English 2020 course descriptions Themes in Literature and Culture African American Literature and Narratives of Resistance

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English 2020 course descriptions

Themes in Literature and Culture

African American Literature and Narratives of Resistance

African American Literature and Narratives of Resistance surveys a body of literature from the abolitionist movement to the 1960s/1970s Black Arts Movement. This course will examine the theme of resistance as it is presented in black nationalist discourses, and show how it has always been a part of the African American Literary tradition. While literary scholar Bernard Bell defines the African American literary tradition as the quest for freedom and literacy, this course will demonstrate that “resistance” to U.S. racism and racial practices has also been a common thread throughout the canon as well. Students will look critically at the notion of black nationalism—the movement toward black solidarity or the creation of a single black nation—and critique its romanticism, hyper-masculinity, and dismissal of black women’s issues and concerns.

African American Nonfiction

In this course students will explore various literary forms within the nonfiction genre, such as the slave narrative, “as told to” narrative, oral histories, documentary, autobiography, and memoir. Through discussion and various writing exercises, students will (1) gain knowledge of the rich diversity of African American experience and the contributions of African Americans to our nation’s cultural heritage, (2) learn how identity is shaped and negotiated within a historical context, and (3) appreciate nonfiction as both art and cultural artifact. Ideally, students will finish the course with improved reading, writing, and listening skills as well as the desire to know even more about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.

An American in Europe

This course is designed to be offered as part of MTSU’s General Education Study Abroad Program in Cherbourg, France (a five-week session). Students will read an array of literature, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and drama from the past 125 years (approximately) about Americans who have traveled abroad for a variety of reasons, ranging from personal improvement to the greater good, and those who are up to no good. Students enrolled in the course will be Americans in Europe themselves, and the reading materials will resonate well because of these circumstances. Several of the readings focus on the relevant and timely issues of education and/or war. In the reading selections, while learning about European cultures, the literary characters inevitably learn about themselves and their own culture, an experience that will likely occur for the students as well. Thus the theme of the course is particularly apt in terms of satisfying TBR’s goal to have students “appreciate their own human cultural heritage in its development in a historical and global context.”

The American “Folk” in Literature and Culture

In this course, students will read texts by authors representing different time periods and different ethnic and racial groups, all of whom use elements of folklore, folklife and folktales as a means of self-representation and self-expression as they seek to reconcile their own culture with the broader American culture around them. By studying these texts, students will gain an appreciation for their own cultural and folkloric heritage, while gaining a greater understanding of the many different cultures that make up the American landscape. They will also have a greater understanding of the role of folkloric elements in literature, and an appreciation for the role of the “folk” in informing literature.

Beat Literature – American Rebels from Thoreau to Kerouac

This course follows the development of certain strains and themes within American Literature, in an effort to show the origins, the context, and the impact of Kerouac’s Beat Generation. The course will consider uniquely American narratives of self-fashioning, going back to Thoreau and Whitman in the 19th century. The course will also examine the roots of 20th century despair and cynicism in the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, before spending the bulk of the term dealing with the rebellious writings of Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder. The course will highlight the ways in which Buddhist thought also informs the writings of the Beats, showing that this literature is global in scope as well as distinctly American.

Childhood Innocence & Evil in Modern Fiction

Childhood Innocence and Evil in Modern Fiction looks at how several works of literature present the experience of childhood and the roles played by children in various cultural and temporal periods. Students will learn how contemporary images of childhood in literature and culture derive from earlier literary works and how these works in turn reflect their own cultural situation. The class will study not just the literary works but the cultural and social conditions that produced these images of childhood.

Children and Childhood in Literature

This course will focus on children’s texts. As with the study of other literary genres, critically examining literature for children can provide deeper insight into how literature both conveys cultural paradigms and responds to social concerns and issues. In addition, children’s literature participates in many of the same literary traditions and uses the same literary techniques as adult literature, so students studying children’s literature will gain a comparable experience in learning to read critically and in gaining an increased appreciation for literature as an art form.

Classic and Contemporary Crime Fiction

This course follows the development of British and American crime fiction from the appearance of the first modern detective story (Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” published in 1841) through the present day, defining its generic conventions, tracing the development of various narrative structures, and examining the historical significance of forms as diverse as the classic ‘whodunit’ and the hard-boiled thriller.

Detective Literature

A literary/historical survey of the development of British and American crime fiction from its nineteenth century beginnings – Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murder in The Rue Morgue” (1841) – through contemporary American detective fiction, English 2020 focuses on the conventions of the crime fiction genre, the development of its varied narrative structures, and the historical significance of its diverse forms, styles, and themes. Detective stories and novels are popular literature and are important documents on social history. The approach will be critical/analytical to enable students to understand the historical and critical development of British and American crime fiction, to introduce students to contemporary and theoretical issues and arguments about popular crime fiction, and to enable students not only to address issues about crime fiction but also to articulate much broader literary debates about form and ideology in popular American literature and culture.

Examining American Mythologies

From the earliest records of European exploration celebrating the bounty of the New World through the political posturing that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, American culture has been shaped by a series of myths projected onto the landscape and its people. A close look at the origins of these foundational ideas about American identity as they have been expressed in American literature shows them to have been constructed under complex historical circumstances that belie easy interpretation. While at times these myths have been expressed in literature of great artistic merit promoting noble sentiments such as political and racial equality, social mobility, and individual liberty, they have also at times served to disguise or to justify the political, economic, or cultural motives of their architects, who themselves were not always fully cognizant of the implications of their rhetoric. Moreover, even as they were initially voiced, these myths inspired critics who pointed out their flaws and offered a dissenting view of the meanings of American experience.

The purpose of this course is to introduce students to literary expressions of what might be collectively regarded as an American mythology from the period of discovery through the twentieth century. Students will learn about the historical circumstances in which these myths were created, and they will attend to the voices of dissent that have been raised against prevailing beliefs. Reading critically in a variety of genres including promotional tracts, letters, autobiographies, sermons, poetry, fiction, slave narratives, and novels, students will achieve a deepened understanding of America’s literary heritage as it developed in its historical context and they will come to see how our present ideas about the meaning of America are informed by the literature of the past.

Gay and Lesbian American Literature, Culture, and Identity

Gay and Lesbian American Literature, Culture, and Identity allows students to consider the human condition in relation to gay men and lesbians, an area of study that sadly finds little attention in most literature courses—and in many college classrooms. Moreover, pervasive heterosexism (or rather, the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm) prevents our students from developing a clearer understanding of the struggles and triumphs that gay men and lesbians encounter—in the past and even in contemporary times. To address these concerns, this course is structured thematically around the concept of “Out”: First, we will examine the topic “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” by (re)considering the works of Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and Truman Capote—works which paint a substantially negative picture of gay and lesbian life in early 20th-century America. Secondly, we will analyze the complicated process of “Coming Out” through sampling both fictionalized perspectives and actual voices within the gay community; and finally, we will examine contemporary, popular gay and lesbian literature (“Out Loud, Out Proud”), focusing on positive portrayals of these individuals and on the subcultural underpinnings that affect their very lives. In addition to literary texts, this course will also draw upon supplementary “texts” (e.g., films, essays, and television situation comedies) in order to provide additional discussions concerning gay and lesbian history, culture, identity, and self-expression.

Ghosts in Fiction and Folklore

In this course, students will undertake the study of ghost stories as both an aspect of literature and as an element of folkloric tradition. As a whole, the course will provide a survey of the literary genre of ghost stories, as the texts examined will span almost two hundred years of literary work. Furthermore, the course will also serve as an introduction to the study of folklore, focusing on both regional ghost stories and on various urban legends. Through these specific areas of focus, students will gain a greater understanding of how both literature and oral tradition help to illustrate cultural concerns and anxieties. By examining a wide range of texts, students will see how the genre has changed in response to shifts in cultural attitudes and fears and has even adapted to account for changes in technology.

Gloomy Whimsy and Whimsical Gloom: Czech Drama in Prague

This course is designed to be offered as part of the Tennessee Consortium for International Studies (TnCIS) three-week program in Prague, Czech Republic (starting May 2012). Students will read and attend performances of Czech plays written within the past 100 years. Unlike much American drama with its insular focus on the family and conventional structure, Czech drama is distinctive for its mix of art and politics and for its experimental nature. Having elected playwright Václav Havel as president (1989), the Czechs clearly venerate the arts in ways that Americans may not comprehend; they see art as essential for social change. This course will examine drama in the context of history and culture; it will enlighten students as to the power of the written word and the human spirit.

Gothic and Horror

Themes in Literature and Culture, Gothic and Horror will provide students with the opportunity to trace significant gothic themes, figures, and forms in selected literature, both “classic” and popular texts, of the nineteenth century to the present. The course will focus on the historical contexts that have produced or inflected particular themes.

The Graphic Novel as Literature

The Graphic Novel as Literature will discuss an often misunderstood literary form through the works of such illustrious artists as Art Spiegelman, Will Eisner, and Marjane Satrapi. Although scholars have undervalued these texts in the past, graphic novels offer readers dynamic access to issues central to the understanding of the human condition, such as the dangers of racism and the ethical limits of power. In particular, an exploration of selected graphic novels will deepen students’ understanding of the realities of the Holocaust, the immigrant experience in America, the Islamic revolution in Iran, and a variety of other situations in our nation and around the globe. In effect, students enrolled in this class will gain useful insights into how this popular culture form has responded to changing cultural and political realities in the past and present in a vivid and intellectually stimulating fashion.

The Grotesque

This course will examine the literary and artistic mode known as the grotesque. Although there is no consensus agreement about the meaning of the term, The Oxford American Dictionary’s gloss—the “comically or repulsively ugly or distorted, . . . incongruous or inappropriate to a shocking degree”—accurately captures the contemporary sense of the word, as does its list of synonyms: “misproportioned, distorted, twisted, gnarled, mangled, mutilated; ugly, unsightly, monstrous, hideous, freakish, unnatural, abnormal, strange, odd, peculiar; informal weird, freaky. antonym normal.” In this multi-art, multi-media, multi-national course, students will be introduced to the history of the mode and read/examine/watch grotesque literature, painting, popular culture, and film. The objectives of the course include: (1) to gain knowledge of the grotesque across time and place; (2) to understand how a particular form of artistic representation evolves/mutates in different milieus in order to express their mentalities; (3) to learn more about how to “read”/understand/analyze literature, art, film.

Heroism and Villainy in the Middle Ages

Heroism and Villainy in the Middle Ages is designed for students who have no background in medieval literature or history. The course provides the opportunity to explore literary, religious, philosophical, and historical expressions and values of the Middle Ages, especially as they relate to the concepts of heroism and villainy. The course texts represent a variety of literary forms, including poetry, saga, Arthurian romance, saints' Lives, drama, and letters. The interdisciplinary nature of this course provides students with the opportunity to place the literary works studied in their historical contexts while also gaining an understanding of how historical and cultural contexts influence the development of ideas and the representations of these ideas in a broad spectrum of written works. Not only will students in this course be required to read, but also to reflect upon, respond to, and demonstrate an understanding of the readings both in discussion and in writing.

Hurdles and Hangovers: Stories of Everyday Life

The stories selected for this course demonstrate how ordinary people can and do (willfully or not) lead important lives and make a difference. Together, they form a body of work that raises questions about issues of identity, purpose, and responsibility. While most of the stories are by contemporary American writers, some (older and/or foreign) are included to provide comparisons and contrasts (in terms of theme and form).

Identity, Culture, and Politics in Early America

To know and appreciate their own human cultural heritage and its development in a historical, national, and global context, students will read and examine many early American texts from a variety of genres and dating from the earliest discoveries on the American continents up to the present time. In order to understand the extent to which the present is informed by the past, we will examine and trace themes that originated in early American texts and that persist in texts from more recent centuries. Thematically, we will examine how early American writers and artists responded to culture shock and first encounters with people of diverse cultural backgrounds; how they used rhetorical strategies to counter cultural exclusion and to effect social/political change; how they began to recognize and assert America’s multicultural identity; how they then asserted America’s literary identity through typically American topics and contexts; how they adopted and transformed literary traditions of writing to effect social activism; and finally how later American writers and artists continue to use all of the previously mentioned approaches and purposes for writing culture.

Jazz and Blues in Literature and Culture

Jazz and the blues are two of America’s few indigenous art forms. The literature written about these musical forms affirms our cultural values of renewed creativity and individual freedom within a larger democratic order, as well as encouraging an understanding of different racial, particularly African-American, and countercultural viewpoints. Students will read and analyze fiction, poetry, dramas, biographies, and critical essays that reflect different stages of these musical forms and their acceptance in American and world cultures. Literature based upon jazz and the blues offers students an opportunity to understand how these forms and the musicians who play them renew and continually redirect their heritage, both artistic and more broadly cultural.

Jewish-American Literature

This course provides an introduction to the unique tradition of Jewish American literature and culture.  We consider the meaning of the term "Jewish American" and what it means to call a body of literature "Jewish American."  We focus primarily on the themes of immigration and assimilation, with emphasis on the experience of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century and during the era surrounding the Holocaust.  We also explore relationships among oppressed groups through a unit on Jewish American responses to the lynching of African Americans.  The course does not center on religious issues or writing, though the subject of Judaism is, of course, relevant to interpreting the literature.  We concentrate primarily on cultural identity and ethnic, class, and gender issues as they impact the creation of a unique Jewish American identity during the twentieth century.

Monsters and Outcasts

Students in this class will explore literary representations of monsters and other social outcasts

throughout history, paying particular attention to both the universal human taboos and the

culturally contingent anxieties manifested in the monstrous figure. Specifically, this course will

trace motifs such as the shapeshifter, the vampire, and the monstrous humanoid in literature from

some of their earliest manifestations to their most recent appearances. Each monster will be

taken through a historical progression to determine what monstrosity means in different periods

and places. Some examples include:

✦ Ancient literature, in which monstrosity can be synonymous with exile

✦ Medieval literature, in which the monster serves to test a hero’s inner nature

Victorian literature, in which monstrosity is read as evolutionary atavism

✦ Contemporary fiction, which often portrays monstrosity as a reversion to one’s ‘true’ nature

Throughout the course, students will also be asked to consider monsters as representations of

religious or racial minorities, colonized peoples, gender transgressors, and oppressed economic


Obsession in the Modern Novel

This course explores how several works of modern fiction present obsessive relationships between and among characters. Students will analyze the specific relationships within each work, understand how these relationships reflect both the cultural and social conditions that produced the work itself, and learn how narrative techniques and structures determine the reader’s response.

Popular Genre Fiction

In this course, students will read texts from five genres of popular fiction – mystery, horror, romance, adventure/Western, and science fiction/fantasy – from the early 19th century to the present. Though these texts are often dismissed as “fluffy” or “mere entertainment,” they are sites within which important issues and cultural anxieties can be imaginatively engaged, negotiated, and (perhaps) resolved. Students will therefore gain greater understanding of the ways in which thoughtful engagements with popular culture may allow them insight into, and understanding of, their world and past. They will gain understanding of the ways in which popular forms have emerged and developed in response to changing cultural conditions, and they will have greater understanding of the relationships between popular culture and “high”/canonical culture.

Power in The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter

The specific theme of the course is the renunciation of power in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. The course examines the ways in which each author focuses on the uses and abuses of power and, ultimately, how each author suggests humility, restraint, and sacrifice—or the renunciation of power—as the means to resist and defeat arrogance, ambition, and the “will to power.”

Readings in American Environmental Literature

This course will focus on novels, journalistic works, and poetry from the Post WWII-era to the present. Students will consider the environmental themes in course texts as they appear overtly in some readings and more subtly in others. The overall objective of the course is in accord with the larger objectives of a liberal education: to develop informed, reflective, engaged learners who consistently consider the implications of the decisions they make. Specifically, by critically examining how select writers comment on the relationship between human beings and the natural worlds they inhabit, the course will encourage students to realize a deeper insight into how we both influence the condition of our environment and are likewise shaped by it. Beginning with Aldo Leopold’s 1949 landmark work A Sand County Almanac and continuing through Rachel Carson’s equally significant 1962 work Silent Spring, students will trace the development of a modern conservationist consciousness. Through an exposure to the “canonical works” of environmental literature written within the last six decades, students will develop an awareness of the contexts through which people engage in dialogue both with and about the natural world, prompting them to consider the choices they themselves make as they shape their relationships to the world around them.

Re-reading Childhood

A primary function of stories told to and for children is to introduce children to a cultural heritage, and they do so by transmitting a body of shared allusions and experiences that express a society's central values and assumptions. Such a function means that the values and assumptions inherent in those stories change over time, creating a dissonance between older texts and newer social or cultural constructs and necessitating revisions to the texts themselves. A critical examination of how children’s classic texts are told and retold today will illuminate these social and cultural paradigmatic shifts. When the audience doing such an examination is looking at texts that they recognize were a part of their own childhood and cultural upbringing, such insight is particularly informative for understanding themselves and the society that they are a part of.

Science Fiction

Science fiction at its best is philosophical, confrontational, and visionary. This course will approach its subject as a speculative genre that extrapolates from present and past realities to explore possible futures or alternative worlds. In so doing, it provides a uniquely recursive understanding of the human cultural heritage. The course will follow a loose chronological order that will give students a sense of the phases of the genre’s development, attending to three icons or tropes repeated with variations throughout it: the metropolis (utopian, dystopian), the artificial human (robot, cyborg, clone, replicant, artificial intelligence), and the alien (the other, alienation).

The Serial Killer in American Fiction

This course will focus on the various representations of serial killers as presented by a variety of American writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Jim Thompson, and Sherman Alexie. Our nation seems rather enamored with explorations of the serial killer, for multiple popular films, television shows, songs, and other cultural offerings (both in the past and in the present) center on this figure, and American literature has not been immune to this obsession. An exploration of the various representations of the serial killer in fiction will allow students not only to better understand the basic methods all authors use to create narrative, but this inquiry will also allow us to examine why Americans are so driven to learn more about these predators among us. We will learn the psychology of the serial killer in a real world context and apply this knowledge to the fictive realm. We will also look back to the past to see how this character has evolved in popular and academic realms of literature and what this change says about American culture.

The Southern Gothic in Fiction, Film, and Song

In his introduction to Carson McCullers’s novel Reflections in a Golden Eye, Tennessee Williams describes “the Gothic School” as “an intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience.” Southern Gothic literature offers up works filled with palpable obsessions, dark passions, bizarre realities, and spiritual degeneration. This course will look at the evolution of the genre, from traditional gothic literature to what we know today as Southern Gothic. The broad objective of this course will be to develop in students the awareness of how the evolutions of a culture and society might be studied and reflected through a particular literary genre, as well as film and music. Specifically, students will learn how Southern Gothic literature, film, and music reflect the perceptions of the South through Southern eyes and how that perception evolves within the historical context.

The South in Drama and Film

The broadest aim of this course is to explore some major representations of the South in drama and film. The course will cover at least eight plays and eight film versions of the selected plays. The course will not treat the films solely as adaptations, however, but as texts within themselves. The course will examine some of the ways in which southern dramatists have explored the defining characteristics of southern life; it will also give significant attention to the ways in which southern drama has been interpreted by non-southern filmmakers, including Australia’s Bruce Beresford.

Sports in Literature

Students enrolled in Sports in Literature and Culture will confront and discuss the issues, personalities, and conflicts that make sport such a cultural phenomenon throughout the world. Even though many of the texts students will discuss focus on American sports and athletes, students will also consider global sporting issues as a means of investigating sport’s role in the worldwide cultural conversation. The texts chosen for Sports in Literature and Culture will cross disciplines, encouraging students to examine the deeper cultural, philosophical, and even anthropological facets that make sport so pertinent to a wide range of people. Sport dominates advertising, casual conversation, and even has a role in American and worldwide politics, and thus an examination of sport through fiction and other literary and dramatic genres would provide students with the intellectual basis to confront and discern the reasons behind this dominance.

To Be or Not to Be

Drawing on classical roots, the one-person play is nonetheless a unique product of the twentieth century. The increasingly popular monologue show, whether it presents a diverse collage or a single voice, necessarily explores the theme of unity—of how much characters have in common with one another and with their audience. This course will include classical and Shakespearean monologues and excerpts from contemporary plays as well as the full texts of one-person plays. It will focus on the ways the monologue has evolved to suit contemporary United States theater, both aesthetically and politically. It will include the study of several major contemporary playwrights and focus on the power of language to convey character and conflict.

Women Who Kill

While so often in literature (and in life), women are stereotyped as victims, this course focuses instead on the drama of women who kill. Women who kill are nothing new in plays; what’s new is that in the 20th century, women are the ones creating them. When the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare wrote these roles, they were betraying their fear of the opposite sex. In the 20th-century, women playwrights have adapted the women-who-kill sub-genre and created a body of work that ultimately shares a common theme that all of society is responsible for its evils—not only the villains but even those people who stand idly by. The course will focus on a comparison between classical views of the female-aggressor-monster and contemporary views that humanize women and social situations.

Women Writers in Search of Expression

The course covers literature written by English-speaking women from England, Ireland, Canada, The United States, Australia, India, New Zealand, Africa, and the Caribbean, from 1792-present, in all genres, including non-fiction. The essays, short stories, poems, plays and novels we will read document the changes in women’s position in society within the last two hundred years. At the same time as the students develop an appreciation of our century’s social progress, they discover that certain underlying attitudes have not changed through history, and still persist today, holding women back. Reading of this literature helps students identify several deeply rooted social and psychological mechanisms that women of today still battle, despite the achievements of feminism.

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