Why Writing Works

Disciplinary Approaches to Composing Texts

Literary Studies: Disciplinary Perspective

by Dr. Eric Doise

If you go back far enough, literary studies emerges from the study of the Bible. However, it has transformed multiple times since then. For a time, the reading of literature was used primarily to teach grammar. For another period, it focused (or at least claimed to focus) almost exclusively on issues like form and word choice. However, since World War II, the field has become increasingly interdisciplinary, incorporating work from fields including philosophy, sociology, psychology, history, anthropology, cultural studies, and even statistics. Because literary studies can now include film, video games, digital texts and other mediums, “literature,” whose etymology is tied to books, might be a misnomer for the field.

At the heart of contemporary literary studies is the idea that the narratives we tell and how we tell them both reflect the world and our understanding of it and shape that understanding. As noted above, these understandings and narratives are interdisciplinary and multi-media. While literary studies does analyze what is present on the page/screen, it also highlights what is absent. Whose stories, for example, tend not to be told or to circulate widely are sometimes more revealing of a culture than whose are valued. As a result, arguments composed in the field are rarely constrained to just the literary text. Rather, experts treat these texts as illustrative of larger concerns. For example, scholars do seek to identify characteristics of a particular genre, but they might then follow up with an analysis of why those characteristics were valued in the specific historical and cultural moment in which the genre emerged and what political and cultural significance a writer deviating from those expectations has.


Professional Organizations

The Modern Language Association (MLA) and its regional counterparts are key across the field. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) is an important resource for the teaching of literature. However, sub-disciplines often have their own such organizations or networks, and given that research can be so narrowly focused, some find these other associations to be a more efficient use of their time. For example, the American Literature Association focuses on American literature and authors. The American Comparative Literature Association is popular for those who engage in cross-cultural literary study. If you are interested in a specific national, period, cultural, or genre tradition, a Google search will likely point you to some useful options.