Writing Intensive Seminars in English (WISE)

In these highly regarded, small-group seminars, students explore unique topics in Englishlanguage 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. For 2020-2021, all WISE courses will meet online. Times listed are for the U.S., Pacific time zone. 

Autumn 2020

English 5A: Unfinished Novels

Instructor: Matthew Redmond

TTh 4:30-5:50pm

English 5B: Mental Health and Literature: Midcentury to present. 

Instructor: Anna Mukamal

MW 11:30-12:50pm

Winter 2021

English 5C: Revelation and Apocalypse: Literature at the End of the World, 1300-2000

Instructor: Hannah Smith-Drelich

TTh 6:30-7:50

English 5D: Bad Reading: Pleasure and Politics in Literary Value

Instructor: Jessica Jordan

MW 11:30-12:50

English 5E: The Novel of Love

Instructor: Nika Mavrody

TTh 4:30-5:50

Spring 2021

English 5F: Reading Serial Children's Literature

Instructor: Nichole Nomura

MW 11:30-12:50

English 5G: Blackness and the American Canon 

Instructor: Casey Patterson

MW 2:30-3:50

English 5H: Dialogue

Instructor: Charlotte Lindemann

TTh 4:30-5:50

Course Descriptions

Unfinished Novels

Few species of writing are more exquisitely uncomfortable than a novel that is not—and never will be—finished. An author dies, or loses interest, or flouts convention: whatever the cause, unfinished novels demand an especially dynamic relationship between reader and text, precipitating either wild flights of imagination or scrupulous detective work, if not both at once. In the nineteenth century, a period obsessed with all things comprehensive and complete, such fragmentariness would have appeared still more challenging, even subversive. Closely reading works by Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickens, along with select critical interpretations, this course will invite participants to ask: what do unfinished novels reveal to us that finished ones cannot? What peculiar insights do they give us into the processes and pressures of literary production? And what exactly is our role in consuming them?


Mental Health and Literature: Midcentury to Present

Is there something wrong with us, or with our world? Rising rates of clinical depression and other conditions have rendered mental health a pressing cultural concern, especially for young adults, leading institutions of higher education to expand resources to support student needs. But we have not always thought about mental health the ways we do today. In this course we read landmark literary texts from midcentury to present that both reflect and shape cultural constructions of mental health. From Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation (1994)to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), we examine how literature destabilizes would-be binaries between mental health and mental illness. How do intersectional identity factors such as gender, race, and class inform whose mental illness is deemed deserving of treatment and whose is instead criminalized? Honing our critical writing skills by learning to employ the tools of cultural criticism, feminist theory, and critical race studies, we also engage selections from Doris Lessing, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Esmé Weijun Wang, and others. Traversing short stories, essays, drama, poetry, memoir, and novels, this timely multi-genre course equips us to historically contextualize and meaningfully respond to the current mental health crisis.


Revelation and Apocalypse: Literature at the End of the World, 1300-2000

Apocalyptic thinking never goes out of fashion, nor does literature that deals with the end times. This course explores two major categories of apocalyptic thinking— largely defined by religious and medical discourses—and the connection between the two. From Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, to early modern reckonings inspired by fire and plague, to Romantic-era sci-fi by Mary Shelley, to Station Eleven, a 2014 novel which takes place after an apocalyptic flu pandemic, we will read both millenarians and millennials, considering different visions of the end of the world, and what may come after. We’ll also ask, what are the stakes—what historical concerns and cultural obsessions are revealed, after all—in these varied prophetic imaginings?


Bad Reading: Pleasure and Politics in Literary Value 

As students of literature, we aspire to be good readers of the texts we encounter. But to see ourselves as good readers is implicitly—perhaps even complicitly—to set ourselves against another form of literary consumption: bad reading, and, by association, bad readers. Yet what makes reading “bad” or “good”? And who decides? The more we look, the less self-evident or definitive the distinction becomes—our footing precipitously dropping away into questions about our own reading practices and how society values them. The precarious label “bad reading” comes into even sharper relief when we consider that the term has long been associated not just with certain modes of reading, but also with certain classes of readers and certain kinds of books—from gory gothic thrillers and racy romances to sci-fi and comics. In this course, we will trace the definitions and stakes of bad reading from the nineteenth century to the present day, through sources ranging from Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf to contemporary think-pieces on young adult literature and race in publishing. Along the way, we will aim both to discover whether bad reading is really so bad after all, and to understand how ideologies of gender, class, and race have shaped our conceptions of literary value.


The Novel of Love

How do love plots change over time? In this seminar, we will learn to think critically about idealized romantic fantasy as we explore the “novel of love” from its 18th century origins through the 20th century, and into the present, focusing on case study texts by Elizabeth Inchbald, E.M. Forster, and James Baldwin. We will begin by learning about the cultural and socioeconomic conditions associated with the rise of the novel in modern Europe. We will then think about how issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and mobility transform representations of ‘love’ across centuries and continents. Students will also be invited to apply their discoveries to contemporary love stories, including digital and audiovisual forms. Sociological and historical accounts will supplement the literary readings. Writing assignments are structured to build cumulatively towards the final paper, following collaborative rounds of revision and presentation. Developing critical self-awareness through engagement with various critical models, students will be encouraged to experiment with the traditional form of the academic essay.


Reading Serial Children's Literature

In this course we will look at Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events as a multi-genre block-busting phenomenon in its own right and as a case study in seriality and children’s literature. Reading books 1-13 alongside research on literary markets and adolescent development we’ll ask: How do we write about literature that exists simultaneously at the scale of a single novel and a series? What literary and socialpsychological theories help us make meaning of these texts? What audiences, and what needs within those audiences, did the series speak to in its cultural moment? What methods are appropriate for answering what questions? As we explore the world of best-sellers and book deals alongside questions of “appropriateness” and popularity we will engage various methodological angles, including literary critical, digital humanities, and sociological approaches. (No previous experience in sociology or digital humanities is required.) Final research projects may be produced on any text or texts related to course themes.  


Blackness and the American Canon

The Black feminist novelist Toni Morrison once wrote that “it only seems that the canon of American literature is ‘naturally’ or ‘inevitably’ ‘white.’ In fact it is studiously so.” The impact of this revelation may feel alien to many students of literature today, for whom “the canon” is little more than a euphemism for the “Dead White Men” preserved in it, but for Morrison and the generation of intellectuals she belonged to, that recognition was the great cultural struggle of their era. This struggle, now remembered as the “Canon Wars,” upset every convention of traditional literary scholarship, and set the terms for literary critical practice to this day. This course introduces students to key methods and stakes in 21st century literary research (to be practiced in their own development of a research project) through the Canon Wars and their legacies. Standing loosely in for ‘canon,’ ‘war,’ and ‘legacy,’ we will read three novels together: Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Mat Johnson’s Pym. Through these novels, students will practice literary criticism and learn about its history, focusing on how the debates of the late 20th century created a framework for centering Blackness in the study of American culture, and cleared space for the emergent field of African American/Black Studies.



What would literature be without conversations between characters? Dialogue is what brings fiction to life. In the words of literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, “the speaking person” is what “makes a novel a novel.” In this course, we explore the crucial role dialogue plays in literature, treating every sentence of narrative fiction as a choice between characters’ speech and some other mode of representation. We will pay close attention to both how fiction represents speaking persons and how dialogue interacts with the novel’s other discourses. What can the dialogue scene as a formal unit tell us about narrative structure? How does dialogue shape plot? How does it animate character? Who gets to speak for themselves and which voices are passed over or suppressed? To explore these questions of form and politics, we’ll read select works of fiction (by authors including Herman Melville, Zora Neale Hurston, and Margaret Millar) in conversation with major works of narrative theory.