Program in Comparative Literature

A Note from the Founder

In 2013 I read an article in The Washington Post about a University of Virginia program teaching Russian literature at a juvenile detention facility. A participant in the courses recounts a time he was hassled by another man at the facility—instead of responding with his “usual” reaction, the man handed his fellow inmate a copy of The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and said, “Come back to me when you’ve finished reading it, then we’ll talk.” This program resonated with me because of my own work on Russian literature and the role of literature in civic duty. Inspired by the program in Virginia, the Program in Comparative Literature began working on a service project that is now the Reading World Literature program. With the support of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO), we held our first course on Honoré de Balzac’s Father Goriot in August 2014. Since then, graduate student instructors have led over ten courses with some earning course credit for their work. Courses are held at a pre-trial facility and last between four to six weeks with a focus on one text. Our students seriously engage with the material, engage in vibrant discussions about the text, applying them to contemporary society and their own lives. In turn, instructors are rewarded by fresh perspectives and insights, in addition to invaluable pedagogical and learning experience. Participation in the program is a unique way to see the practical importance of our work and really get involved in our community. At the end of each course it is clear that our work has a significant impact on students and instructors alike. As one student put it, these courses give both students and teachers “something else to talk about.”

On behalf of Comparative Literature and the Reading World Literature program, I would like thank the Travis County Sheriff’s Office for giving us this opportunity. Thank you to Dr. Elizabeth Richmond-Garza and Dr. Wayne Rebhorn for their continued support. Thank you to my colleagues Destini Price, Amy Vidor, Richard Shear, and our new co-director Nina Sport for raising funds, recruiting participants, and navigating program developments.  Finally, we extend our heartfelt thanks to all program supporters. We could not have done this without you.

Kaitlin Shirley, M.A.

June 2017