teaching

recent courses

American Nobodies. American literature of the early nineteenth century is famously associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s exhortations of self-reliance and Henry David Thoreau’s supposed independence at Walden Pond. Yet these very writers, and many others, also experimented with what Emily Dickinson called being nobody. Being nobody could mean slipping out of your to life to watch it from the outside, or dressing in drag, or befriending a raindrop, or hiding in an attic, or imagining death. We will analyze the texts that imagine these experiments and learn how undertaking them depended on one’s social position. We will also experiment ourselves, by developing writing practices informed by the models of selfhood we study.

Individuals vs. Systems.  American writers of the late nineteenth century rarely wrote tales of heroes and heroines transcending their circumstances. Instead, writers worked to document the various systems—social, biological, and economic—that shape and even determine human behavior. This course studies the philosophies that guided this literary trend, as well as the developing technologies—such as photography, elevators, and department stores—that transformed the work of representation. We will read in order to ask: Can a person’s love conquer all? What is the power of one individual to resist oppression? Do we control systems, or are we at their mercy?

Henry James and the Story of the Mind.  In 1881, Henry James created literary history with The Portrait of a Lady: it was the first novel to contain an entire chapter in which nothing happens—except that the main character, Isabel Archer, thinks. This course will look backward and forward from this moment in James’s career to examine how his representations of mind and body develop and evolve. We’ll be guided by James’s cast of adventuring ladies—from the American flirt in Venice, Daisy Miller, to the righteous ghost-seeing governess of The Turn of the Screw, to the two women sharing one lover in The Golden Bowl—as we study psychology and narrative from the 1870s to the 1910s.

Literary Theory.  The word theory refers, via its etymology, to the act of seeing. All literary theories are thus ways of seeing: of seeing texts and of seeing the world. Our primary goal will be to see with theories that have been influential to the study of literature—to learn where they focus, how they interpret, and what they offer. We will examine the mind and the economy, art and language and advertising, narrative and sex and nation and gender and tradition. Because the theories we study will be challenging rather than intuitive, we will have to rethink our assumptions and beliefs, and, often, to unsettle them. We will do so not merely to be contrary, but to open ourselves to seeing more.

Truth, Violence, and Story. How have writers used stories to make sense of human rights violations and atrocities?  In this course, we’ll learn to identify forms through which narratives engage difficult subject matter. We’ll study in particular how and why a lack of resolution, or a resistance to closure, often features in human rights literature. As we track how real-life events become compelling stories, we’ll also grapple with the line that separates fact from fiction when it comes to adapting the facts of suffering.

Cross-Examining the Witness.  We are all witnesses: so says the Nike corporation. But what does it mean to be a witness? How and why has witnessing become celebrated as a universal activity? This course will address these questions through the differing lenses of literary, historical, and legal studies. Students will complete a research project that entails analyzing first-hand testimonies as well as critical scholarship about an event of their choosing.

 

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