May 27, 2024  
Catalogue 2023-2024 
Catalogue 2023-2024 [ARCHIVED CATALOG]

Add to Portfolio (opens a new window)

ENGL 101 - The Art of Reading and Writing

Semester Offered: Fall and Spring
1 unit(s)

Development of critical reading in various forms of literary expression, and regular practice in different kinds of writing.

British Literature from Beowulf to Shakespeare: Texts may include Beowulf, Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and authors may include Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare. Mark Amodio.

The Unknown Self: This course explores unreliable narratives and questions of self-knowledge. Through close readings of contemporary texts, you sharpen your interpretive skills with the goal of a higher, more rigorous media literacy. In short, you know better what you don’t know. Expect spirited debate and creative exercises around memory, identity, and blind spots both personal and cultural. Authors may include Zadie Smith, Jorge Luis Borges, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alexander Chee, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Mariana Enríquez, and Maggie Nelson. Ryan Chapman.

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 investigates these and other questions. Authors 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. Robert DeMaria.

Troubling Girlhood: This course explores narratives focused on the public and private lives of young people, mostly those who identify as women and/or girls. 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 consider how various identity categories challenge and shift the meaning of “girlhood” in the United States from the 19th century into our contemporary moment.

In addition to reading some great texts, students enrolled in this course develop an academic writing practice, and learn to participate in and lead a college classroom discussion. Eve Dunbar.

The Fragment as a Form of Knowledge: ”Fragments are the only forms I trust,” writer Donald Barthelme once claimed, before later suggesting “that particular line has been richly misunderstood so often … I have thought of making a public recantation.” But what are fragmentary forms, and why trust them more than others—or renounce such faith? This course examines various fragmentary texts—works composed of small pieces, works that seem (or that are) unfinished or incomplete, works perhaps not intended for publication, works constructed via combining and/or destroying parts of other pieces of writing, etc. We may begin with the notes and aphorisms of Schlegel, Lichtenberg, and Joubert, but our primary focus is on the fragment as form, as process, as metaphor in contemporary writing. Writers discussed may include Mary-Kim Arnold, Eula Biss, Anne Boyer, Anne Carson, Paul Metcalf, M.  NourbeSe Philip, Claudia Rankine, Srikanth Reddy, David Shields, Lê Thi Diem Thúy, L. Ann Wheeler, and others. Joshua Harmon.

Allegories of the Self: This course provides first year students with practice in close reading and interpretive writing and conversation through the examination of symbolic worlds inscribed in various media, including texts and objects in Vassar collections, with a focus on allegorical narrative in classical and Medieval literary sources and Medieval and Early Modern art. Our consideration of allegories as knowledge systems introduces you to the historical development of liberal arts education in the medieval schools, as well as to the culture of libraries and the organization of knowledge. Because allegory often serves as a medium for examining the microcosm of the interior soul in its relationship to the macrocosm of the natural Universe, we also explore the idiom as a prototype for the modern science of psychology. This course thus serves to familiarize you with conventions of meaning in creative works in various media expressly composed to be interpreted, introduce you to the foundations, tools, and culture of higher education, and also function as a practicum for improving your skills with written and spoken language.Thomas Hill.

Into the Apocalyptic Landscape: This course explores characters caught in the dreamscape of violence and apocalyptic visions that is perhaps unique to American history and culture, from slavery to skinheads to school shootings. We 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, Lucille Clifton, and Etheridge Knight; stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O’Connor, Christine Schutt, and Denis Johnson. Longer works may include novels by William Faulkner, Gayle Jones, Robert Stone, William Vollmann, Hunter Thompson, and the graphic artist, Lynda Barry. David Means.

Dirty Realism: Lish and Beyond: In 1983, Bill Buford wrote, “A new fiction seems to be emerging from America, and it is a fiction of a peculiar and haunting kind.” Buford called it dirty realism. Others would call it Kmart realism. This was minimalist literature tuned to “local details,” often featuring the down and out or the downtrodden. In this course, we consider the relationship between formal austerity and the lean lives depicted in this movement. What does attention to the everyday tell us about how we understand formative life experiences and how we make time matter? What is revealed in the momentary? What does scaled-down prose open up in conversation between reader and writer? Our reading includes works by Raymond Carver, Mary Robison, Ann Beattie, Jayne Anne Phillips, Frederick Barthelme, Bobby Ann Mason, and Joy Williams, as well as the nouveau dirty realists taught by the legendary editor and writer Gordon Lish during the aughts, such as Mitchell Jackson and Kimberly King Parsons. These texts advance our thinking, and our thinking advances through writing. As a First-Year Writing Seminar, this class aims to cultivate writing skills. We attend carefully to analytical moves, research practices, processes of composition, and revision that form the foundation of intellectual work in the humanities. Tracy O’Neill.

Wilde…Yeats.Joyce..Beckett––A First-Year Writing Seminar: Samuel Beckett wrote of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, “Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read––or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself. When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep. When the sense is dancing, the words dance” (“Dante…Bruno.Vico..Joyce,” 1929). Beckett insists that the relationship between thought and language is fundamental rather than superficial and that a writer’s thoughts achieve meaning in the language decoding consciousness of an audience.

Together––as writers–­–we read essays, novels, poems, short stories, and plays written by the four principal figures of Irish literary modernism, focusing not only on the ways that narrative emerges from its immediate contexts but also the ways in which literary texts look beyond their present moment, revising models inherited from the past and anticipating future forms of aesthetic expression. Through the lens of a particularly Irish brand of Existentialism, we consider whether (and how) meaning is found and/or created in the modern world. Texts include The Picture of Dorian GrayA Portrait of The Artist as a Young ManThe Tower, and Waiting for Godot. Matthew Schultz.

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 explores 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. Tyrone Simpson.

The Heartache and Humor of Loneliness in Fiction: Loneliness is one of the driving forces of literature—loneliness in isolation, loneliness in a big city, loneliness in a family or relationship or social setting. In the best cases, reading provides an antidote to loneliness, but how do authors writing about loneliness accomplish this? How do they write about isolation or alienation without isolating or alienating the reader? What do these stories have to tell us about connection when we don’t have access to other people? We focus on the underexplored relationship between humor and loneliness, and consider the literary techniques that can make loneliness funny, suspenseful, and intellectually engaging. We look to classic and contemporary novels and short stories for their answers and write essays and our own creative pieces. Readings include work by George Saunders, Sally Rooney, Carson McCullers, ZZ Packer, Ernest Hemingway, Carmen Maria Machado, and Lorrie Moore, among others. Christine Vines.

Jane Eyres: Published pseudonymously in 1847, 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. The novel quickly became part of the Victorian cultural landscape, even though Brontë’s rebellious heroine upended nineteenth-century notions of propriety and femininity.  Jane Eyre was not only popular in its day, however.  It has had a hypnotic hold on subsequent generations of writers, who 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 explore Jane Eyre’s complicated relationship with its literary descendants and ask fundamental questions about literary influence, canon formation, narration, and women’s writing.   

This is also a course that focuses on reading and writing. We move away from thematic readings of texts towards more complex modes of analysis that include considerations of form, genre, and historical context.  We pay close and careful attention to the language of literary texts under consideration.  We leave behind the five-paragraph essay taught in high school to focus on writing as a process.  We draft, review, and revise writing throughout the term.  One of the goals of the course is to help you become more self-conscious about your own reading and writing practices. Susan Zlotnick.

Sending Smoke Signals: Representations & Realities of Contemporary Native America. (Same as AMST 101) How do film and media such as Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals or TaikaWaititi’s/Sterling Harjo’s Reservation Dogs speak back to, analyze, or wholly ignore films like Dances With Wolves, Avatar, or Disney’s Pocahontas? How do Native writers like Louise Erdrich or Natalie Diaz launch critiques of anthropological translations of Native life and culture? How does the work of Indigenous artists like James Luna, Rebecca Belmore, or George Longfish fly in the face of stereotypes of the stoic noble or wild savage Indian? Interrogating depictions of Native American life through the use of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, periodicals, film, media, art, and performance, we use the study and practice of writing to explore a segment of North America which is commonly misunderstood and purposely refitted to suit settler colonial desires and needs. Various types of writing assignments guide us to think more deeply about the histories and contemporary realities of Native American nations and peoples – and the ethics and responsibilities that accompany that knowledge and engagement. Molly McGlennen.

Three Short Novels, A Play, and A Poem: This class is aimed at potential English majors and general readers, that is, anyone who aspires to read serious books as a pleasurable and enduring pastime. We develop and refine your reading, writing, and research skills through the slow and close study of five literary texts: William Shakespeare’s Othello, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus; William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha. These intricate works deserve comparably intricate exegeses, something we attempt to do through practical-critical discussions and assignments. Another recurring exercise is to situate your own reading of the text amidst its rich and copious commentary. The goal here is to develop your critical voice in conversation with scholars. Heesok Chang.

American Bestsellers: There have been bestselling books since long before the term “bestseller” came into widespread use during the late nineteenth century. And although in the twentieth century bestsellers became associated with the novel, in the American colonies and early United States the books with the biggest sales included a variety of texts, such as primers, almanacs, and the Bible. This course approaches the practice of critical reading by tracing a history of reading in early America, thinking about which texts were popular and why. We focus on joining the careful analysis of textual detail with attention to historical contexts shaping ideas about reading—what it is, why people do it, and how it matters. Our texts represent a range of genres, including execution sermons, captivity narratives, and seduction tales, and may include works like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. We also focus on developing skills in academic writing, practicing writing as a recursive and collaborative process and a means of developing your own contribution to critical dialogue. In this work, you have the chance to study a contemporary bestseller of your choosing—anything from Stephen King’s Carrie to Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Blevin Shelnutt.

Bad Taste: While English classes usually focus on works of art and literature collectively considered good, this class revels in the bad: the embarrassing or disgusting, the artistic failure, the guilty pleasure. With the help of some influential theorists of aesthetic badness, and a selection of “bad” examples drawn from poetry, fiction, film, and visual art, we examine the categories—ugly, kitschy, campy, sappy, problematic, and so on—that have been and continue to be used to police what is and is not art, and to distinguish “good” art from “bad.” We consider how artistic hierarchies become entangled with other kinds of hierarchies, exploring how “bad” art both sustains and subverts racial, sexual, and economic power. Why, for example, are the terms “rom com” and “chick flick” so often used dismissively? What makes a work of art provocative and avant-garde, rather than offensive—or simply gross? And when does the “merely” bad become “so-bad-it’s-good”? In the final three weeks of the course, the students are asked to reflect on the terms they themselves use to evaluate and describe cultural products, and to provide categories and case studies from their own experiences as consumers. Mark Taylor.

Melodrama: This course looks at melodrama as a genre, a form, and a mode–one that travels from the 19th century to today across theater, opera, music, fiction, television, and film. Beginning with melodrama’s roots in the 19th century, we examine the infusion of music into theater and its subsequent pairing with excess emotion. In particular, we look into melodrama’s frequent staging of issues related to race, gender, sexuality, and disability. From here, we shuttle back and forth between the 19th century and today to chart the various iterations and adaptations of melodrama across time, countries, and art forms. Over the course of the semester we explore wide range of texts that might include Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon and Brandon Jacobs Jenkins’ An Octoroon, Victorian “sensation” fiction, telenovelas and soap operas, reality television, musical theater, “melodramatic” teen films like My Life as a Teenage Drama Queen, and even Lorde’s album Melodrama. By collecting and comparing these texts, this first-year seminar takes an interdisciplinary approach to exploring the interactions and adaptations of melodrama in order to make our own theory of what exactly makes something “melodramatic.” Christian Lewis.

Open only to first-year students; satisfies the college requirement for a First-Year Writing Seminar.


Two 75-minute periods.

Course Format: CLS

Add to Portfolio (opens a new window)