Salem local boasts literature’s practical purposes


By Peter Morgan

Professor and chairperson of Roanoke College’s English department Martha Kuchar has spent the last few years teaching 21st century “Headline Literature.” Itself a capstone course, this class is part of Roanoke’s INQ curriculum, which is meant to stimulate critical thinking through a broad range of diverse subjects and topics.

To Kuchar, reading any kind of literature, but fiction in particular, presents a means of “armchair traveling,” an economical way to see and experience the world through different characters, times and contexts without ever even leaving the room, or the comfort of a chair.
The backgrounds of the juniors and seniors required to take INQ courses often reflect the curriculum’s diverse nature. Although classes may be comprised of students in the same majors, a broad range of fields of study filter through Roanoke’s INQ curriculum, and a class’s student composition is not always homogenous in terms of what they study primarily as a major.

“Headline Literature” was one such class that featured diverse academic backgrounds. Rose Kohinke, a Salem local and 2014 Roanoke graduate, is currently a student of pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. At Roanoke, she studied biochemistry as a major. But this scientific discipline didn’t prevent Kohinke from finding something enriching in global literature offered in the humanities courses at Roanoke.

“I chose to take Dr. Kuchar’s INQ 300: Headline Literature course after I realized how little I knew about current events,” Kohinke said. “I also wanted to be able to read ‘real’ books (not just textbooks or journal articles) during a class, and appreciated the chance to view the modern world through the eyes of various literary characters, who came from places such as Morocco, Russia, China, West Africa, Japan and Scotland.”

Kohinke’s interest in exploring literature was primed by the connectedness it entailed. She was compelled to the idea that reading can, almost magically, provide an alternate world which removes the reader from the locality they are confined to and its context. Similarly to Kuchar, Kohinke finds this to be an affordable way to learn about the world.

“Traveling may be effective, but things like literature and art are certainly cheaper,” she said.

Reading grants readers an ever-widening perceptive scope, allowing them to follow and critically think about the ideas, thoughts and details an author posits in their works of literature. This global context and the accompanying critical thinking skills piqued Kohinke’s intrigue from the start. The novel that Kohinke researched in Kuchar’s class was Jenni Fagan’s “The Panopticon,” a fictional story detailing the struggling Anais, a young miscreant, and her desire to break free of an oppressive institutional system where she is incarcerated.

“My interest in this story stemmed from understanding why Anais would participate in destructive activities such as vandalism, violence and drugs. In contrast, the novel (spoken through her voice) portrays her as a gentle, kind and hopeful character – she hates unmatched fights and cruelty, and constantly dreams of living in Paris,” she added.

Fascinated with the main character’s transgressive behavior, Kohinke authored a paper entitled “Images of Power: A Child’s Search for Freedom and Identity in Jenni Fagan’s ‘The Panopticon.’” It was featured in the online journal “Intersections,” a website dedicated to “expansive capstone theses, research projects and essays in the arts, humanities, and social sciences,” according to its website. Kohinke’s enthusiasm in analyzing Fagan’s literature ultimately led to some enriching discoveries.

“[Reading diverse literature] opened my own eyes: even though these characters are fictional, the political, religious and social stories that they tell are not,” Kohinke said. “Their journeys taught me a great deal about the world around me.”

Although at the time she was a biochemistry major, Kohinke promotes reading literature as an activity everyone ought to do regardless of their passion, as a means to become more in tune with both their global and local surroundings.

“I would really advocate for anyone with a non-humanities background to look into these stories, since they have a way of generating empathy, and that personal touch is often lost in the news,” she said. “Speaking as someone who transitioned from a non-humanities major (in undergrad) to a healthcare professional field, I have come to realize how valuable these human and global perceptions can be.”

Understanding that there is a vast network of cultural, political, social and personal diversity out there, and portraying it compellingly, is what good literature is all about. It’s a way to represent perspectives and voices that are not immediately heard or seen. It covers immense distances and connects people through the power of imagination and constructive, critical thinking.

Presently a student of pharmacy, Kohinke maintains that good practitioners know how to forge intimate connections with people. Forming strong relationships starts by efficiently generating a productive conversation, and this can be achieved through empathizing with others.

“Some of the best healthcare professionals I have met are able to relate with patients and coworkers from a variety of backgrounds – they are somehow able to exhibit empathy and cultural sensitivity in a way that promotes effective communication, interprofessional collaboration, and (most importantly) patient outcomes,” she added.

Though people would believe that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies are disinclined to interact with and grow from some exposure to the humanities (and vice versa), Kohinke proves that this is simply a myth. Students like Kohinke show that STEM and humanities are less segregated from one another than they’d seem, and that their intertwined nature can be ultimately enriching, valuable and mutually beneficial.