Skip to content Skip to navigation

Writing Intensive Seminars in English (WISE)

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 Vivian Beebe Sana for more information.

Online preference forms for 2019-2020 WISE classes are due 11:59 pm, September 5, 2019.  Enrollment requests made after that will be accommodated depending on availability.

2019-2020 WISE Preference Form

Autumn 2019

162W-1: Blackness and the American Canon

Instructor: Casey Patterson

MW 4:30-6:20pm

162W-2: Encounters with Asia in American Literature

Instructor: Mai Wang

MW 6:30-8:20pm

162W-3: Staging an Epidemic: Queer Drama of the AIDS Crisis

Instructor: Matt Warner

TTh 4:30-6:20pm

Winter 2020

162W-1: Elizabeth Bishop: Life and Art

Instructor: Armen Davoudian

M W 4:30-6:20pm

162W-2: Shakespeare/Marx

Instructor: Juan Lamata

TTh 4:30-6:20pm

Spring 2020

162W-1: Dialogue and Narrative Theory, from Melville to Hitchcock

Instructor: Charlotte Lindemann

MW 6:30-8:20pm

162W-2: Bad Reading: Pleasure and Politics in Literary Value

Instructor: Jessica Jordan

TTh 3:00-4:50pm

162W-3: The Art of Protest

Instructor: Claire Grossman

TTh 6:00-7:50pm

Course Descriptions

Blackness and the American Canon

In a famous speech, Frederick Douglass once asked, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” From the 19th century and into the present, Black authors have asked a similar question about the American literary canon. If the canon was meant to capture the U.S. national character, it did not show the character of Black America; it did not even show the character of white America––not as Black America knew it.  To so many Black authors, the American literary canon was a retelling of the historical fiction they were already forced to live within.  If they were to expose that fiction, if they were to rewrite American literary history with a place for Black art in it, Black authors had to become scholars as much as artists.  This course spotlights the groundbreaking work of Black author-critics—from William Stanley Braithwaite’s contribution to The New Negro Anthology, to essays by James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, to Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark—reading their writings alongside selections from the white canonical literature they studied.  We will explore how such interventions have shaped both African American literature and the field of literary criticism.  We will also engage with these author-critics as models, as we seek to develop our own skills, voices, and approaches as literary scholars, able to write on literary form and history, reception and production, from nearly two centuries of the American cultural archive.


Encounters with Asia in American Literature

How did American writers imagine Asia?  How have Asian thought and literature influenced American culture?  Looking back to some foundational instances, this course explores just how pervasively and formatively encounters with Asia shaped American literature from the early Republic to the Civil War.  Framing our inquiries with selections from Edward Said’s modern critique, Orientalism, we begin with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and rediscover the presence of China in the American Enlightenment.  Next, we’ll discuss important literary responses to Chinese, Indic, Persian and other Asian cultures during the American Renaissance, in works by Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, and Whitman.  During the last weeks of the course, we will bring the discussion full circle, as we examine fiction by twentieth-century Asian-American authors living in exile, such as Eileen Chang and Carlos Bulosan, to see how they were influenced by American writers in surprising ways.


Staging an Epidemic: Queer Drama of the AIDS Crisis

The 1980s witnessed sweeping changes in the cultural landscape of queer life, brought about largely though not exclusively by the emergence of HIV and AIDS in queer (principally gay male) communities in North America and elsewhere.  In this course, we’ll attempt to map some of these changes—and to trace how the AIDS crisis both inflected and generated cultural productions of the period—through a focus on drama.  How did plays such as The Normal Heart and Angels in America reflect shifting responses to the crisis?  How did they shape the public narrative?  To give us perspective and context, we’ll read queer playwrights alongside selections from poets, essayists, and novelists—some of them writing in medias res, some reflecting back later—as well as surveying past and present critical responses to the crisis and its writing.  We’ll also take the drama of the crisis era as an opportunity to engage with broader questions of memory, retrospection, and the politics of art.  So armed, we’ll move on to individual research projects that tackle diverse and student-selected issues at the intersection of culture, sexuality, and the past.  (Research projects need not be drama-oriented).  Major themes of the course will include: racial fissures in the representation of the crisis, the urban focus of literary depictions of AIDS, radical versus quietist political stances, and the political nature of memory.


Elizabeth Bishop: Life and Art

“Read ALL of somebody,” Elizabeth Bishop advised: “Then read his or her life, and letters, and so on.”  There is nothing quite like the experience of coming to know (more-or-less) all of a writer’s work, of being able to trace, in intimate fullness, the arc of a career.  And so, taking Bishop’s advice as an invitation, we will read all four volumes of poetry that she published in her lifetime, in addition to a selection of her essays, letters, stories, and drafts.  How does a poet develop?  What are the continuities and divergences, the sudden breakthroughs and slow unfoldings?  In what ways does the evolution of an individual style align with or depart from the general trends of poetry in her time?  We will consider, through the prism of Bishop’s poetry, questions central to the development of American poetry in the 20th century: What is the relationship between ambition and reticence? Between free verse and form? Is poetry a mode of concealment, or revelation? Confession, or camouflage? A process, or a product?  In asking such questions, we will also engage specific historical and critical contexts, not least in regard to gender and sexuality.  How does a poet, particularly a woman poet, and a queer poet, negotiate between private and public allegiances?



Shakespearize more,” Karl Marx once wrote to an aspiring playwright.  We’ll keep these words in mind as we read some of Shakespeare’s works (The Merchant of Venice, Coriolanus, Hamlet, The Tempest) alongside some of Marx’s (the Manifesto, excerpts of Capital, and others).  Marx was a great admirer of the English playwright—his family regularly hosted meetings of the Shakespeare-reading ‘Dogberry Club’—and he afforded Shakespeare a privileged, if complicated, place in his own writing.  Shylock, Timon, and Hamlet stalk the pages of the fearsome critic known to his closest friends, affectionately, as ‘the Moor,’ in reference to Othello.  Why was Shakespeare of such fascination to the ambitious revolutionary?  What does this fascination illuminate about Shakespeare, and about the early modern period, to which Marx traced the origins of capitalism?  What does it reveal about Marx, a literary as well as political-economic figure?  To enhance our perspective on these two large-looming figures, we will engage with latter-day Marxist critics and critics of Marxism, drawing on selections from Silvia Federici, Luce Irigaray, and Edward Said as we explore the relationship between ideas and material conditions, “literature” and “theory,” the past and the present, Shakespeare and Marx.  


Dialogue and Narrative Theory, from Melville to Hitchcock

For many readers and writers, dialogue lies at the heart of fiction: it is what brings our characters most to life.  But dialogue has been largely overlooked by narrative theorists, for whom speech between characters has seemed formally uninteresting—a supporting player, at best.  “Talk should sound like human talk,” Mark Twain puts it bluntly; it should “remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.”  In this course we take the opposite perspective.  Keeping dialogue center stage, we explore its crucial role in narrative literature generally, spotlighting in particular American authors who used character speech as a way of rethinking the form of prose fiction (including Herman Melville, Charles W. Chesnutt, Henry James, and Gertrude Stein).  We’ll consider how dialogue links to a politics of voice, how it has (or has not) been used to include those on the social and literary margins.  We’ll also see how our findings about written dialogue relate to other narrative media, with particular emphasis on drama and film, looking at works by Susan Glaspell and Alfred Hitchcock. How do conversations between characters change across literary genres?  Throughout the quarter, we’ll be creating dialogues of our own, and developing our own voices as literary critics and writers, as we put primary readings in conversation with select works of narrative theory.


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 a 2014 think-piece lambasting the popularity of “young adult” literature.  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 Art of Protest

In this course, we explore a cross-period selection of what might be broadly called “protest literature” and its attendant criticisms.  Using texts ranging from Percy Shelley’s 1819 riot poem “The Masque of Anarchy” to Boots Riley’s 2017 comedy film Sorry to Bother You, we will discuss depictions and expressions of protest in short fiction, essays, manifestos, poetry, and film. Our conversations will center on the kinds of questions long asked about political art: How have writers conceived of their aesthetic experiments as companions to moments of upheaval?  What constitutes resistance in the realm of cultural production?  Can writing be used to critique modes of protest, chronicle failures of solidarity, or suggest alternative routes for struggle?  We will grapple with these questions by examining works by individual authors (including James Baldwin, Diane di Prima, Karen Tei Yamashita, and Claudia Rankine) along with materials from collectives and social movements (including Wages for Housework, El Teatro Campesino, and ACT UP).


For more information on previously taught WISE courses, please click here.