American Literature Before 1900—Sexing the Past: Critical Perspectives on Early American Gender and Sexuality
The course is designed for students motivated to better understand and analyze constructions of gender and sexuality prior to the 20thcentury. This seminar takes as its grounding point the post-Foucaultian debates on how to “do” the history of gender and sexuality, from interrogating the ongoing “continuity vs. alterity” debates, to illuminating the challenges of periodization, chronology, and temporality.
We will begin with formative work by Foucault (on the “acts vs. identities“ shift) and Thomas Laqueur (on the transition from the ancient “one-sex” model of gender to the modern two-sex model). We will then explore how later scholars (including Joan Scott, David Halperin, Valerie Traub, Martha Vicinus, Elizabeth Reis, Greta LaFleur, Heather Love, etc.) have modified formative scholarship by offering new paradigms for understanding sex and gender in the past as new critical perspectives and archives continually force us to reassess and offer “more nuanced concepts of identity and [sexual] orientation than early social constructivist accounts have allowed” (Traub, “Present Future” 125).
While most of our texts and test cases will be drawn from the long eighteenth century in America, drawing from the 2014 special issue of Early American Studies, “Beyond the Binaries: Critical Approaches to Sex and Gender in Early America,” the course is not limited to American examples, and assignments and discussion can be adapted to explore other English-speaking literary traditions (British, Caribbean, etc.) and texts of interest. Topics include two-spirits, female husbands, bearded ladies, genderless beings, early intersex and transgender narratives, as well as recent calls by Leslie M. Harris, Daina Ramey Berry, Thomas Foster, Jennifer Morgan, and others to make sexuality central to the study of New World slavery (by reclaiming the “intimate histories” of pleasure in slave communities, by devoting more attention to black masculinity, etc.).
Regular participation, including leading discussion through short presentations, periodic presentations on texts/research of interest thus far in the course, final project (seminar paper, conference paper, or course design option) is required.
Comparative American Modernism: Race and Sexuality in Modernisms Across the Americas
In this course, we will be examining questions of what the literary term “modernism” means, particularly as it applies across national and linguistic borders and in the service of racial and sexual politics.
We will look at sites of modernist production such as the Harlem Renaissance, examining the connections as well as disjunctions between US modernist artists and those in places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. We will be reading such writers as Langston Hughes, Nicolas Guillen, Zora Neal Hurston, Jean Toomer, and looking at the art of Firda Kaho, Diego Rivera, and more. All readings are in English.
Graduate Fiction Workshop
This course is for MFA degree candidates in fiction only. Basically, it will be run in the “traditional” writing workshop fashion—writer silent while his or her work is discussed. The emphasis this semester will be on structure. Both short stories and excerpts of novels are welcome. Optimally, students will turn in pieces that they have taken as far as they can on their own. The workshop should be a venue to test the waters, to try new things, to present first drafts as well as polished works, but ONLY after the writer has struggled with it to the nth degree. The idea is for students to rigorously challenge themselves. Everyone not presenting work should take their jobs as critics and editors as seriously as they take their own writing.
Attendance is important.
My job as mentor is to help each individual student develop his/her drafts into full-fledged fiction. I don’t believe my role is to make students feel better about their writing, but to give students honest criticism.
Reading will be assigned on an individual basis.
Fiction Forms: The Writer as Critic
A significant difference between literary fiction and the other arts—painting, acting, dance, music—is that its practitioners are often its critics; increasingly so, as the number of dedicated book critics diminishes. In print publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and Bookforum, not to mention numerous online journals, fiction writers routinely review the work of their fellow fiction writers. Not only that, over the course of the last couple of centuries, many fiction writers have become as famous, if not more so, for their critical writing as for their novels and stories.
In this course we will investigate the writer as critic in several different ways. First, we will read examples of critical writing by fiction writers such as E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Francine Prose, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, and recent MFA@FLA graduate Aaron Thier. Second, we will consider a couple of recent novels that have proven to be flashpoints for disagreement among critics. In the case of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, we will compare reviews by Francine Prose, James Wood, Stephen King, and Michiko Kakutani; in the case of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, reviews by Dwight Garner, Zadie Smith, James Wood, and William Deriesewicz. Finally, you will write reviews of your own. I will choose and order ARCs (advance reading copies) of six first novels or story collections due to be published in either May or April 2015. These in turn you will be assigned, at random, to review, with two of you reviewing each of the six.
Questions to be considered include the following:
What is the difference between a piece of literary criticism and a book review?
In writing a review or a piece of criticism, is your ultimate responsibility to the author, to the reader of the future, or to the reader of today—the consumer?
In light of the surfeit of “reader reviews” now available on the internet, has the professional reviewer’s voice been diluted? Is it more important? Less important?
Is the book review, as we have traditionally defined it, dead? (On this, we shall read Lee Siegel’s important essay “Is the News Replacing Literature?”)
Secrets of Poetic Craft
“The whole frame of the Poem is a beating out of a piece of gold, but the last clause is as the impression of the stamp, and that it
is that makes it currant.”
Poetry workshops discuss aesthetics more than craft. This course will devote itself to the nuts and bolts of poetry: titles, enjambment, syntax, allusion, metaphor, simile, closure, even a little meter and rhyme, everything that contributes to the internal architecture of the poem. Many of these are covered superficially during workshop, but we will look deeper at what in each case causes the effect as well as the affect.
Critics rarely write about these things, perhaps because they are felt to be only craft. Yet there are times when the internal-combustion engine is more relevant to discussion than Detroit’s latest shades of paint. We will concentrate on matters often mentioned only in passing or given a paragraph or two in the front matter of a textbook.
The reading will include a few set texts (Pendlebury on rhyme, Smith on poetic closure, Scott on the poet’s craft, these books out of print but widely available used), as well as a pile of samizdat chapters—Hollander on titles and enjambment, Ricks on hyphens and endings, Brooke-Rose on metaphor, Berry on poetic grammar. Each class will cover one or two subjects, and two students each week will give short (10–15-minute) presentations, with specific examples for discussion.
There will be six poetic assignments as well.
In this class, we’ll be reading a good number of very fine poems, carefully analyzing a dozen or so of them, and imitating their formal and rhetorical structures. We’ll look at a wide variety of forms and voices in an attempt to widen horizons, to develop a sense of what it is possible to achieve in a poem. Some poems will be frighteningly formal, others constructed and developed according to other, no less demanding rubrics. Students will be asked to write one poem each week, in imitation of the model(s) under discussion, and in addition, each student will present one explication de texte and lead the discussion of the poem(s) chosen for the week. The assigned readings for the week will not necessarily be limited to the poems selected for discussion.
Digital English—Data Mining & Digital Poetics (Cross-listed with CIS 6930, “Special Topics”)
This course, team-taught by faculty in the Departments of English and Computer and Information Science and Engineering, will place students at the intersections of large-scale data research methods, digital poetics, and literary practice.
In the digital field these practices are converging in new and productive ways. Researchers in data mining and information visualization are applying powerful tools to the analysis of very large literary corpora. The emerging international canon of electronic poetry (“e-poetry”)—poetry composed using computing methods and readable only on computers—is becoming recognized as a distinctive creative form subject to new techniques of interpretation. The era of “big data” promises to multiply and accelerate new practices of reading and writing, extending them into kinds of textual work.
We will read several studies of the history and present state of digital humanities and digital poetics and an array of historical and contemporary e-poetry. Our class discussions will be supplemented by several “master classes” led by leading e-poets, who will explain their methods and artistic aims. Using off-the-shelf applications, proprietary, and custom-built software we will develop a toolbox of poetic and programming techniques for mining poetic works for aesthetic insight, for creating new works of this kind, and for rendering textual objects in new visual and interactive forms. To make the most of our collaborative potentials, students in the course will work in teams including computer scientists, humanists, and creative visual and verbal artists. Our aim is to better understand operations of electronic poetry and techniques for its analysis, and to create new works of poetry and new techniques for its composition.
Familiarity with avant-garde and digital poetics, and data mining and visualization techniques and software, are not prerequisites for this course. You will need a sense of adventure, a willingness to extend your expressive imagination, and a commitment to working collaboratively across multiple disciplines.
Literary Theory: Issues—The Künstlerroman
This course will undertake an extensive reading of works in one of the most important of the modernist subgenres of the novel, the
Künstlerroman, or the novel of the artist. Novels will be selected from a variety of primarily 20th-century national and generic traditions (with, hopefully, a few surprises in the mix). We will focus in particular on the relationship between the Künstlerroman and its great realist predecessor, the Bildungsroman; the work of the genre in thinking what Alain Badiou describes as the event; and the relationship between modernist and postmodern/post-contemporary practices of the form. Theoretical readings will be drawn from Maurice Beebe, Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts; Franco Moretti, The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture; Ernst Bloch, “A Philosophical View of the Novel of the Artist”; Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil; and Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism. Our primary readings will focus on classic and contemporary examples of the practice and will include a good number of the following: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark (1915), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), Halldór Laxness’s World Light (1938), Richard Wright’s Black Boy (American Hunger) (1945), Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus (1947), Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast” (1953), Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” (1963), Philip K. Dick’s Galactic Pot-Healer (1969), Iain M. Banks’s Player of the Game(1988), Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003), David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life (2008), Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory (2010), Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), and Rachel Kushner’s The Flame Throwers (2013).
Japanese and Chinese cinemas will by explored comparatively in this seminar as a basis for understanding the theoretical questions of how film art develops both in relationship to national culture and global cultural exchange. We will look at the formal developments that give these cinemas their specificity, historically, and at many of the seminal films that have marked cinema history in East Asia from the introduction of sound to the present. Theatrical and musical traditions that inform cinematic form will be explored. These formal developments occur in complex interaction with US and European cinematic models and innovations as Japanese and Chinese cinemas often present alternatives that are in complex dialogue with those films. Our concentration will be on the art cinema, but we will consider its relationship to popular cultural forms in film and in culture. The conversation will be informed by study of social, political, and economic history, and of questions of the industries of cinema in these countries. Gender issues in Japanese and Chinese cinemas are particularly significant as political and social upheavals of the twentieth twenty-first century continuously transform family structure, work relations, and education. Film theoretical questions will be addressed throughout the course in conjunction with close analysis of the films. In the final weeks of the course, we will consider other Asian cinemas in relationship to the Japanese and Chinese films that will be the focus for most of the semester.
Readings will be wide-ranging essays on reserve. Participants will come to seminar ready to discuss their specifically assigned intervention that will be posted online before the seminar meeting. There will be a short, written assignment due three weeks into the course and a twenty–five-page paper at the conclusion of the seminar.
Womanist Intellectual Thought
The obscure position of African American women in the record of American intellectualism has resulted in a consensus among the uninformed that the phrase “black womanist intellectual” is an oxymoron. This seminar disputes that assumption by focusing on black women’s intellectual traditions and challenging imposed boundaries that define intellectualism. Students will examine the intersection of the public intellectual, academic, and politial theorist while discussing the influences of black female intellectuals in the development of literary and cultural criticism, education, law, and American social and political issues.
Since Alice Walker introduced the term “womanism” in 1983, critics have both embraced and rejected it. Black theologians and sociologists were the quickest to accept the label as one offering opportunities for a specific type of critical engagement. They have also been the most influential in defining (and redefining) the boundaries of its use. The value of womanist intellectual thought to theoretical and activist discourses—especially when we consider black/white feminist relationships—has been criticized as offering nothing more to feminism than an analysis of the white woman as other. In this light womanism has been misunderstood and redefined. With these thoughts in mind, the primary objective of this course is to answer the question “what is womanism?” Is it, as Audre Lorde once charged, an “attempt to disclaim being feminist”? Is it an umbrella term for a distinctly humanist approach to equality and social tolerance? Or is it something more…something revolutionary and necessary?
A second objective of the course is to introduce a few uses and abuses of womanism as a theoretical discourse and as a platform of feminist activism. Our discussions will address questions such as who can be a womanist, and what exactly does this identity mean in terms of bridging the still obtrusive gap separating black and white feminists? What are the problems and issues that sustain this gap, and how can they be challenged or addressed? How does the black feminist differ from the womanist? Is there a need for such distinctions? What is the relationship between community, family, religion, and spirituality and womanism? We will also consider the definitions of an intellectual. What is an intellectual, and how is this identity constructed? How does the public intellectual differ from the academic? What are low and high culture (or low and high theory), and how does womanism address these distinctions? How are the activist and public intellectual viewed by advocates of womanism?
Format: Class sessions include lectures and class discussions. The seminar is designed so that participants may not only understand but also experience various modes of womanist intellectual engagement, such as call and response dialectics and testimonial discourses.
African Fiction in English: Literatures of Crises
This course turns on a foundational question in literary studies: what is the relationship between the realm of art—aesthetics—and the politics of everyday life—the lebenwelt? In an attempt to answer this question, we will undertake a genealogy of the contemporary literatures of Africa. As such critics as V. Y. Mudimbe and Simon Gikandi have contended, modern African literature first emerged in the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties as a discourse designed to liberate African subjects from the colonial order of things. Written in the context of triumphant or, at any rate, optimistic anti-colonial nationalism, this literature predominantly deployed the aesthetics of realism. In hindsight, this deployment does not seem either accidental or co-incidental. These, it would seem, were literatures of radical possibility and profound optimism. Diverse critics such as Fredric Jameson, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Benedict Anderson all argue that realism is the preeminent aesthetic mode of nationalism. Both the nation and the realist novel are narratives of linear progress across time. Anderson appears to suggest that the novel (along with the newspaper) was central to the possibility of imagining the modern nation. The aesthetic of the novel made it possible to think and narrate the nation in “homogeneous empty time.” To what extent are the founding texts of modern African literature causally linked to the discourses of African nationalism? If the first generation of modern African emerged in the context of triumphant anti-colonial nationalism, then, succeeding generations have been written in the wake of what has come to be known as the Africa crisis. From the late nineteen-sixties onwards, the promise of postcolonial plenitude give way to pessimism and despair as everyday African life came increasingly to be characterized by abject poverty, horrific violence, endemic corruption, repressive governance, crumbling infrastructure, extreme deprivation, and other forms of mass misery. From one perspective, the African postcolony has come to be defined by an interminable, if not terminal, crisis. What has the aesthetic dimension of this crisis been? To what extent have Afro-modernism, magical realism and other forms of anti-realism displaced realism in the realm of African art? To what extent can these non-/anti-realist modes been seen as symptomatic of a continent in crisis? Is it possible to trace a one-to-one correspondence, if not a causal relationship, between the dominant forms of African art and the politics of everyday African life? Authors to be studied may include such writers as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Yambo Ouloguem, Ben Okri, Sony Labou Tansi, Calixthe Beyala, Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, Nurridin Frarrh, J. M. Coetzee, and Cyl Cheney Coker.
TransAtlantic: Traffic, Trade, Translations
In the 19th century, “American” literature had yet to be “born” as a national literary tradition, separate from England; early textbooks tended to lump British and American works into one tradition as literatures written in English. And the reception of American works in England (and vice-versa) were complicated by weak copyright laws and flagrant infringements on existing copyright or outright theft. But there remained a rich “conversation” between artists in Europe and America with much cross fertilization with respect to culture, politics, and science. Some anecdotal examples: the French were smitten (and remain smitten) with Poe; Dickens was enormously popular on a global scale; Douglass, Fuller, and Wharton immersed themselves in politics both revolutionary and global, in London, Rome, and in Paris; Cooper, Hawthorne, and James made London home; indeed, James eventually became a British citizen.
This course will re-examine cultural TransAtlantic crossings with an eye to shared obsessions, themes, concepts, and politics that emerged between the revolutionary year of 1848 and the turn of the century, and the emergence of a new art-form: Impressionism.
Readings will include works by Mary Shelley, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, to name only a few.
hildren’s Literature and the Nation
In this course, we will theorize two distinct categories—the “child” and the “nation”—in order to consider the various ways they have been yoked together and deployed by works of theory, political discourse, and literature for young people. How, we will ask, do both theories of the nation, generally, and national narratives, more specifically, use the figure of the child—and how in turn are various culturally- and historically-contingent notions of the child inflected by these concepts and narratives? To what extent do works of literature produced for young people reaffirm and/or challenge dominant national narratives? How might we account for the category of a “national children’s literature”—and how might this term be complicated by questions of (neo-)colonialism, globalization, translation, etc.?
We will begin the semester by studying theoretical texts—including Benedict Anderson’s seminal work, Imagined Communities—that attempt to define and historicize the category of the nation. We will also consider related concepts and texts, including diaspora (Homi Bhaba and Robin Cohen), multiculturalism (Bharati Mukherjee), colonialism and imperialism (Edward Said), citizenship (Lauren Berlant), and memory, heritage, and mythology (Roland Barthes and Pierre Nora). In doing so, we will pay particularly close attention to the ways in which these studies make use of the figure of the child. We will then discuss key contributions to children’s literature scholarship (e.g., those made by Clare Bradford, Kit Kelen, Valerie Krips, Emer O’Sullivan, and Courtney Weilke-Mills) that draw on these theoretical studies in order to question how works of literature for young people might both demonstrate and challenge the interventions they make. We will supplement our discussion of these theoretical and critical texts with readings of key works of literature about and/or for children (e.g., Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain, and Marlene Philip Nourbese’s Harriet’s Daughter).
Students will be responsible for making one (1) in-class presentation and an accompanying 5–10-page presentation paper. Additionally, each student will compose a 15–20-page final seminar paper.