Just Fiction: A Transnational Seminar in Literature and Human Rights

Just Fictions of Human Rights

In a March 2015 lecture, “The Legacy of Torture,” Jameel Jaffer, a deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, addressed the ongoing practice of “indefinite detention” at the Guantánamo Bay military prison. The lingering effects of the now widely condemned interrogation, torture, and detention programs, as well as a lack of public interest to put more pressure on the current administration, he argued, made it difficult, still in 2015, to end the detention of Guantánamo prisoners, some of whom had spent over a decade there without being charged with a crime. Jaffer, a distinguished lawyer whose work led to the US government’s release of the infamous “torture memos,” spoke of the need to end this international but also very American human rights crisis. He also spoke of the power of the book.

Literature and writing have historically played a vital role in mobilizing publics in support of human rights and social justice initiatives. Literary scholars know this, of course, but rarely hear that the humanities or literature matter in tangible, even fleshy ways, from the top lawyers in the US. In many ways Just Fiction, a transnational course co-taught by Alexandra Schultheis Moore at the University of North Carolina Greensboro (US) and myself at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim (Norway) in 2015, owes its existence and one of our key curriculum texts, Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, to that encounter with Jaffer.

We called this transnational class and fascinating pedagogical experiment Just Fiction to invoke and challenge the multiple meanings of the phrase: literature as poor evidence, as just, mere fiction, literature about justice, as well as law as fiction. Most important, however, we wanted in this class very deliberately to move away from teaching human rights in a way that celebrates uncritically Western humanitarianism, that sees human rights violations as always located outside “our” borders. Our selection of legal and literary texts [syllabus below], a guest lecture by law professor Martha F. Davis and her blog and our class activities reflected that.

Despite our transatlantic online meetings throughout the semester, the physical location of our classrooms in Greensboro and Trondheim mattered tremendously. Norway and the US are two geopolitical sites often celebrated as the “sources,” if not guardians, of human rights, and we wanted to reflect critically on what such a designation means to our students as global citizens, readers, future teachers and scholars, and perhaps activists. To this end, our students visited local human rights sites: The Falstad Centre in Ekne, Norway, a former World War II prison camp and now a human rights center; and The International Civil Rights Center & Museum, which commemorates the Greensboro, NC, sit-in protests in the US. One of the most poignant moments in our course came when American and Norwegian students confronted these local histories and collaborated to teach each other about such intra-national human rights crises and histories of resilience across geopolitical boundaries. Some of their work is accessible here. Finally, we concluded the course with the exercise of “critical optimism,” in Richard E. Miller’s words, in order to encourage our students to collaboratively imagine, in diverse media and genres, the different futures of human rigths.

SYLLABUS (fall 2015)

Instructors: Hanna Musiol (Norway) & Alexandra Schultheis Moore (US)  E-Mails: hanna.musiol@ntnu.no & awschult@uncg.edu

Course Description: Welcome to Just Fiction, an advanced interdisciplinary seminar in Anglophone literature and human rights, and also a global classroom pilot at NTNU and University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG).

Our class will take multiple meanings of the phrase “just fiction” as a point of departure. We will examine fictional texts, novels, poetry, and films that engage with diverse concepts of justice. We will also consider the ways in which fictional texts, while extremely important in human rights advocacy, are still seen as poor evidence, as mere fiction. Then, we will also explore the fictional nature of important legal documents, their rhetorical strategies and modes of storytelling. On the broadest level, this course asks: How is justice defined, represented, normalized, imagined in literary and legal texts? How do literature, film, as well as law expand, transform justice scripts? Can literary studies’ methodologies, close reading, for instance, be used to analyze legal documents? How are we – as global citizens, readers, viewers, teachers and scholars – implicated in the just fictions of human rights?

Our course will run in partnership with the Honors College program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and our partner class there will be taught by Alexandra Schultheis Moore, a leading scholar of postcolonial studies and literature and human rights. Thus, in addition to reading diverse texts, and visiting the Falstad Human Rights Center, as a member of this global classroom community, you will have an unprecedented opportunity to exchange ideas and directly collaborate with students and scholars from the States. Professor Schultheis Moore will join us in Trondheim for a week of lectures and seminars during week 42.

Course Keywords: Justice, Fiction, Narrative, Law, Aesthetics, Gender/Sexuality, Race/Ethnicity, Class, Body, Environment

Course Goals

  • to expose you to diverse literary and legal texts narrating justice
  • to enhance your interpretative skills [we will read texts closely, “distantly,” contextually, across disciplines, and in other ways] and introduce you to interdisciplinary scholarship in human rights and literature]
  • to help you experiment with different modes of writing about literature and legal texts
  • to enhance your interdisciplinary research skills
  • to help you recognize the value of critical reflection
  • to encourage collaborations with students from the US and communities from outside NTNU

Required Course Materials (available online or in the University bookstore)

Other Recommended Resources (available in the library or on IL)

  • The Photographer, Life and Debt, Selma, Waste Land
  • Selected art, theory, legal, and popular sources on IL under Course Material
  • The Longman Pocket Writer’s Companion ISBN-10: 0205741797
  • EndNote or Zotero
  • Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangout or another videoconferencing tool

Attendance and Participation. Let me begin by emphasizing that this is OUR course. We will be building it together and you will play an active role in shaping it. In other words, our course will only be as good as we all make it. Therefore, your participation during lectures, seminars and online is indispensable to the success of this class and to your own successes in Just Fictions. Class and online discussions provide a tremendous opportunity for all of us to get to know ourselves as readers, intellectuals and collaborators, and to share ideas beyond what the traditional lecture format allows. Take advantage of that! All students enrolled in this class must use their itslearning (IL) account on a regular basis. All homework updates will be posted on IL, and you will have to submit all parts of your Obligatory Assignment (including weekly responses, comments, and the short essay) and the exam project on IL as well. In addition, several times during the semester, you will be asked to connect and collaborate with students in the US (via Skype and a blog site for our course). If you are not familiar with IL, talk to me after class and/or schedule an appointment with Tech Support.

Obligatory Assignment/OA (ca. 2000 words) can be a BA thesis proposal (available to select students only) or a multi-part project consisting of online responses, discussion questions, and a short project. (You must complete all OA parts throughout the semester in order to qualify for the exam.) Every week, or every other week, I or Professor Moore will ask you to contribute to online discussions (in ca. 150 words). For example, we might ask you to close read and contextualize a passage, to reflect on a class discussion from a previous week, to make connections among literary and legal texts, to post discussion questions, or to collaborate in some other way online with your peers from the States. Participation in our online forum is, in other words, mandatory, and your OA project will derive from your IL and in-class coursework. (If you do not participate in the forum or class on a regular basis, you will fail the OA and will not be able to take the exam.)

Exam. Specific guidelines and a detailed grading rubric will be posted on IL at least 1 month before the scheduled exam.

Rules of Engagement and Class Netiquette. I would like our classroom, the traditional and the electronic, to be a vibrant and safe environment where we can explore diverse ideas and conflicting points of view in an atmosphere of mutual respect. My hope is that online forums will become a site of active intellectual exchange that will provide ample fodder for in-class discussions and international collaborations, and that they will prepare you well for the exam. Don’t be self-conscious about speaking up in public or in English, if it is not your first language, in my class or in anybody else’s. We learn by asking questions, so do ask questions during lectures and online.

Academic Honesty. NTNU is committed to the principles of intellectual honesty and integrity, and as members of this community, you are expected to maintain complete honesty in all academic work. Throughout the semester, we will be discussing academic honesty and various strategies aimed at helping you avoid irresponsible or unethical use of sources or research. If you are not sure about proper documentation and/or use of sources, talk to me before submitting your assignment.

Special Accommodations. Please talk to me as early in the semester as possible if you require special accommodations in order to succeed in our course.

Regions: 

Issues: