American and British Literature in a Spanish Setting

This Fall, our ACCENT Madrid staff conducted a interview with Santa Barbara City College professor Melanie Eckford-Prossor, who has been teaching American and British Literature courses in Madrid and exploring the historical and literary connections between Spain and other countries. Melanie discusses how teaching abroad has benefits and opportunities that cannot possibly be replicated back home on campus, and how the life-changing experience of traveling abroad can bring forward new ideas and new themes in literary discussion.

Can you describe the two courses you’re teaching in Madrid?

“I’m teaching American Lit and Brit Lit 2; for Santa Barbara City College, that’s English 222, which is British literature and goes from 1798 to the present, and the American Lit 226 [class] which goes from 1865 to the present.”

What interested you in teaching these classes here?

“I think part of it is this idea of expatriate literature, and also this question about origins: the origins of language, the origins of a country, the origins of a national literature. We also map it onto the Spanish Civil War because the American class picks up on the other side of the American Civil War, so this experience of a country being pulled apart and divided, and who gets to decide what it should be…these are the issues that you bring from the past into the present.

One of the differences is that I don’t usually do a Hemingway novel [when I teach] in America, but I did For Whom the Bell Tolls here. I think some students really loathed it, and some students really loved it. It was a very divided approach to it, but Robert Jordan—who’s the protagonist—is a great character because he’s an American who is a Spanish professor in Montana, loves Spain, and comes to Spain to fight for them. For students, it really became this fascinating question of, “Why would you do that? What motivates us to do things?” Those questions ripple out to the rest of the literature we’re reading.”

How has being in this city enriched the students’ learning experience, compared to teaching the class back home?

“At home, if we want to go somewhere like a great museum, you have to get on a bus and basically drive to L.A., right? But here, we can get on the subway and go places. To frame the ideas in For Whom The Bell Tolls, I was able to take them by subway to the Reina Sofía and we looked at Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, and then we got on the bus and headed to País Vasco to see [the town of] Guernica. That’s a scale of connection that they normally couldn’t possibly have.”

Besides your time in Madrid, what was the most memorable visit or excursion in the program?

“I would say, by far, País Vasco. I don’t think many of the students would have gone to País Vasco, and that was really like entering a different world. Each city is within an hour of each other, sometimes closer, and they’re absolutely and completely different. I think Bilbao was just amazing. And then we went to Biarritz! And [there is] this sort of question that I began with: this question of home, this question of identity, ‘where do you belong?’; you could say that there’s that question in Catalunya with Barcelona, but I really felt that in the Basque region it was really different, because although we went into France to go to Biarritz, Biarritz is still part of País Vasco. So you literally have to cross the border to see the other part of this place. I think that was just amazing.

“Then there was a really gratifying moment: we’ve been talking a lot about the sublime in the early part of the British literature course, and students climbed the lighthouse in Biarritz and they were like, “Oh, is this the sublime?”. They’ve taken these ideas and concepts we’ve talked about in the classroom, and when they go up and they see this vision of the ocean and the landscape from the top of the lighthouse they link back to all the ideas that we’ve been talking about in class and in the literature. You can’t really ask for more than that!”

~Professor Melanie Eckford-Prossor, Santa Barbara City College

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