A Course Worth Fighting For
Earlier this year, I was assigned to teach a literary history course for students in the English major at Queens College. I was told that the course should emphasize literary history as a methodological approach to English literary studies, and was given certain parameters for the course: while it shouldn’t aim to be comprehensive (impossible, given that it is only a semester long), it had to devote some time to poetry, include literature from multiple national traditions, and include at least one pre-1800 text. Beyond these stipulations, I was allowed to choose the texts, and develop the assignments, schedule, and course.
By some strange series of circumstances, I will not be teaching the “The Arts of Dissent” course I developed over winter break (instead I am excited to be helping out in Cathy Davidson’s “American Literature, American Learning” course). Given the amount of effort I put into designing this syllabus, I figured it would be worth posting to HASTAC in the hope that somebody might find some small part of it useful. While I hope to teach a version of this course in the future, I figure it does nobody any good by sitting around in my Google Drive. Please feel free to poach any piece of it!
This course exemplifies my university worth fighting for: my vision of texts, assignments, and conversations that are worth not only waking up and commuting for, but protesting for, demanding that public education be treated as a right and not a privilege, funded as a public good, and be made, as Peter Cooper so famously stated, “free as air and water.”
- It is informed by contemporary conditions of injustice and inequality, and organized around the study of language and power, as ways of thinking about the world.
- It emphasizes creative and experimental approaches to literary studies, offering students opportunities to make, in addition to reading and analyzing, literature.
- It thematizes the relationship between ideas of freedom and the material conditions of inequality that such ideals often obscure.
- It treats collaboration and revision as arts that need to be learned and practiced, rather than assuming that we already know how to do these well.
Some notes on the syllabus. First, it is unfinished. Second, it is untested. While I can’t vouch for its efficacy, and tweak the parts that need to be tweaked, my teaching experience suggests that at least some of it will work well. If you try any part of it, let me know how it goes, so I can incorporate your feedback into other iterations.
And finally, it should be noted that two of the plays listed are unpublished: Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Beneatha’s Place and Sam Chanse’s “How To Tell an Immigrant Story.” I am hugely indebted to Donatella Galella for helping me track down the scripts of these stunning plays, which I will undoubtedly teach in the future. However, if there are any publishers reading this, you should find these playwrights and publish their work! They are beautiful and important plays, and educators would be lucky to get their hands on published copies. If anyone is actually interested in teaching a version of the course, I would recommend substituting Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park for Beneatha’s Place, which is also a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. “How To Tell An Immigrant Story” and Nam Le’s short story could be replaced with two short stories from Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha’s edited short-story collection, Octavia’s Brood.
Literary History 242: The Arts of Dissent
This class will focus on “the arts of dissent”: the ways in which art and literature have historically served as means for expressing dissatisfaction and discontent with the status quo, and for imagining more just, equitable, and pleasurable alternatives. In doing so, we will take Michel Foucault at his word when he defines critique as an artform: “the art of not being governed like that and at that cost…the art of not being governed quite so much…the will not to be governed thusly, like that, by these people, at this price.” Through what tropes, symbols, metaphors, distortions, estrangements, reversals, contradictions, and temporalities has literature served as a vehicle for political, social, and economic critique? How does the past haunt, thicken, and continue to structure the present? In what ways are language, culture, and literature sites of contested power? In addition to tracing the intersections and divergences among literary acts of refusal, we will also attend to the subversive arts of speculation: how fiction, poetry, drama, and even autobiography have historically been used to imagine better worlds.
Note: this course emphasizes experimentation, creativity, collaboration, and student-centered learning. Thinking alongside Audre Lorde, we will work together to “envision what has not been and…to make the reality and pursuit of that vision irresistible.”
- To use the tools of literary analysis to analyze both literary and non-literary texts
- To produce critical and creative compositions
- To read, assess, and contribute to intellectual (scholarly and public) conversations
- To develop effective revision skills, both in revising one’s own work, and giving helpful feedback to others
- To better work collaboratively
- Class participation, homework, quizzes (20%)
- Two blogs (20%)
- Blog comments (10%)
- Midterm (15%)
- Final (20%)
- Collaborative project (15%)
These are the recommended versions, which can be obtained at the Queens College bookstore or ordered online. All other texts will be available on the course website.
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings.
Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun.
Toni Morrison, Beloved.
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric.
M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong!
M 2/1: Introduction
W 2/3: Equiano, The Interesting Narrative
M 2/8: Equiano, The Interesting Narrative
W 2/10: Equiano, The Interesting Narrative
M 2/15: President’s Day, college is closed
W 2/17: Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Davidson, “Olaudah Equiano, Written By Himself.”
NOVEL 42 (2007): 18-51.
M 2/22: Lowe, “Autobiography Out of Empire” in The Intimacies of Four Continents (Duke University
W 2/24: Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
M 2/29: Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
W 3/2: Coates, “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic
M 3/7: Lorde, “Power,” “A Litany for Survival,” and “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the
Master’s House” in Sister Outsider
W 3/9: Rich, “Diving Into the Wreck” and “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” in On
Lies, Secrets, and Silence
M 3/14: Individual conferences
W 3/16: Morrison, Beloved
M 3/21: Morrison, Beloved
Rough draft of midterm due in class
W 3/23: No class, classes follow a Friday schedule
M 3/28: Morrison, Beloved
Midterm due in class
W 3/30: Morrison, Beloved
M 4/4: Kwei-Armah, Beneatha’s Place Act I & Dunbar “We Wear the Mask”
W 4/6: Mignolo, excerpt from The Darker Side of Western Modernity
M 4/11: Kwei-Armah, Beneatha’s Place Act II & excerpt from Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
M 4/18: Philip, Zong!
W 4/20: Philip, Zong!
Spring Recess April 22-30
M 5/2: Rankine, Citizen
W 5/4: Rankine, Citizen & Monae, “Hell You Talmbout”
M 5/9: Le, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” from The Boat &
Chanse, “How to Tell an Immigrant Story” (work-in-progress)
W 5/11: Rough draft of final due in class
M 5/16: Working session for final projects
W 5/18: Collaborative project presentations
Final due via email, May 23
Blog Posts (10% each)
You will write two blog posts over the course of the semester, each worth 10% of your final grade. Posts should be at least 700 words (roughly three-four thoughtful, well-developed paragraphs). Students’ blog posts will shape our class conversations, and I will on occasion print blog posts for us to analyze and revise in class. All posts must end with two discussion questions that we can work to address in class.
Your blog should draw our attention to something specific about the assigned reading, helping us to see it in a new way. Some options for your blog post:
- trace a significant pattern you see developing throughout a text
- identify an unresolved tension in a text
- illustrate an important connection between two texts
- perform a close reading of a short passage in a text
- provide historical context or a theoretical perspective that reveals something about a text
- connect an example or several examples from the text to something going on in the world beyond the classroom
- creative option: experiment with one of the literary techniques from the assigned text to create something of you own
Blog posts for Monday classes must be posted to the course website by 4 pm on the Friday beforehand. Blog posts for Wednesday classes must be posted to the course website by 4 pm on the Monday beforehand. You will need to plan ahead to submit a thoughtful blog; late posts will not be accepted.
Blog Comments (10%)
You are responsible for reading all blog posts before each class, and posting a comment to at least one of them by the time class begins. In order to receive credit for your comment, it must offer helpful feedback and/or further the discussion. Comments can do any combination of the following:
- point out something that the author does well in the blog post
- offer an additional example that helps support the author’s interpretation
- raise a question about something in the post that you didn’t understand, or that might benefit from additional explanation or clarification
- offer a counter-example or interpretation that might help the author nuance their analysis
- introduce an additional resource (hyperlinks are appreciated) that relates to the blog post, including an explanation of how it relates
- build off of the blog author’s work and make a connection to another text, or a class conversation
- begin answering one of the discussion questions
Keeping in mind that we are working together to become better readers and writers, all feedback should be given in a respectful, courteous, and generative manner.
Midterm (15%) and Final (20%)
Essay prompts will be distributed two weeks before the rough draft of each essay is due. You will always have several options, including:
- to expand, revise, and elaborate on a blog post
- to develop a question that you are interested in exploring
- to come up with a creative (artistic, visual, literary, poetic, unconventional) way of demonstrating what you have learned
For each assignment, you will consult with me during mandatory individual conferences scheduled during our regular class period and office hours.
Towards the end of the semester, you will organize yourselves into groups to complete a final project that demonstrates what you have learned over the course of the semester. We will devote class time to these projects, though you are also expected to work on them outside of class. Possible projects include (but are not limited to) a website, a collaboratively-authored public blog post, a visual essay, a short video, a podcast, a performance, a comic, a syllabus, a presentation, or a timeline.