Spotlighted Spring 2021 Classes

ENGLISH 235.01

Julianne Werlin & Leonard Tennenhouse

Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists wrote in troubled times. Renaissance London was the site of plague, religious conflict, anxieties about the transition between governments, and a growing gap between rich and poor. Yet within this dangerous world, the theater grew and flourished, reaching audiences of thousands. It produced some of the most remarkable literature in English, whose inspired witticisms, larger-than-life characters, and scenes of passion and violence still shape our culture today.

In this class, we will read some of Shakespeare's greatest comedies, tragedies, and histories, setting them in dialogue with works by his rivals, friends, and imitators. Surveying the landscape of Renaissance theater, we will consider how art responds to moments of uncertainty, and whether it simply reflects dominant views, or can shape public opinion. And we will ask what happens when art itself becomes the subject of controversy -- as in Shakespeare's England, when offended members of the public demanded that the theaters be shut down. We will read a range of plays, including Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest. Writing assignments will include three short papers.


Sarah Beckwith

We face now unprecedented threats to our planet. Birds, insects, and countless species of animals are dying in mass (it is the sixth extinction). We already see profound alterations in our climate and weather systems. Where do our ideas about nature come from? Are there ways of thinking about the earth that we have foolishly discarded?

We inherit ideas about nature, and relations towards it that were emergent and contested in Shakespeare’s time. Francis Bacon pioneered ways of imagining new forms of control and dominion over it beyond that theologically “warranted” in the Book of Genesis; Calvin thought that human nature was utterly depraved without God’s saving grace. Nature was newly “improved”, claimed for cultivation, involving pushing men and women off common land so that it could sustain profitable sheep. New global frontiers were also formed by conquest and settlement, close to home in Ireland, and further away in the New World, that is the Americas. In literary terms, nature was at the center of the idealizations of pastoral, and subjected to the most penetrating analysis in Shakespearean tragedy as well as other genres.

Hitherto interwoven with fable, and folk-story, it was also the object of new taxonomies and considerations of the place of humankind within it. (Indeed the word “kind” is subject to new kinds of pressure. Who is our kin? And how kind are we? Of what kind are we?)

Unlike so many of his contemporaries whose habitat was the city, Shakespeare famously returns to Stratford towards the end of his life, and perhaps, in theatrical and conceptual terms never really left it.

In this class we will examine several habitats in Shakespeare’s plays: forests, gardens, and the sea, for example, as well as ideas around wildness, tameness, cultivation, and creation. We will look at individual animals: Launce’s amazing dog, Crabbe, and dogs in Shakespeare; his most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear”, and his hawks, wrens, and sparrows, complex and precise botanies, and their classical and folk heritage, especially in his discussions of the relation of art and nature. Above all we will see how Shakespeare conceived of the human body as the imaginative medium of theatre, and therefore human nature was at the heart of his dramaturgical inquiries about the kinds of creatures we are.

We will explore a range of plays (about 10 Shakespeare plays in all), and also sixteenth and seventeenth century sources that exemplify and interrogate the nature of nature. We will bring to life Shakespeare’s profound testing out of his culture’s resources in relation to what nature (one of the most complex words of our language) is, was, and might be. In this way too we will be exploring the nature of Shakespeare’s work as well as exploration of human relations with the natural world.

Students will have the chance to keep nature journals, and to track flora and fauna imaginatively through Shakespeare’s natural worlds and our own.

ENGLISH 245.01

Catherine Lee

Revolution and Progress, 1780–1820

Is the world progressing or regressing? Some argue that life for humans is better than ever before, that we are living the wildest dreams of those who lived on this earth centuries or even decades ago. But others insist that such a view overlooks the magnitude of human suffering that exists around the globe today, and the sheer number and scope of problems that humans face, such as climate change, economic inequality, political unrest, and more. Clearly, a consensus is yet to be reached regarding what progress really means.

The question of progress became central in the Romantic period (1780–1820), during which a series of revolutions brought the world closer to the form that we recognize today. The American Revolution, for example, gave rise to a new nation-state, and to the ideals of liberty and democracy. These ideals were championed by the French Revolution, which dismantled old ideas about social structure, the individual, and happiness, and by the Haitian Revolution, the self-liberation of slaves in Haiti from French colonial rule. The Industrial Revolution, as critic Michel Serres writes, “destroyed the agrarian, cool society of water mills and windmills” in England, and “created a new and burning society.” At the heart of these revolutions was the idea that things were changing for the better, that progress was taking place.

In this course, we will explore what the individuals who lived during the Romantic period, and grappled with the concepts of progress and revolution, can teach us about these concepts, as well as related ideas about the individual, society, liberty, democracy, and happiness, by examining a variety of Romantic-era texts. Readings will include works of Romantic poetry by William Blake, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and others, political and philosophical writings by J. J. Rousseau, Edmund Burke, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Malthus, and more, documents from the Haitian Revolution, the slave narrative by Olaudah Equiano, and two novels, Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) and Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein (1818). Assignments will include short reflection papers and medium-length essays.

ENGLISH 269.01

Karen Little

In this course, we will take a long historical approach to literature, looking to Black American texts of the colonial through antebellum periods to understand the deep roots of social protest in the Black American cultural tradition. Despite barriers to free movement, to property-ownership, to education, and to the press, the earliest Black Americans produced poetry, songs, oration, fiction, and journalism. We will sample each of these genres and consider how texts harness the power and conventions of literature to advance vital arguments. Issues of note will include the institution of slavery, property rights, rights to worship, rights to literacy, rights to political participation, legal recognition, and more. Via structured research activities, students will produce original arguments about the treatment of social issues in Black American literature with options to make comparative arguments across colonial/antebellum texts and between these texts and those from later eras.

Course Requirements: Participation in class discussion and workshops; regular “blog” entries; two brief research presentations (one based on an archival object; one based on a newspaper article); one 10-minute work in progress presentation; and one 10-12 page research paper.


Ryan Ku

Treated as “forever foreign,” not quite a minority (a “model”), Asians resurface in U.S. national culture from time to time, remembered anew amid perennial forgetting. What conditions this (dis)appearance and how does it define Asian American identity? When do Asian Americans emerge in the mainstream and to what extent does invisibility betray a constitutive role in U.S. history? This course charts the shifting place of Asians in the modernizing of America—their structural relation to U.S. sovereignty along with the solidarities and fissures, or inclusions and exclusions, within and beyond the America they reclaim. We will begin by reviewing the rise and current state of Asian American studies as a field of study in the context of political struggle and academic change. We will then read literary and cultural texts alongside ethnic historiography and criticism to trace the evolution of America’s relation to an other it cannot see as a part of itself. Through three, double-sided lines of inquiry, we will lay bare the historical conditions of the present as well as the diversity of an ever unseen but by no means vanishing—in fact, the opposite—constituency.

First, we will trace new “developments” in representation to the family’s longstanding construction as a contested medium of immigrant assimilation and the transnational migration of an economically vital yet politically excluded labor force—of coolies, “cheap farmers,” “illegal aliens,” and the colonized. Long before its “pivot to Asia,” the U.S. has imagined the Pacific as an “American lake,” which is littered by eerily reminiscent yet forgotten wars. This making of a “new” empire through wars on magical waters is the second axis we will examine by looking at the “unincorporation,” internment, and proxy wars to which Asians have been subjected and contradictions among Asians due to diasporic nationalism and empire soldiering. Finally, we will (re)turn to the “new” forms of visibility, often couched in capitalist and technological terms, that increasingly characterize Asians in America to discern interracial, indeed interspecies, relations and conflict amid their simultaneous projection to the past and the future. In providing a critical history of Asian America as a cultural and disciplinary formation, this course will expand the field’s foundational concerns toward a transpacific and hemispheric Asia/America and explore minor adoptions and resistances of America, including of its aesthetic trajectory from realism to modernism, postmodernism, and beyond.

Texts may include Crazy Rich Asians, The Year of the Dragon, America is in the Heart, Obasan, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, We Should Never Meet, Tropic of Orange, Philippine–American War editorial cartoons, Homecoming King, Robot Stories, Coolies and Cane, Impossible Subjects, The Quest for Statehood, Soldiering through Empire, Immigrant Acts, America's Asia, The Oriental Obscene, Alien Capital, Consuming Japan, and Dangerous Crossings. Students will be evaluated based on class participation and presentations, written responses, (con)textual analysis, and comparative analysis or historical synthesis. This course will be taught online. Students will be required to attend the course on Zoom. Additional instruction and participation may take place through Sakai forums, small group sessions, and/or virtual office hours.


Nicole Higgins

Contemporary African American Poetry
“I’ve come here to lash out / I’ve come here to reclaim my tenderness / Which is not linear and I’m trying to remember...” –Harmony Holiday

This course will explore a range of African American poetry written since 2008. Many rushed to hail the moment, with the election of the first Black president, as a turn to a “post-racial” America. Instead, it was marked by ongoing and increasingly visible racial violences. The variety of witness-bearing responses from Black poets in particular invites an exploration of the relationships between their culturally-informed poetics, Black life, and the American literary canon. How are contemporary Black poets contending with historical notions like “art for art’s sake,” or the Black Aesthetic? How do they navigate the lived and psychic experiences of race in their poems? What kind of space is made for the concurrent parts of their identities, both on and off the page? How are these considerations shaping the landscape of American poetry in the 21st century?

Likely texts include: Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, Camonghne Felix’s Build Yourself a Boat, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Avery R. Young’s booker t. soltreyne: a race rekkid.

Open to all majors and levels. No prerequisites, no exams. In addition to thoughtful participation in class discussions, students will write short reflection papers, and either a longer critical essay or short collection of poems + critical introduction.

ENGLISH 377.01

Russell Coldicutt

Postcolonial Literature: From Colony to Computation

A civilization depends upon the fictions that its people use to understand themselves, their relation to each other, and to the places they live. It’s therefore no coincidence that for most of the history of English literature, Western readers have presumed that the best literature, in fact the only literature worth reading, has come from the First World—from England and its settler nations. This literature provided its readers with a shared understanding of how they should behave and is in this sense partly responsible for producing the cultural sensibilities that limit what and, crucially, who is excluded from a society. This is no less true for today’s globally interconnected world as it was for the readers at the height of the British Empire. A study of a society’s literary forms provides us with a way to understand how a given population understands itself and its relation to those it excludes from its social interactions.

So, what does it mean when the majority of literature produced by the First World fails to mention its dependence on colonialism, past and present? In this class, we’ll explore how this murky division between history and fiction has come to shape how writers and readers alike understand their relation to the past, the present, and to their means of expression through literary genre. To do so, we look to the fictions of the twentieth and twenty-first century from the former British Empire and Commonwealth—both those considered by that Empire as central, as well as those considered peripheral. We will discover how the most prolific writers of those centuries came up with strategies in order to come to terms with, or hide, the historical facts of empire and its continuing effects on their present day. As we move through some of the most important works of fiction written during the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, we’ll tease out some of the issues to emerge out of the uneasy relation between colonial history and literature as it appears in the novel, drama, poetry, and film: cultural-nationalism, diaspora, and globalization; histories, identities, and generational shifts; literary form and the idea of “postcolonial literature.”

Students will write three short responses (under 1 page), one short essay (5-7 pages), and one final essay (8-10 pages) instead of a final exam. This course will be held online with both synchronous and asynchronous options.

ENGLISH 390-1.01

Victor Strandberg

Regarded in his lifetime as a dominant force in modern poetry (compared by one critic to “the sun and the moon in the firmament”), T. S. Eliot has largely retained his iconic status nearly a century and a half since his birth. The central purpose of this course is to facilitate a better understanding of Eliot’s whole poetic oeuvre, from “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” through “The Hollow Men,” “Ash-Wednesday” and “Four Quartets.” To enhance this effort, we will also read one or more of Eliot’s plays and broadly examine his literary/cultural commentary, his biography, and the historical context of his life and work. An abundance of recent Eliot scholarship, including the release online of over a thousand letters of his to an intimate female friend, will provide opportunities for original scholarship.

ENGLISH 390S-1.01

Joseph Donahue

The adultery, betrayal, homoeroticism, tragic death and contested estate would make “The Dickinsons of Amherst,” were it ever a series, a hit, at least on PBS. Then there’s the central figure, Emily Dickinson, who was, there’s no polite way to put this, the greatest lyric poet in the English language. This course is an answer to her own question: Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat? To do so, we will read through her extraordinary Collected Poems, some of her letters, and works that influenced her, and that she influenced. We will explore her confrontations with such matters as love, death, belief, the fate of the soul, in those sharp small poems, by turns witty and grave, that aspire to the condition of lightning.

ENGLISH 390S-1.02

Jarvis McInnis

#CiteBlackWomen: Reading Zora Neale Hurston

This course examines the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston. Though best known as a novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was also a formally trained anthropologist, who wrote and experimented across a range of literary genres and cultural media, including: novels, short stories, plays, anthropological essays, political essays, autobiography, sound recordings and documentary film footage. In addition to Harlem, she spent a considerable part of her career traveling throughout the US South and the Caribbean collecting and theorizing black vernacular culture, such as folklore, music, dance, and religious expression. Bringing together literature, music, gender and sexuality studies, and performance studies, this course will explore the vast range of Hurston’s impressive oeuvre. Some questions we will take up include: What is the relationship between literature and anthropology in Hurston’s oeuvre? How does her work converge with and depart from that of her male contemporaries (e.g., Richard Wright, Sterling Brown, and Langston Hughes) who also wrote about black culture in the US South? How does she represent gender, and particularly black women’s experiences, in her work, and what is its significance for contemporary black feminism? How do Hurston’s depictions of “the folk” defy conventional understandings of black modernity? How does the emphasis on the US South and the Caribbean in her work offer an alternative geographic framework for exploring questions of diaspora? Can we trace linkages between her literary, sonic and visual projects, and if so, how might this function as a model for practicing and understanding interdisciplinarity and, more specifically, the project of Black Studies?

ENGLISH 490S-10.01

Kathy Psomiades

This course examines self-help writing as genre and as cultural phenomenon. From business advice about productivity and entrepreneurship, to instructions on how to dress and decorate so as to reveal your “true self,” to the podcasts that help you to be happier through positive thinking and self love, self help is ubiquitous. We’ll be making self help the object of our study, using the methods of theorists of culture like Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu; we’ll also be looking at a few 19th, 20th or 21st century novels that speak to the intersection of literary and self-help ideas of the self. As a Criticism/Theory/Methodology course, this course will focus both on the theories and methodologies that allow us to analyze and criticize self help, and on the reading techniques that allow us to understand the narrative pleasure self help offers.

Some short (2-3) page written assignments, and two assignments that take the form of podcast episodes—one practicing the genre and one critical analysis—along with brief written rationales for those episodes.