Spring 2024 Courses

Department's listing of courses for the 2024 Spring semester:

Contemporary Southern Lit
Jarvis McInnis

In their acceptance speech for Best New Rap Group at the 1995 Source Awards, André 3000 of the hip hop duo OutKast, proudly declared to a crowd of primarily East and West Coast rappers: “The South got something to say!” This pivotal moment in hip hop history turned out to be quite prescient, as the last 30 years have witnessed a Black southern renaissance, if you will, in literature, music, and pop culture. This course will explore how a range of contemporary Black artists—including writers Jesmyn Ward and Kiese Laymon, pop stars Beyoncé, Big Freedia, and Lil Nas X, and film and TV shows such as Moonlight and Queen Sugar, respectively—are reimagining the US South as the site of a viable present and future for Black people, even as they continue to grapple with its tortured past of racial injustice and anti-black violence. We will examine the intricacies and contradictions of contemporary Black southern identity, not only in relation to whiteness, but to the region’s fast-growing Latino/a/x population as well. Discussions will explore the intersections of race, region, class, gender, sexuality, performance, and environmentalism. Assignments (e.g., weekly discussion posts and 2-3 papers approximately 4-6 pages each) will aim to teach students how to write critically at the intersections of literature, music, and pop culture. 

Dark Academia: Genre and Aesthetic from Antiquity to Present
Jane Harwell

"Dark academia books are, first and foremost, books about privilege being pushed to its extreme. Going to university is a privilege, of course, but now actual murderers can escape and hide from their crimes due to financial privilege, too." - Zoe Robertson, BookRiot

"Dark Academia" is a term first popularized on Tumblr in 2015 that then rose to new heights during the pandemic via Book Tok. It is an internet aesthetic, with images linked together of pleated skirts, gothic architecture, and vellum book covers. The aesthetic draws on the idealized version of academia found in Oxford, Cambridge, and elite universities. Additionally, there are the books, central to developing "dark academia" aesthetic, including the foundational The Secret History by Donna Tartt (which we will read in this class). One can argue that "Dark Academia" as a trend convinces us to read books based on their aesthetic appeal. What then do we do with the question posed by the genre itself: what if an obsession with aesthetic is dangerous? What do we do with the critiques of privilege and meritocracy inside of a genre and trend that glorify and uphold idealized elite university spaces, notorious for exclusionary politics of knowledge?

This class on Dark Academia will read contemporary texts and watch films that fall under that category: beginning with Secret History but also Bunny by Mona Awad, The Latinist by Mark Prins, and more. The class will read these contemporary novels alongside their ancient Greek and Roman counterparts, such as The Bacchae by Euripides and the myth of Persephone/Proserpina. Finally, the class will consider the version of academia idealized and critiqued within such texts, both through popular media critiques of "Dark Academia" as a category and historic critiques of the humanities as studied in Oxford and Cambridge.

This class will feature 2 essays and short, informal weekly writing assignments with frequent workshopping and chances to revise.

Migration Stories: Exploring “Home” in Literature and TV
Anvita Budhraja

What is home? Why do we choose to leave a place? What do we have to learn and unlearn in a new context? How does migration shape identity?

Every year, approximately three to four million people choose to migrate to a new country. Stories of departures, movements, and arrivals have come to define the media of the past thirty years. In this course, we will learn how to thoughtfully read diverse perspectives on migrations, explore what cultural hybridity means in the 21st century, analyze how contemporary media captures the pain and joy of choosing a new “home,” and respond meaningfully, in writing, to narratives of beginning anew.

If you have moved away from a place you call home, you will be able to recognize, in migration stories, the reality of leading dual lives that are defined by different spaces and people who represent the past and the present. We will pay special attention to technologies of communication such as letters, phones, instant messaging apps, and social media, that allow us to simultaneously belong to many different lives and influence how our texts (novels and TV shows) engage with separation, nostalgia, and going home.

Possible texts include Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017), Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies (2021), and Joan is Okay (2022) by Weike Wang, and shows like Never Have I Ever (2020) and Ms Marvel (2022).

Assignments: Regular class participation, short blog posts, drafts workshops, final writing assignment. No pre-requisites, no exams.

Detective Fiction and Film
Mike Kleynman

A bloodstain, a butler, a cryptic phone call—we know a detective story when we see it. But how do these tropes of detective fiction work? As that question lurks in the shadowy background, we’ll spend this semester investigating our way through short stories, novels, and a few films.
We’ll start with the most famous detectives: the impossible deductive skills of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Poe’s Auguste Dupin, the borderline telepathic powers of Chesterton’s Father Brown. All the while, we’ll track how these stories tell us that they are detective stories, and how that changes how we read them.

We’ll turn to the detective as imagined by noir films: in a trenchcoat, moodily smoking a cigarette in the rain. We’ll watch a few of the most iconic detective films (The Long Goodbye, Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon are all potentially up for viewing) and ask what continuities/disruptions exist between these new detectives and the old ones.

Finally, we’ll look at more recent examples: what kind of detective story do we get with Nolan’s Memento, for example, when our investigator has amnesia? What about when our detective has to literally “un-see” half of what’s in front of him, as in Mieville’s The City and the City?

Assignments include short blog posts, a mid-term paper, and a final paper with opportunities for feedback on both papers. No exams, no prereqs. 
Participation: 25% 
Mid-term paper: 30% 
Final Paper: 45%

Paranoia & Conspiracy on Film
Matthew Thomas

Why does the explanatory power of conspiracy continue to appeal to us? What does it mean to feel paranoid when you might have good reason to do so? How can paranoid thinking be useful? To answer these questions, our course builds from a moment of artistic and commercial obsession with paranoia and conspiracy in 1970s Hollywood, studying how narratives of paranoia and conspiracy are used to untangle, and often re-tangle, historical power structures and their attendant issues — ranging from surveillance, media, and the economy to patriarchy, race, and the environment.

We’ll be watching films like The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973), The Conversation (1974), Chinatown (1974), The Three Days of the Condor (1975), All the President’s Men (1976) and Inherent Vice (2014). And in contrast to visual dimension of film, we’ll also consider texts like Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49 — about a woman who uncovers an ancient conspiracy involving two postal services — and Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977) — a paranoiac sci-fi novel about drug addicts living in a future dystopian southern California. Besides these primary sources, our course will draw on a range of related secondary sources that span journalism and popular culture, history and sociology, and social and literary theory.

While we’ll largely focus on the sixties and seventies, our course will also ask us to make connections and draw contrasts to feelings of paranoia and turns to conspiracy today. Contemporary topics could include the ‘deep state,’ 5G, anti-vaxxing and COVID denial, or election rigging. Assignments for the course include an analytical essay, weekly forum responses, and a final project of your choosing about paranoid thought.

Living with Others: East/West Encounters
Corina Stan

In this iteration of “Living with Others,” we’ll read engrossing novels that stage encounters between the East and the West over the course of the past century and a half. What exactly is “the West,” when was it invented, historically, and where does “the East” begin geographically? Through close engagement with novels by well-established authors, we’ll map histories of colonialism, slavery, revolution, war, dictatorship, and migration set in South Africa, St. Petersburg, Prague, New York, Berlin, Ghana, Rome, Poland, Bulgaria, and other places. We'll be keeping an eye on questions of history and the “intimacies of continents,” cultural encounters, the fragility of human bonds, unlikely allegiances and solidarities. Our aim will be to read well and practice writing cogently and with nuance about literary texts. No prerequisites. Some short in-class assignments and three essays.

Reading list: 

Sandor Márai, Embers 
Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes 
Veza Canetti, The Tortoises 
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 
Abram Tertz, Phkentz  
W. G. Sebald, The Emigrants 
Abdulrazak Gurnah, Afterlives 
Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days 
Igiaba Scego, Adua 
Sharon Dodua Otoo, Ada’s Room 
Georgi Gospodinov, Time Shelter 

Literature and Freedom
Robert Mitchell

In this course, we consider the ways in which literature—primarily novels—helps us to understand the nature of freedom in our lives. We will consider what freedom (and its contrary, bondage) mean in a variety of texts, focusing especially on those that emphasize some sort of inescapable constraint, such as divine fate, original sin, or heredity, though we will also consider social forms of bondage. We will begin with Sophocles’s classic drama Oedipus the King, and then consider a number of novels, including Jane Austen’s Emma, Émile Zola’s Germinal, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Alongside these literary texts, we will read short selections from literary critics and philosophers, including Aristotle, G. W. F. Hegel, and Georg Lukács, who have reflected on the nature of freedom and, equally important, on the ways in which perspectives on freedom and constraint bear on literary genre and form. Our primary goal is to consider how literature, in both its content and form, is able to reflect on the question of what “freedom” is and how it can (and cannot) be instantiated in a human life, and to this end, we will take up a number of key literary terms, such as character, chorus, genre, plot, realism, naturalism, tragedy, etc.

Student work for the course consists of homework assignments for, attendance at, and participation in, each class meeting; an essay element exercise; one 5-8 page (double-spaced) literary critical paper; and two stylistic imitation assignments.

Student work for the course consists of homework assignments for, attendance at, and participation

in, each class meeting; an essay element exercise; one 5-8 page (double-spaced) literary critical

paper; and two stylistic imitation assignments.

War & Worship, Wine & (Wo)men
Thomas Ferraro

A Seminar for Sophomores and Other Newcomers to English

Our age has lost much of its ear for poetry, as it has its eye for color and line, and its taste for war and worship, wine and women. — Henry Adams (1904)

Why read when there is so much else to do?  What is there in a novel, a poem, an essay to hold our imagination captive?  to make us smarter, wiser, more artful and more courageous?  to bring us closer to each other, to the world at large, to the wonder and the terror and the majesty?  How are we to know "it" when we see it; get there when we're not; speak of it when we are?  And how are we to take the next step--to the point where bearing witness becomes a form of making present?  embodying, a form of propagating?  critical analysis, a form of collective self-interrogation?   

These questions are the biggies--the overarching, meta-issues of deeply engaged, bloody demanding, fiercely intelligent, achingly beautiful reading.

Nice to contemplate, for sure.  But, speaking practically, how to begin?

I will gather for us some of the best stuff I know, American Romantic texts especially, treating matters of nearly universal interest: those matters of “war and worship, wine and (wo)men and work,” to expand pointedly on Henry Adams’s 1904 alliterative litany.  The kind of texts worth reading again and again.  We will take character to heart, query idea and plot, describe the sound and sight and feel of the language.  We'll ask each text to tutor us on how it wishes, in particular, to be read.  And we'll work methodically on our game: 1) reading aloud, to catch the tone and the drama of the words on the page, even in expository prose, experiencing form as content;  2) cross-interrogating between part and whole, whole and part (a given phrase vs. its sentence or paragraph, a given passage vs. the text, the text-at-hand vs. the texts-so-far); and 3) cultivating self-reflexivity, in which what is going on in a text is seen to be at stake in how, separately and together, we discuss it.  The ultimate goal is to be able to inhabit a text in its own terms, so intimately that it lives in us; to analyze it so cogently that it, in effect, analyzes us.  

An introduction, in sum, to the pleasurizing intensities of sustained reading during the age of cyber-immediacy and virtual contact: the visceral texture it offers, the analytic trenchancy (including capacity for contradiction) it demands, the repartee it solicits, the essaying that honors it, and the kinship of word and thought it ultimately inspirits.

TEXTS TO BE DRAWN FROM:  Poetry by Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Langston Hughes; fiction by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Willa Cather, Jeanette Winterson, and Mohsin Hamid; and art-essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Michael Herr, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Richard Rodriguez.         

And, finally, for the record: Around our seminar table, expressive quiet will supplement analytical acumen; writing assignments will be short and guided yet informal and exploratory; and grading (which it is time to re-invent or abandon altogether) will be effort-friendly, alert to varying strengths, and happily inflated. 

Utopias & Dystopias in Am Lit
Mike D’Alessandro

From The Hunger Games to The Parable of the Sower to Minority Report to Snowpiercer, American culture has become saturated with visions of speculative “other” societies. But why exactly have utopian and dystopian stories become so central to our national landscape? How can so-called utopias allow specific populations to thrive while so many others fail? Moving across the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, this course examines the genre through social, cultural, and political lenses. We investigate traditional examples of utopias and dystopias—from planned communities to futuristic authoritarian regimes—at the same time that we test the boundaries of utopian and dystopian definitions. 

Throughout, we ask critical questions of the utopian and dystopian genres, such as: how have speculative futures illuminated fears around changing economic structures, gender dynamics, and race relations? In what ways do utopias and dystopias offer insight into ideals of individualism and fears of conformity? What aspects of United States history have unfolded as real-life utopias and dystopias? Finally, how distinct are the concepts of utopia and dystopia? 

Fiction and film lie at the center of our exploration, but we also engage genre theory, television shows, and cultural criticism. Texts include Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Ling Ma’s Severance, and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Film screenings include Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, and Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer

Evaluation is based on weekly response posts, two mid-length formal essays, and an oral presentation. Also, as this class is a discussion seminar, most of our time—and a sizable percentage of the evaluation—will focus on class participation.

Mesha Maren-Hogan

This is an introductory-level multi-genre creative writing course. No previous experience is required. Together we will explore personal essays, poetry, screen and playwriting, and fiction with an eye toward building a toolbox of craft skills. Come to class with a curiosity and love of language and leave with a refined sense of your own voice on the page. 

Faulkner Fox

This course gives students an opportunity to explore and practice four genres of creative writing: creative nonfiction, fiction, drama, and poetry. Part of each class will be devoted to discussion of student work, part to talking about writing craft, and part to close reading of published essays, stories, plays, and poems. There will be weekly writing assignments, and students will submit a final portfolio.

Akhil Sharma

This course is intended to introduce you to the intense pleasure of working with language. We will spend a month each on poetry (primarily haikus), non-fiction (primarily profiles), and fiction (primarily short stories). By the end of the semester, you will have developed a sensitivity to language and an awareness of your own talent. Along with teaching you about language, working on self-expression should, hopefully, help you get a better sense of what is and is not important to you.

Cathy Shuman

Experimenting with creative nonfiction style, tone, and structure, in this class we will explore the challenges and opportunities offered by the genre of flash nonfiction (very short personal essays).  Over the course of the semester each student will gather material for, draft, workshop, revise, and polish a series of six flash nonfiction pieces of 600-800 words each, using a variety of approaches.  Along the way, in-class writing exercises and reading responses to published examples of flash nonfiction will provide inspiration and ideas. No previous creative writing coursework is required for this course. 

Faulkner Fox


The goal of this creative writing course is for aspiring playwrights to think deeply about what—exactly—they are trying to do, and avoid, in their writing. What causes a play to be heavy-handed and propagandistic, as opposed to impassioned? How can students who believe deeply in a particular issue write artful drama about that issue? Students will be encouraged to experiment, question, and revise, at every turn.

Over the course of the semester, students will read—and watch—excellent political plays as well as write their own. They will write and develop their own full-length (60-90 page) script or two one act plays (30-45 pages each) in addition to doing weekly creative responses to produced plays, several of which we’ll attend live at Duke or in the community. Class discussion will focus on student work-in-progress, produced plays, and playwriting craft. Outside of class, students will attend plays, meet with consultants at the Writing Studio, meet individually with me, and hold read-throughs of their scripts.

Toby Martinez de las Rivas

Many people write poems and keep them to themselves, afraid to share them, or afraid that they’re not ‘good enough’. Others wrote when they were younger and then the habit fell by the wayside. But the creative use of language is at the heart of being human. Poems are written to be shared. Diaries are private. Poetry is inherently public. It improves through taking risk and seeking feedback. Introduction to the Writing of Poetry will take you through the process of developing a short portfolio of poems in a supportive setting. We will explore poems from a variety of periods in a range of forms from haiku to erasure, from the sonnet to collage, from the personal to the political. You need have no prior experience for this course – only an interest in poetry, the desire to write, and a willingness to see where it takes you. You will receive extensive written and oral feedback on your work as the course progresses.

Akhil Sharma

This course is intended to introduce you to the building blocks of fiction: point of view, tenses, plotting. We will work on small exercises of one to three page stories, as well as a few longer ones. We will be reading some of the greatest short story writers so that you develop a sense of how writers deploy technique. By the end of the semester, you will have developed a sensitivity to language and an awareness of your own talent. This is intended to be a course that will allow you to take a breath, and look around, and decide what is and is not important to you.

JP Gritton

In addition to composing their own pieces of short fiction, students will read work by masters of the short form. These stories are lenses through which we will explore the building blocks of the narrative craft— character, point of view, setting, plot, as well as voice—and they will complement chapters from Janet Burroway’s guide to narrative craft, Writing Fiction. Students who remain in the course will be required to purchase this text; it will provide a kind of technical ballast as we explore fiction by the likes of Daniel Orozco, Amy Hempel, Toni Morrison, and others.

Writing the Self
Cathy Shuman

How do you craft a self through writing?  The semester will be spent exploring approaches to autobiographical writing, as students write preliminary drafts/exercises that will lead through workshops and revision to the production of three 7-9 page autobiographical essays.  As we consider topics such as childhood and memory, the people, places, and things that make up our present selves, and the stories that have shaped our lives, we will read selected examples of published memoir and personal essay that will help us develop techniques for creating our own.  No previous creative writing coursework is required for this course.

Victor Strandberg

After a brief look at the Puritan heritage, English 269 will take up major works by major American authors in the generation leading up to the Civil War -- the time of the Transcendentalist movement.

The syllabus will include essays and poems by Emerson; Thoreau's Walden and Civil Disobedience; tales, poems and essays by Poe; tales and a novel (The Blithedale Romance or The Scarlet letter) by Hawthorne; Melville's Moby-Dick and Billy Budd; many poems by Emily Dickinson, and a generous selection of poems by Walt Whitman. Background reading will include a slave narrative by Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs and numerous handouts provided by the instructor.

Requirements:  Three hour exams (no three-hour final exam). One term paper focusing on one or more of the writers in the course.

Wakanda Forever
Tsitsi Jaji

In 2018 Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler) broke box-office records, and it remains the highest grossing film by an African American director. It boasted a diverse cast of U.S., Caribbean, and African actors. And the music, costuming, and architecture reflected deep research into continental African cultures. The film enjoyed an extraordinary reception among global Black fans who attended the film dressed in African fabrics and adopted the crossed arms of the Wakanda Forever salute as a joyful greeting. The sequel, released after the death of star Chadwick Bosman, required cast and audience to navigate the difficult terrain of grief while following a narrative arc anchored in the Marvel Comics Universe’s complex network of characters. 

This class goes mining for vibrant insights into diasporic culture, taking the Wakanda films as a portal into new questions each week. We begin with three films directed by Coogler, Fruitvale Station (2014), Black Panther (2018) and Wakanda Forever (2022), taking these seriously as cinematic (not just narrative) texts. From there, we proceed to literature that grapples with how to imagine justice, ethics, governance, gender, and climate crisis­­. We’ll cover a lot of ground -- African oral poetry, an 18th century nun’s biography, 19th century abolitionist texts, two centuries of Black sci-fi, (from Du Bois to Nnedi Okorafor), and transformative music from Songs of Flight (a Duke Arts event we will attend together) to Janelle Monae. What are the distinctive capacities of each of the various genres we consider?  Guest artists and lecturers, and visits to the Nasher and Rubenstein Special Collections will enrich our studies. There will be extensive weekly writing in this class, and the final project will be developed in individual consultations throughout the semester. Examples of previous projects include an article-length research paper, a podcast with annotated bibliography, or a set of paintings with artist statement.

Corina Stan

Dazzling, scandalous, “new”—always (still!) reinventing itself. One of the reasons why modernism is endlessly fascinating is that artists (writers, painters, composers, filmmakers, dancers, even philosophers) hung out together, conversed, envied and influenced one another, collaborated, parodied others, often refashioned themselves, capturing ephemeral beauty (even finding beauty in repulsive realities), making outrageous claims (“burn the libraries!”), and offering lucid diagnoses of their times. Some of these works were ruthless in their critique of the status quo, imperialist expansion, domination and dehumanizing exploitation; a few went far ahead of their time and were met with derision, contemptuous whistling, and fierce denunciation in public trials.

This course places international modernism in an intermedial perspective, presenting it as a broad conversation among international artists (from Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the United States)  across various art forms. In addition to reading slowly and patiently major literary works by writers such as Lu Hsun, Joyce, Eliot, Kafka, Anand, Borges, Stein, Woolf, Wat, Rilke, Césaire, students will enhance their understanding of modernism through exposure to painting (Monet, Picasso, Marc, Kandinsky, Xul Solar, Chagall, Lam, Schoenberg), sculpture (Rodin, Brancusi, Giacometti), music (Débussy, Wagner, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Gershwin), dance (the Russian Ballets, Dada Masillo) and film (Buñuel, Dali, Eisenstein, Vertov, Ruttman, Cavalcanti). Students will have the opportunity to map out the avant-garde across the arts, from Symbolism and Impressionism, through Futurism, Surrealism, Dada, including non-Western texts such as Oswaldo de Andrade’s Cannibalist Manifesto in conversation with the paintings of Wifredo Lam, work by Aimé Césaire’s in the context of négritude, the friendship of Jorge Luis Borges with the Argentinian painter Xul Solar, or the debates generated by the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition and the counter-exhibition entitled The Truth about the Colonies.

We will approach modernism as a body of reactionary artifacts, that is, as works of art that took a stand against bourgeois morality, against fossilized ways of thinking enshrined in cultural traditions, against developments of the Enlightenment project that had led to two world wars and colonialism. Students examine the ways avant-garde artists challenged the ethical implications of conceptions of language, art, life and community deemed inimical to human freedom (of expression, of inter-racial association, or association across social classes), and the limitations of a central modernist imperative (“make it new”).

No prerequisites. Assignments include: the imaginary diary of an artist we are studying; a critical dialog among the collaborators of an artwork; based on student interest, an original project in a medium of the student's choice (podcast, website, virtual museum, etc).

Marianna Torgovnick & Taylor Black

This popular course in American movies aims to help you develop your media skills, whether directed toward writing, filmmaking, scriptwriting, music, fashion, podcasts, or just simply watching films as an informed, alert viewer. It offers an overview of America’s movie history after 1967 and its ongoing relationship to America’s self-image, culture, and commerce.

The class will use a full variety of ways to engage students in weekly lectures, including break-out groups, in-class exercises or reports, and assignments that tap your interests. Distinctively, the course includes final projects that invite you to complete creative work that you love, in collaboration with others.

After a brief stop in the late 1960s, we will survey important movies in the U.S. and learn key technical terms and analytic skills, paying special attention to how music and soundscapes create a film’s ambiance, as well as to how shots and cuts create effective storytelling. We will also consider issues related to representation and aesthetics. A sample of possible movies: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), The Exorcist (1973), Mommy Dearest (1981), The King of Comedy (1982), Do the Right Thing (1989), The Wedding Banquet (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994), Boys Don’t Cry (1999), I am Legend (2007), The Hurt Locker (2008), Get Out (2017) and beyond….

Postcolonial Betrayal: Cooperation, Conspiracy, Complicity
Courtney Klashman

When we think about colonialism, we frequently envision a clear-cut relation of dominance between oppressor and oppressed. Using postcolonial theory and fiction, this course aims to challenge this conception of a neat division and elicit a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be postcolonial. To do so, we will explore this literature through a particular and perhaps nontraditional lens—the figure who cooperates, conspires, or is complicit with the colonizing power.

We’ll begin with basic questions to ground ourselves in the field: What is postcolonialism? What is decolonization? What does it mean to be a postcolonial or decolonial subject? We will then address more specific questions about postcolonial betrayal: Why does one betray one’s own? Is there something more to it than economics? Is such an act merely the product of psychological manipulation? Is reintegration possible or desirable after such betrayal?

The course will cover the following novels and films, among others, to be read alongside various theoretical texts:

The Battle of Algiers (film) dir. Gillo Pontecorvo

Xala (film) dir. Ousmane Sembène

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

Students will submit short weekly writing assignments (200-500 words) to practice taking risks with form and style, one mid-term paper (5-6 pages) in response to a given prompt, and a final paper (7-8 pages) written with guidance from the instructor. No prerequisites, no exams.

Adichie and Her Contemporaries
Chris Ouma


Africa is not a country. There is not a 'single story' about Africa. A novel is a world. This course seeks to pursue the ways in which a contemporary generation of African writers produce a varied and complex imagination of Africa to the world. The course selects a diverse cohort of African novelists and short story writers to give students a multi-dimensional 'handle' on Africa. Foregrounding Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we will read her alongside her contemporaries from East, Central and Southern Africa, including Binyavanga Wainaina, Imbolo Mbue, Yewande Omotoso and others. The course seeks to expose students to as many of this ‘new’ generation of African writers as possible. It seeks to offer an expansive reading experience in which we will immerse ourselves in their novels and short story collections, with the view to deepen our understanding of how contemporary Africans navigate through representations of a continent overdetermined by the legacies of colonialism. From Binyavanga Wainaina’s famous satirical piece ‘How to Write about Africa’ and Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, to Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, this generation of African writers are taking on some of the most exciting but also challenging facets of what it means to be African in our contemporary world today. The narrative geographies of this course move across the African continent: from Cape Town, South Africa, Harare and Bulawayo in Zimbabwe into Nairobi in East Africa, Lagos and Accra in Nigeria and Ghana, across the Atlantic (and many times back to Africa) to multiple cities in the US then occasionally across the ‘pond’ to London, the United Kingdom. The ultimate objective is to allow our imagination of Africa to soar alongside these writers, in a manner that will enrich and generatively influence what we imagine Africa to be. Assignments will include occasional short writing assignments, a short mid-term paper (4-6 pages) and a final term paper (6-8 pages).

The Renaissance
Julianne Werlin

This class is an introduction to the culture of the European Renaissance, focusing on major books, paintings, and ideas from Italy, Spain, France, England, and the Low Countries, but also touching on the global Renaissance, including the influence of New World cultures. Texts will include essays, novels, and plays by Machiavelli, Cervantes, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, as well as works by important religious figures such as Martin Luther and Teresa of Avila. Painters will include Leonardo da Vinci, Durer, and Holbein, among others. In addition to considering literature and art, we will also learn about material culture, including food and clothing. 

The class will include visits to the Nasher and Rubenstein, as well as some special events—including some experiments in Renaissance cooking. Grades will be based on a midterm, final exam, quizzes, and short writing assignments.

What is Progress? (in Life, History, and Literature)
Rob Mitchell

“Progress” is perhaps the central idea of the university, for the point of a university such as Duke is to enable you, the student, to grow as an individual, and to do so in ways that allow you to participate in both the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge and the pursuit of the goals of social justice that the university is supposed to enable. Yet “progress” has become a questionable term and concept in recent decades, in part because it was a key idea of the European “Enlightenment” in the eighteenth century, and so now seems to some to be intrinsically Eurocentric. Our goal in this course is to figure out what this critique of progress and the Enlightenment means for you, as a student and individual, and for the goals of the university. We will begin by reading key eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts that outlined the basic ideas of Enlightenment and progress, as well as texts by those who criticized those ideas at the time. We will consider the extent to which progress should be understood as a “secularized” version of Christian concepts, and how accounts of progress relate to imaginative literature, especially poetry and novels. (For example, can one speak of “progress” in literature from ancient to modern times? Are novels a secular means for enabling individual progress and development?) Our focus will be primarily on British authors such as Olaudah Equiano, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Jane Austen, though we will also consider other European authors such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, G. W. F. Hegel, and Karl Marx. We will also take up more recent accounts of how the idea of progress operates in our own moment, such as Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and contemporary criticisms of both the European Enlightenment and its idea of progress (e.g., David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity).

Student work for the course consists of homework assignments for, attendance at, and participation in each class meeting; one 5-8 page (double-spaced) literary critical paper; and two short reflection papers.

Inventing Childhood
Effie Harrington

Winged infants, talking animals, absentee parents, and 'bad seeds'—how and why did these ideas become associated with children throughout history? This class thinks about representations of childhood in its earliest theorizations. Prior to the 18th century, children were understood as deficient adults or simply adults-in-training. It is 18th-century poetry and prose that 'invents' childhood as an important formative space/time distinct from adulthood. This class will guide you through the pioneering literature around childhood to help you think critically about the following questions: What is 'childlike,' and is it desirable? How does childhood relate to adulthood, and who/what is the process of maturation for? How have the answers to these questions been influenced by historical context? We will find that this 'invention' is constantly in flux, and that our ideas about children inform a diverse set of topics, ranging from human psychology and sexuality to proper educational curriculums and what ought to be protected by law.

We will begin the course by reading foundational texts in the fields of psychology, child development, and pedagogy: John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) and excerpts from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1763). Next, we will consider the idealized representations of children and childhood in 18th-century poets like William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Finally, we will examine the birth of children’s literature and culture in the 19th century. We will read the Brothers Grimm Fairytales, originally titled German Popular Stories (1823), Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The class will be discussion-based, so participation will constitute a significant portion of your grade. Assignments will include short blog posts that present ideas or questions for class discussion (250 words), two short critical analysis papers (3-4 pages each), and a final comparative analysis essay (6-7 pages). There will be in-class writing instruction to prepare you to succeed in assignments.

Anti-Villains, or How to Write a Good, Bad Character
JP Gritton

This course seeks to understand what makes a good, “bad” character—a character who, though her behavior might be unmoral, immoral, or amoral, is nevertheless compelling on the page, stage, or screen. In addition to Shakespeare’s Iago, we’ll explore representations of evil in the work of novelists like Margaret Atwood (The Robber Bride), Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), and Oyinkan Braithwaite (My Sister, the Serial Killer) as well as in the poetry of Pablo Neruda (“Luminous Mind, Bright Devil”) and the short fiction of William Faulkner (“Barn Burning”).  Though we may never understand literature’s best, worst characters, we can study how the likes of Shakespeare and others brought them vividly, enigmatically to life. The text that will guide our study is Robert Boswell’s essay on character and plot, “The Half-Known World.” Assignments will include weekly writing exercises based on class readings, a mid-term character study (4-6 pages) , and a final scene/sketch (6-8-pages), due at semester’s end.

Poetry Beyond the Page
Toby Martinez de las Rivas

Have you ever sat alone in your room sweating over a poem that refuses to say what you want it to say? That fails to articulate your personal experiences, thoughts and feelings? That just will not come out right? It's time to take the pressure off. This course invites students to challenge the image of the solitary poet, and instead to explore approaches to writing that de-centre the author and question the primacy of text. There will be three distinct phases to the course. In the first phase, we will play with forms that blur the line between poetry and visual art such as erasure, collage and filmpoetry. In the second phase, we will make use of primary materials from the library archives - letters, photographs, objects and maps - to develop poems that put other voices at the heart of our poetic practice. In the third phase, we will get out of the classroom to explore communal, nature-based forms of writing such as haiku and renga using the resources of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, the Duke grounds and Duke Forest.  Throughout the course, students will develop a portfolio of work with regular workshops and meetings with the Instructor.

Dante & Dostoevsky
Thomas Pfau


Understanding who we are and what our lives ultimately mean has always been entwined with the kinds of stories we tell about our world and ourselves. Since the beginnings of writing in ancient Mesopotamia (e.g., the Gilgamesh epic of approx. 2,000 B.C.), narrative has always featured some type of conflict, precipitated by a moral transgression, a conspicuous failure, or some other dilemma whose solution could only be imagined by recasting the issue in narrative form. Put differently, the very fact that we habitually tell stories suggests that “moral crisis” is an integral feature of our very existence rather than an occasional “state of exception.”

It is primarily the act of narration that allows us to untangle the many-layered moral dimension of our lives, a challenge we cannot avoid even as it often exceeds our powers. Invariably, we find ourselves implicated in the stories we tell or read, either as their protagonist but, more typically, as readers or listeners drawn into the lives of individuals and communities often far removed from us in time and place. By engaging with such narratives, patiently and attentively, we begin to understand ourselves better or, perhaps, for the first time.

Throughout the term, we will focus on four fundamental concepts that tend to be in play whenever a moral crisis is worked through in narrative form: 1) Justice; 2) Evil/Sin; 3) Suffering; and 4) Forgiveness (together with self-recognition); and we will explore these concepts in just two works of world literature that, with good reason, have long been recognized as canonical.

PART I: Roughly the first half (12 sessions) of the term will be focused on selections from Dante’s Divine Comedy (1321), a poem that more than any other summarizes the medieval outlook on the moral questions and their metaphysical and religious underpinnings. Since the focus of our seminar is on moral crisis, our exploration of Dante will mainly concentrate on Inferno, the domain of unredeemed sinners of all kinds, and on Purgatorio, where those who repent their transgressions learn to narrate their past misdeeds and, in so doing, progress toward self-recognition and ultimate redemption.

PART II: The second half (16 sessions) of our seminar will explore Dostoevsky’s Demons (a.k.a. Devils or The Possessed), a powerful and stunningly prophetic dramatization of political anarchy, nihilism, and the moral wasteland of modern, secular existence. Based on a notorious 1869 murder case, the work began as a “pamphlet novel” that soon evolved into a tragic depiction of sin, confession, justice, and suffering. In tracing the generational divide between mid-nineteenth-century liberalism and agnosticism and the rise of an anarchic and nihilist sensibility during the 1860’s, Dostoevsky prefigured the horrors of totalitarianism and a morally unhinged world that would be realized by the Bolsheviks some fifty years later; indeed, a minor character readily identifiable as the young V. I. Lenin makes a cameo appearance late in the book. The novel’s eponymous “devils” or “demons” (besy) refer not to the novel’s lead characters but, rather, to the mostly Western ideologies (anarchism, nihilism, utilitarianism, materialism, socialism and, above all, atheism) by which the young generation appears possessed. Rather than “telling” the disintegration of modern society and the collapse of all moral norms in narrative form, Dostoevsky’s dialogic, “polyphonic” and “profoundly pluralistic” (Bakthin) approach – similar to Dante’s many, highly focalized encounters with sinners and penitents in the Commedia – notably differs from the controlled and tidy narrative practice of nineteenth-century realistm (Balzac, Flaubert, Turgenev).

Our study of Dante and Dostoevsky will be supplemented by an array of secondary materials, including short encyclopedia entries on Dante, critical essays focused on individual cantos of his Commedia or its overall design. Likewise, our reading of Demons will be supplemented by select biographical and contextual materials, excerpts from Dostoevsky’s letters, and some influential critical approaches to his oeuvre by Mikhail Bakhtin, René Girard, Gary Saul Morson, et al.

Requirements: 1 in-class presentation, either on a Canto in Dante or a single chapter from Dostoevsky’s novel. – 2 medium-length essays (approx. 3,000 words) focused on a well-defined topic in The Divine Comedy and Demons, respectively. – Consistent attendance, careful preparation of all assigned readings, and active in-class participation.

Books Required (to be purchased by you; hardcopy required as computers are not allowed in class)

Dante, The Divine Comedy, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (Everyman’s Library)

Dostoevsky, Demons, trans. Robert A. Maguire (Penguin)

Joseph Donahue

The goal of the course is to deepen students’ engagement with the history and practice of poetic art in the twentieth and twenty first century. Reading assignments will be drawn from the canon of post WWII avant-guarde poetry and literary art. Lectures will provide an historical and cultural context for the works we are reading, and about the controversies and challenges that inform the poetics of the late nineteen forties to the present. The course proceeds from the premise that a deeply internalized command of literary history is critical to the development of any serious writer. Students will be expected to read closely, to acquire an overall grasp of modernism and its development into what is now called the postmodern, and above all to participate in discussions. Further, students will be expected to investigate on their own initiative the texts towards which their own writing leads them. In class and out of class we will explore the possibilities for contemporary poetic practice suggested by earlier works. We will look at a wide range of poems with attention to both how they are made and to the personal urgency that makes the poem more than an exercise, that creates surprise or sorrow or exhilaration in the reader. Our main focus will be on writing poems, or creating letter-based artworks, and on developing both a critical and a generous approach to each other’s work.

Detectives, Robots and Talking Frogs: Writing Altered / Alternate Realities
Amin Ahmad

As children, we live in worlds that combine reality and fantasy, but as we grow older, we lose that ability. Perhaps that is why we are drawn to fiction that creates new realities. In this class, we will explore genre fiction that alters existing reality, or creates an alternate one: Hardboiled/ noir detective fiction, magical realism, dystopian fiction, fantasy and science fiction.  

Reading like writers, we will analyze each genre to understand how it creates a new but authentic world, and how it draws upon existing archetypes and story structures. 

We will then explore those understandings through in-class writing exercises. Students will ultimately write three full short stories in different genres, and workshop them in class.  

This is an intensive class--come prepared to read a lot, write a lot, and to experiment with your writing. Since this is a workshop-based class, attending class sessions is required. 

David Aers

Why would anyone want to spend a whole semester studying John Milton’s writings and their seventeenth-century contexts? The answer is the extraordinary scope and utterly brilliant quality of the writing in often very demanding but exquisite poetry as well as in passionate prose. This scope includes explorations in ethics, politics and theology on topics that should still be of central concern to us.

John Milton left Cambridge as an orthodox member of the Church of England. He died (in 1674) as one who had rejected this church, defended the execution of its governor (Charles I) and generated a theological system which included a dense cluster of positions which where startlingly “heretical” in terms not only of the magisterial Reformation but also of Catholic traditions. His unfinished treatise on Christian Doctrine begins with a statement which sets up the inquiry pursued in this seminar: “If I were to say that I had focused my studies principally upon Christian doctrine because nothing else can so effectually wipe away those two repulsive afflictions, tyranny and superstition, from human life and the human mind, I should show that I had been concerned not for religion but for life’s well being.” As both this statement and the title of this class suggest, poetry, politics and theology are inextricably bound together in Milton’s work. We aim to read much of the poetry and areas of the prose that will provide a rich sense of his theological and political reflections and enable us to have well-informed discussions about the complex relations between the great poems and his evolving theology. For Milton’s approaches to theology, ecclesiology and politics belong to a revolutionary moment in which unprecedented thoughts and practices emerged in the domains of religion and politics, domains inextricably bound together in the seventeenth century. The revolutionary regime Milton had served from 1649 disintegrated and the revolution to which he had been committed was defeated with the restoration of monarchy and state church in 1660. How did Milton and his writing respond to the defeat of the revolution and the restoration of Crown, Church of England, episcopacy and the attempt to suppress nonconforming groups? There has been a strong tendency in recent Milton scholarship to revise the Whig version of Milton into one that fits the narratives of secular postmodernity and some people taking this class may find it offers opportunities to interrogate some of these grand stories.

It will be helpful to read before the class begins the biography of Milton by Gordon Campbell and Thomas Corns, John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought. Anybody reading Milton’s work would also benefit from some knowledge of the seventeenth century revolution in which Milton became immersed, and for this the best resource is a book by Austin Woolrych, Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660 (2002), especially parts 3 through 6. Extremely helpful and relevant to some of the issues we will address is Ann Hughes, Gender and the English Revolution (2012). Because we will be reading substantial, complex works, the more Milton you read before class the better. The set text (required) is The Complete Prose and Essential Poetry of John Milton edited by John Kerrigan and others (Random House). Before the first class, make sure that you have AT LEAST read (1) On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity; (2) A Masque presented at Ludlow, also known as, Comus.

Note on grades, class format, and expectations

This is a seminar and attendance/participation is mandatory. Unwarranted absences will result in failing the course. The grade comes from two essays (8-10 pages), which must be submitted by the given deadline to count. There will be no exams.

Please also note well: laptops and other electronic devices are not to be used in class. A seminar is a dialogic form of learning, very different to a lecture class. In my experience, laptops act as an impediment to the kinds of attention and communication I consider essential to a flourishing seminar. Also, since we will have more than enough to chew on already, please refrain from eating during class.

Aarthi Vadde

Who is the most famous virtual assistant in the world? Siri (unveiled 2011), Alexa (2013), or is it, just maybe, the Magic Mirror from Snow White (1937)?  Artificial intelligence powers many of today’s cutting-edge technologies, but the inspiration for Siri, the Metaverse, and cyberspace comes from myths, short stories, novels, and fairy tales.  The word “robot” was first coined by the Czech playwright Karel Capek and can be translated as “serf” or “slave”.  This course begins with the premise that new AI technologies are shaped not just by science and data, but also by fiction, myth, and, now more than ever, hype.  

This class will introduce you to representations of artificial intelligence in literature and film.  It will also feature works by contemporary writers who make use of AI tools for creative purposes.  We will use literature, film, and theoretical texts to consider the aspirations behind AI technologies and the real-world social and ethical questions that result from the integration of AI into a variety of endeavors: policing, providing companionship, and making art.  Stories about AI draw our attention to how we construct the boundaries between humans and machines; they also give narrative form to the fears and fantasies we have about new technologies.  Our seminar format will enable us to discuss how the representations and rhetoric of AI has changed over time with respect to gender and race.  We will also consider how definitions of intelligence have changed as artists, scientists, and philosophers have engaged with the concepts of reason, emotion, privacy, and creativity. 

The course will include a visit to a Duke robotics lab and a meeting with a poet who inventively incorporates AI tools into their work.  We may even experiment with some AI tools ourselves to see “under the hood.” No previous background in computer science or literature classes is necessary.  Students can draw on their different backgrounds and strengths to add expertise to the class.  Readings to include: Ovid, “Pygmalian,” E.T.A Hoffman, The Sandman, Philip K. Dick, “The Minority Report,” Richard Powers Galatea 2.2, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, Karel Capek’s RUR, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s Travesty Generator; Sheila Heti’s “Hello, World!”, and Madeline Miller’s Galatea.  Films to include: The Minority Report (dir. Stephen Spielberg), Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland), M3GAN (dir. Gerard Johnstone).  Assignments will consist of several blog posts, a midterm paper (4-6 pages) and a final project of a critical, creative, or hybrid nature.  Examples might include writing a traditional paper (8-10 pages), co-writing with an AI (e.g. Chat-GPT), or creating a multimedia project.

Gatsby’s Great Rivals
Thomas Ferraro

Those American high-school A.P. classics of the 1920s and ‘30s, revisited: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, at the least.  Whether you are reading these novels for the very first or the upteenth time, you will discover how entertaining (because smart) and dangerous (because smart) they truly are, even when dead white guys are involved (don’t worry, the novels are never just about the anglos!).

By re-visiting these novels, I mean listening better, witnessing the dramas to the point of inhabiting them, and pondering the whole more capaciously.  But that’s not as hard as it sounds: for this “call” Back-to-the-Classics is issued by the inventive gender play, race-and-class savviness, and cross-media-dexterity of our 2023 moment.  Indeed, the underlying proposition of Gatsby’s Great Rivals is that it has taken us this long—nearly a century—for even the college classroom to catch up to the storied wisdoms of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Hurston (and their greatest rivals: say, Cather and West, or Chopin and James, who might be called upon to help us). 

What am I talking about?

One teaser, for those of you enticed by the course title.  Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald had planned to use his short story, “Absolution,” as the first chapter of The Great Gatsby?  I am betting not and, further, that you can’t possibly guess what the story is about.  [Google only if you really like spoilers!]  In class we will surely find “Absolution” to be a strange puzzle, at best a curiosity and at worst a distraction.  But if we take enough time, we will feel it press upon the mind-expanding, heart-bustin’ revelations of the novel itself—which concern love and money, yes, but only in relation both to felt sanctity and spilt blood, whose demands we need to factor together.  (What revelations? I have in mind not only the main plot but also its contexts: the laundering of the Carraway family crimes, the hidden intimacy between Jewish gangsterism and WASP finance, that bad driving and those drunken-sex regrets and the wisps of pop lyrics that punctuate the novel.)  I swear, you will never use the term “American Dream” again without reaching for a precise definition!

For the record: Around our seminar table, expressive quiet will supplement analytical acumen; writing assignments will be short and guided yet informal and exploratory; and grading (which it is time to re-invent or abandon altogether) will be effort-friendly, alert to varying strengths, and happily inflated.

Victor Strandberg

This course will have a double-track syllabus.  On one track the instructor will focus on important figures in 20th century poetry ranging from Robert Frost and Ezra Pound to Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Amiri Baraka.  (T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Edna St Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, and Elizabeth Bishop, among others, are also on the major poets list.)  The other track is the Open Choice approach, which is expected to occur every week or two during the semester. This gambit invites (requires) each student to present any poem of their own choosing, from any source, to the class for brief analysis and discussion.   Requirements include two exams and two term papers of 5-7 pages.

Taylor Black

Bob Dylan is certainly a divisive figure.  That said, one cannot deny his impact and influence on the ways we understand American culture.  His 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature requires us all to reconsider the ways in which we have traditionally approached the worlds of music and literature. This course takes on that task. 

We will analyze Dylan as both a contemporary, living figure and a more opaque, shadowy persona that moves backwards and forwards through time and space. Our work will chart Dylan’s course through time—song-by-song, album-by-album and decade-by-decade—while also filling in the space surrounding his music with historical materials that add life and meaning to his creations.  Dylan is partly the subject and musical composer for our journey, but we will also think of him as a kind of provocateur and spiritual guide who will lead us to think about basic problems related to the human condition.  For instance, we will think about Dylan’s musical visions of love/hate and death/salvation.

This class requires a willingness to accept improvisation as an intellectual skill and openness to new forms of response.  Expect to read and think through critical texts--from American Studies, Black Studies, Popular Music Criticism and Continental Philosophy, to name a few--that will enhance our abilities to think more deeply about the media we consume.  Most of all, you will need to be willing to do a lot of listening: to the music itself, but also to the, sometimes counterintuitive, messages that non-musical materials have to offer.  Throughout the semester, we will endeavor to cultivate our habits as critical listeners and musical thinkers. 

“Bob Dylan” will be presented in a lecture-format with an emphasis on different modes of participation including weekly blogs, group projects and in-class discussions.  There will otherwise be short writing assignments, quizzes, exams and/or creative assignments fleshing out the rest of your grade.

Race, Gender, Region, Diaspora
Jarvis McInnis

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?

Mesha Maren-Hogan

What sets you apart as a writer? What electrifies you and drives you on? This advanced course is designed to hone and polish the skills you have been building throughout your time at Duke. Whether you are writing modernist short stories, retellings of Greek myths, an epic fantasy novel, or a fictionalized version of your family history, this course will help you take it to the next level. 

Mike D’Alessandro

What was the European Gothic—a literary mode characterized by crumbling castles, aristocratic oppression, crippling superstition, and the residue of past traumas—doing in early America? If America was a supposed blank slate for settlers, then shouldn’t it have been free of all the terrors dotting the Old World? In actuality, the Gothic just looked different here. The US could not replicate Europe’s foreboding cliffsides and wastelands, but offered in their place an ominous, everlasting wilderness. America would not build British castles with labyrinthine hallways and dank dungeons, but produced instead new cities with tangled streets and secret gambling cellars. Across these landscapes and others, the Gothic soon installed itself stateside. Moreover, the Gothic gave voice to a series of distinctly American outcasts. If, as Jeffrey Weinstock asserts, “the central topic thematized by the Gothic is inevitably power: who is allowed to do what based upon their subject position within a particular society at a specific moment in time,” then the burgeoning US was fertile ground. Racial subjugation and slavery, marginalization and typecasting of women, pity and disgust for the urban underclasses and immigrants: these were the subjects that grounded a Gothic America. 

Class will take the form of an intensive discussion seminar, centering on a series of novels, short stories, plays, and city exposés, with perhaps an occasional film screening. While the course is based in the nineteenth century, a final unit will address the echoes of the Gothic in twentieth-century literature. Works include novels by Gothic standbys Edgar Allan Poe (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter), as well as Louisa May Alcott’s sensation novella Behind a Mask, Hannah Crafts’s haunted enslavement text The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Tennessee Williams’s Southern Gothic play Suddenly Last Summer, and Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece of charmed agoraphobia, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Each week, homework will generally consist of one medium-length novel—or equivalent—plus supplementary readings (roughly 200-275 page/week). 

Evaluation will be based on 1.) class participation (40%) 2.) a brief oral presentation (20%), and 3.) one 15-20 page seminar paper (40%)

For graduate students and advanced undergraduate students (counts for Area II requirement for English majors)

Blue Humanities: Ocean Crossings
Charlotte Sussman

This course will focus on the intersection of Migration Studies and the Blue Humanities, two emerging disciplines that have had relatively little to say to each other.  We will take as our primary case studies two historically significant mass sea crossings: the coerced transport of captive Africans in the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade; and present-day migrant crossings of the Mediterranean.  We will ask how these historical events are causally as well as analogically related.  Our consideration of this disciplinary intersection will also engage us in questions of climate change, resource extraction from the seabed, and post-human understandings of the ocean; we will read at least one contemporary novel about the deep ocean.  We will work from the assumption that creative engagement with this field through literature, art, and film is as important as policy studies or empirical data for understanding human beings’ relationship to both mobility and to the ocean.

Readings may include:

Authors:  Julia Armfield, Caroline Bergvall, Edwidge Danticat, Olaudah Equiano, Aracelis Girmay, Martin McInness, Geraldine Monk, Ray Naylor, M. NourbeSe Philip, Ribka Sibhatu , and Derek Walcott. 

Theorists: Edouard Glissant, Melanie Jue, John Durham Peters, Philip Steinberg, P. Khalil Saucier and Tyron Woods, Ida Danewid, and Steven Elden.

Artists and filmmakers: Torkwase Dyson, Forensic Architecture, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Ayana Jackson, Dagmawi Yimer, and Nikolaj Larsen.

Assignments will include short response papers, an annotated bibliography, and a final project developed in consultation with the professor.

Contemporary American Movies: The State of the Art
Marianna Torgovnick

This class takes an intimate, seminar-style look at individual films, the culture and business of moviemaking, and the state of film theory and study today. For advanced undergraduates, it offers an in-depth consideration of contemporary issues. For graduate students, it offers an effective introduction to the teaching of film.

Questions we will consider include: American cultural history as it informs popular movies; evolving issues related to representation and aesthetics; the increasing role of computer technology; the corporatization of the industry and how it interacts with the creative impulse.

Films will include movies such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), The Godfather (1972), Do the Right Thing (1989), Pulp Fiction (1994), The Wedding Banquet (1993), An Inconvenient Truth (2006), I Am Legend (2007), The Hurt Locker (2008), Get Out (2017), and beyond. Films will generally be watched outside of class. Assignments will include directed journaling, in-class writing and oral reports; a final paper or equivalent creative project (written filmed, or enacted).

Double Consciousness: Perspectives on Composition in Black Music and Poetry
Tsitsi Jaji, Stephen Jaffe

When W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, he juxtaposed a poetic and a musical epigraph from the sorrow songs to begin each chapter, laying a template for theorizing the lived experience of race in the U.S. in lyric terms. In the next decades writers like James W. Johnson, Alain Locke, and Zora Neale Hurston foregrounded sound in conceptions of Black cultural production while composers like Harry T. Burleigh, and Shirley Graham Du Bois investigated history as grist for their expression in song. This class will take their approach as a starting point for investigations of contemporary music and the literary imagination to ask, how do poetry and music speak to each other?

In this co-led seminar open to undergraduate and graduate students, we consider the fusion of words and music in a participatory space that welcomes scholars, creative writers and composers in productive conversation.  We want to investigate the ways that the composer and the poet inhabit artistic and poetic discourses, reflecting lived contemporary experience. We will do this by considering different types of vocality to explore songs of poetic and political witness (including composers like Florence Price, William Grant Still and Wendell Logan), sacred music (Mary Lou Williams’s Mass). Music and words attuned to the documentary tradition in music of the 1990s such as T.J. Anderson’s Slavery Documents will represent one area of inquiry; another will be the collaborative practices with new media and experimental-visual and performance vocal presentation, such as Pamela Z’s Badagada and/or Tommy de Frantz’ Cane, based on the novel by Jean Toomer.  Theater pieces by Anthony Davis (The Central Park 5) and Steve Reich/Beryl Korot The Cave will allow us to explore contemporary approaches to the stage in which visual signals are forefront.  These investigations all foreground the forms of Double Consciousness and/or Intertextuality; they constitute a body of work which will inform the ways we think about the musical and literary history of the arts.  Capping students' experience of the seminar will be sessions devoted to exposure to Songs In Flight, a new work of music and text with contributions by faculty members Tsitsi Jaji and Crystal Simone Smith, composer Shawn Okpebholo, and others. The Duke Arts sponsored performance will take place in April 2024, and students are expected to attend.

On a regular basis our seminar will be enriched by the participation of guest singers who will perform new music by graduate composers based on poems by writers enrolled in the class.

For students of African American literature, the course offers a window into aurality as a theoretical space; for practitioners of the other arts the course offers an encounter with theories of contemporary practice, including Brent Hayes Edwards, Anthony Reed, and Daphne Brooks. For creative writers, composers and performers, the seminar will offer a compositional forum: to collaborate and to explore words, music, and contemporary public life. No formal musical training is expected for students enrolling in ENG 590.

Black Archival Imagination
Chris Ouma, Khwezi Mkhize

What do we mean when we invoke the idea of a Black Archive? What are the conditions, genres and modes of expression through which Black life, imagination and desire become legible? These questions complicate how we understand the concept of the archive. If Black life has variously been described through terms such as fugitivity, maroonage and waywardness then any engagement with its archival footprints will have to grapple with these logics. This course examines how Black experiences have posed problems with regards to representation across imperial encounters. It takes seriously, narrative and creative reasoning and as such, genres such as the novel, poetry film, photography, sound, critical fabulation and digital spaces in thinking through the idea of the Black Archive. A key objective of the course is to deploy these genres as methodological interventions in understanding what a Black archive could mean. We do not take the Black Archive to be unitary or static, but as mutating repertoires in the figuration and preservation of Black experience, as well as provocations of what the past and future might look like. But we can also think of the Black archive as endangered, erased, possible as well as made and constrained by the conditions of dispersal that define the Black diaspora past and present.

The course will engage with a range of archival material that includes the Robert A Hill papers on Marcus Garvey and the UNIA at Duke, documentaries and creative filmic narratives from Arthur Jafa and John Akomfrah, a novel by Yaa Gyasi, poetry by M NourbeSe Phillips, photography from Zanele Muholi, ‘digilittle’ magazines like Jalada and sonic curatorial platforms such as the Pan-African Space Station. Classroom engagement will entail close readings of primary and secondary texts, conversations with archivists and invited speakers, screenings, ‘listenings’ and visitations of both paper and digital archives. Students will be expected to write weekly reflective essays (500 words/reflection) inspired by or based on archival research and engagement with the theoretical debates about Black archives. In addition to these, students will be expected to write two longer essays, the first of these will be a 5–6 page mid- term paper and the second a 9-10 page final term paper.

H.D. & Robert Duncan
Nathaniel Mackey

A study of the writings of H.D. and Robert Duncan, with particular attention to correspondences between their work and to Duncan's address of H.D.'s writing in The H.D. Book and elsewhere.

Poetry And/As Theology: Blake & Hölderlin
Thomas Pfau

This seminar will focus on two poets: William Blake (1757—1827) and Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843). In starkly different ways, both consider poetic vocation and poetic form inseparable from key issues of Christian theology – e.g., questions of scriptural exegesis, Creation, beauty & form, eschatology; and human agency in relation to divine authority.

PART I (Weeks 1-6): Socialized in a milieu of radical dissent, which had persisted in small communities in late-eighteenth-century London, William Blake (1757-1827) – fiercely anti-clerical, expert engraver and printmaker, and a spiritual “radical” in a militantly secular and revolutionary time -- insists on an indissoluble link between spiritual and artistic vision. Our exploration of Blake’s pre-1800 poetry will focus on three areas: his critique of catechization and pedagogy in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789/1794) and in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1789), where Blake satirizes the prophetic persona and style of Emanuel Swedenborg; Blake’s recreation of OT prophecy and NT eschatology in America (1793); and, finally, his rewriting of the Christian account of Creation in The (First) Book of Urizen (1794). Our readings will be flanked by some of Blake’s shorter prose, marginalia (on Bishop Watson, Swedenborg, and Joshua Reynolds), and a selection of critical prose.

PART II (Weeks 7-11): Widely regarded as the most influential German Romantic poet, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) is born into the staunchly Pietist world of late-eighteenth century Svabia. Having been exposed to a swelling tide of philosophical and political radicalism during his school- and seminar years (1783-1791), some of which he shares with G. W. F. Hegel, Hölderlin’s poetry between 1800-1803 not only breaks with the cramped and anti-intellectual world of his upbringing. It also resists the revolutionary secularism of 1790s Jacobinism and also steers clear of the dialectical, liberal-progressive view of history that Hegel is working out just then. – Our focus will be twofold: first on Hölderlin’s elegies (esp. “Elegy,” “The Wanderer,” and “Bread and Wine”) in which he seeks to sift the relationship between the culture of classical Greece, Christianity, and the post-classical, variously rationalist or skeptical epistemologies of his time. The second cluster of poems to be considered involve Hölderlin’s so-called “Christ Hymns” (“The Only One,” “Celebration of Peace,” and “Patmos”), as well as one of his greatest, albeit incomplete poems (“As when on a Feast-Day …”). It is here that, gradually edging away from the aesthetic and metaphysical claims of speculative Idealism (Schiller, Fichte, and Hegel), Hölderlin works out a uniquely Christian hermeneutic of history wherein large-scale eschatological questions prove inseparable from exegetical practice and what Hölderlin calls “care for the solid letter.” 

John Milton & Transformations of the Reformation in the Seventeenth-Century English Revolution
David Aers

This is a class in Historical Theology, but it is a somewhat unusual one. How and why? It is unusual in that we will be working across poetry, theology, politics, and ethics as well as crossing widely diverse genres. It may also be unusual in that while our inquiries will certainly be diachronic, seeking to understand how Christian tradition works in changing, profoundly contested circumstances (such as the English Civil Wars), they center on close reading of particular texts. Our approach to Christian tradition will take seriously the ways teaching is embodied and explored in complex, intellectually and affectively demanding texts. In this class the central texts are written by John Milton (1608-1674) as he addressed, increasingly critically, the Calvinist Reformation and Church of England in which he had been nurtured. Our understandable aspirations to tell grand narratives about Christian traditions and their conflicts must try to remain responsible, truthful, to the specific human lives and writings that constitute traditions. We will indeed be trying to discover a narrative, to work out what happened to the English Reformation, its theology, ethics, politics, and ecclesiology: but we will always work from and return to the hard ground, the particularities of texts and the experiences they address.

Given this commitment, it will not be surprising that we will continually work outwards from an intensive reading of the poetry, theology, and politics of John Milton, a seventeenth-century writer who produced the greatest Christian poetry in English. In addition to the epic poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, we will study his final poem, written while Milton was blind and in defeat, the poetic drama Samson Agonistes, published alongside Paradise Regained (an account of Christ in the wilderness). These extraordinary, profound poems are replete with Milton’s own explorations of Christian teachings and practices as he responded to the Reformation and the Revolution to which he had committed nearly twenty years of his life. His great work, Paradise Lost, is his version of Augustine’s City of God, his version of the earthly city and the city of God as he found it manifest and hidden in contemporary history. One of the issues which will preoccupy us is Milton’s changing relations to Calvin and the Calvinist traditions within which he had been brought up in the Church of England as well as Milton's complex relations to Quakers and to various kinds of antinomianism and anti-Nicenism emerging in the Revolution. Here we will explore Milton both as an emerging agent of transformation and as a product of fragmentations and contradictions within the Reformation. We will consider writing by the Ranter Abiezer Coppe, the Quaker James Nayler, and one of the numerous women prophets in revolutionary England.

Milton also wrote innovative, passionate works on the doctrine and discipline of divorce which forced him to re-think the normative Protestant biblical hermeneutics he had assumed. It also forced him to begin articulating a range of issues involving gender, ethics, and Christian teachings on liberty. We will read two of these works published in 1644-1645. Milton also wrote a formal theological treatise, De Doctrina Christiana. While this text advocates many heresies, strenuously argued, it is also a perfectly recognizable work of systematic theology from within Reformed (Calvinist) tradition, one that not only claims to be based on Scripture alone, but also asserts itself to be more scriptural than any previous work of Reformed dogmatics. In reading this text closely, we will see how Milton’s own astonishing linguistic learning and textual criticism generated a host of problems perhaps in excess of his, or any orthodox Protestant’s, intellectual resources within their inherited hermeneutic tradition. The De Doctrina Christiana was not published before its discovery in the 1820s: its heterodoxy made publication impossible after the defeat of the Revolution and the re-establishment of the Church of England and Stuart monarchy from 1660. Nevertheless, Milton himself described this treatise in these ringing terms:

“If I were to say that I had focused my studies principally upon Christian doctrine because nothing else can so effectually wipe away those two repulsive afflictions, tyranny and superstition from human life and the human mind, I should show that I had been concerned not for religion but for life’s well being.”      

This statement exemplifies how theology and politics were inextricably bound together in Milton's thinking and in the culture to which he belonged. But for Milton poetry is woven into theology. Already in 1641/1642 he declared that his poetry would be “doctrinal and exemplary,” displaying “power beside the office of a pulpit, to imbreed and cherish...the seeds of vertu and publick civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind, and set the affections in right tune, to celebrate in glorious and lofty Hymns the throne and equipage of Gods Almightinesse, and what he works, and suffers to be wrought with high providence in his Church, to sing the victorious agonies of Martyrs and Saints....Teaching over the whole book of sanctity and vertue...” (Reason of Church-Government). Throughout this seminar, I want us together to engage so closely with his poetry and prose that we learn a somewhat alien language: how it works across genres, and to address a wide range of challenges to Christian tradition (it is worth recalling here that Hobbes’s Leviathan was published in 1651, a work Milton knew and against which he had to work out his own emerging forms of Christian materialism).

The set text for this course is The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, ed., William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon (Random House, 2007). This includes an English translation of substantial selections from De Doctrina Christiana. For those wanting to read the full text of the treatise, there is a fine two volume edition of both the Latin text and an excellent English translation in the Oxford University Press’s Complete Works of John Milton(volume 8, 2 parts). 


In order to allow us to begin our seminar with the rigour and specificity we intend to pursue throughout, please read before the first course meeting the entirety of Milton’s Paradise Lost, together with the short poems “Lycidas” and “Epitaphium Damonis” (in the English translation). It will also be very helpful to read the biography of Milton by Gordon Campbell and Thomas Corns, John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought (Oxford University Press, 2010).

For further contexts for Milton, the Reformation and Revolution, please consult the following:

David Aers, Versions of Election: From Langland and Aquinas to Calvin and Milton (Notre Dame University Press, 2020), esp. Introduction and chapter 5

Hugh Barbour and Arthur Roberts, Early Quaker Writings (Pendle Hill Publications and earlier editions)

Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (On the Kingdom of Christ) in Melanchthon and Bucer, ed. William Pauck (John Knox Press), 155-394

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: use either the two-volume edition/translation by John McNeill and Lewis Battles or the older, one-volume and sometimes more literal translation by Henry Beveridge.

Gordon Campbell et al, Milton and the Manuscript of De Doctrina Christiana (Oxford University Press, 2007)

David Como, Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil War England (Stanford University Press, 2004)

Dennis Richard Danielson, Milton’s Good God: A Study in Literary Theodicy (Cambridge University Press, 1982) 

Stephen M. Fallon, Milton Among the Philosophers: Poetry and Materialism in Seventeenth-Century England (Cornell University Press, 1991) 

Stanley Fish, How Milton Works (Harvard University Press, 2003) 

Curtis Freeman, ed., A Company of Women Preachers: Baptist Prophetesses in Seventeenth-Century England (Baylor University Press, 2011)

Thomas Fulton, The Book of Books: Biblical Interpretation, Literary Culture, and the Political Imagination from Erasmus to Milton (Pennsylvania UP, 2021) 

Russell M. Hillier, Milton’s Messiah: The Son of God in the Works of John Milton (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Maurice Kelley, This Great Argument: A Study of Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana as a Gloss on Paradise Lost (Princeton University Press, 1941)

Michael Lieb, Theological Milton: Deity, Discourse, and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon (Duquesne University Press, 2006)

Anthony Milton, Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600–1640 (Cambridge University Press, 1995)

C. A. Patrides, The Cambridge Platonists (Cambridge University Press, 1980)

William Poole, Milton and the Idea of the Fall (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

James Simpson, Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents (Harvard UP, 2007)

James Simpson, Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism (Harvard University Press, 2019) 

Nigel Smith, ed., A Collection of Ranter Writings (Pluto Press, 2014)

Nicholas Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism c. 1590-1640 (Oxford University Press, 1987)

A note on class format, expectations, and grading:

This class is a seminar, so attendance and participation are mandatory. Laptops (and other electronic devices) are not to be used in class, except for approved assistive technologies. A seminar is a dialogic form of learning, very different to a lecture class. In my experience, laptops act as an impediment to the kinds of attention and communication I consider essential to a flourishing seminar. Also, since we will have more than enough to chew on already, please refrain from eating during class.

The grade will come from one essay of not more than 25 pages to be handed in during or before the final class.

Kathy Psomiades

This is a workshop for advanced graduate students in English who want to work on writing an article for publication. Ideally, you’d have something—a conference paper, a dissertation chapter, a paper from coursework—that you’d like to turn into an article. You and your dissertation committee should be in agreement that this workshop is a good use of your time at this point in your graduate career. We’ll be working our way through Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks (2nd edition).We’ll also be making use of Eric Hayot’s Elements of Academic Style. You’ll be workshopping your article, as well as various exercises from Belcher and Hayot, and you’ll be giving feedback to others about their articles as well. We will meet every week for the standard 2.5 hours. You’ll need a permission number from me to sign up.

Kathy Psomiades

Provides graduates students in the English department with pedagogical training in the teaching of college-level composition and English department courses. Open only to English department graduate students in years 4 and above. Department consent required.