ENG 205: Literary Questions

Dr. Suzanne Westfall
Office: Pardee 301A         Phone: Ext. 5249
Hours: MWF 9-10, 2-3 and by appointment
E-mail: westfals@lafayette.edu

English 205:Literary Questions
Spring 2009

I took a course in speed-reading, learning to read straight down the middle of the page, and was able to read War and Peace in twenty minutes.  It’s about Russia.
Woody Allen

W.H. Auden once remarked that a real book reads us.  I have been read by Eliot’s poems, and by Ulysses, and by Remembrance of Things Past, and by The Castle….  Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them.
Lionel Trilling

Books are like a mirror. If an ass looks in, you can’t expect an angel to look out.
B. C. Forbes

Course Description

What is a literary text? (How does Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice differ from TV’s Heroes?)  How do we read a literary text? (Why do I dread books my English teachers assign and whip through anything by Stephen King?)  Why do women read more than men do?  How do we write about a literary text? (What should I say to sound smart?)  These are only a few of “big” questions we will ask in class this semester.  “Literary Questions,” an introduction to the methodology of literary analysis and criticism, is designed to enable you to examine your assumptions about literature, as well as to introduce you to the concepts, terms, and theories that those who study literature employ.

For example, what makes a piece of writing “literature”?  Is there an aesthetic difference between “good” literature and “bad” literature, between high and popular culture?  How can we figure out what an author or work “means”?  Does anyone really think that authors “hide” meaning?  Post-modern critics have realized that answers to these questions are not absolute; they are historically, culturally and ideologically determined.  “Literary Questions” will explore ways of reading and writing that will make YOU a more discerning critic.


  • to recognize, examine and understand the uses and effects of literary elements and rhetorical devices within and among literary works;
  • to understand basic terms integral to literary study;
  • to use literary criticism and theory in analyzing and critiquing a literary work;
  • to explore bibliographic and research techniques in order to explain how works from the humanities are influenced by historical, social, cultural, political, literary and creative contexts and by individual experiences; and
  • to examine how works from the humanities characterize individuals, groups, and cultures.

Throughout this course, assignments will demonstrate your mastery of these skills:

  • defining and applying key literary terms;
  • using the OED, searching the MLA Bibliography, and properly quoting secondary sources;
  • identifying the basic characteristics of various forms of poetry;
  • close reading a short passage;
  • using the proper MLA format and conventions;
  • framing an appropriate question for an analytical or research paper.


CLASSWORK:  This is a seminar, not a lecture course, and seminars are DISCUSSION-driven.  Its purpose is to help you articulate an idea, share it, defend it, recontextualize it, and perhaps reconsider it.

ATTENDANCE – Since this is a student-centered course, if you do not attend class you cannot be part of the learning community.  Similarly, if you come to class unprepared, you cannot contribute.  I realize, of course, that there will be times when you can’t make it to class or won’t be much use if you do.  Consequently, my attendance policy is that you have THREE FREE PASSES – three times when you may be absent without explanation or excuse.  After that point, you will be excused from class ONLY with a dean’s excuse.  Quizzes and exams will not be rescheduled to accommodate holiday travel, so please read the syllabus CAREFULLY; if you miss class it is your responsibility to keep up with materials and assignments by checking with your classmates or Moodle.  After your three freebies, you will receive a penalty on your final grade; after excessive absence I will drop you from the course.

GRADES – Everything you do in this course is assessed, from your arrival on time with your texts in hand to your active participation in group work — EVERYTHING COUNTS.  Your final grade will reflect your ability to read and integrate texts, lectures, and co-curricular activities as reflected in the frequency and quality of your contribution to the seminar, both verbally and in writing.

20% — Classwork (discussion, presentations, Moodle)
40% — Exams & Quizzes
40% — Writing

WRITING – Even thought 205 is not technically a “W” or writing course, we will nevertheless do a lot of writing (note the third “literary question”).  You will compose and edit essays over the course of the term, in addition to smaller assignments, in-class writing and the discussion board. Plan to write something every week – responses to the reading, discussions of terms and difficulties, reviews.

I expect your papers to be submitted on time; computer problems and competing interests/course work are not excuses for poor planning, so make sure that you deal with problem discs and printers sufficiently early in your process. All writing should be word-processed and thoroughly proofread (if I find more than three careless errors on the first page I tend to stop reading).  Leave papers in my mailbox in Pardee 316, the English Department office when the paper is due; I cannot be responsible for materials left outside or under my door, for they frequently go astray.  Be sure to keep backup copies of all your work, preferably on separate discs, in case either of us needs another copy.

NB: Note the definition of “deadline,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the standard for our discipline and the only dictionary you should ever use for research (available online at the Library site):

Dead-line: 2. a. Mil. A line drawn around a military prison, beyond which a prisoner is liable to be shot down. orig. U.S.

This reflects my paper policy: NO EXTENSIONS for paper due dates, a practice that is, at any rate, extremely unfair to the rest of the class.  So papers will be penalized ONE HALF GRADE for every day they are late.

You have another opportunity to write (or more fully contribute to class discussions if you tend to be shy) on Moodle.  Please make sure that you activate Moodle for this class, where I will post writing assignments, announcements, and questions.  Your participation on Moodle will contribute toward 20% of your grade.

ACADEMIC HONESTY: Please review the college’s policy on academic honesty as it appears in the student handbook. Acknowledging the sources you consult is certainly to your benefit, since it impresses your professors with your research.  The Internet is particularly tempting and dangerous; understand that all outside sources must be accurately documented (use the St. Martin’s MLA format).  Faculty members are required by the college to refer cases of plagiarism immediately to the dean’s office.


This syllabus is a work in progress, and will certainly change as opportunities become available or as we find we want more time to explore issues.

Auster, City of Glass; Auster, Karasik, & Mazzucchelli, City of Glass: The Graphic Novel; Carter, The Education of Little Tree; Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper; Lunsford, St. Martin’s Handbook (from your 110/FYS years); Morrison, A Mercy; Murfin (ed.), The Bedford Glossary of Literary Terms; Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice: Texts and Contexts; Thomas, The White Hotel.   Ancillary readings will be on the WEB, on reserve in the library, and/or available in xerox.


Week 1: Identifying Assumptions

Jan. 26        Introduction to the course
Jan. 28        Graff Xerox; Bedford (hereafter B): criticism, theory;
unpacking Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” (on Moodle) as a gestalt of Literary Questions.
Jan 30      The White Hotel (WH) to p. 28

Weeks 2 & 3: Power and the Profession

Feb. 2        B: Genre, fiction/nonfiction, stream-of-consciousness, point of view, narrator, motif, unintrusive narrator, unreliable narrator, omniscient;
Continue WH;


Feb. 4

Feb. 6        WH 29-86; B: gaps, authorial intention, implied author, implied reader

Feb. 9        WH 89-144
Feb. 11       WH 147-217; B: archetype, closure
Feb. 13      WH 221-end; B: allegory; Paper due

Week 4-5: Who’s in Charge Here?: Authority, Reading Strategies and Communities

Feb. 16    The Education of Little Tree (LT) Chapters 1-7
Feb. 18    LT, 8-14
Feb. 20
Feb. 23    LT, 15-21

Week 6 – 7: Texts and Semiotics

Feb. 25    City of Glass (CG) 3-49; B: Postmodernism, convention, existentialism, semiotics            Metafiction
Feb. 27    CG, 50-108

Mar. 2        CG,109-158

Mar. 4        Excerpt from Understanding Comics
Mar. 6        CG The Graphic Novel
Mar. 8        BEOWULF at the Cloisters

Mar. 9        CG The Graphic Novel
Mar. 11     Midterm Exam
Mar. 13


Weeks 8-9: Aesthetics: High Culture/Pop Culture

Mar. 23     The Merchant of Venice, Act; 1 & 2; B: blank verse, in medias                     res, suspension of disbelief
Mar. 25    Act 3 & 4

Mar. 27    Act 5

Mar. 30    Kaplan, 123-30; Love and Gender: 311-327

April 1        Shakespeare and the Jews: Kaplan 182-193; 221-225; 244-49;304-10

April 3        Merchant of Venice; “Love in the Contact Zone” (Xerox)

Weeks 10-11: Gender and Race

April 6        “The Yellow Wallpaper,” B: Feminist Criticism, Gender Criticism, domesticity
April 8     “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Paper due
April 10    No Class

April 13    A Mercy
April 15    A Mercy

Weeks 12-14: Figurative Language and Prosody

April 17

April 20     Sonnets

April 22    Sonnets
April 24    Sonnets

April 27    Selected poems; B: allusion, ambiguity, apostrophe, figurative language, figure of speech, metaphor, metonymy, personification, simile, tenor.
April 29    Poetry; B: ballad, ode, blank verse, haiku, negative capability, objective correlative.
May 1        Group Presentations

May 4        Group Presentations
May 6        Group Presentations
May 8        Review

Final Exam TBA by the Registrar