Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lisa Francavilla on the Nadeem Aslam Reading Course

Reflection on the Class

Contemporary Literature

Nadeem Aslam

This course was amazing. It provided a unique opportunity for me as an English major to learn about contemporary literature. I think that one of the things that I was lacking was an awareness of talented writers in my own time, especially international ones. The fact that this course not only featured contemporary authors but was taught by one made it really valuable

One thing that was really special about the course was that it asked us to look at literature from the writer’s point of view. Often I hear that someone is a “writer’s writer” in class and I am never really sure what that means. This class acknowledged that we are writers as well as readers, and asked us to look at and appreciate how certain authors approach their art. A really helpful thing that Professor Aslam asked us to do was underline passages that grabbed our attention, and then to share them in class. Often we had all underlined the same ones, so it was interesting to see how and why the author focused our attention on these parts of the novel.

I really loved that we were able to just appreciate literature in this class. Often the focus is analytical for classes, and it was wonderful to be able to express in class an appreciation for how beautiful the prose is or how reading the book was a pleasure. Another question that we were asked was “is this believable?” I thought that this question made us focus on our roles not only as writers but also readers. Sometimes the answer was no. Professor Aslam told us about how he would research thoroughly so that his readers would not always be asking themselves this question. So even when we read from a reader’s perspective, there were writing lessons embedded in what we learned.

The course materials were well chosen because they were varied and featured very strong writing. Morvern Callar showed us how writers are experimenting with voice and consciousness in writing. Geoff Dyer’s book was also experimental, in that it was a book about not being able to write a book. The final novel was Japanese, and written by a notable author. Each novel was unique and I felt that they offered a broad range of international writers.

I think that the teacher’s experience as a writer taught us more than the actual books. His stories, from how he became published to his troubles in trying to research in Afghanistan, were fascinating and instructive. As someone who just received her first job as an editorial assistant, his insight into the publishing world was very helpful. Also, his reassurance to the class that writing is not as scary as people often make it out to be was great. He pointed out that his book was accepted by the first publisher who received it, for example. It was also really great to meet a writer who has been published and is contemporary and young enough to relate to the class. When we study Shakespeare, it is often hard to escape from the myth and adulation that surround his name. Professor Aslam was really down-to-earth and approachable, and I think this allowed us to escape the tradition that puts writers up on a pedestal as “geniuses,” so that we could see who they are as ordinary people.

The small size of the class was crucial to making it a success, as was Professor Aslam’s focus on discussion. By allowing everyone to speak and give an opinion, Professor Aslam included the entire class so that we were able to have good debates. The fact that there was not a test relaxed the class, so that the focus was less on taking notes and more on thinking about the books and expressing our ideas. This was really a great opportunity, especially when other classes are stressful. If something like this is done again, I think that keeping it small would be a really good idea. I have noticed that my best educational experiences at GW have been inside English classes (I’m also in the Elliot school) because it allows for smaller classrooms and more time with the professors. This experience was comparable to Eng. 195, and I really enjoyed it. The people who had signed up for the class were very engaged, intelligent, and had really interesting ideas. So it wasn’t only the teacher who made the class enjoyable, but the students who signed up, because they all had a love of reading literature and writing.

Overall, it was a really great class. I only wished that it had lasted all semester, instead of only a month. It was great to meet the writers that GW hosts in a classroom and on a personal level. One thing that I had regretted about GW was the lack of writers in residence who teach classes. I think that this program was a step in uniting students with professionals in the field, and I would highly recommend this experience to any English major.

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