Writing Intensive Seminars in English (WISE)

In these highly regarded, small-group seminars, students explore unique topics in English language literature while also honing their research and writing skills through series of assignments that culminate in a substantial original research essay. Classes are capped at 8 to allow for individualized attention and rich feedback. Enrollment is by permission. English majors must take at least one WISE to fulfill WIM, ideally before senior year, and may take more than one WISE if there is room. (Majors, minors, and prospective majors receive invitations to rank preferences via an online form each year.) Non-majors are welcome, space permitting.

Note: the generic WISE course number changed last year from English 162W to English 5.

Contact the English Department’s Student Services Officer, Vivian Beebe Sana (vbeebe [at] stanford.edu), and/or the Faculty Director of WISE, Judith Richardson (judithr [at] stanford.edu) for more information. 

Autumn 2022

English 5P: Literature and the Internet

Instructor: Mitch Therieau

MW 4:30-6:20

It is widely held that the term “cyberspace” first appeared not in the giddy reports of business consultants or futurologists, but in a short story by science fiction author William Gibson.  Literature has long functioned as a kind of incubator for some of the most important concepts and metaphors that we use to understand the massive transformations that digital technologies have effected within modern life. In this class, we will read novels, short stories, and poetry from the last fifty years that try to capture the new forms of experience that these technologies—considered broadly under the rubric of “the internet”—have brought into being.  Drawing on media-theoretical and Marxist approaches in particular, we will work together to develop a critical vocabulary for analyzing the two-way traffic between digital media and literary forms, from cyberpunk fiction to Instagram poetry.  

English 5R: American Picaresque: Identity and Satire in the 20th Century

Instructor: Kristian Ayala

MW 10:30-12:20

“I am an invisible man,” says the unnamed hero of Ralph Ellison’s classic picaresque novel from 1952. Generically picaresque refers to works of satirical fiction that depict the episodic adventures of a likable roguish hero. This course will explore 20th-century American variations on the genre, focusing on three novels that feature seemingly invisible half-outsiders on the move through different settings and social spheres. What do these narratives suggest about the politics of visibility and marginalization? How do they employ satire, ridicule, wordplay, and irony to expose social corruption, hypocrisy, ignorance, and greed? How do they use a picaresque hero’s half-outsider status to probe questions of equality and belonging based on race, gender, class, and ability? What do they suggest about the possibility of social acceptance for someone with a marginalized identity? We’ll let these and other questions motivate our tour of 20th-century American picaresque and at the same time learn how the picaresque can help us understand literary history more broadly. Novels include Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos (1927), Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952), and The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo by Oscar Zeta Acosta (1974). Critics and theorists may include Mikhail Bakhtin, Claudio Guillén, Susan Lanser, and Michael Hames-García.

English 5S: Thoreau and His Readers

Instructor: Emma Brush

TuTh 4:30-6:20

“Some historical phenomena need large-scale analysis,” writes literary critic Wai-Chee Dimock. In this course, we will take Dimock’s invitation as we study the far-reaching resonances of a text that might seem parochial: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Thoreau’s account of his “experiment in living” for two years at Walden Pond proved polarizing when he first published it in 1854. Even today Thoreau can be read as either dangerously self-indulgent or radically self-reliant. But while his political thought is often associated with modern libertarianism, it has also shaped an active, deeply egalitarian form of civic engagement. Indeed, the themes that cut across Walden and that anchor Thoreau’s speeches and essays on civil disobedience have had a direct influence on such 20th-century revolutionaries as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  At the same time, Thoreau has played a foundational role in the development of environmental thought. In this course, we will read Walden slowly, pairing Thoreau’s work with the contributions of other writers and activists whose work either references or resonates with Thoreau’s, from the mid-19th century to today. Bringing a comparative lens to topics ranging from abolitionism to environmentalism, we will consider the historical contexts and trajectories of these movements and attempt to articulate our own sense of ethical and political responsibility in the 21st century.


Winter 2023

English 5T: Renaissance Word Play

Instructor: Mattea Koon

TuTh 10:30-12:20

Sparknotes’ No Fear Shakespeare series promises to ‘translate’ the Bard. CliffsNotes and Shmoop offer similar services. But what is it about early modern English that demands translation? Even in modern editions, with their standardized spellings and explanatory footnotes, the language of the Renaissance still feels unsettled and, at times, unsettling. This was a period of unprecedented linguistic play and unmatched verbal chaos. Authors revised, razed, and even invented languages to accommodate realities actual and imagined. This course explores their innovations. Three texts will guide our exploration of semantics, semiotics, and rhetoric: Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), Book One of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590), and Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesy (1595). Along the way, we will consult classical, medieval, early modern, and contemporary philosophers and critics who interrogate language, its aspirations, and its failings. Secondary readings will pair Plato, Cicero, and Erasmus, with Freud, Foucault, and Derrida, among others.     

English 5U: The Institutions of World Literature

Instructor: Carmen Thong
TuTh 4:30-6:20

Pick a work of “World Literature” from your bookshelf. Now ask yourself—how did it come to be yours? Did a friend recommend it? A bookstore? A professor? Amazon? And how did you come to think of it as “World Literature”? Did publisher decisions on the book cover, blurb, or summary tell you that? Was it marketed as such on a class syllabus? Was it on the Booker Prize shortlist? This course asks questions about the production, dissemination, and consumption of World Literature through three primary texts: Beloved by Toni Morrison (a syllabus classic), The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola (the first internationally recognized Nigerian novel in English), and The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew (a graphic novel criticized by the Singaporean government). Through the reading and contextual examination of each text, we will explore how these texts come to our attention in the first place, how we have been taught to aesthetically value them, and how we have come to classify them as “World Literature.” What identifying and gate-keeping mechanisms, what historical contingencies and systemic inequalities, comprise a work’s “worldliness”?


Spring 2023

English 5V: Haunted Daughters: Race, Gender, and the Family in Gothic Fiction

Instructor: Steele Douris

TuTh 9:30-11:30

At its heart, the gothic is about the intrusion of the past into the present. It grapples with what happens when the dead haunt the living or past injustices refuse to stay buried. In this course, we will explore the interplay of race, gender, trauma, ancestry, and haunted domestic spaces. Linking a selection of short ghost stories by earlier writers to more recent novels by women authors of color, we will trace permutations of women’s gothic writing from 1861 to 2020, focusing especially on how 20th and 21st century women authors of color utilize, subvert, redirect, and interrogate the genre. Assigned novels will include Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved, Yangsze Choo’s Ghost Bride, and Silvia Morena Garcia’s bestselling Mexican Gothic. Earlier texts will include stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Throughout the course, we will ask: why is the gothic such a powerful outlet for women’s voices? How do ghost stories explore themes of intergenerational trauma, cultural oppression, and violence? What does it mean for a home or family to be haunted?  What do haunted daughters owe to the ghosts of their cultural or familial pasts?

English 5K: The Cult of Jack Kerouac (And Other Stories of Literary Celebrity)  

Instructor: Kathryn Winner

TuTh 6-7:50 

This course explores the rise, stakes, and ironies of literary stardom by focusing on one of the Bay Area’s most notorious band of celebrity authors: the Beats. To some, Beat politics, styles, and philosophies have seemed dated for decades; and yet Beat writers maintain a weirdly broad staying power. Even now, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg remain pop-cultural touchstones, outsider-intellectual icons, and essential reading for teens and the highly educated. To get to the root of this phenomenon, we will consider what fame meant to literature and vice versa in the post-World War II era—a time when a rapidly changing media ecology, rising consumerism, and intensifying Cold War nationalism made for curious marriages: between avant-garde art and pop culture, between countercultural ambitions and commercial appropriation. Why did the Beats get famous? How did their fame affect the life and work of contemporaries (like the acclaimed but understudied poet Bernadette Mayer) who wrote in their long shadow? What can these dynamics teach us about celebrity and technology today? In answering these questions, we will examine Beat writers in print, on film and TV, in photographs and advertisements, and in the archive. Students will learn to work with a range of genres and forms—including some criticism and theory—by authors both inside and outside of the literary “star system.”  

English 5W: Detective Fiction

Instructor: Charlotte Lindemann

MW 3:30-5:20

What do detective stories reveal about the structure of society? What can mystery writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Chester Himes, and Patricia Highsmith teach us about the structure of literature? On the one hand, detectives have special access to the social worlds represented in fiction. As we’ll see, solving a crime often means charting a course through the many sub-worlds of urban life, from penthouse to flophouse. The private eye can enter communities that would otherwise be closed to outsiders, social groups set apart by differences like race, class, gender, or sexuality. On the other hand, detective fiction also dramatizes the act of reading itself as a social relationship—at once a contract and a game between author and reader. In exchange for our time and attention, we expect the author to play fair, provide clues, and give us a logically sound and satisfying ending. This course uses detective fiction as an introduction to a structuralist approach to narrative, and as an occasion to discuss the big questions: the relationship between self and society and the pleasures and responsibilities therein.