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WISE Archive

Small literature-based, writing-intensive seminars taught by advanced graduate students in the English Ph.D. program. The goal will be to produce a high-quality final research paper. Courses will be oriented around a single text or a small group of texts in conversation with a larger spectrum of scholarship and knowledge in literary criticism and theory, film, painting, or material culture. The small format will allow undergraduates to receive detailed commentary and one-on-one feedback on their writing.

Click here for information about this year's WISE course offerings. 


 

2018-2019

Course Descriptions

Contemporary Narratives of Slavery

While the slave narrative has been a central genre of American literature since the nineteenth century, over the last fifty years, a wave of novelists, artists, and filmmakers have revived and reimagined the form. This course will explore how, and why, the “neo-slave narrative,” or “meta-slave narrative,” has evolved from the 1970s to the present, tracking the ways in which these creative recoveries of a fraught past illuminate the racial politics of America today. Beginning with Ishmael Reed’s irreverent and anachronism-filled take on the slave narrative, Flight to Canada, we then turn to Toni Morrison’s haunting masterpiece, Beloved, reading it alongside the political and literary history of the Reagan era. Then, by juxtaposing Colson Whitehead’s genre-bending The Underground Railroad with (Stanford alum) Yaa Gyasi’s multi-generational saga, Homegoing, we’ll attempt to pin down where the genre stands at present. In the final weeks of the course, we’ll focus on recent renderings of slavery in art and film, from Kara Walker’s startling silhouette installations to Jordan Peele’s Get Out.In all, students in this course will gain deep knowledge of one of contemporary literature’s most important genres, while also asking questions about the concept and politics of genre itself.

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?

Unstable Character in Renaissance Drama

 “Fair is foul and foul is fair,” chant the witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Taking our cue from their ominous prophecy of a reality turned upside down, this course investigates madness, magic, and metamorphosis in English Renaissance drama.  We will explore how physical and psychic transformations reflect uneasy convergences of religion, myth, science, and the supernatural in Shakespeare’s England. The course begins with a slow reading ofKing Lear, in which the lead character’s stormy rage destabilizes the natural world, followed by Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as plays by Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe. We will explore how supernatural episodes reframe the radical cultural changes of the Renaissance, including religious revolution, the rediscovery of the classical past, and the emergence of new science. In doing so, we’ll consider how playwrights use altered bodies and states of consciousness to grapple with the changing world around them. We’ll also ask how the destabilization of truth, social identity, authority, and salvation resonates in our own era of technological and ideological change.

Conspiracy Theories in American Literature

From the Illuminati and the Freemasons to 9/11 truthers and the birther movement, conspiracy theories have played a powerful role in American culture. In this course, we’ll read a selection of conspiracy fictions from the early years of the American republic to today—including works by Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Thomas Pynchon, as well as the latest reincarnation of The X-Files—and think about the formal, political, and epistemological issues they raise. What are conspiracy theories, and how do they work in, and as, literature? What cultural, political, and historical forces shape their creation? As we investigate how different interpretive practices can illuminate the pleasures and problems of conspiracy theories—and vice versa—we’ll think meta-critically about our own roles as readers, critics, and writers (are we conspirators, or conspiracy theorists? wishful believers or debunkers?)  We’ll also probe the meanings of proof, fact, fiction, and ideology.

The Challenges of Ulysses

Widely hailed as a defining work of modernity—a culmination not just of literary modernism but also of the novel form in general—James Joyce’s Ulyssesis perhaps equally famous for its endless capacity to defeat and frustrate readers. This course, which is built around a careful reading of Ulysses in its entirety, will tackle the problem of the novel’s difficulty head-on. What specificfeatures constitute this difficulty, and what ends do they serve? How do the novel’s different modes of difficulty affect how we read and interpret it? What is the relationship between stylistic experimentation and fictional immersion? And what is at stake, politically and ideologically, in the novel’s refusal to be easily readable? In addition to the primary text, we will devote critical attention to the various reading supplements that the book’s difficulty has inspired (schemas, annotations, online summaries), along with secondary readings that foreground its interpretive challenges. In the process, we will seek to develop a more refined vocabulary for talking about difficult texts, while also thinking more broadly about the role of difficulty in modernist aesthetics. 

Global Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, according to his contemporary Ben Jonson, “was not of an age but for all time.” Indeed, Shakespeare has become a literary icon not only for all times, but for all places and spaces: more than four hundred years after his death, his works continue to be staged and re-staged around the world. This course will consider Shakespeare’s enduring global appeal through his localized reincarnations in different languages and media. Is Shakespeare still “Shakespeare” in a different language? What does it mean to resituate a Shakespeare play in Apartheid South Africa, the divided Korean peninsula, or a Caribbean island? In what ways does a global Shakespeare production reshape our understanding of both playwright and local context? By drawing on contemporary theories of race and post-colonialism, we will investigate the rich cultural and political complexities of Shakespeare adaptations. Key texts will include The Tempest,Othello, and King Lear, in addition to contemporary adaptations of each play.

Unsettling Tales: Settler Colonialism and the Gothic

Ranging from the eighteenth century to the present, this course explores variations on “the gothic” produced in countries that emerged from former English colonial settlements: the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Such outcroppings of gothicism are, at some level, counterintuitive. After all, these “new” nations—hybrid assemblages brought to life, like Frankenstein’s monster, from other places and cultures—seem to lack the requisite sites and histories.  Absent are the crumbling castles, villainous viscounts, and murderous monks of the European gothic tradition. And yet, the writers, artists, and filmmakers we will consider in this course continually evoke gothic dimensions out of the discomfiting experiences and often violent histories of settlement itself. The struggle to preserve a sense of personal and cultural identity, to survive and prosper in an unfamiliar environment, and to explain (or explain away) encounters with indigenous “others” become the raw materials of new and distinctive varieties of the genre. A selection of secondary readings from major poststructuralist, psychoanalytic, feminist, and queer critics will help us to connect these generic transformations to larger issues of race, gender, power, and desire, and to confront the ways settler colonialism’s legacy continues to haunt culture and society today. 

The Cult of Jack Kerouac (and Other Stories of Literary Celebrity)

In this class, we explore 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. These well-known (if not always well-respected) writers, and the complex attention they have attracted from both popular and intellectual spheres, offer us an opportunity to consider what fame meant to literature and vice versa in the years following World War II—a time when a rapidly changing media ecology, rising consumerism, and an intensifying Cold War nationalism made for some curious marriages: between avant-garde authorship and pop culture, between subversiveness and commercial appropriation.  Who gets picked up as a celebrity, who gets cropped out of the picture, and why? Does celebrity amplify or violate an author’s voice?  In answering these questions, students will examine Beat writers in print, on film and television, in photographs and advertisements, and, in the case of Allen Ginsberg, in the archive (what is there to say about the poet’s beard clippings, housed, along with the rest of his papers, in Stanford’s Special Collections?) Students will learn to work closely with a range of genres and forms—including some criticism and theory—written by authors both inside and outside of the literary “star system.”  

 

2017-2018

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?

Average Americans

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.


2016-2017

Literature in 3D: Space and Spatiality in Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Imagine to yourself Melville’s Pequod, or Bronte’s Thornfield Hall, or Joyce’s Dublin; can you situate yourself inside these spaces? Can you see the bricks, the wooden planks, the ceiling or sky above you? Ask yourself: are you supplying the detail from your own experience, or is it written into the text? Is it author or reader who extends the three dimensionality of our own world to fictional spaces on the two-dimensional page?  The nineteenth century witnessed a great interest in new spaces: technological advances allowed Victorians to turn their attention both to the interior spaces of the body (thanks to the stethoscope), and to an ever-clearer expanse of outer space (due to improvements in telescopic technology). Spaces of physical exploration were conquered and mapped, or, like the poles, became instead the great terra incognita of the imagination. In this course we will investigate the lure of different spaces to such late nineteenth-century writers as H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, and Edwin Abbott Abbott, asking ourselves how these authors create convincing narrative spaces that the reader – as well as the characters – can apprehend and inhabit.

Global Shakespeares

William Shakespeare, according to his contemporary Ben Jonson, “was not of an age but for all time.” Indeed, Shakespeare has become a literary icon for all places and spaces: more than four hundred years after his death, his works continue to be staged and re-staged around the world. This course will consider Shakespeare’s enduring global appeal through his localized reincarnations in different languages and media. Is Shakespeare still “Shakespeare” in a different language? What does it mean to resituate a Shakespeare play in Apartheid South Africa, the divided Korean peninsula, or a Caribbean island? In what ways does a global Shakespeare production reshape our understanding of both Shakespeare and local context? By drawing on contemporary theories of race and post-colonialism, we shall investigate the rich cultural and political complexities of Shakespeare adaptations. Key texts will include The Tempest,Othello, and King Lear, in addition to contemporary adaptations of each play.

The Challenge of Ulysses

James Joyce’s Ulysses is widely hailed as a masterpiece of world literature—“the most important expression which the present age has found,” as T. S. Eliot put it—yet it is perhaps equally famous for its endless capacity to defeat and frustrate its readers. This course, which is built around a careful reading of Ulyssesin its entirety, will tackle the problem of the novel’s difficulty head-on. What specificfeatures constitute its difficulty, and what ends do they serve? How do the novel’s different modes of difficulty affect how we read and interpret it? And what is at stake, politically and ideologically, in the novel’s refusal to be easily “readable”? In addition to the primary text, we will devote critical attention to its various reading apparatuses (schemas, annotations, online summaries), along with secondary readings that foreground its interpretive challenges. In the process, we will seek to develop a more refined vocabulary for talking about difficult texts, while also thinking more broadly about the role of difficulty in modernist aesthetics. 

Conspiracy Theories in American Literature

From the Illuminati and the Freemasons to 9/11 truthers and the birther movement, conspiracy theories have played a compelling role in American culture. In this course, we’ll read a selection of conspiracy fictions from the early years of the American republic to today—including works by Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Thomas Pynchon, as well as the latest reincarnation of The X-Files—and think about the formal, political, and epistemological issues they raise. What are conspiracy theories, and how do they work as literature? What cultural, political, and historical forces shape their creation? As we investigate how different reading practices can illuminate the pleasures and problems of conspiracy theories—and vice versa—we’ll think meta-critically about our own interpretive practices as readers and writers, and examine the meanings of proof, fact, fiction, and ideology. 

Sexuality and Story in the Enlightenment

What does it mean to discuss gender and sexual orientation historically? How do ideas about queer, deviant, or, for that matter, “straight” identity change over time? Does literature offer insight into these questions that history cannot? We will approach these issues in the fiction and drama of the long eighteenth century—an era marked by political and scientific revolution—with focus on the figure of the “libertine.” On the one hand, the libertine, seen in early incarnations as a religious “freethinker,” challenged conventional sexual morality. On the other hand, eighteenth-century writers responded to libertinism by defining, more vigorously, heteronormative models of love and marriage that were themselves new at the time. Core texts include scandalous French novels (The Princess of Clevesand Dangerous Liaisons), British Restoration comedies, and fictions by the first women to make their living as professional writers in English.

Breaking the Chains: African American Science Fiction

Recent critics have remarked that the history of the African Diaspora is like a science fiction plot.  They make a fair point: the Africans who crossed the Middle Passage endured abduction by technologically advanced invaders, being taken to strange new lands with alien customs, and having their descendants permanently genetically altered due to compulsory participation in selective breeding programs—a set of circumstances almost too bizarre to imagine.  Increasingly, black authors, visual artists, and filmmakers have turned to the speculative genres, such as science fiction, to give voice to this sense of estrangement.  The resulting movement has been dubbed Afrofuturism.  This course will look at a selection of Afrofuturist works, with a special eye to how these texts incorporate, respond to, or revise historical narrative.  Authors include Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison.

Friends and Other Strangers: Fictions of Sympathy in the 19th Century

Sympathy—our ability to feel with and for others—is often central to how we talk about books today, from debates about unlikeable characters in novels to empirical studies that suggest that reading literary fiction can increase empathy. This class will put our contemporary interest in sympathy into context by exploring its roots in 19th-century British literature and philosophy. We will focus on novels that envision sympathy both as a way to overcome the bounds of individual perspective and as a form of relation through which we define ourselves. Are there limits to how well we can know another person? Is understanding someone the same as caring for them? Can sympathy be selfish? Through deep and careful readings of works by Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, E.M. Forster, and the film director David Lynch, we’ll consider sympathy not just as an emotion but also as a way of thinking that draws on our imaginative and storytelling capabilities.


2015-2016

The Tilting World: Don Quixote and The Tempest

It is almost impossible to imagine the landscape of literary modernity without the figures of Shakespeare and Cervantes towering over the horizon. Through careful reading of Don Quixote (1605/15) and The Tempest (c. 1610), two important texts of early modernity, we will examine how Cervantes and Shakespeare perceived their own early modern worlds and recreated them in radical new aesthetic forms. Key questions will include: What is the nature of a literary world? How should we understand the role of language in worldmaking? And can we use these highly self-aware Renaissance texts to think through the relationship between seventeenth century metafictions and twentieth century postmodernism?  In order to address this final question, we’ll complement our study of Cervantes and Shakespeare with two short twentieth century works that blur the line between critical and creative writing: W.H. Auden’s set of poems The Sea and the Mirror (1944), inspired by The Tempest, and Jorge Luis Borges’ impish short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939). With these contemporary responses, we will inquire whether the hallmark metafictions of postmodern literature really represent a brave new world after all. 

Reading 1939: American Culture Between Depression and War

This course zooms in historically and close-reads an eclectic mix of American literary and cinematic objects produced in 1939, a year situated just after the economic depression’s worst ravages and witness to the onset of World War II. Keeping an eye on how our conceptions of modernism and postmodernism shift when interpreted through this cultural moment’s various genres, themes, and forms, we will read Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, engage in an extended reading of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and then investigate the films The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Throughout the course and culminating in their own original research, students will be encouraged to make contemporary social, political, and literary connections, all while analyzing the specific ways we engage in historical literary criticism.

Pursuits of Happiness

This course offers a critical and historical examination of our culture’s obsession with defining, measuring, and representing happiness. We will explore the sources of contemporary ideas about happiness in nineteenth-century debates over the relationship between self and society, the shifting balance of desire and duty, and the complex entanglement of art, morality, and pleasure. Readings will include influential philosophical accounts of happiness from across the century, alongside major literary representations of the happiness and misery of modern life in works by Wordsworth, Austen, Dickens, and Wilde. We will consider literature’s special power to evoke visions of the happy life, even as it questions dominant ideas about the nature and value of happiness. At the same time, we will reflect on the ways happiness informs our reading, writing, and thinking about literary texts – above and beyond the satisfactions of a happy ending.

Social Justice and 20th Century American Literature

This course examines key works of 20th century American literature that probe the relations between social justice and literary aesthetics. As we read, discuss, and write about texts by Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Junot Díaz, these are some of the questions we will explore together: What new literary forms and styles do an author’s anti-oppressive politics make available? How do the writers we’re reading imagine literature as an instrument of social change? What is the relationship between political commitment and the aesthetic pleasures of literary texts? By attending to how writers navigate the imperatives of political critique, literary merit, and aesthetic pleasure, we will also shed light on contemporary parodies of politicized cultural commentary, like the “Social Justice Warrior” cliché and satirical memes like “Your Fave is Problematic.”

Afterlives of the Beast Fable

This course tackles two genres from opposite ends of the formal and historical spectrum: the novel and the beast fable. Though the beast fable’s origins lie in classical and medieval literature—think of the short, didactic tales best known from Aesop—its formal traits survive in the literary field of the 20th century. We will focus on a small selection of texts from the long history of animal stories in order to probe how animals appear in narrative—what kinds of characters are they, what kinds of plots do they produce, and at what levels do they make meaning? In the beast fable, we will examine a unique literary object, a brief narrative episode that nonetheless connects diverse periods, styles, and concerns. At the same time, we will question whether the content of the fable has shifted as the genre becomes one facet of the novel, asking whether the beasts of fable are more than humans in animal guise. Ultimately, the course seeks to place some of novel theory’s classic concerns in conversation with the much newer field of literary animal studies. Texts for this course could include works by Chaucer, London, Faulkner, Hurston, and Silko. 

Very Contemporary Fiction

What is the contemporary, and what does it mean to write about it in real time? In this course we will consider 21st-century Anglophone literary history by investigating the market, cultural, and institutional forces that have shaped fiction writing in the past two decades. A case study of Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) will help us understand how scholars become interested in non-canonical literary texts and contextualize them. We will then turn to novels and short stories published in 2015 (possible authors include Atwood, Morrison, Obioma, Garréta) and ask how we can engage with them as direct contemporaries. Students will also complete a research project that situates a recent literary text within a critical conversation of their choosing. Throughout the quarter we will consider emerging theoretical frameworks such as contemporaneity and futurity, which complicate attempts to periodize the present. Above all, we will focus on producing rigorous criticism that speaks to audiences inside and outside the academy.

Novels vs. Dinosaurs: Narratives of Evolution in Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Science

In Silicon Valley, it’s easy to forget the shared intellectual history of science and the humanities.  Being good at coding, physics, or engineering will get you a job, the story goes, while an English degree prompts the inevitable question: “What are you going to do with that?” Yet from the standpoint of the nineteenth century, the academic divide between disciplines isn’t a foregone conclusion. In this course, we will begin to understand the current relationship between STEM and the humanities by reconstructing a historical moment in which literature (ranging from realism to sci-fi) and the newly emerging fields of evolutionary science (like geology, natural history, thermodynamics, and psychology) were largely concerned with the same questions: what does it mean to be human?  Where did we come from? And where are we going?  More specifically, what tools and skillsets belong to both the novelist and the scientist? What is the place of imagination in science? What is the role of fact in fiction?  What experiences can each offer the reader? Using an interdisciplinary historicist methodology, we will study the overlapping answers given to these questions by naturalists like Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley and novelists like George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and H. G. Wells.

The Great American Novella

Why is it important that Americans write great novels, and what would it mean to think of American novellas as being great, too? Can a novella even be great? Why are novellas more likely to be “startling,” as The New Yorker described Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus,” or “shimmering,” as The Seattle Times called Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief, or pretty much ignored, as Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno was for decades after its publication. In this class we will study the internal mechanics of the novella, considering how formal categories like “character” and “plot” operate in a genre that is out of whack with our normal sense of narrative scale. We will also think about how external conditions in literary culture have influenced the production and consumption of novellas, such as the emergence of magazine culture at the end of the nineteenth century, and the rise of the creative writing program after World War II.  This course, in short, examines five great American novellas in the hope of gaining a better understanding of American literary history, the novella as a genre, and “greatness” as a label of critical and institutional consecration.

The Sound Era: Sound Technology and Textual Transformations

Sound technology is all around us. From MP3 players and radio, to movie soundtracks, mobile phones, and voice simulation software, such technology has saturated our society since the middle of the nineteenth century. Literature, which is itself a kind of sound technology, existed long before these developments. But it has treated them as valuable disseminators, rival media, sources of inspiration and lamentation, and everything in between. Among other questions, this course will investigate how sound technology and literature from the mid-nineteenth century onward have affected each other, including what constitutes “media” and “literature” as they evolve together, and the politics and theorization that inevitably accompany such evolution. This course will emphasize engagement with the material archive as a means of thematizing literature and will require students to think deeply about the material archive’s relationship to literature and scholarship. Texts might include selections from Alfred Tennyson, H.G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Jazz Singer, and 2001: A Space Odyssey in correspondence with the phonograph, radio, telephone, talkie, and speaking computer.  Projects will include recorded presentations, analysis of sound recordings, and creation of sound artifacts.


2014-2015

The Very Short Poem

This course examines the Very Short Poem, which, for the purposes of this study, 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 socio-cultural needs. Throughout the quarter, we will work on answers to a number of questions: 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 is restrictive about the brief mode? What are the freedoms and challenges of it? 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? Students will become familiar with exceptionally brief works 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: Students will, for instance, examine haiku, aphoristic works, writers’ unpublished shorts and notes, or the (possible) poetry of Twitter and text messaging.

What’s in a Question? Literary Inquiries and Interrogations, 1900-1964

This course explores whether the question—seemingly a transhistorical rhetorical construction that appears evenly from the Middle Ages to the present—might have a special franchise in literary works of the period 1900-1964. From T. S. Eliot’s “Do I dare to eat a peach?” to Faulkner’s “Why do you hate the south?” to the tremendous popularity of Agatha Christie’s sleuths, modernism’s fascination with questioning seems to indicate an increased sense of epistemological doubt and existential anxiety. On the other hand, the period also sees writers, like Gertrude Stein or Ernest Hemingway, who conspicuously shy away from posing questions, even to the extent of refusing the question mark. How are we to interpret such marked lack of interrogation? We will focus on four writers -- Ford Maddox Ford, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster and Samuel Beckett -- but will relate the concerns of the course to other nodes in literary, intellectual, and socioeconomic history. Some suggestive contexts to consider in relation to the question will be the rise of show trials, the consolidation of psychoanalysis, and the decline of religious catechism. Not only will we reflect on our contemporary relationship to forms and practices of questioning (routine google searching, pervasive “uptalk,” asking Siri for information, etc.), we will also examine the questions that we ask of texts as readers and literary critics—what do we ask, and how?

The Sea and the Stage: Renaissance Pirates, Wenches, and Infidels 

“I am not what I am,” Iago tells us in the opening act of Shakespeare’s Othello (1.1.67). Taking the villain at his word, this course investigates how identity is constructed and transformed in English Renaissance drama. Using the Mediterranean Sea as our landscape, we will dive into texts whose protagonists and antiheroes attempt to reinvent themselves (and undo others) against cultural expectations about religion, ethnicity, and gender. This course will focus on a slow reading of Othello, alongside provocative and adventurous works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries Marlowe, Massinger, and Heywood. Students will explore how the historical conditions of navigation, cultural exchange, and piracy formed a backdrop onto which English dramatists projected their concerns about “turning” from one identity to another. Along the way we will be challenged to consider how these historicized issues of gender, class, and East-meets-West continue to be relevant to our own rapidly globalizing time.

The Body Impolitic

“Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story.” –Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body. This course explores where flesh meets text and asks how and why it does. Through an eclectic mix of canonical and popular works, with a special focus on Lolita and on key theoretical texts by Foucault, Butler, and Sontag, we will investigate what bodies constitute and signify--and how constructions of the body are leveraged for political ends. The course will provide a context for contemporary feminist and queer rhetoric as well as for modern debates concerning free will and the right to one’s body. Students will be encouraged throughout the course to relate the historical narrative sketched by the texts to contemporary constructions of sexuality, health, feminism, and science. The course will familiarize students with highly influential theories of corporality in the 20th century and will culminate in a research project in which each student will devise and articulate an original theoretical intervention into a scholarly conversation of their choosing. Throughout, we will draw out the theoretical in the literary and the literary in the theoretical, and will pay special attention to the relationship between embodied practice and (traditionally) disembodied thought.

Narrative GPS: Setting in 20th Century American Fiction

Setting is an important—if little understood—narrative element that is found in almost every literary text. In this course, however, we will concentrate our attention on American fiction from the 20th and 21st centuries. Throughout the quarter, we will use narrative theory to examine setting across a range of genres. The course will begin with a careful reading of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and then turn to George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, and Roman Polanski's film Chinatown. We will also consider the peculiar partnership between writer and reader that generates literary setting.

Austen and Scott

In 1826, Walter Scott wrote of Jane Austen in his journal: “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.” Distinguishing his own “Big Bow- wow strain” from Austen’s “exquisite touch,” he established a now-familiar binary between miniaturism and maximalism, realism and romance, the domestic and the national-historical, that has defined the reception of the two novelists ever since. But if Austen and Scott set two different paradigms for novel-writing, their projects also intersected in important ways. In this course we will explore the distinct but overlapping novelistic programs Austen and Scott inaugurated at the beginning of the nineteenth century by focusing on the function of the anonymous author/narrator, the position of the reader, and the representation of national character and social change.

The Neuronovel

Literary fiction is famously adept at inducing us to project ourselves into the minds of others. Yet how does this process change when the mind we are asked to inhabit is developmentally disabled, brain-damaged, or otherwise non-“neurotypical”? This course examines how writers use the tropes and concepts of cognitive science to experiment with narrative categories and conventions. While reading contemporary novels through a narratological lens, we will also question the political implications of representing cognitively impaired characters in literature, noting the ways in which aberrant psychology has been associated with particular racial and economic demographics. Over the course of the quarter, students will practice both intensive formal attention to the representation of cognitive processes and extensive research into the critical conversations surrounding their chosen research topic.