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 has changed this year from English 162W to English 5.

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

Autumn 2021

English 5I: Science, Seances, Specters: The Victorian Ghost Story

Instructor: Steele Douris

MW 1:30-3:00

Ghost stories permeate myth, theater, literature, film, and folklore; they assume many forms and wear many faces, but they endure generation after generation. In this course, we will explore the Victorian ghost story, from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Tracing the parallel evolution of science and spiritualism over the 19th century, we will study the development of the ghost story alongside the fields of psychology, anthropology, forensics, and criminal investigation. We will also draw on feminist thought, queer theory, and cultural studies to explore the role of gender and sexuality in tales of the supernatural and in Victorian notions of mediumship and spectrality. Throughout the quarter we will ask: Why did tales of the unexplainable proliferate during this period, just as tremendous advances in science were making the world more explainable?  In what ways were ghost stories gendered for Victorian readers, and why? If ghost stories from different time periods represent the fears of different generations, then what were the Victorians afraid of? 

English 5J: The Sociology of Literature, Literature as Sociology

Instructor: Ben Libman

TuTh 3:15-4:45

In the eyes of Marcel Proust, the modern artist was confronted by two key questions: What is art? And how should an artist be? Though historically these questions had been the subject of philosophical debates about Beauty, Truth, and Genius, in Proust’s time they became questions about society: Who gets to say what is art and what is not? Whose art is political and whose is “for its own sake”? Does any art transcend context, or is “art” always socially constructed? And what kinds of social connections does one need to have to be recognized as an artist? This course explores the growing field of sociological literary criticism, which sees the world of literature not as an abstract space of universal values, but as a kind of social game. Focusing on the novel, and how it operates as a sociological study in miniature, we’ll also consider how novels themselves exist as objects or commodities that circulate—that gain or lose value—in social space. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu, Gisèle Sapiro, and other pioneers in sociological methods, we will focus on two primary case studies that illuminate the intersection of literature and sociology from reciprocal angles, diving into the world and work of Marcel Proust—whose legendary novel, In Search of Lost Time, can be read as an intensively attentive social study—and engaging with Percival Everett, whose novel Erasure self-consciously thematizes the sociological game of the literary field.

Winter 2022

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

Instructor: Kathryn Winner

TuTh 5:30-7:00 

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 5L: Early (Post)Modern Entertainment: Commercial Media from Elizabethan England to the 21st Century

Instructor: Michael Menna

TuTh 1:30-3:00

Although the enduring popularity of Shakespeare has been held up as proof of his timeless genius, this course asks what it would really mean to experience his output as we would a blockbuster film or TV series. In class, we will take a transhistorical look at the rise and evolution of entertainment as an industry and a concept. Revisiting plays from the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of English theater, we will approach works by Shakespeare and his early modern contemporaries not so much as ‘masterpieces’ in the literary canon, but as for-profit entertainment enabled and shaped by legal, social, and political contexts. To gain comparative insight, and to expose both similarities and differences between entertainment’s various functions over time, case studies in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature will be paired alongside excursions in contemporary media—from Pixar Studios’ Inside Out to Ufotable’s anime adaptation of the Gen Urobuchi light novel, Fate/Zero. We situate this inquiry by drawing on theorists such as Guy Debord and Julia Kristeva, plus more recent offerings in legal and literary scholarship. By the end of this course, students will have thought through big and tough questions like ‘Would Shakespeare have become Shakespeare had he come up in the 20th- or 21st-centuries?’; ‘How would a Tarantino film have gone over at the Globe in the early 1600s?’; and even, ‘What might we expect from entertainment in the future?’

Spring 2022

English 5M: Sonnets, Shakespeare to Now

Instructor: Armen Davoudian

TuTh 11:30-1:00

Invented in Sicily in the thirteenth century and imported into England in the sixteenth, the sonnet is one of the most recognizable poetic forms in English. Why does this form continue to appeal to poets throughout the centuries? How does it develop and remain relevant? What changes, what stays the same? In this course, we will study the history of the sonnet in English: its beginnings in the Renaissance, its evolution in the seventeenth century, its Romantic revival, its modern adaptations, and its contemporary proliferation. Exploring the form’s remarkable adaptability, we will read sonnets about love, about loss, about spiritual longing, and about social critique. We will look at sonnets about sonnets, sonnets against sonnets, sonnets that pretend they are not sonnets, and sonnets that engage with other forms. Over the quarter, as we trace the sonnet’s many transformations, we will explore how its formal and rhetorical traits align (or misalign) with particular ways of thinking and feeling.

English 5N: The Art of Illusion

Instructor: Mattea Koon

MW 5:30-7:00

In his Natural History, Roman scholar Pliny the Elder describes a contest between the artists Zeuxis and Parrhasius. The former unveils a painting of grapes so flawless it attracts hungry birds. Triumphant, he reaches to pull the curtain from his competitor's work only to find that the curtain is itself the painting. Zeuxis fooled the birds, but Parrhasius fooled the man and won the competition. This vision of art as representational image— specifically, one that dupes the viewer—haunts the history of aesthetics. Faced with a gripping text, a vibrant canvas, or a moving sculpture, we enter the 'aesthetic illusion,' an almost hallucinatory state that teeters on the pathological. This course explores such illusions, the texts that generate them, and the readers who experience them. Ranging across time, space, and media, we will draw together an eclectic collection of materials that practice and thematize the art of illusion (possibly pairing novels by Manuel Puig, David Mitchell, and Mohsin Hamid with trips to the Cantor Center and Special Collections). Plato's Republic will anchor our secondary readings in literary criticism, art history, and aesthetic philosophy as we attempt to describe just what happens when art 'tricks' or, perhaps more positively, 'enchants' us. 

English 5O: Travel and Education

Instructor: Alexander Sherman  

MW 9:45-11:15

What does it take for a young person to develop into a well-rounded member of a society? Two common answers are education and travel—and they are often combined into one, whether in the rite of “going away to college,” the promotion of study abroad programs, or the advertising of tourism as a means to self-fulfillment. Education is understood as a journey; travel is framed as educational.  In this course we’ll explore the history and the implications—at once social and literary—of this travel-education equation, from the rise of the “Grand Tour” in 17th- and 18th-century Europe to globetrotting travel blogs of the present. Drawing in diverse perspectives and authors, from Laurence Sterne and Charlotte Brontë to Tayeb Salih, we’ll explore the historical relationship between two genres: travel writing and the novel of education (Bildungsroman). We will also pay special attention to how (post)colonialism, gender, race, and class both shape and haunt the travel-education paradigm for travelers, students, writers, and readers. The goal of the course is not only to learn about this literary and cultural history, along with building the writing skills to discuss it; it is also to gain perspective on our own historical positions within educational systems.