These are a few of the English electives that I have enjoyed teaching in recent years (plus a few that I am hoping to teach)….
The Global Novel
“The dream of the great American novel is past,” wrote novelist Maxine Hong Kingston in 1989. “We need to write the Global novel. Its setting will be the United States, destination of journeys from everywhere.” By encouraging authors to write “the Global novel,” Kingston was challenging her contemporaries to catch up with the diversity and fluidity of today’s world. This course will examine how writers have responded to Kingston’s challenge. We will track the shift from “roots” to “routes” that has been diagnosed in recent ethnic, diasporic, and transnational writing. How have “new immigrant” writers transformed the settings, characters, and plots of the novel? How have they construed the impact of the global on the local? And how might their writings forecast the futures of American fiction? Primary texts will include Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989), Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge (1997), and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). We will also read short stories by Sandra Cisneros, Helena María Viramontes, Edwidge Danticat, Mohja Kahf, and Yussef El Guindi.
Shakespeare Seminar: Major Plays, Minority Characters
Shakespeare wrote his best plays at a time when questions about the nature of English nationality, and about who could lay claim to “Englishness,” were being debated like never before. This course will examine the historical forces—from the Protestant Reformation to the expansion of international trade—that made the issue of religious and cultural difference so urgent during the Elizabethan period. At the same time, the course will examine how Shakespeare used his plays to interrogate the stereotypes about “outsiders” that were sometimes held by Elizabethan audiences. What are Shakespeare’s minority characters able to perceive about English society that other members cannot? How does Shakespeare depict the “insiders” who mistreat the members of minority cultures? What should we make of the fact that many of Shakespeare’s outsiders are also insiders in the sense of holding wealth and power? Primary texts will include The Merchant of Venice and Othello, with the third play to be chosen by students. Options for the third play include Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
British and American Modernism
This course explores the formal experimentation that characterized the literary and cultural scene during the first decades of the 20th century. We will examine how innovations in aesthetic form reflected attempts to grapple with changes in the broader social milieu: urbanization, industry, the jazz age, consumer culture, world war, and so on. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach to the study of modern culture, the course will introduce students to short essays from fields like history and sociology, media studies and aesthetic theory. Frequent writing assignments will challenge students to synthesize formalist and historicist approaches when analyzing short works of experimental poetry and prose. Primary texts will include three or four of the following: James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” (1931), Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), Marianne Moore’s Selected Poems (1935), Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and William Faulkner’s “The Bear” (1942).
Speculative Fiction: Literary Utopias and Dystopias
When Thomas More envisioned an ideal society in his novel Utopia (1516), he coined a word whose Greek roots could mean both the “good place” (eu-topos) and “no place” (ou-topos). Such linguistic ambiguity was meant to suggest that a perfect society might also be an unattainable society: a nowhere land. If More knew that his ideal society might never be realized, why would he bother to imagine it? How might the lands of the imagination exert an influence on reality? This course will introduce students to the thematic, formal, and practical dimensions of utopian literature. After grounding ourselves in short excerpts from classical utopian texts like More’s Utopia and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (1852), we will survey a wide variety of utopian subgenres that emerged in the late 19th and 20th centuries. During the modern era, utopian fiction became a privileged site for exploring a host of questions related to human nature, social organization, and historical change. Are humans naturally individualistic or naturally collaborative? What kind of society would enable us to become our best selves? And how might we transform an imperfect world into a (more) perfect one? Additional texts may include one feminist utopian novel (such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time), one dystopian novel (like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), one ecotopian text (such as Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia or Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Avant Gardening), and one utopian or dystopian film (like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E).
Baldwin’s America, Morrison’s America
“You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.” Such is how Toni Morrison opened her eulogy to James Baldwin, who passed away in the same year that Morrison published her Pulitzer-winning novel, Beloved (1987). Baldwin and Morrison are widely celebrated as two of the most important contributors to American letters. Few writers have been as perceptive about either the promises or the problems endemic to American society. This course explores a wide range of writing from both of these authors, focusing on how each challenged Americans to think about themselves in more complex and vitalizing ways. Writings by Baldwin will include the novel Another Country (1962), short stories like “Sonny’s Blues” (1957) and essays from Notes of a Native Son (1955). Writings by Morrison will include the novel Sula (1973), the short story “Recitatif” (1983), and essays from Playing in the Dark (1992).
Creative Nonfiction Workshop
In his introduction to the anthology New Journalism (1973), Tom Wolfe predicted that creative nonfiction would soon “wipe out the novel as literature’s main event.” Although Wolfe was wrong to ring the death knell for the novel—the genre is still standing strong—creative nonfiction has since become the dominant genre in literary magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Vanity Fair. Creative nonfiction refers to any genre in which a writer exhibits fidelity to the “facts” of personal or historical reality while utilizing the representational techniques associated with “fiction.” It is an umbrella term which encompasses the artful essay, the literary memoir, new journalism, and other genres. What elevates an essay into a work of art? Could an autobiographer remain faithful to the facts of his life while drawing on the techniques of fiction? How might such techniques enable a literary journalist to get at deeper truths than a traditional journalist? Although we will read short works of creative non-fiction penned by a wide range of authors, we will also read long-form works such as James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (1955), Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2001). Over the semester you will complete a series of short creative writing assignments, and we will devote one day per week to workshopping your nonfiction prose. During workshop sessions, we will discuss both the “three R’s” of the nonfiction writing process—research, reportage, and reflection—and the formal elements that contribute to successful work of writing: narrative voice, scene, ambience, dialogue, evocative detail, and so on.
The Examined Life: Psychological Narratives
“The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious,” observed Sigmund Freud on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. Realizing that poets and playwrights had long produced the deepest insights about human psychology, Freud spent much of his leisure time studying the works of writers like Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Schiller. Indeed, it was by carefully interpreting their works that he arrived at some of the foundational concepts of psychoanalysis: hidden motives, screen memories, narcissism, and so on. Taking a cue from Freud, this course will approach works of literature as reservoirs of insight about the human psyche. What might we be able to learn about ourselves by attending to Shakespeare’s presentation of Hamlet’s internal conflict? How did Virginia Woolf’s use of modernist narrative techniques—such as “free indirect discourse” and a free-associative “stream-of-consciousness” style—enable her to capture the complexity of subjective experience? In order to deepen our engagement with these and other authors, we will read three or four short essays by Freudian and Post-Freudian psychoanalytic theorists. For example, we will read Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601) alongside Freud’s brief discussion of the play in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” (1819) alongside Julia Kristeva’s “On the Melancholic Imaginary” (1987), and Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) alongside Adam Phillips’s “On Eating, and Preferring Not To” (2000). Other primary texts may include Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965), or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005).
The Graphic Novel
The graphic novel is an aesthetically innovative genre in which meaning is created through the interplay of image and text. How do we read a novel in which two narrative channels—one verbal, the other visual—interact? What can this multi-modal genre do that other literary genres cannot? And how might it challenge readers to expand the set of interpretive techniques that make up “close reading”? This course will investigate the renaissance of graphic narrative that has taken place in the last 25 years. Students who are thinking about enrolling should be aware that we will not be taking up the superhero and science-fiction traditions of long-form comics. Instead, we will pursue a more recent tradition of graphic narrative that grapples with pressing social and political issues, ranging from the Holocaust (Maus) and the Iranian Revolution (Persepolis) to sexuality (Fun Home) and disability (Building Stories). How might the form of the graphic novel be particularly well-suited for grappling with such topics? And how have graphic novelists employed the formal components of the genre—panel frames, gutters, bleeds, splash pages, motion lines, and so on—to create meaning within individual works? Primary texts will include several of the following: Will Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978), Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1986/1991), Gilbert Hernandez’s Poison River (1994), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003/2004), David Beauchard’s Epileptic (2005), Jessica Abel’s La Perdida (2006), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), and Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary (2010), and Chris Ware’s Building Stories (2012).