Teaching

Spring 2021

English 225: Contemporary U.S. Fiction

This course focuses on contemporary U.S. fiction. For our purposes, “contemporary” is defined as work written since 2000, and the course explores what sets such work apart from writing of other times and places. In order to do so, the course is organized around two broad characteristics of the contemporary world: the post-9/11 moment, in which a perpetual “War On Terror” has become the norm; and the social media moment, in which anyone with access to a computer or smart phone can construct stories about themselves on Facebook and Instagram. After attuning ourselves to what these characteristics mean for contemporary U.S. culture, we study writers who have responded in compelling ways to 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror. We then turn attention to work written in the first-person to ask how subjectivity has changed in an age in which many people are obsessively or even narcissistically posting about themselves in social media. How, we will ask, is writing a novel different from other forms of expression available in our technology-saturated environment? Might there be a connection between the post 9/11 moment and new forms of subjectivity? Particular books studied varies by semester, but might include  Leanne Shapton, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Teju Cole, Open City, Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Adelle Waldman, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., and NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names.

English 329: The American 1950s

Believe it or not, the 1950s were some of the most exciting years in American literature. Think about the books you still see on the “Summer Reading” table at Barnes & Noble: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s—these are all works written during the 1950s that are for many readers still relevant in 2021. In addition to these works, some of the best and most important novels of the twentieth century were published during the 1950s, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, Ann Petry’s The Narrows, and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. These works have been enormously influential since their publication. In fact, once one begins to look, one sees the influence of a 1950s sensibility not only in literature, but also in popular culture, from the television series Mad Men to the 2015 Oscar-nominated film Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt. In this course, we will explore the 1950s as a fascinating, dynamic decade for American literature and culture. Far from the cartoon, Leave It to Beaver-version of the 1950s in which everyone is a straight, white, Protestant suburbanite, we will use literature as a way to understand the diversity of mid-century America: the 1950s were not only years of Cold War and conformity, but also of a second renaissance in African-American writing, of a flowering of the Beat Generation, and of the cohesion of literatures that could be identified as gay and Asian-American. In order to understand the range and complexity of 1950s literature, we will read Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, John Okada’s No-No Boy, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Ellison’s Invisible Man, Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind, Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly, Last Summer, Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, as well as poetry of the New York and Confessional schools.

 

Other Courses

English 135: Literature and Human Experience

What is normal, and who gets to decide? These are simple questions that are actually hard to answer. Although “normal” seems to describe what most people think or do, once you stop to ponder these questions, you might start to wonder if the very idea of normality is connected to social or political regulation—after all, to be labeled “not normal” is to be placed on the margins of some (usually imaginary) group or society that calls itself normal. In this course, we will read literature concerned with misfits, outcasts, and loners in order to understand how writers have challenged the very idea of normality as it relates to a variety of human experiences. Given that many well-known writers have been interested in the broad question of normality versus abnormality, we will have the opportunity to study literature ranging from the 19th Century up to the present day. Along the way, we will study some of the most significant works of literature written in the last 150 years, as well as lesser known—though no less powerful—work. Our method will be to combine close attention to the language of the text with explorations of the social, cultural, political, and intellectual contexts that help these works come alive. Throughout the course, we will explore also what is distinctive about literature and literary inquiry and ask why so many people across so many different times and places have thought literature vital to better understanding themselves and their relationship to wider culture. We read Herman Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”; Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson; William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury; Allen Ginsberg, Howl; Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar; and Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, as well as poetry by Terrance Hayes, Claudia Rankine, Denise Duhamel, and Gregory Corso.

English 205: Seminar in Textual Practices

This course introduce students to some of the important questions that one might ask as an English major: How do we read a text? Why are certain texts “literary”? How does literature relate to culture? What is critical theory and why should we care about it? We spend much of our time carefully reading, re-reading, and thinking about complicated but richly rewarding literary texts and examples of critical theory. Students learn to close read these texts, and to view them from a number of different angles. By the end of this course, students are prepared not only to write and speak knowledgably about different literary genres—short stories, novels, poetry, drama—but also to create compelling, well-supported arguments about such texts, and to think flexibly about the different ways one might approach literary and cultural questions. Recent major texts include: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, 100 Poems of e.e. cummings, The Waste Land, Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, A Small Place, Topdog/Underdog, and Lolita. We also read short stories and numerous examples of theory and criticism.

English 202: Art and Argumentative Writing

This writing seminar helps students hone their argumentative writing skills by exploring various aspects of the art debate. We will have a chance to workshop one another’s writing with the goal of refining both our analytical reading and writing abilities.

English 331: American Fiction from 1945 to the Present

This course introduces students to the American novel after 1945. Since there are potentially hundreds of excellent novels that we might have read for this course, an organizing theme is necessary to tell a coherent story about the period. For this course, we look at a range of novels exploring the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world to see how and why novelists have been concerned with “globalization.” Since the Second World War, it has become increasingly difficult to think about the United States without thinking about the rest of the world: political developments such as the Cold War meant that the United States felt compelled to intervene around the world in order to check the spread of global Communism. This is how we got the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and why the U.S. had interests in places like Central America or central Africa. During the post-1945 period, the Third World was likewise becoming newly independent from their former colonial masters; and yet, as many of our authors acknowledge, these newly-formed countries were not entirely independent as they relied on foreign capital to sustain their economies, a situation some observers referred to as “neocolonialism.” In exploring the American novel after 1945, then, we find writers interested in many forms of global circulation, from military actions to more subtle kinds of contact or influence. For much of the postwar period, the United States was, with the Soviet Union, one of the two superpowers in the world. But after the end of the Cold War, and especially after 9/11, the United States entered a new phase in its relationship with the rest of the world, and we end the course by looking at a recent novel that depicts this new global situation. In general, we will find our authors imagine very complex relationships both among different countries and among the ordinary citizens in those countries, and we will make sense of these relationships through broad themes such as nationhood, history, personal identity, and cultural imperialism. Recently, we read short texts from Paul Bowles and Zadie Smith; Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha; Tim O’Brien, Going After Cacciato; Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49; Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer; Teju Cole, Open City; Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters; Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange; and Toni Morrison, A Mercy. Students are also required to read and present on one other novel written since 2000 that explores the relationship between the U.S. and the world.

English 385: The Beats

The Beat literary movement began with a small group of friends in New York and San Francisco in the 1940s and 1950s, but eventually radiated out to achieve worldwide significance. The Beats produced some of the most interesting and enduring literature of the twentieth century, even as they were dismissed by academic critics as lazy, “know-nothing bohemians.” Works like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch are now recognized as classics of American literature, and for decades generations of young people embraced these and other Beat works as their guides to the authentic life. Indeed, Beat literature has influenced everyone from The Beatles (who borrowed the term when they named their band) to Thomas Pynchon to Maxine Hong Kingston to the U.S.’s most recent Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Bob Dylan. This course examines the Beat Generation as it was constructed by the Beats themselves and by the culture in and against which they wrote and lived. We will look at how Beat texts initiate a conversation about the values and self-image of America from the 1940s well into the 1970s and beyond, leveling trenchant critiques of race and class in America, and introducing frank discussions of previously taboo topics such as “free love,” homosexuality, and drug use. We will therefore examine Beat writing both in terms of its political critique and its considerable aesthetic innovations. We will read not only the “major” Beat writers mentioned above, but also many others who were crucial to the movement, including Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. We will also focus attention on African American Beats, including Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, and LeRoi Jones; Beat women writers, including Bonnie Bremser, Hettie Jones, Joyce Johnson, Joanne Kyger, and Lenore Kandel; and other groundbreaking poets such as Philip Whalen, John Wieners, Philip Lamantia, Lew Welch, Ray Bremser, Tuli Kupferberg, and Ed Sanders.

English 369: Postmodernism

A pervasive cultural movement that appeared after the Second World War, postmodernism has exerted widespread influence on our everyday lives. Interested observers can locate evidence of a postmodern sensibility in numerous aspects of postwar culture, from art and architecture to “highbrow” novels to examples of popular culture like cartoons and video games. In this course, we focus on literary postmodernism. Because it is a complicated and conflicted term, one of our broad course goals is to develop our own definition(s) of postmodernism. In order to do this, we think about the primary characteristics of the postmodern as articulated in fiction and critical theory. Readings include work by DeLillo, Didion, Pynchon, Nabokov, Silko, Everett, Borges, Barth, Lyotard, Derrida, Baudrillard, White, Jameson, and Hutcheon.

American Studies 150: Introduction to American Studies

This introduction to the field of American Studies examines American personal and national identity through an interdisciplinary study of American culture. It seeks to introduce students to an American Studies perspective on scholarly work, while emphasizing how race, ethnicity, class, and gender have functioned historically in the United States. In order to pursue such work, we will explore a variety of academic disciplines and cultural forms—essays, photographs, novels, films, songs, legal opinions, paintings, architecture, advertising, and other artifacts of popular culture.