Seminar Topics

Seminar Courses

The content of these seminars changes from semester to semester.

Fall Semester 2015

ENG 570 (3 cr) Seminar in American Literature:  William Stafford and 20th-Century American Poetry (Armstrong)
This course will use the poetry and the biography of William Stafford to talk about the arc of 20th-century poetry from the waning of High Modernism to the rise of Postmodernism (whatever those terms may imply). Stafford's career intersects many of the personalities and most of the issues that constitute the history of American poetry from the 1940s through to the mid-1990s. He was a deeply beloved poet and an influential teacher; he was a special consultant to the Library of Congress and a key figure in the Vietnam War protest-poetry movement. Yet he has not gathered the kind of attention from scholars that his resume would seem to deserve. Louis Simpson remarked in 1961, reviewing William Stafford’s debut book, West of Your City, “Is Stafford really so far inferior to Robert Lowell that Lowell should be treated as a classic, and Stafford virtually unknown? . . . What a concatenation of critics, what sheer ignorance, must control the American literary scene, for such a disparity to exist!” To take William Stafford seriously as a major poet is to confront all the interesting antitheses which energize and sometimes cripple 20th-century American verse: the antithesis between formal and free verse, the antithesis between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture, the antagonism between the East Coast and the Mid- and Far West, the antithesis between "Paleface" proponents of New Critical poetics and "Redskin" expositors of Whitmanic originality. We will read Stafford's work as well as significant poems by his contemporaries; we will look at contemporary and recent criticism as well as reviews and interviews. My hope is that by the end of the class we will have a better handle on some of the larger issues raised here: what is the role of the poet in America? What is the relationship of poetry to politics? What constitutes poetic fame and a poetic career?

ENG 608 (3 cr) Seminar in American Literature:  Modern American Drama:  The Theatre of Revolt (Weber)
In his 1964 monograph The Theatre of Revolt, Robert Brustein asserted that modern drama is steeped in rebelliousness and contentiousness that can be directly traced to nineteenth-century Romanticism. But he included only one American, Eugene O’Neill, among the rebel playwrights he studied. In this course, we will consider how broadly Brustein’s thesis can be applied to the works of other modern and contemporary American playwrights. Of special interest will be a paradox identified by David Mamet in his preface to Jafsie and John Henry. “Success ratifies the iconoclast,” he wrote, “and places him or her in the strange position of having been endorsed for being a detractor.” In other words, it may be impossible to see modern dramatists as true rebels when their contentiousness is rewarded with acclaim from the very institutions the authors are in revolt against.

Spring Semester 2015

ENG 570 (3 cr)  Seminar in American Lit:  American Slave Narrative (Michlitsch)
This seminar will explore the genre of the American slave narrative, a genre some prefer to call “liberation narratives,” as those who had been enslaved typically achieve freedom by the end of the story.  Pre-1865 slave narratives in the U.S. speak to the inhumanity of slavery, and particularly of race-based slavery. Most share the political and ethical goal of persuading readers to work to end slavery.  In this vein, the class begins by grounding our study with one of the earliest known slave narratives, Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative (1789), which advocated an end to the Atlantic slave trade.  Writing in England after spending much time in the Americas, Equiano drew on the literary traditions of the travel narrative and the religious conversion narrative to begin to craft the new genre of the slave narrative.  Like Equiano’s autobiography, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) also provide personal accounts by those who had experienced enslavement.  Douglass’s and Jacobs’s accounts are among over 100 book-length, non-fiction narratives of slavery and escape.  Two fictional accounts are included in this section as well.  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is arguably the most important book of nineteenth-century America. Written by a white woman, it was the first American novel to sell over a million copies, it played a key role in the anti-slavery movement, and it has been credited with starting the Civil War.  Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative (written in the late 1850s), probably the first novel by an African American women, was published only recently, in 2002, after being discovered by African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  Like Stowe and Jacobs, Crafts employed numerous strategies from the genre of the nineteenth-century sentimental novel.

607 (3cr)  Seminar in English Literature:  Eighteenth-Century Travel Literature and the Discourse of Knowledge (Zold)
This course will examine the ways in which travel, both as a method of education and a mode of facilitating colonization, functions within fiction and nonfiction of the eighteenth-century. Rooted in the Lockean philosophical belief that knowing was gained through experiences, travel narratives—even some that were later realized to be fiction—were seen as a collection of facts and truths; thus, these narratives constructed knowledge about the rest of the world. As a result, travel literature, one of the most popular genres of the eighteenth century second only to biblical tracts, helped the English fortify a national identity and form an imperialistic agenda through narratives of explorations and interactions abroad.

ENG 609 (3 cr)  Seminar in American literature:  Cather, Steinbeck, and O’Connor (Cumberland)
This course offers students the opportunity for advanced study of the works of Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, and Flannery O’Connor, as well as an exploration of the broader contexts in which their work was created (social, historical, literary, cultural).  For each of these writers, region was a significant aspect of their work—much of Cather’s work is grounded in Nebraska; for Steinbeck, the Salinas Valley; and for O’Connor, her native Georgia. We will spend a significant part of the course exploring the impact of landscape on their literature, and what that may suggest to us about how they understood the forces shaping their society.

Fall Semester 2014

ENG 604 (3cr)  Seminar in American Lit:  Revolting Bodies (Herndon)
This class will focus on representations of “revolting” bodies in contemporary American literature, with the understanding that bodies often constructed as “revolting” by our society are experienced as normal and even used as a means of social revolt by those who live with and through them. In other words, the class will examine “revolting bodies” as a layered concept and one that takes a particular shape in American society because of its focus on ideas such as corporeal autonomy.  In many cases, individual bodies are represented via literature in ways that are meant to symbolize or take up anxieties about larger cultural issues. In short, the individual body is often constructed as a microcosm of the larger society.  By examining how various authors have represented “revolting bodies” through characters who are disabled, transgendered, and racialized, students will deepen their understanding of both the literature being studied and how that literature is in dialogue with cultural understandings and constructions of bodies in ways that reflect cultural values and anxieties.    

Fall Semester 2012

ENG 570 (3 cr)  Seminar in American Lit: Literature and Landscape (Cumberland)
In this course we will focus on works by three major American writers of the 20th century: Willa Cather, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. We will be looking at the ways that these writers turned their own regions and hometowns---(Red Cloud, Nebraska, Salinas, California, and Oxford, Mississippi)--into fictional worlds. Drawing on contemporary theories of both regionalism and ecocriticism, we will examine how a legacy of domination shapes a wide array of literary landscapes evoked by these writers, ranging from wilderness to cities.

ENG 605 (3 cr)  James Joyce’s Ulysses (Buttram)
Focusing on James Joyce’s splendid work Ulysses (1922), this graduate seminar will begin with readings from his short-story collection, Dubliners; his autobiographical Kunstlerroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; and his mythical-method antecedent, Homer’s Odyssey. The course will end with readings from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, one of the most challenging pieces of literature in English and one of those texts often adduced to mark the shift to what some call Postmodernism. Subjects likely to be addressed in the course include the genres of novel, epic, and comedy; the literary-historical period of Modernism; the colonial/postcolonial dimensions of Irish literature; and critical-theoretical approaches of various sorts, including such interpretive angles as those related to authorial intention and biographical elements, as well as to language, power, socioeconomic class, race, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality, humor, human corporeality, and reader reception. Amid the academic demands and conceptual rigors of the seminar, the professor will not neglect how students, personally, might take pleasure in their experiences of Ulysses. After all, it is through aesthetic delight that literature tends to edify.  What does Joyce have to teach us about living? What ethical questions might Joyce be posing to readers willing to think about forms that morality may take within a rich, relativistic void? 

Spring Semester 2013

ENG 571 (3 cr)   Seminar in British Literature: The Marriage Plot (Dunbar)
This course will explore the marriage plot in nineteenth-century British novels and poetry, focusing on works by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Henry James, and Thomas Hardy. One question we will explore, in particular, is the role of the marriage plot in the realist novel’s consolidation of its cultural status over the course of the century. In addition to our primary texts, we will also consider historical and legal developments that shaped writers’ representation of marriage, as well as recent critical and theoretical discussions related to these issues.

ENG 603 (3 cr) Narrative in Film and Fiction: Theories and Practices of Adaptation (Johnson)
This seminar addresses major issues of adapting narrative fiction to the cinema.  As the primary (but by no means only) method of engaging in the study of adaptation, we focus on the formal and structural qualities of narratives: narrators and narratees, “cardinal” and character functions, plot and story, structural oppositions.  The reading will consist primarily of a series of canonical works (by Austen, Dickens, James, Conrad, Joyce, Wright). Yet we also attend to narrative issues in other works, ranging from popular and pulp fiction to more contemporary cult and classic fictions. From the reading, viewing, discussion, and research, students should gain a clearer understanding of the structure of narrative; the material differences between the two media of literature and film; the question of fidelity in adaptation; the symbiotic relationship of twentieth-century novel and film; the functions of author and auteur; and the means by which narrative approaches can inform the study of both literary fiction and film.  

ENG 607 (3 cr) Shakespeare’s Problem Plays (Carducci)
In this course we will focus on some of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” a term that was coined by F.S. Boas in 1896. Boas referred specifically to uneasy generic classifications and/or specific moral dilemmas in All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure. We will add other plays that represent a wide range of problematic concerns. For example, we will explore the uncomfortably violent Titus Andronicus as one of Shakespeare’s early experimental plays. Other problem plays include the ambiguous dark comedies in which Shakespeare explores issues of anti-Semitism in Merchant of Venice, anti-feminism in Taming of the Shrew, and gender confusion in Twelfth Night. Further, we will consider the issue of race thinking in Othello, and gender roles in Macbeth and Coriolanus. Through our readings, weekly/ term writing projects, and discussions we will discover how Shakespeare interrogated some of the relevant contextual issues in early modern England, encoding these cultural dilemmas in his works.