi Du also decided to pursue a masters in Comparative Humanities after receiving advice from Powelstock. “When I was about to graduate from my undergrad here at Brandeis I did not really know what specific area I wanted to dive into and I was not ready to narrow down my academic interests yet. Professor Powelstock recommended this program to me as a buffer period for me to figure out my future path while receiving a degree.”

For Du, Comparative Humanities provides the benefit of a wider scope of knowledge than a singular program in the humanities, such as History or English. “Comparative Humanities provide me with broad choices from all humanities subjects and I get a very broad vision by taking advantage of all subjects,” Du said.

Studying Comparative Humanities also gives Franks the opportunity to “examine literature and culture in ways that cross boundaries in a way that I feel the direct disciplines aren’t always as open to,” she wrote. “I have worked with a few different professors within the program, including independent study projects, and the department as a whole is incredibly welcoming.”

Fraleigh said that students should leave room for exploration in their studies. “One of the most interesting and valuable things you can do in college is open yourself up to new fields of study and new lines of inquiry. Even if something is not clear where it fits into your career goals, if it’s something that you are interested in, it is worth taking a chance and stepping into,” he said. “I would encourage students to be open to new possibilities and new areas of study that they would not otherwise pursue.”

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