What is it? Or, better yet, what isn't it?
My department (English) has a (relatively new) "World Literature" requirement. This is not surprising. Many departments have such a requirement. But I'm wondering if anyone can help me define what it is, exactly.
It seems (though I could be mistaken) that the impetus is to increase our students' exposure to and understanding of literary works, authors, traditions, etc. beyond our own national borders. (I should point out that I teach in the US.) But as I have seen such courses taught (at more than one institution), there's no clear definition of what "world literature" is.
For starters, how is US literature not part of "world literature"? Can we not see the ways that writers look beyond the literatures of their own nation? Would Thoreau have written what he did without his education in Greek and Latin? Would Whitman be the same without having read the Hindu Vedas? Does Pound do anything of note that doesn't look to antiquity, medieval Europe (British and continental), north Africa, or Asia? Does Ishmael Reed make any sense without some background of Haitian Voodoo? Can we even begin to understand Gerald Vizenor without a familiarity with the Chinese character Sun Wu-Kung (itself an adoption from the Ramayana)? Sure, I may pick very specific examples, but can we really think of the literature of one nation in strict geographical isolation?
I am asking people for what they think because this is a discussion my department is currently having, with really no consensus. According to one member of the faculty, "World Literature" is anything not written in English. For another, it is anything "not part of the literary history of literatures written in English," including Classical literature because (in his words) "it is the backbone upon which English literature was built." (So the ancient literatures of the Mediterranean are not "World Literature" because of later developments in western Europe and America?) For yet another, it is any "non-western" literature, so the literature of western Europe does not count as "World Literature." As you can probably imagine, there then become as many opinions as there are pulses in the room. And not one of them is satisfactory.
One reason I ask is because I teach Native American literature. I asked, "what about my class, is that World Literature?" "No," most answered right away, but then discussion followed. On the one hand, any Native American literature written in English is part of the "literatures written in English" (and geographically in the US), so cannot be "World Literature." On the other hand, many writers work outside of the intellectual and philosophical traditions handed down from Europe, so sure (one faculty member tells us), "Native literature is World Literature, because it's not really American in the sense of Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville." (I find those choices interesting, but I didn't want to continue this digression.) Right now, there is no course called "World Literature," but people can and do teach courses that fit this requirement (such as "The Novel," or "Postmodern Literature," or "The Short Story," without teaching anyone from England or the US).
Personally, I don't care what requirements my courses fill; I won't teach it any differently whether it's "World Literature" or not. But I am curious what others think about this. Is there a department that has a good working definition of "World Literature"? Is there a department that doesn't bother with this distinction because it causes more problems than it solves?