Course Descriptions and Syllabi


Introduction to the Study of Literature

This course introduces you to the rigors and pleasures of literary study, focusing on the practice of carefully analyzing textual detail alongside cultural, historical, and critical contexts that shape our ideas about what literature is and does. We’ll explore primary texts from a range of periods and genres, including poetry, fiction, and drama. In addition, we’ll consider examples of literary criticism and theory as a way of gaining exposure to the variety of methods that can be used in reading literary texts. Over the course of the semester, you will consider the different kinds of questions that can be asked about literary texts; practice reading, analytically and imaginatively; learn a vocabulary that will help you express your thoughts about what you read in the language of the field; develop skills in writing thoughtfully and compellingly about literature at the college level; and find and use secondary resources for literary study.

American Literature I: Beginnings to 1860 

This course offers an introduction to the literature of colonial America and the early United States, from sixteenth-century accounts of “the New World” to major and minor works of the “American Renaissance.” In addition to reading novels, short stories, and poems, we’ll explore other kinds of writing traditionally regarded at the margins of the literary, including journals, letters, lectures, sermons, histories, and autobiographies. Along the way, we’ll consider the way literary production shapes and is shaped by specific historical experiences, such as European colonization of North America, the founding of the United States as a sovereign nation, urbanization, slavery, abolition, and Native American removal. Conversely, we’ll consider how literary production shapes our understanding of history and creates the conditions for its reception as “American literature.” We’ll examine history as a literary genre, as well as issues relating to the expansion of print, the rise of sentimentality, and the drive to create a national literature.

Introduction to the History of the Book

This course provides an introduction to the interdisciplinary field of book history, which investigates the production, circulation, and consumption of texts as physical objects, whether cuneiform tablets or iBooks. We’ll examine the making and reading of texts in a variety of formats and periods, from ancient scrolls to early modern playtexts, early American schoolbooks to contemporary e-readers. The “content” for this course will consist of critical readings in the field, primary readings that allow us to explore the issues our critical readings raise (these might include works by Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or John Grisham), and engagement with original materials at the university rare book library and possibly other local archives, where we will hold a few special classes. Topics to be discussed include letter-writing and manuscript culture, the development of printing technology, ideas and practices of authorship and reading, the spread of literacy, the preservation of texts, and the future of the book.

American Bestsellers

There have been bestselling books since long before the term “bestseller” was created in 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 not only works of fiction but also almanacs, textbooks, and the Bible. This course examines books that have captured the American cultural imagination, from volumes of sensational Puritan poetry to twentieth-century celebrity memoirs. In approaching the study of literature through the history of its reception—thinking about which texts were popular and why—we’ll go beyond considerations of literary value to explore the cultural contexts that made bestsellers possible. Through readings of both canonical and lesser known works, we’ll investigate changing ideas about audience, taste, reading, and Literature—with a capital “L”—in American culture. On the way, we’ll encounter a range of genres, such as the seduction tale, slave narrative, and self-help book. Topics to be discussed include the construction of high and low cultural forms, the adaptation of bestsellers to and from various media, the significance of the material text, and the relationship between literature and social and cultural phenomena, whether the abolitionist movement, the development of cinema, or millennials. By the end of the course, students will be able to research and analyze the relationship between a text and its audience, the cultural dimensions that shape a work’s success, and the ways reading and literature fit into American cultural history.

Shakespeare and Popular Culture 

This course investigates the complex and reciprocal relationship between Shakespeare and popular culture from the sixteenth century to the present. We’ll closely examine key people, institutions, events, and media that have shaped how popular audiences have encountered Shakespeare over the years, from the publication of the First Folio to the nineteenth century’s spectacular stage productions to the influential film interpretations of the twentieth. In addition, we’ll consider how Shakespeare responded to popular culture through his works, along with how and to what purposes those works continue to be refigured. As we move through periods and media, we’ll explore a number of approaches to the study of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Topics and themes to be discussed include the circulation, adaptation, and appropriation of Shakespeare’s plays, the interpretive decisions behind textual editing, the relationship between “high” and “low” culture, the mass market, national identity, politics, and gender.

Critical Reading and Writing II: Reading and Writing Place (general education composition)

In this course, we will develop skills in critical reading, writing, and thinking by exploring the concept of “place.” Notions and experiences of place can involve the very personal (your sense of where you’re from, the physical environments that make up your daily life) as well as the very political (the boundaries of a territory, its contested governance or occupation). The study of place thus offers an ideal framework for engaging different kinds of intellectual conversations and understanding the stakes of being able to participate in them. As we’ll see, debates about place have an important part to play in shaping who we are—as individuals, scholars, members of the university community, and national citizens—and how we relate to the world around us. We will read texts written by a range of authors in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, considering how diverse thinkers have grappled with the idea of place, our abilities to describe and account for the places in which we live, and the payoffs of doing so. Questions to be considered include: What are the power dynamics that shape the ways we make meaning of places? What is the relationship between writing and place, and what can it tell us about the formation of individual, cultural, and national identities?

Media History of New York (interdisciplinary undergraduate)

New York has played a crucial role in the history of media, and media have played a crucial role in the history of New York. This course investigates the city’s media technologies, institutions, and geographies from Dutch settlement to the digital age. We’ll begin by exploring how media like maps and archives have shaped New York’s cultural memory. Then we’ll consider structures of urban experience as and in relation to the development of media, thinking especially about spectatorship and display in the nineteenth-century city. Shifting gears, the second half of the course will focus on site-specific media environments. We’ll examine, for example, early twentieth-century representations of a city-wide transit system, the evolution of the advertising industry on 1960s Madison Avenue, and cultures of spectacle at Times Square. Throughout the course, we’ll collaborate on the production of an online guidebook to the media history of New York. It will be organized around the cultural lives and geographies of particular media artifacts, chosen by you to be rescued from archival obscurity.