Fredericton Faculty of Arts

Introducing Comparative Cultural Studies

Author: Fredericton Arts

Posted on Jun 3, 2016

Category: News , Faculty , Other , Departmental , Arts , Student

Allan Reid
Dr. Allan Reid - Professor - Comparative Cultural Studies
(Specialities: Soviet & Russian literature & literary theory, holocaust literature, and Soviet underground culture & literature)  

Anette Guse
Dr. Anette Guse - Associate Professor - Comparative Cultural Studies
(Specialties: 18th and 20th century German Literature and Culture, German Language Acquisition, Musical Theatre, Opera, and Performing Arts)


Keegan & Friends
Keegan Manson-Curry (in the middle) and other students in the CCS student lounge
Keegan is a Comparative Cultural Studies Honours Student (concentration in Spanish) who hopes to go on to a graduate program in Ethnomusicology.
He will be travelling to the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland this summer to complete an independent study in CCS looking at music traditions and tourism.

What is comparative cultural studies (CCS)?

ANETTE: Cultural Studies deals with the various ways and forms (such as customs, art, music, literature, film, media) we use to express or shape our experience of a particular social surrounding. We can look at the world as a text that we can read. It’s how we make sense of the world. I sometimes say to students in class, even our classroom is a text. If you look at how the seating is arranged, and how I, a teacher, stand in front of you – it means we have a particular relationship. It’s different from when a class sits in a seminar setting and we all sit around a table. This is meaningful. So cultural studies looks at how people create and express their cultures, their societies, their lives, their values, their practices. Comparative Cultural Studies means I’m looking at different cultures defined by the people of different nations and countries but also other groupings like a university, or a company - these are cultures [too]. We contrast and compare and through this comparing we work out the features and specific characteristics. Doing this allows us to make connections and draw conclusions that we otherwise may not have made.

Our world is increasingly more interconnected. We’re tapping into that connectedness and it is simply exciting to see how cultures can be geographically very distant but have interesting similarities and differences. When I understand that, I am better prepared to deal with encounters of the foreign that are almost inevitable today. Because of our increasing mobility, immigrants [and newcomers] change the landscape of our environment and having insight into other cultures is very helpful for interacting with new people.  It is also enriching and in fact empowering to know more about other contemporary cultures as it may help to enlarge our own radius of action, and to inspire students to participate in mobility (travel or work abroad).

How does CCS compare to cultural studies programs in humanities disciplines at other universities?

ALLAN: It's fair to say that we don't see CCS as a program in Cultural Studies as that discipline has evolved and defined itself over the last 40 years or so.  Following the framework developed by Tötösy (Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek), we have developed an approach that combines elements of Cultural Studies with Comparative Literature.  Our program aims to be comparative in orientation, inter- and multi-disciplinary, and transnational.

ANETTE: Because we’re coming from various disciplines, students will be exposed to many perspectives. However, we’re not just adding these perspectives like layers, rather they are interwoven. CCS students also have exposure to the media component – for example in our introductory course, Introduction to Culture, Arts, and Media. In addition, Media Arts and Cultures students have access to the methodology of literary studies, which is very beneficial to understand the origins of stories and storytelling.

Comparative Cultural Studies is a newly configured program building on the legacy of the World Literature and Culture Studies (WLCS) program. Tell me a bit about how this program differs from WLCS – what has changed and what has stayed the same/or built upon the past?

ALLAN: Among the strengths of our previous program were its breadth and the range of choice available to students. We still offer many of the same courses as electives for CCS as we did for WLCS. What has changed is, first of all, the addition of the 4 core courses (see below) to ensure theoretical and contextual grounding in the study of culture(s), primarily in a comparative framework. Secondly, we have designated certain courses with broad comparative content as core, and students have to choose from them. While we don't function entirely in terms of theory and application, these courses will allow students to experience a range of comparative content across geographical, disciplinary, cultural and conceptual borders. Because CCS also supersedes our other programs in German and Spanish, it is also important to underscore the opportunity to do a CCS concentration in Spanish or German, by taking a series of electives with appropriately focused content.

Keegan, why did you choose CCS?

KEEGAN: I chose it because after I graduate I plan on going to grad school for musicology, maybe ethnomusicology, which in a general sense is like comparative studies of music. Having a background in comparative cultural studies is really useful for that, to understand how cultures interact with each other and also how to understand cultures that you’ve never seen before. This program is totally about that. It’s about learning about the cultures and then learning about the theory behind how they interact and applying it.

Some of the other programs at UNB that I looked at were more western culture focused and it was really important to me to learn about other cultures because they are equally as important. That’s why I wanted this [program] because it was the most open to [other cultures] and had the most variety in the material covered.

As mentioned above, there are 4 core required CCS courses (CCS 1021; CCS 2021; CCS 3021; CCS 3023) – tell me a bit about them and how they serve students choosing to Major, Minor, or Honour in Comparative Cultural Studies.

ALLAN: Our series of required courses are designed to give students a good grounding in some of the key methodological and theoretical questions involved in CCS and to expose them to much of the subject matter related to this field of study. CCS 1021 is intended to present basic ideas related to the study of culture, media and art at an introductory level.  It will also familiarize students with several of the instructors in our program and their areas of specialization through guest lectures. 2021 will introduce students to the study of Popular Culture in theoretical and historical frames. Popular Culture is one of the central concerns and innovations of Cultural Studies and here students will learn to think critically and more expansively about many of the things they participate in or are broadly aware of as consumers of culture. High and Low culture are brought together and examined through a shared lens. 3021 and 3023 are a pair of courses which provide students with a theoretical grounding in Cultural Studies and Comparative Cultural Studies respectively.

ANETTE: Aside from these core courses we have many theme oriented courses. Rather than organizing courses by historical or literary periods, something that has been a tradition in literary studies and in larger programs & graduate studies, (for example, a course on drama of the Enlightenment) we [instead] have many courses that are organized by themes. This was also the case with the original programs (WLCS, German Studies, and Spanish) which have been transformed into CCS. One example of this [type of course] would be Dr. Hamling’s Love and Religion (CCS 3062)… in this course you would not only study [texts from] the 19th century or 20th century but you select prime examples from various periods to show how authors express universal topics in a similar way but also what distinguishes them.

In addition, the CCS program has an integrated language component (requirement of 12 credit hours in one additional language). In summary, students have a good variety of courses [to choose from] because of faculty members coming from different disciplines - German and Spanish, colleagues with expertise in Russian and Slavic literature, as well as faculty from our other program Media Arts and Cultures (MAAC).

Keegan - do you have some favourite courses that you might want to mention?

KEEGAN: Yeah! The Popular Culture course last term (CCS/MAAC 2021) – it was really good. I took that one with Donna Deville. There’s also a really good one I’m in this term called Music and Cultural Identity (CCS/MUS 3794), it’s about how the two are related. It’s co-taught by Richard Hornsby and Allan Reid. It’s great because you get the music perspective from Professor Hornsby and the culture and sociology and stuff like that from Professor Reid.

What’s it like to teach CCS courses?

ANETTE: We have different types of courses: excellent courses that dive deeper into one culture or theme are taught by one professor with that particular scholarly expertise but we also have a number of courses, especially cross-cultural courses, that draw on a series of guest lectures. Most students enjoy this because they get exposed to different teaching styles and approaches but it’s also very interesting as a professor because you get to know your colleagues better. In such courses it’s particularly important to stay with the thread or the theme of the course and to review with students what you have learned.

I do find that I also learn a great deal. For me, – I am a professor of German Literature, German Cultural Studies, and German Cinema with a strong interest in interdisciplinary approaches – when I listen to colleagues I learn something new. In that regard I’m privileged to have this opportunity to exchange with my colleagues.

I try to uncover with students the relevance and meaningfulness of what we are discussing. I can give you an example - I recently taught a 19th century novella that takes place in a little village in Germany with forestry as an industry. I tried to relate the themes such as poverty, crime, ostracism of outsiders, difficulty of moral judgment, ambiguity of reality... to today.

We offer many courses with contemporary content but also some with historical emphasis. Both are very important because we can only understand what is 'now' when we also look at what it is built upon and where it is coming from. It is essential to cultivate that in our course offerings.

What are some of the benefits of a CCS degree program?

ALLAN: The benefits of a CCS degree, as with most humanities degrees, may be difficult to quantify, but here are some of them.  We are attentive to the key skills of critical thinking, development of research abilities, textual analysis, effective oral and written communication, which all good university programs should ensure students have the opportunity to develop.  In addition, and more specifically, CCS will foster in students inter-cultural literacy, an appreciation of their own values in the context of other cultural systems and broadened awareness of global realities.  We are constantly reminded of the need to see beyond our own borders (while not disregarding the need to expand our understanding of what goes on within them) as a condition of global citizenship.  It is our view that CCS is an excellent means to achieving that end.  Based on our experience with WLCS, we are confident students will have opportunities to go on to further study in a variety of fields, whether at the graduate or professional level. Our WLCS grads have successfully gone on to Master's and Doctoral and professional programs in Law, Education, Public Health, Environmental Studies, Anthropology, English, East European Studies, Cultural Studies and others.

What’s your favourite aspect so far of the CCS program?

KEEGAN: For me, I really like learning about the theory and philosophy behind comparative cultural studies and learning how to compare different cultures, understanding how they interact and also how to look at cultures that you are unfamiliar with. The theory was definitely one of the things that interested me the most and was definitely a new thing for me, something I hadn’t experienced yet in my schooling.

Any particular theorists that you have found interesting so far?

KEEGAN: Well there’s a lot that I’ve found interesting. I don’t know if I agree with all of it but there are some really interesting ones like Foucault and other cultural studies [theorists] from the 20th century that are pretty interesting… Cultural studies is sort of a younger field [of study and the theorists] seem to be younger and more diverse than other academic fields.

How is CCS preparing you for your future plans in ethnomusicology and grad school?

KEEGAN: It’s actually helping me in a lot of ways. It’s almost a perfect program to get ready for ethnomusicology minus the fact that there isn’t any specific musical studies [required] in the program. It’s really useful because ethnomusicology programs, pretty much all of them want you to be able to speak one other language other than the one you grew up speaking. You have to take [at least] 4 semesters of another language in CCS. Also the fact that it’s comparative is a really important thing because part of ethnomusicology is about comparing other cultures and looking at how they interact. And not just other cultures in the geographic sense but also in the media sense, in film, or television, or music, and things like that. And the theoretical background is super important.

Could you tell me a bit about what it would be like for me as a student to take certain streams of your program? For example if I chose to take the German option?

ANETTE: You would take 4 German language acquisition courses and you would study primarily courses with German content (culture, literature, film). There's one required course, an introduction to German Culture, and students can choose the Early German Culture course, which covers the Middle Ages to the late 18th century and /or the contemporary German culture course. Then we have a number of other literature and culture courses – for example I’m teaching a course titled “Crimes and Misdemeanors” a theme course where I combine literature of the canon - highlights of German literature (like Goethe for example) - with short stories from the 19th century as well as very recent crime fiction. I also teach German film and there are other great courses, like Decadence, Nazis, and the War; taught by a colleague in German who hopefully will be joining us again. Students also have to take core courses of the [CCS] program that cover the theory and methodology of comparative cultural studies.

What kinds of career paths and educations paths does CCS prepare graduates for?

ANETTE: Students with this degree have a lot of choices and while this openness can make it a little scary it allows students to respend to opportunities in a variety of fields. A student with this degree will have skills allowing them to interpret, to relate, to communicate, to analyze, to present, to articulate ideas, develop solutions, and be creative. These skills are in high demand for all kinds of [careers] whether that’s for example the entertainment industry or public relations or politics or writing; education; tourism; service industries; diplomacy; government agencies; and international careers. Like all Arts degrees, this degree trains our thinking but beyond that it gives you an increased ability to put yourself in the shoes of somebody else from a different background and to be more comfortable in foreign contexts. This intercultural competency, global competency, means you are adaptable and flexible and suggests you may solve challenges of new situations better than someone else who has never encountered differences, ethnic or cultural, and had the opportunity to reflect on them (as well as commonalities!).

Who might be interested in CCS?

ANETTE: Students don’t always know what subject to pick as a major. It is important that students learn to understand their interests and strengths because if you are interested in something you will enjoy it more and you’re more inclined to work hard. This program does not have any prerequisites and it will be suitable for students who enjoy art, music, interests in cinema, reading, travelling, perhaps fashion, and languages. It is well-suited to those who are curious about customs and cultures of other countries as well as their own environment and who would like to better understand the world and the power of culture to shape our world.

Interview conducted and edited by Tabatha Armstrong