By Michelle EberhartNovember 17, 2016
Of the 12 students in Col. John Nelson's Postcolonial Literature and Theory course, three of them are related. Cadets Ryan, Celiné and Whitney Gunderman don't have any other siblings, were all accepted to West Point, chose to become English majors, and subsequently enrolled in the same Special Topics course in the Department of English and Philosophy.
The literature and theory class, which focuses on how cultures react to the presence of colonialism and the struggles they endure during decolonization, piqued the interest of the Gundermans. Not to mention, they knew it would be fun to take a course with one another.
"We're in the class together because we thought that the topic fit us pretty well, we've definitely touched on these sorts of things in casual conversation," Ryan, a firstie, explained. "The idea of postcolonial culture and race, etcetera, is something that definitely concerns us, and we thought this would be a really cool class that sort of digs into it and a great opportunity for all of us to be in the same class--it's something we've never done before."
Ryan explained that he and his sisters, though like-minded, all have different interests within the realm of literary studies, which perhaps, allows for broader class discussion.
"I'm very literature and language focused," Ryan began. "Celiné's literature and culture focused, Whitney is a bit broader, she wants to do pre-med and be a doctor, but she understands the human element that goes into those fields and enjoys the push that literature gives that."
Nelson, who is also the head academic counselor for the Department of English and Philosophy, was eager to have the siblings come together for his class.
"They are all wonderful students, deep thinkers, and insightful speakers about literature, and all three are really engaged with the topic," Nelson said. "It's great because they feed off each other and the other students in class too; I was excited to be able to have this opportunity."
In addition to reading nonfictional and fictional works from postcolonial authors like Gabriel García Márquez, Jamaica Kincaid, and Derek Walcott, Nelson has introduced theory to allow students to delve into postcolonialism.
"We read several theoretical works that help establish the context of what the colonialization project might do to a national psyche, the people of a former colonized country, and how that legacy remains even after colonization ends," Nelson stated. "Mainly as it's manifested through their artistic products, primarily literature, but also poetry, film, memoirs, and other cultural artifacts."
In turn, the theory has allowed for broader conversation within the classroom, Celiné, a yearling, says.
"The nature of the class allows for more organic and thought-provoking discussions," Celiné noted. "My favorite parts of the discussions are when another classmate or Col. Nelson mentions something that I have never thought about before the course."
Whitney, also a yearling and Celiné's twin sister, agrees.
"Listening to the varying perspectives on postcolonial theories and issues has really expanded the way I see people and the world. It's especially helpful that the class size is small," Whitney said. "Not only do these aspects bring a very personal atmosphere to the classroom, but it also drives us to confront and question what they previously believed about postcolonialism through intense discussion."
For the Gundermans, the conversation doesn't stop in Nelson's classroom. Each says that they've been able to apply theory and literary thinking in daily discussions with each other.
"The thing is, we were talking about this stuff before the class, and this course gives us the opportunity to speak about it in an academic way, talk about the theory behind it, and really dig into the exactness of this mode of thinking and criticism toward literature," Ryan stated.
Whitney says that she and her siblings have grown up discussing world events and social controversies, and the class has added an additional dynamic.
"Now, we more often have these conversations on the texts we read in class and literary theories. Often times we walk out of class continuing the conversation that was going on in class," Whitney noted.
In addition to encouraging novel thinking, Nelson hopes that the course will allow each of his students to become better equipped Army officers.
"A lot of what you see in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are remnants of the colonization project in the 19th and 20th centuries, so the theory that we're reading is absolutely applicable to what the cadets are going to be doing when they become lieutenants and deploy," Nelson said. "It's theoretical, but once they hit the ground, they're going to see the ramifications of colonization."
Ryan also says that studying postcolonialism through literature will allow him to see situations from different perspectives, a valuable skill as an officer.
"It's this idea of the dynamics between people, and that's what literature comes down to," he said. "It's understanding our position in it as well as their position instead of coming at it one-sided."
Celiné says the critical-thinking skills she has gained will pay dividends as an officer in the near future.
"Postcolonial literature, among other English classes, help with critical thinking and have allowed me to expand my own understanding of the world to become more empathetic," she said. "It is often said that the Army is a people business. Critical thinking coupled with the ability to empathize, are, I think, traits that some of the best officers use in order to solve a multitude of problems."
Nelson believes that the Gundermans, along with the nine other students in his class, have been afforded an invaluable opportunity to learn about other people and cultures through the literary works and criticism introduced to them in Postcolonial Literature and Theory, as well as other courses in the Department of English and Philosophy.
"Literature is all about the human dimension, the human experience, and how it opens up through literary expression--who we are and what we do and why we react the way we react-- it allows you to empathize with others, whether those characters be fictional or real," Nelson said. "What I find to be particularly valuable about literature is every time you pick up a book, you enter an ambiguous situation and you quickly have to make sense of it… that's absolutely what these cadets are going to be walking into when they're lieutenants, captains and so on."