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English Freshman Course Descriptions Fall '18

Course descriptions from the English Department to supplement the information in the college catalogue.

I. Introduction to Literary Study


Mr. Chang             WF      12:00-1:15

Literature and Evil

ENGL 101: Literature and Evil

 “Literature is not innocent,” says Georges Bataille. Authentic aesthetic experience knows something of evil. It does not edify or console; it quickens and unsettles. We will study literary, philosophical, and cinematic texts that explore the various faces of evil – from the romantic to the banal, the irrational to the utterly unmotivated. Readings include: The White Devil, Othello, Wuthering Heights, Heart of Darkness, Blood Meridian, The Dark Knight Returns, as well as some Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Kafka, Bataille, and Arendt.


Mr. DeMaria               TR       10:30-11:45

What is a Classic?

Why are some works of literature called classics?  Which works are these?  Do they have common traits?  How is it that they have endured while other works have been largely forgotten? Are all classics related in some way to the original classics of Greek and Latin literature?  How old does a work have to be to achieve the stature of a classic?  Can there be modern or even contemporary classics?  Through reading and discussion of poetry and prose works often thought of as classics, this class will investigate these and other questions.   Authors will include some of the following: Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, D. H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Joseph Heller, James Baldwin, Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith.


Ms. Dunbar            TR       3:10-4:25

Troubling Girlhood

From early-American witch trials to contemporary stories detailing the “dangers” of high school life or illuminating the power of teenage romantic love when it becomes entangled with political activism, this course explores narratives focused on the public and private lives of young women. The aim of the course is to write through and “trouble” (challenge and struggle over) our cultural assumptions regarding those who are gendered “girls” in the US. Using literary fiction, YA novels, short stories, memoir, and visual texts, we’ll consider how various identity categories challenge and shift the meaning of “girlhood” in the United States. Students enrolled in this course will develop an academic writing practice, and learn to participate in and lead a college classroom discussion.


Mr. Hsu            MW     12:00-1:15

Sounds American:  Pop Music, Identity & Imagination

This is a course about the pop musical imagination, or what new possibilities, a catchy song, a groundbreaking album, or a brilliant artist compels us to envision. We’ll approach this question thematically (rather than historically) and engage a range of texts—songs and albums; fiction and poetry; essays and memoirs; cultural histories and academic monographs; music videos and cultural theory—that bring the vast terrain that is the American soundscape into focus. Our considerations will draw from the perspective of the listener, the fan, the critic, from the Jazz Age to the present. In other words, we will try and interrogate what it means to engage with music in the present day. How have portable devices or streaming services altered our relationship to music? How does pop music provide a surface upon which we debate questions of political identity, authenticity, and self-determination? What visions of independence or freedom emerge when we engage with pop culture seriously, and with scrutiny? Possible readings include Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, Rebecca Dubrow’s history of portable stereos, Patti Smith’s punk memoir of seventies New York.


Mr. Joyce           MR      3:10-4:25                    

W(h)ither The Body

Current technologies only put into stark contrast almost a century in which the body has become a site of contestation: commercial, political, sexual, medial, artistic, and philosophical.  Various literatures, some of them electronic (e.g., digital literature, virtual & augmented reality, computer games) have engaged (some say joined with) nanotechnology, genetic engineering, etc. to contest for the body, with some thinkers making radical claims that the body will disappear or merge with technology, or that it has already done so. Posthumanist, feminist, ludologist, media, and cyber theorists have all contributed to this polylogue. Thus “readings” will encompass varied media and may include Tom Tykwer’s film “3” (Drei) and the original Bioshock game, as well as novels and poems such as Bennett Sims, A Questionable Shape, Nicole Brossard’sPicture Theory, and Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts.


Mr. Kumar              TR       10:30-11:45    

The Essay Form

The high-school essay trapped in the Darth Vader facemask called the topic sentence.  And the immobile drapery of the five-paragraph costume armor. This is an exaggeration, of course, but to write in more imaginative ways let us examine the experiments in prose undertaken by essayists of the past hundred years or so: George Orwell writing about shooting an elephant, James Baldwin on his father’s death and race riots, Jorge Luis Borges on his “modest blindness,” Susan Sontag looking at photographs, Joan Didion bidding goodbye to New York, Adrienne Rich recalling the strands that make up her identity. Also, Geoff Dyer on sex and hotels, Lydia Davis on “Foucault and pencil,” David Shields on the lyric essay, Jenny Boully on the body, Eliot Weinberger on what he heard about Iraq, and David Foster Wallace on anything. We will write brief essays (one to two pages) for each class and two longer essays (about eight pages in length).


Mr. Hill         MR      3:10-4:30

Allegories of the Self

This seminar offers students intensive practice in close reading and interpretive writing and conversation through the examination of symbolic worlds inscribed in various media, including original works in Vassar collections, with a focus on the development of allegorical narrative in classical and Medieval textual sources and Medieval and Renaissance art.  Our consideration of allegories as knowledge systems will introduce students to the formulation of liberal arts education in the medieval schools, as well as to the culture of libraries and the organization of knowledge. Each member of the class will be asked to present an allegorical reading of a modern work selecting from narratives of literary authors such as Kafka and Orwell to works of painting and sculpture by artists such as Thomas Cole, Frida Kahlo and Kara Walker, to fantasy and science fiction film, television series, and game environments. The​ ​course​ ​will​ ​thus​ ​serve​ ​to​ ​familiarize​ ​you​ ​with​ ​conventions of​ ​meaning​ ​in​ ​creative​ ​works​ ​in​ ​various​ ​media​ ​expressly​ ​composed to​ ​be​ ​interpreted,​ ​introduce​ ​you​ ​to​ ​the​ ​foundations,​ ​culture, and​ ​tools​ ​of​ ​higher​ ​education,​ ​and​ ​also​ ​function​ ​as​ ​a​ ​practicum for​ ​improving​ ​your​ ​skills​ ​with​ ​written​ ​and​ ​spoken​ ​language.

Mr. Markus           TR       3:10-4:25
What’s Love Got to do With it?

This course focuses on representations of love (filial, parental, sexual, etc.) from antiquity to the present.  Situating the selected works in their contemporary cultural and historical contexts, the course explores significant differences as well as possible continuities between past and present interpretations and representations of such basic concepts and institutions as gender, family, marriage, filial and marital duties, the private sphere, and sexuality.  Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet serves as a chronological center for these investigations, but we will also discuss passages from the Bible and selected texts (representing diverse dramatic, epic, and lyric genres) by Euripides, Aristophanes, Ovid, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Shelley, Emily Brontë, and others.  In addition, we will look at various adaptations (musical, theatrical, fine arts) of Romeo and Juliet as well as film versions.


Mr. Perez           TR       12:00-1:15      

The Instruction of Citizenship

Emma Lazarus’s celebrated poem, “The New Colossus,” identifies the Statue of Liberty as the “Mother of Exiles” welcoming the world’s “wretched” and “tempest-tost.”  However, the popular definition of the United States as a “nation of immigrants” repeatedly comes into crisis when the state faces the arrival of new groups. This course examines how literature by first- and second-generation Americans brings to light conditions that either bind or divide us as communities.  Beginning with but not limited to scenes of classroom instruction (literal and metaphorical), we consider at what sites the instructing of citizenship takes place and what it mean to be “naturalized” as an American. We also interrogate citizenship as a model of political inclusion. Some guiding questions for us: What do we gain or lose with assimilation?  How is “cultural citizenship” different from formal, legal citizenship?  How does immigrant writing respond to or disrupt abstract notions of American citizenship?  What is at stake in the language we use to describe displaced people(s): exiles, refugees, migrants, immigrants, asylees, etc…? What might popular culture teach us about citizenship?  

Mr. Simpson           MW      10:30-11:45

The Ends of Black Autobiography

Autobiographical writing has been and remains a preeminent mode of African American expression. It was one of the first intellectual gestures that the formerly enslaved made when they gained literacy. It has fed music practices like the blues and hip-hop. It also may have created the circumstances by which the US could elect its first black president. Over the last three centuries, blacks have used this mode to insinuate themselves into literary modernity and register the often unacknowledged dynamism of their emotional and intellectual lives. This course will explore the aesthetics of black autobiographical narrative--its codes, tropes, and investments--from its beginnings in the eighteenth century to its most present iterations.   If black autobiographical writing involves not only telling a story about a black subject, but also proffering a certain version of black life to its reading audiences, it is important to ascertain the nature of the cultural work that these stories (seek to) accomplish. Among the artists featured in this Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Gloria Naylor, Barack Obama, Jasmyn Ward, Chris Rock, Oprah Winfrey, and MK Asante.


Ms. Zlotnick             MWF   10:30-11:20    

Jane Eyres

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre tells the story of a heated romance between a “poor, obscure, plain” governess and a Byronic landowner with a Gothic past. Published pseudonymously in 1847, the novel was a literary sensation as well as a bestseller, even though Brontë’s rebellious heroine upended nineteenth-century notions of propriety and femininity.  While popular in its day, Jane Eyre has also had a hypnotic hold on subsequent generations of writers, who have revised and re-imagined Brontë’s text in order to contest its representations of love, madness, colonialism, Englishness, feminism, and education.  In this first-year seminar, we will explore Jane Eyre’s complicated relationship with its literary descendants and ask fundamental questions about literary influence, canon formation, narration, and women’s writing.  In addition to Jane Eyre, readings may include Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.  We will also screen different film adaptations of Jane Eyre in addition to Hitchcock's Rebecca.  


Ms. Mark          WF      1:30-2:45                    

Deception:  Some Truths About Lies

Narratives told by someone who can’t be trusted invite readers to explore the ambiguous border between truths and lies. An author’s perceptions may differ from those of the first-person narrator—the “I”—who tells the story, and that discrepancy opens up intriguing psychological space. “Good readers read the lines, better readers read the spaces,” the novelist John Barth has written. This section of English 101 will analyze both words and spaces—both what is said and what is unspoken or unspeakable. We’ll investigate a rogues’ gallery of unreliable narrators who bring varying degrees of mendacity, self-aggrandizement, and self-deception to the stories they tell. Then, from both literary and neuroscience perspectives, we’ll think about memory, the mind, and the brain. We’ll ask: Are memories always fallible? Are they ever-evolving stories we tell ourselves? Is remembering an act of creation rather than straightforward retrieval of the past? Are we all unreliable narrators? Authors may include Alison Bechdel, James Baldwin, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Lydia Davis, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ralph Ellison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jamaica Kincaid, Tim O’Brien, Michael Ondaatje, George Orwell, Oliver Sacks, George Saunders, Charles Simic, Zadie Smith, and Oscar Wilde. Students will write both analytical and imaginative responses to the texts.


Mr. Means           TR       12:00-1:15

Beneath the Apocalyptic Landscape

This course will explore characters caught in the dreamscape of violence and apocalyptic visions that is perhaps unique to American history and culture, from slavery to opiate addiction to school shootings.  We'll examine the concept--coined by rock critic Greil Marcus--of Old Weird America, a folkloric history that has spawned murder ballads, the music of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, and a wide range of literary work, including poetry by Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Etheridge Knight; stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Joyce Carol Oates, Herman Melville, Flannery O'Connor, and Denis Johnson.  Longer works may include novels by William Faulkner, Gayle Jones, William Vollmann, Hunter Thompson, and the graphic artist, Lynda Barry.


Mr. Smith            TR       10:30-11:45

The Fiction of Faith

Some of the more controversial novels of the past century have depicted striking attitudes of religious belief. A faith in God (or the crucial lack of it) can trouble a novel’s protagonist, drive the plot, and reveal the broader cultural norms of its readership. This course will investigate the ways in which works of fiction are uniquely capable of exploring questions of faith—and how, in turn, religious standpoints can be encountered, and sometimes publicly challenged, by particular fictional treatments. Selected texts and their respective spiritual frameworks will include: Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Safak (Islam), The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Aranduhati Roy (Hinduism), Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (Catholicism), Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Protestantism), Only Yesterday by S.Y. Agnon (Judaism), The Temple of the Wild Geese by Tsutomo Mizukami (Buddhism), Native Son by Richard Wright (Existentialism), and Quarantine by Jim Crace (Atheism).

English 170

Entitled “Approaches to Literary Studies,” English 170 is designed as an introduction to the discipline of literary studies.  While each section has a different focus (see descriptions below), they have a common agenda: to explore the concerns and methods of the discipline.  Topics range from specific critical approaches and their assumptions to larger questions about meaning-making in literature, criticism, and theory.  Assignments will develop skills for research and writing in English, including the use of secondary sources and the critical vocabulary of literary study.

As an introduction to the discipline, English 170 is recommended, but not required, for potential majors.  It is open to freshmen and sophomores, and others by permission. Although the ideal sequence of English courses for freshmen interested in majoring in English is English 101 in the Fall and 170 in the Spring, 101 is not a prerequisite for 170.  Freshmen wishing to take English 170 in the fall semester must have AP English credit. The English department does not recommend that students take 101 and 170 during the same semester.  Note that English 170 does not fulfill the Freshman Course requirement.


Ms. Graham            TR       9:00-10:15

Approaches to Literary Studies

Topic for 2018a:  The Bad and The Beautiful: Literary Decadence at the Fin de siècle.

This course examines the relationship between literary works redefining gender and sexuality through their depiction of androgynous hero/ines, femmes fatales, and outré sexual practices and the ‘invention of the homosexual’ at the close of the nineteenth century.  The course will detail the legal and social constraints on sexual difference that frustrated writers’ efforts to affirm same-sex passion, which Oscar Wilde called “the love that dare not speak its name.”  The coded nature of homoerotic themes in texts will encourage close reading of works that reward literary scrutiny as well as polemical interpretation. The course will employ psychoanalysis and queer theory to address the male aesthete’s quandary: homophobia and misogyny encourage him to align himself with the privileged Victorian male through his vilification of women (as tasteless and insatiable consumers of objects and men), at the same time, he is drawn to the feminine.  Theorists consulted: Foucault, Lacan, Butler, Barthes, Deleuze, Sedgwick, Felski.  Authors read: Flaubert, Balzac, Poe, Sacher-Masoch, Wilde, Swinburne, Pater, James, Bataille. Wherever possible, we will try to draw connections between the nineteenth century and our own embattled times.

English 174 - 179 – Special Topics

Courses listed under these numbers are designed to offer to a wide audience a variety of literary subjects that are seldom taught in regularly offered courses.  The courses are six weeks in length, and the subjects they cover vary from year to year.  Enrollment is unlimited and open to all students.  Instructors lecture when the classes are too large for the regular seminar format favored in the English department.  These courses do not satisfy the Freshman Course requirement.  These courses are ungraded and do not count toward the major.   They may be repeated. 


Mr. Kane             TR       10:30-11:45

Poetry and Philosophy

Topic for 2018a: Poetry and Philosophy: The Ancient Quarrel.  When Plato famously banished poets from his ideal Republic, he spoke of an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy. That argument has continued, in various forms, down to the present, culminating in Heidegger's notorious question, “What are poets for?” This six-week course looks at a number of key texts in this contentious history, along with exemplary poems that illustrate the issues. Writers include Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Shelley, Wordsworth, Wilde, Eliot, Blanchot, Derrida, and others.
No specialized knowledge of poetry or philosophy required. 
The class is ungraded.  1st Six Weeks.