May 24, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 17

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    2002 Quantrell Award Winner: Mario Santana, Associate Professor in Romance Languages & Literature and the College

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Mario Santana
    Is there such a thing as American literature? We think it is natural to use a language from Britain to write about American experience, but people did not always think it could be more than a copy of the English language and English traditions. What, then, about people from Mexico or the Caribbean who use English to write about their own experiences? Whose literature is it now?

    Mario Santana has explored these questions in the case of literary relations between Spain and Spanish-speaking countries in America. In his classes, which are introductions to Modern Spanish and Latin American Literature, literary analysis and more advanced topics, he teaches students to create these kinds of questions for themselves.

    In Spain, the question of national literature is particularly acute, because there are four distinct languages spoken there. Is a Catalan novel considered to be Spanish literature? Santana’s book Foreigners in the Homeland: The Spanish American New Novel in Spain 1962-1974 discusses this issue with respect to the Latin American ìboomî of the ’60s and ’70s, when novels by now-famous writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Manuel Vargas Llosa swept through Spain.

    He asked, ìWhen American writers writing in Spanish were both more popular and considered more important than most Spanish writers, what does that mean for Spanish literature?

    In a sense, Santana said, “it’s very easy to teach here because the students are so good, they all have questions, and they all have things to say. The hardest thing in humanities is to teach how to be critical about what you read. We can all gather information and write a nice paper, but to present an original point of view is not just a collection of other people’s ideas; you need to be able to point out others’ weaknesses and strengths and integrate them into an argument of your own. That’s something you don’t learn in a class, it’s something you have to learn over time. There’s a recent book, The Craft of Argument, and I think that’s the hardest thing you can teach.

    “But this is a good environment to try it because students are so open about their ideas. The way the system here works, they get so used to having to present their own ideas and be open to criticism. There has to be a dialogue in class, not just taking notes on what the faculty member says.”

    In the classroom, Santana said he emphasizes careful reading of the texts. “I’m not particularly interested in providing students with the kind of information you can find in the library. Anything you can say in class has been written before. I see teaching as training to read critically, rather than transmitting knowledge.”

    Santana said much of the class time is spent discussing problems created by the text. ìWhat problems do we have in reading the text? Problems of understanding, problems of meaning?

    “If you read Crime and Punishment, as we do in the Core, why does the crime take such a small portion of the novel and the punishment so much? This feature of the form elicits a questionóis the punishment more important than the crime?

    “What I like is that the students can think of issues that come from the text, not just from ideas or problems explicitly presented in the text, but also from the form itself.

    “Two novels can talk about the same thing very differently––it’s the way they talk that can make them interesting to us.”