Sample courses

American Renaissance.  The term “American Renaissance” was coined in 1941 by the scholar F. O. Matthiessen, who was fascinated by “how great a number of our past masterpieces were produced in one extraordinarily concentrated moment of expression.”  This moment seemed to him a renaissance or re-birth, and it is with an eye toward the experimentalism of these masterpieces that we will approach them.  What does it mean to write at the beginning, we will ask, to create a national literature where none has existed previously?  How does such writing go about formulating—and inventing—many ideas that we take for granted today, such as self, nature, law, testimony, death, occupation and, perhaps most of all, America?  Our goal will be to understand these ideas in their context and in ours, and to pursue how they continue to speak to the way we read and live as Americans.

Picture 1Reading and Writing Texts. This interdisciplinary course examines how literary scholars, historians, and creative practitioners have approached testimony.  Our principal text will be Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, which poses different questions and challenges for each discipline.  We will also study changing ideas of testimony in following World War II and learn how to analyze testimonial texts that we ourselves produce.

Making Sense of Things.  The category of things is so indefinite, and so Picture 2wide, that theorizing it may seem impossible:  in the service of approximation, virtually any object or phenomenon may be designated a thing.  Sometimes, however, “thing” connotes a heightened, particular status, one worth noting, as when a human is called a thing or when a behavior or practice becomes recognizable as the thing to do.  Our task in this course will be to track the interchange between these two types of things and, in particular, to study how generalized things may upsurge as significant.  We will attend to recent critical writings on things, especially those concerned with materialism and technology, but we will place these in conversation with early American literary texts that are also concerned with the meaningfulness of the object world.  How, we will ask, do these older literary texts respond to contemporary questions?  We will also be concerned to identify how the things of literary texts constitute a special case—since any thing, in a novel, may be significant—that might yet inflect our understanding of those things that exist off the page.

Picture 7Theories of Testimony. This course focuses on understanding recent critical theory on testimony, much of which has responded to the crisis of witnessing precipitated by the Holocaust.  What we find in this body of writing questions the model of testimony that consists of a speaking subject who can recuperate in language experiences of the past.  At stake for each thinker we examine—and for us in class—is how to forge such a post-structuralist critique without evacuating testimony’s primary meaning, its reference to (and establishment of) an event that really happened.

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 9.22.50 PMThinking through Henry James.  Henry James (1843-1916) came to be referred to as “The Master” by early critics of his fiction, and there is certainly much to admire about his craft:  elegantly sinuous sentences, characters with ambiguous motives, plots that resist devolving into pat dramas.  Yet in addition to exhibiting his famous style, James’s writings serve as an archive of his engagement with the intellectual ideas streaming around him, ideas that would launch the twentieth century.  As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Sigmund Freud was arguing that our mental activity is largely unconscious; Karl Marx was proposing that material conditions determine individual subjectivity; and Friedrich Nietzsche was insisting that language remains untethered to the world.  In this course, we will study James as he responded to these new ideas about mind, matter, and meaning.  By examining key pieces of relevant philosophy and criticism, as well as representative works from James, we will aim to understand how his fiction thinks through the major issues of his time.


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