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Comparative Studies: The Next Generation

Students may find an edge in the academic marketplace in this new program that redefines doctoral studies in the humanities.

Comparative Studies: The Next Generation

Poetry, subjectivity and political violence in the neoliberal age. Italian artists books in conceptual arts. House, library, field — the aesthetic of saturation.

In the new Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture (CSLC) doctoral program, invention is key.

“We’re looking for students with really unusual ideas,” said the program’s director Peggy Kamuf. “We believe the best way to strengthen graduate education in the humanities is to step outside the lines.”

Launched this Fall, CSLC unites nearly 30 USC Dornsife faculty members in comparative literature, French and Italian, Slavic languages and literatures, and Spanish and Portuguese to remap the boundaries of these fields while preserving their traditions.

CSLC students not only benefit from rigorous training in their chosen specializations, but also from a shared core cross-disciplinary curriculum capitalizing on their wide-ranging interests and those of the program’s faculty.

During their first year and a half of graduate study, all students enroll in three introductory courses that examine the relations among cultural media such as literature, film and new media; the major developments in 20th-century literary criticism; and how culture shapes social formations in Asia, Europe, Francophone Africa, and North and Latin America. Students may then take an advanced seminar in one of these three areas.

Kamuf noted that this initial shared experience among students is one of the hallmarks of CSLC.

“When you talk to Ph.D. graduates, they’ll say that they learned almost as much from their fellow students as they did from their professors,” said Kamuf, Marion Frances Chevalier Professor of French and professor of comparative literature. “We really wanted to help foster that by creating a larger, cohesive graduate cohort.”

Students may pursue a doctoral degree in one of three tracks with an emphasis in at least one language other than English.

The comparative media and culture track explores the development of print, visual, audio and digital media within their specific cultural, historic and linguistic contexts.

“This is another distinctive mark of CSLC and perhaps our most innovative,” Kamuf said. “We’re in an age when new modes of cultural production beyond books abound and this track really allows for a lot of invention and for students to put together original research projects.” 

Through the comparative literature track, students develop their knowledge of literature across linguistic boundaries. They also examine literature’s historical development within specific cultural or ideological contexts — such as American and Chinese utopian novels or 1970s innovative poetry and socialist feminism in the United Kingdom — and look at literary, political and aesthetic theory.

“By definition the study of comparative literature traverses national boundaries and languages and I think that makes the field especially compelling in the 21st century,” said Panivong Norindr, chair of comparative literature and associate professor of French and comparative literature. “Through the study of national literary and artistic traditions, this track provides a different entry point into what is meant by dwelling and thinking in a ‘global village.’ ”

The third track, national literatures and cultures, offers an emphasis in French and Francophone studies; Slavic languages and literature; or Spanish and Latin American studies.

“This program challenges students to make unique connections and allows them to pose interdisciplinary questions in methodologically rigorous ways,” said Natania Meeker, associate professor of French and comparative literature. “CSLC also makes visible, both at the university and nationally, the incredible collaborative spirit shared by the faculty involved in this program and encourages students to benefit from that.”

Thomas Seifrid, chair and professor of Slavic languages and literatures, believes the program offers Slavic scholars and their fellow CSLC students an advantage in the academic marketplace.

“Through CSLC, our Slavic scholars gain exposure to domains of inquiry that they would not have been exposed to otherwise,” Seifrid said. “I think it’s very healthy for them to be in courses with faculty and students who are not Russianists, but who are working in literature and culture. After all, in their professional lives this is what most of them are going to do.”

Roberto Ignacio Díaz, chair and associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese, added that while the connections, for example between Slavic and Spanish are still evolving, the potential for uncovering these is exhilarating.

“The new structure CSLC provides will also allow us to establish USC as the destination for doctoral studies in Spanish,” said Díaz, who is also associate professor of comparative literature. “Spanish studies have traditionally focused on Spanish literature and linguistics and now we have a framework that formally incorporates gender, film, media and even connections to the social sciences. I think prospective doctoral students will find this incredibly intriguing.”

CSLC students can take advantage of USC’s and Los Angeles’ vast resources such as the Getty Research Institute, the Clark Library, the Huntington Library, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Library. They may elect to take relevant courses offered by other USC Dornsife departments such as East Asian Languages and Cultures and English or courses in other schools such as the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the USC Gould School of Law. Funding is also available to support research abroad.

Students in this program will also take two professional development workshop courses. They receive guidance on how to prepare manuscripts, including their dissertations, for publication as well as for conferences. In addition, students focus on the job-search process from creating a curriculum vitae to interviewing and on-campus visits.

While most CSLC students will go on to pursue positions in academe, the program also aims to produce scholars who will enrich communities beyond campuses.

“These students are needed in our society, not just as teachers and educators,” Kamuf said, “but as writers, commentators, thinkers — people working in cultural institutions of all sorts.”

Norindr echoed the goal.

“I think a rigorous liberal arts education, particularly in the humanities and in comparative studies, allows students to become generation leaders able to solve some of the real-life problems that will emerge during their lifetimes,” he said. “CSLC will enable these promising young scholars to find new pathways into fields we cannot even imagine today such as those between modes of cultural production and the environment, economics or politics.”

For more information on the Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture program visit dornsife.usc.edu/cslc.