It’s over three years now since storyboard last taught Literature and Politics. When he did those three years ago, he was standing in for Dr. Steven Winduo who was on a semester’s visiting appointment at the University of Minnesota (US academic year 2007/08). This year, the arrangement is repeated with Winduo on yet another teaching appointment overseas, this time at the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii.
Every time storyboard takes up this course so many exciting things happen to student and lecturer alike. Both parties find themselves learning something new, something fresh.
But these new experiences happen to be history revisited once all over again. For example, when last storyboard took that course an assortment of recommended reading material from various literary journals revealed that criticisms levelled against Barrack Obama were heavy, that he might never have made it to the White House. But storyboard insisted there and then, in that course, that “Obama will make a fine President”, and this was printed in the pages of the National Weekender that very year (semester one, 2007). Today such criticisms against the US President remain just as heavy, mainly those stemming from the “deal to extend the Bush tax cuts” and the passing of health care laws – but what matter, if, in the final analysis, it is noted that the main purpose of courses such as these is to see the realities that surround the two different entities, namely literature and politics, in their peculiar moments of collaboration that enable men and women either gain power and control or lose them.
Further, what seems so exciting about these literature courses is their inevitable venture into the territories of other courses and academic disciplines for no other purpose than to form alliances and partnerships with them in an endeavour to better explain the complex world that surrounds us. And that they do so quite often successfully.
But Obama and global politics aside, we come back home to our own environment, to the arena of the realization that our versions of the terms literature and politics do not differ in as much as retain their significance as worthy partners in achieving those goals that will remain unsurpassable. Was literature really responsible in Papua New Guinea’s fight for political independence from Australia? That question asked today remains as resoundingly significant as when it was first asked over forty years ago. Of course both teacher and student will agree that Papua New Guinea would be one of the few countries in the world that gained its political independence from a colonial power through the influence of the written word.
By the influence of the written word we mean those little things we call poems, plays, short stories, myths and legends, oral histories, proverbs, anecdotes, jokes and cartoons, and even novels, autobiographies/biographies and memoirs. Then of course there is the requirement of not dwelling so much on what the lecturer says in the classroom but also going out to see, to listen to, witness and record, then come back and talk about it all. These also form the main areas of enquiry in courses such as Literature and Politics.
That said, within a few weeks of familiarizations with this course, a second year major in Literature and English Communication had this to say by way of first impressions:
“Apart from books [and reading material prescribed and recommended for us we notice as a point of relevance that] the media also, especially Post Courier and National, [has] given space for writers to comment or criticise strategic people in the government to do the right thing. The whole point of this is because they know there is more to this land than what meets the eye. If PNG is an island floating on a sea of oil and yet the standard of living is not improved then there seriously needs to be some outcry; but the question is, can Literature and Politics really be a place of influence? Does it have the power and influence that is stronger than [anything else] in this twenty first century? If it is then it’s a delightful place to be.”
And so on, back and forth, in their first essay, trying to work out what the course is about. Towards the end of the semester it is envisaged that the student will have picked up enough material by way of knowledge that will enable him or her, upon graduation, to get a job in the outside world. But the emphasis to this course, as with the other literature courses, lies in the amount of written material read in a given semester.
Here, we turn to the availability or lack of reading material. Now the University of Papua New Guinea, with its limited resources, suffers enormously from lack of reading material. Part of the fault lies in the way the student population handles its own sense of privileges. Books borrowed from the library grow legs and walk off, and that sort of thing. The other and perhaps serious fault lies in the hands of the stakeholders. With the University itself being one of them it probably has some good excuses to offer; that it suffers immensely from severe budget cuts or not enough of it, year in year out. Or that it has so little of it not much is left to spare for the library’s acquisition department to send out orders for more books that are vital for the student population. A literature course usually needs 10 to 15 titles in a given semester to deal with. Those titles are given, certainly; but are there enough copies for ten or so students in a class?
So where or to whom do we turn regarding this particular lack that prevents courses such as Literature and Politics becoming the “delightful places to be”? Just the other day storyboard stood admiring a stone slab that was laid down some 46 years ago and serving as the foundation of the premier university. A few metres down from there is the Michael Somare Library, looking as grim and lonely as ever. Later, in the classroom, a couple of students remarked: “You know, the old man can well afford those expensive lawyers from overseas to take care of him at the court houses. What about us? When will he pay us a visit again?”