In these highly regarded, small-group seminars, students explore unique topics in English language literature, reading select primary texts alongside exemplary critical works and/or other cultural artifacts, 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, allowing 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. Non-majors are welcome, space permitting. Contact the English Department’s Student Services Specialist, Vivian Beebe Sana, for more information.
Online preference forms for 2017-2018 WISE classes are due 11:59 pm, September 10, 2017. Enrollment requests made after that will be accommodated depending on availability.
To sign up for a WISE course, please complete the 2017-18 WISE Course Preference Form no later than Sunday, September 10. You will receive a permission number once course rosters have been finalized.
Individual Course Information
Autumn: 162W-1 Beowulf+: Adaptation, Imagination, Medievalism/Jonathan Quick/ MW 10:20-12:20pm
Autumn: 162W-2 Making American Modernism(s) Across the Color Line/Amanda Licato/ MW 4:30-6:20pm
Winter: 162W-1 Average Americans/Erik Fredner/ TTh 4:30-6:20pm
Winter: 162W-2 Forbidden Foods: exploration and Temptation in the Renaissance/Hannah Smith-Drelich/ MW 10:30-12:20pm
Winter: 162W-3 The Very Short Poem/Jesse Nathan/ MW 4:30-6:20pm
Spring: 162W-1 American Portraits: Literary and Visual Culture, 1839-1941/Rachel Bolten/ MW 4:30-6:20pm
Spring: 162W-2 Very Contemporary Fiction/Aku Ammah-Tagoe/ TTh 4:30-6:20pm
Beowulf+: Adaptation, Imagination, Medievalism:
Beowulf is a singular text. Considered the primary remaining literary representation of a now remote Anglo-Saxon past, it survives in just one manuscript from the Middle Ages. However, through a latter-day proliferation of editions, translations, novelizations, films, television series, comic books, and games—especially within the last two decades—modern audiences encounter not one but many Beowulfs. Engaging with some of these adaptations alongside the original poem (in translation—familiarity with Old English is not required for this course), we’ll ask: Why should this Old English epic enjoy such resurgent popularity, and why does contemporary culture seem so attracted to reimagining medieval times more generally? What does the popularity of Beowulf—or of variations on it, at least—tell us about the needs, fears, and desires of the moments in which these cultural products appear? What aspects of Beowulf resonate, or find amplification, in recent imaginings—and what aspects get suppressed or ignored? As we explore Beowulf’s multi-mediated afterlives, we also will be using these as case studies by which to probe broader questions and theories about translation, adaptation, and intertextuality.
Making American Modernism(s) Across the Color Line:
Why are the Harlem Renaissance and Modernism often taught as distinct movements? After all, the themes and trends we consider to be Modernist — a rejection of realism and embrace of abstraction, an attention to psychological interiority and fragmented perspectives, and a focus on urbanism and modern life — emerged in writings across the color line. This course will challenge the conventional racial and temporal boundaries of Modernism by uniting African-American and Anglo-American literary traditions. To help shake up literary-historical categorizations, we will also mix up the structure of the course. We begin with Jean Toomer’s Cane, a text that straddles racial identities and representational forms while also posing crucial questions about the pressures of race in cataloging authors. We then loop back to the 19th century, tracing a pre-history of “proto-modernist” works by Harriet E. Wilson, Emily Dickinson, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, ending back in high Modernism with Gertrude Stein. As this course threads Modernism’s multiple forms and lineages, it equally investigates the politics of literary taxonomies: What is gained and what is lost when we sort literary tradition according to race?
Perennially invoked by politicians and pundits, declared “divine” by Walt Whitman, the “average American” has been one of the United States’ most important fictional characters for well over a century. But do averages tell us anything about the individuals from whom they are derived? And who benefits when we use the “average American” as a way of saying who represents America? The logic of the average resonates with American self-concepts of democracy, equality, and scientific rationalism, yet the same data can be used to suppress difference, diversity, and dissent. How does literature—particularly the novel—propagate and problematize this idea of the statistical individual? In this class we explore these tensions between the individual and the social, the qualitative and the quantitative, by reading two novels—Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and Richard Wright’s Native Son—in conversation with two literary critical approaches: Marxist literary theory and digital humanities methods associated with Stanford’s Literary Lab. The course includes an introduction to the programming language R for text analysis. As we move between close and distant scales of reading, we will ask how numbers and texts attempt to represent American personhood. (No prior experience with statistics, programming, or the digital humanities is required.)
Forbidden Foods: Exploration and Temptation in the Renaissance:
In the 19th century, French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” This statement, like our own “you are what you eat,” combines difficult questions of subjectivity (who am I?) with a more prosaic line of interrogation (what did I have for dinner?). The 150-year period between Columbus’s earth-widening encounters in the Caribbean and the English Civil War represented a paradigm shift for those interested in what was on the table, as tastes for newly discovered foods—and tales of “exotic” eating habits—fueled further global exploits, while theological controversies swirled around the bread and wine of religious sacrament. This course explores Renaissance literature and culture through a focus on food. Beginning with cultural and culinary taboos in New World narratives published in Richard Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries, deemed at the time the prose epic of the modern English nation, we will then turn to a different type of English epic, John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost, and the quandaries emerging from Eve’s forbidden apple.
The Very Short Poem:
This course examines the very short poem, which, for our purposes, will be defined as any verse of ten or fewer lines. The aim will be to understand these tiny lyric poems not as part of a minor mode, but as singular achievements answering various formal and sociocultural needs. Over the quarter, we will ask: What is lyric poetry? Is the short poem at the center of poetry itself, a form residing at the heart of lyricism, or is it something different altogether? What makes a short work particularly memorable and enjoyable? Can briefness be a form of expansiveness? What are the freedoms and challenges of the brief mode? Has the history of poetry led us toward, or away from, the short poem? What might this say about our attention spans, and the future (or past) of reading? We will encounter exceptionally brief works, both ancient and contemporary, as well as poems that might be read as assemblages of smaller poems, like Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” or Robert Hass’s “Songs to Survive the Summer.” We’ll also cut across geographic, national, and generic boundaries, examining, for instance, haiku, aphoristic works, writers’ unpublished shorts and notes, or the (possible) poetry of Twitter and text messaging.
American Portraits: Literary and Visual Culture, 1839-1941:
What is a portrait? In an American context, John Singleton Copley’s 1768 painting of Paul Revere might come to mind, or the Depression-era photography of Dorothea Lange. But what happens if we expand the definition of portraiture beyond visual culture to include literature? How does a text paint a picture? In this course we will put works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and James Agee in conversation with contemporary painting and photography, from the first daguerreotype of a face, taken in 1839 by John William Draper of his sister Dorothy Catherine, to Grant Wood’s 1930 pastoral American Gothic, as well as more popular modes of portraiture, including miniatures, spirit photography, and cartes de visite. We will consider the ways in which a text might describe a work of art, borrow techniques of painting or photography, or otherwise combine visual and literary ways of seeing. Through close looking and reading, we will use portraiture to consider intersections and divergences between verbal and visual arts; we will also trace shifting aesthetics and politics of representation in American culture, engaging questions of race, class, and gender: whose portrait is made, and why? Secondary materials will draw on both literary criticism and art history, and you’ll be invited to do the same in your own work.
Very Contemporary Fiction:
What is happening in literature now, and what does it mean to write about it in real time? In this course we will investigate the market, cultural, and institutional forces that have shaped—are shaping—Anglophone fiction in the 21st century. A case study of Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) will help us understand how new works of fiction enter the literary canon, and how scholars interpret them. We will then turn to novels and stories published in 2017 (by Arundhati Roy, Patty Yumi Cottrell, and others) and ask how we can engage with them as direct contemporaries. We will consider literary-critical theories of subjectivity in order to develop our understanding of the globalized subjects that populate and produce contemporary Anglophone fiction, and students will complete a research project that situates a recent literary text within a critical conversation of their choosing. Throughout the quarter, we will focus on producing rigorous criticism that speaks to audiences inside and outside the academy.