Graduate Courses

Following the establishment of the United States, authors wrote to create literature that was characteristically “American” or to contest the meaning of that national identity. Readings of literary engagement with topics in philosophy, politics, history, morality, art, nature, industry, medicine, and war.

  • ENG 545 – American Literature at the fin-de-siècle

Readings will be drawn from the period encompassing Reconstruction and the First World War. During this period of rapid nationalist expansion, the New England dominance of American letters was challenged by writers from many other places and ethnicities. The seminar will examine tensions central to the period, such as modernism vs. antimodernism, civilization vs. nature, and nostalgia for the rural past in the face of the new mass urban culture.

Readings in late twentieth- and twenty-first century literature, both in original English and/or translation. May focus on a single genre, or include multiple genres.


Recent seminar offerings

ENG 529: Studies in Language, Literature, and Writing

Policing Englishes (Fall 2018, Dryer)

This seminar will focus on the cultural phenomenon of prescriptivism – a general term we’ll use to describe efforts by institutionally or self-appointed guardians of English to monitor, shape, constrain, discourage, or ‘repair’ others’ uses of  the language.  Although the balance of linguistic research and sound pedagogy in the teaching of language has firmly shifted from the prescriptive to the descriptive, we will take Anne Curzan’s point (2016) that prescriptivism is alive and well as a force shaping language use and language change, and so needs to be understood.

Thus we will seek to understand the many forms and contexts in which we encounter linguistic prescriptivism, but we also want to understand what motivates these behaviors—what’s at stake for us in others’ language practices? What provokes or necessitates these sorts of everyday interventions, and why are these interventions so often accompanied by a rhetoric of disgust, shame, horror, or violence? What accounts for the routine conflation of, for instance, an infelicity of usage and the character of its writer?

We’ll begin with some basic linguistic concepts to give us a shared basis for discussion (e.g., the distinction between ‘grammar’ and ‘usage’) and then work to develop a coherent theoretical framework for understanding the phenomenon, building on scholarship by Bourdieu (1982), Bakhtin (1986), Milroy & Milroy (1991), Crowley (1989), and Spolsky (2009). We will interrogate the feasibility of this framework by putting it into conversation with work emerging from global englishes, including Blommaert (2010), Kramsch (2009), Giltrow (2003; 2014), Pennycook (2010), and Canagarajah (ed., 2013). We will consistently go to ‘ground-level,’ putting these theoretical perspectives in conversation with primary source documents.

In the final third of the term, students will conduct secondary- and primary-source research of their own to interrogate competing theories of ‘the standard’; fieldwork applications of these interrogations will include site visits, interviews, focus groups, corpus-building, and/or quasi-experimental design or usability testing to generate a unique contribution to our understanding of this topic.

Documentary Impluse in Literature (Spring 2017, Billitteri)

The impulse to document reality, to give a testimony to one’s moment in history and culture, has been one of the most characteristic features of literary production, evident in documentary poetics, historical theater, and the novel’s fictionalized reportage. Indeed, we could locate this impulse at the very beginning of the Western canon, with Homer, whose Iliadrelates the history of the Trojan war, and follow it forward through Dante, whose “Inferno” is populated with historical figures, and the Shakespeare of the history plays. In more recent times, the documentary impulse guides such diverse writers as Claudia Rankine, whose book of lyric prose, Citizen, explores the hidden racism in contemporary Western societies; Mark Nowak, whose poetry documents the harsh conditions of miners’ lives and communities; Rob Halpern, whose prose-poetry hybrid Common Placeexplores the embodied response to unending militarization and economic exploitation; and Susan Somers-Willett, whose Women of Troy, an intermedia collaboration with photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally and radio producer Lu Olkowski,narrates the hidden lives of women in poverty.This class will explore ten of the most significant examples of the documentary impulse in twentieth-and twenty-first-century American literature, encompassing works of fiction and poetry along with hybrid texts that bring the two genres together along with photography, journalism, memoir, and factual data. Though much of our reading will be in prose I place this work under the general heading of “documentary poetics” as the critical literature on our poetic examples has best theorized this impulse.Our readings begin in the early twentieth century, when documentary poetics, under the pressure of the Great Depression and in response to the rapid transformation of society, acquired a more insistently political orientation, illuminating the marginalized experience of the poor, the working class, emigrants, and others. Since the early decades of the twentieth-century, the political and ethical consequences of economic crisis, labor tension, and ethnic and racial conflict have been central concerns for writers in this tradition. Moreover, while the subject matter of these writers brings particular livesand historicalmoments into sharper focus, there are ethical and theoretical implications to this work as well. This course will attend to those implications as well as to the historical and political dimensions of our readings.