American Literature


This course is a survey of American literature from European contact to around 1880, the rise of what is now identified as the Realist school of writing (Twain, James, etc.).  I team-teach this course with Terese Heidenwolf, one of the librarians at Lafayette, and together we have developed ways to use the inevitable gaps and idiosyncrasies of the survey course as pedagogical strengths, emphasizing questions of how the anthology, the library, and the classroom shape canons of literature, and what this means for understanding of American literature as a concept and a tradition.  The final assignment in the course involves students constructing their own anthologies—always a highlight for everyone involved, and defined by students’ creativity both in their critical analysis and in their presentation.



Cross-listed as an American Studies core seminar and as an advanced seminar in English, this course explores famous works of the antebellum US, such as Thoreau’s Walden and Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, in the context of the political, social, artistic, economic, and environmental pressures of the decades leading up to the Civil War.  A favorite assignment is a close reading of an art object from the period out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, following on a field trip to New York City, which combines a trip to the Met with viewing other museums’ exhibits and/or walking historic neighborhoods such as the South Street Seaport on the Lower East Side.



This course was developed years ago as an upper-division survey of early  (i.e., pre-1800) American literature.  I have adapted it as an advanced topics course in pre-1800 American writing, cross-listing it as a core seminar in American Studies.  This course has been focused in different years on writing the American Revolution and on Awakening and Enlightenment in America.  Readings range from life-writing by John Woolman and Olaudah Equiano, to political pamphlets by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, to sermons by Jonathan Edwards and poems by the women of the Delaware Valley manuscript coterie that stretched from Trenton to Philadelphia.  Students develop semester-long research projects on a book outside the class reading list, and we explore together the 18th-century foundations of Easton and Philadelphia, often taking in a tour of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts or Bartram’s Garden, and paying respects to George Taylor, the former indentured servant who signed the Declaration of Independence and now lies buried in Easton Cemetery.



This course emphasizes both breadth and depth in the study of American poetry.  On the one hand, we survey key genres, modes, and styles of poetry, ranging from dialect verse to public poetry to sonnets and ballads.  On the other, we spend the second half of the course delving into the works of Whitman, Dickinson, Longfellow, and Melville, situating these writers among their contemporaries and savoring the joys and frustrations of living with their writings over several weeks.  Course assignments focus on student research projects and an “audio anthology” made up of several recordings of each student performing poems of his or her choosing from the 19th century.

I first used student-generated digital audio in this course in Fall 2008, and loved it so much I have now incorporated it into several other courses.  I have also written about the theory and practice of using student-generated audio work in the classroom; please see the Writing about Teaching page for links.


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