Approved by Faculty Senate.

University Studies Course Approval


Department or Program English
Course Number 120
Semester Hours 3
Frequency of Offering every semester
Course Title Introduction to Literature
Catalog Description Intensive reading in selected major themes and forms of literature. Offered every semester.
This is an existing course previously approved by A2C2: Yes
This is a new course proposal: No
(If this is a new course proposal, the WSU Curriculum Approval Form must also be completed as in the process prescribed by WSU Regulation 3-4)  
Proposal Category: Arts & Science Core/Humanities
Departmental Contact: David Robinson
Email Address:






English 120

Introduction to Literature — 3 s.h.

A University Studies Arts & Science Core / Humanities Course

Proposal and Rationale

Catalog Description

Intensive reading in selected major forms and themes of literature. Grade only. Offered every semester.


General Course Information:

Through reading, writing about, and discussing literature of a certain category (based on genre, theme, or nationality), students will be introduced to some of the basic terminology and concepts of literary study, to the relevance of historical and social contexts in the production and reception of literary texts, and to methods of interpreting works of literature.

English 120 is a protean course; its literary focus will vary according to its instructor and semester. The various permutations of the course are unified through the overarching goals specified in the catalog description and through the guidelines for USP Humanities Courses. Although they will share common objectives, the instructors who teach this course will not be bound to a particular set of literary texts. Rather, each instructor will design his or her own course, and each course will have its own organizing principle that gives the selection of readings its coherence. A course, for example, might be organized around a theme, a genre, or nationality (e.g., respectively, Science and Literature, The Short Story, British Masterworks). However, the course should not overlap significantly with [Classical] Mythology or The Bible as Literature, which have been designated as separate USP Humanities offerings, or with any of the Multicultural Literature courses, which will fall under a separate General Education classification.



Literary texts have historically given, and continue to give, voice to the human quest to articulate significant ideas and questions about human experience. Just as this experience varies, so too does its imaginative articulation vary. Literature offers students diverse angles from which to ponder what it means to be alive in a certain time and place and what it means to view life in a particular manner. Writers of literature render human existence through verbal works that heighten, deepen, and sharpen readers’ sense of the rich of that existence.


The course includes requirements and learning activities that promote students’ abilities in the three areas identified by the University Studies Program’s account of the Humanities:

a) It will promote students’ abilities to identify and understand specific elements and assumptions of the particular discipline.

In this course, students will learn the relevant vocabulary of literary studies; the terminology that the instructor emphasizes will depend on his or her selection of texts. Likewise, the fundamental concepts to which students are exposed will hinge on the category of literature treated. Regardless of the focus of the particular class, students should gain a familiarity with terms and ideas pertinent both to the group of literary texts covered in the class and to other literature that they might read beyond the class. Moreover, this acquaintance with selected elements and assumptions of the discipline should leave them with a general awareness of the analytical tools and academic conventions associated with studying literature.

b) It will promote students’ abilities to understand how historical context, cultural values, and gender influence perceptions and interpretations.

In this course, students’ personal reactions to and close-readings of literary texts will be enhanced by their exposure to the historical, cultural, social, and artistic backgrounds of these texts and by their consideration of their own milieu as a factor influencing their understanding of these texts. By casting a literary work not merely as an autonomous verbal artifact, and not merely as the inspired utterance of an individual, the instructor will help students appreciate how these forms of cultural expression are subject to the dynamics of the historical moment in which they came to be written. Literature registers the social energies of its time and thus engages issues surrounding, for example, gender and social class. In the same way, readers’ reception of literature is inflected by their own cultural contexts, a consciousness of which enables students to become more self-reflective as they seek an accurate comprehension of what writers might be saying to them.

c) It will promote students’ abilities to understand the role of critical analysis in interpreting and evaluating expressions of human experience.

In this course, students will in several ways be productively exposed to critical discourses on literary topics. Guided by the instructor and their classmates, students will themselves become versed in literary interpretation through their own writing and through discussion. In addition, they likely will read secondary sources that analyze and assess the literature addressed in the course. In reading or hearing others’ interpretations, and in forming their own, they will bring to bear the knowledge entailed by the aforementioned two criteria, (a) and (b). Students will acquire not only a sense of which analytical approaches to literature suit their subjects and interests, but also a sense of how interpretive practices inhere in the act of understanding and affect the sort of meaning and value that one discerns in a work of literature.







English 120

Introduction to Literature — 3 s.h.

A University Studies Arts & Science Core / Humanities Course

General Course Information

Catalog Description

Intensive reading in selected major forms and themes of literature. Grade only. Offered every semester.


General Course Information

English 120, Introduction to Literature, is an elective course designed to count for Humanities credit in the Arts and Sciences Core of the WSU University Studies Program. The program is designed to provide a broad base of skills and knowledge to equip students for informed, responsible citizenship in a changing world. The purpose of the Humanities requirement in the University Studies program is to provide a framework for understanding the nature and scope of human experience. Humanities courses explore the search for meaning and value in human life by examining its expression in cultural forms and texts, literature and the arts. As a course fulfilling the objectives for the Humanities requirement in the Arts and Science core, English 120 includes requirements and learning activities that promote students’ abilities to…

  1. identify and understand specific elements and assumptions of a particular Humanities discipline;
  2. understand how historical context, cultural values, and gender influence perceptions and interpretations; and
  3. understand the role of critical analysis (e.g. aesthetic, historical, literary, philosophical, rhetorical) in interpreting and evaluating expressions of human experience.


As class requirements and activities are discussed and listed below, they will refer to objectives in the above list by letter.

Specific Course Information: Postmodern American Fiction

Postwar America has witnessed a variety of profound political, cultural, and technological changes—among them, historic international realignments, reshaped economies, revisions of traditional gender roles, and revolutions in the communication of information.

Just as the literature of any time both reflects and shapes how its people understand the world, so too do the stories published by American writers over the last fifty years show us the world we live in. Some writers constitute a well-established group of formal innovators. Others represent a fundamental cultural change towards minority authorship. And still others reflect our recent obsession with the media, experimenting with computer writing technologies and questioning distinctions between literature and popular culture.

In this course we’ll examine the works of writers who experiment with different graphic, technological, and narrative forms; who rewrite histories and traditions; and who examine the conditions of our postmodern lives. In the process, we will learn not only the elements and methods of literary study, but also a great deal about the ways contemporary American literature reflects postwar American society.


Course Texts & Information

Required texts: Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology

and two of the following novels:

bulletCoupland, Generation X bulletDeLillo, White Noise bulletJoyce, Afternoon bulletKosinksi, Being There bulletMorrison, Beloved bulletRobinson, Housekeeping bulletSilko, Ceremony bulletSpiegelman, Maus bulletVonnegut, Breakfast of Champions


Reading bulletapproximately 25 stories from the PAF anthology bullettwo novels from the above list


Participation bulletdaily small-group discussion (100 pts) bulletone panel presentation on a novel (100 pts)


Exams bulletthree exams, multiple choice & essay (100 pts each)


Grading bullet500 pts total (exams 300, participation 200) bullet> 450 = A, > 400 = B, > 350 = C, < 350 = D or E


Supplies bulleta vendacard; computer access to the Web, PALS, email, and a printer; a reliable notebook and pencil; Scantron forms 882-ES


Course Ground Rules

We will be reading some experimental, provocative, and challenging works of literature. Purposeful, tactful, prepared discussion will be necessary to understanding them; hence the following ground rules. bulletSome of these works of fiction will affirm your beliefs; others will challenge them. Some will affront your sensibilities; others will appease them. Some will tax your intellectual abilities; others will merely prod them. Approach them all with the goal of learning more about life and literature, and you’ll find your open mind rewarded. bulletAnyone addressing an entire group or the entire class will be given the courtesy of undivided, uninterrupted attention—and that courtesy will be returned. bulletDo not monopolize the conversation, diminish others’ interpretations, or shut down the dialogue; seek always to understand others’ points of view, to ask questions prompting a more developed response, to use body language to indicate your interest. bulletShow up for class both on time and well-prepared: stories read and annotated, questions and interpretations articulated. The reading load is not burdensome in terms of quantity, so read carefully, critically, and well. As evidence of your reading, I expect to see the stories annotated.



Online Forum

We have an online discussion forum for further pursuing class questions. Follow the link from our course home page at

The purpose of the forum is to expand the "floor" for conversation beyond the confines of MWF mornings in Minn� hall. You can ask questions and pursue interpretations as well as read and consider the thoughts of others. I’ll post the discussion questions for each text in a new thread, and the secretary from each group will post a summary of the group’s class discussion. Further comments should follow this thread, rather than begin a new one. Use your real name and a specific subject line when submitting your response, and if you are responding directly to another’s post, quote relevant parts of it when replying.

To earn credit for forum participation, you can …

  1. Raise new questions for further discussion.
  2. Submit interpretations of thematic meaning. (c)
  3. Make connections between different course texts. (c)
  4. Tactfully and purposefully respond to another’s question.
  5. Discuss the general concepts of "postmodern fiction," "postmodernism," or "postmodernity." (b)

Regular, attentive, purposeful, articulate, tactful participation in the online discussion forum will earn the full 50 points allowable.


Panel Presentations

Along with three or four other classmates, you’ll lead the class to an understanding of a particular postmodern American novel (see the list on page one) and show them how it works in a real reading. The entire class will have read a PAF excerpt from the novel, and a few others in the class will have read the entirety of the book. Your panel should offer the class a handout including the following: bulletA brief summary of the socio-historical context in which the novel was written. (b) bulletA brief history of the novel’s critical, commercial, and popular reception, documented with a works cited list. (c) bulletA set of questions for class discussion. (c)

During your presentation, the panel should offer a synopsis of the novel’s plot, characters, point of view, setting, symbolism, style, and thematic meanings; the panel can also offer the class their affective responses to the novel. More importantly, the panel should be prepared to discuss what it is that makes the work "postmodern"—whether it be an issue of authorship, content, experimentation, revisionism, identity, meaning, or genre. The panel will have an entire class period to present their material, guide class discussion, and answer questions about the work. (a, b)

The panel will have an entire week free from other class duties to prepare the presentation, and I’ll make certain the panel has an opportunity to consult with either me or our course intern during the process. The class day before the panel presentation, panel members must submit (to me) a draft of the class handout, a bibliography of sources, a script for the presentation, and a set of possible exam questions based on the PAF excerpt. No later than two class periods after the presentation, the panel should submit (preferably via e-mail) a follow-up memo articulating who did what, how things went, and what was learned.

The panel presentation will be evaluated both by the audience of students in the class and by myself, taking into consideration the completeness and clarity of the content, the preparedness and professionalism of the presentation, and the relevance and purposefulness of the materials.


Course Calendar

  1. Introductions: E120 & "Postmodern American Fiction" (a, b)
  2. Mason, "Shiloh" (PAF 271) (a, b)
  3. O’Brien, "How to Tell a True War Story" (PAF 174)
  4. Tillman, "Living with Contradictions" (PAF 120) & Carver, "Popular Mechanics" (handout) (a, b, c)
  5. Viramontes, "The Cariboo Caf�" (PAF 497) (a, b)
  6. Paley, "The Pale Pink Roast" (PAF 94) (a, b)
  7. Wallace, "Lyndon" (PAF 362) (a, b)
  8. Gass, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" (PAF 65) (a, b)
  9. Barthelme, "See the Moon" & "Sentence" (PAF 25) (a, b)
  10. First exam: Bring Scantron form 882-ES and take-home essays. (a, b)
  11. Bell, "Customs of the Country" (posted on class website) (a, b)
  12. Jen, "What Means Switch" (posted on class website) (a, b)
  13. Ferr�, "The Youngest Doll" (PAF 484) (a, b)
  14. Phillips, "Bluegill" (PAF 115) (a, b)
  15. Vizenor, "Feral Lasers" (PAF 548) (a, b)
  16. Gibson, "The Gernsback Continuum" (PAF 512) (a, b)
  17. LeGuin, "She Unnames Them" (PAF 525) (a, b)
  18. Second exam: Bring Scantron form 882-ES and take-home essays (a, b)
  19. first novel completed; class time for meeting in panels and preparing presentations
  20. class time for meeting in panels and preparing presentations
  21. class time for meeting in panels and preparing presentations
  22. Panel Presentation: Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (read book or excerpt, PAF 84) (a, b, c)
  23. Panel Presentation: Kosinski, Being There (read book or excerpt, posted on class website) (a, b, c)
  24. Panel Presentation: Morrison, Beloved (read book or excerpt, PAF 301) (a, b, c)
  25. Panel Presentation: Robinson, Housekeeping (read book or excerpt, PAF 488) (a, b, c)
  26. Panel Presentation: Coupland, Generation X (read book or excerpt, PAF 568) (a, b, c)
  27. Panel Presentation: Silko, Ceremony (read book or excerpt, PAF 321) (a, b, c)
  28. Panel Presentation: Spiegelman, Maus (read book or excerpt, PAF 295) (a, b, c)
  29. Panel Presentation: DeLillo, White Noise (read book or excerpt, PAF 526) (a, b, c)
  30. Conclusions
  31. final exam period: Bring Scantron form 882-ES and take-home essays (a, b)


English 120

Introduction to Literature — 3 s.h.

A General Education/University Studies Arts & Science Core Course

Sample Course Handout

Note: Essentially, this handout addresses many of the specific elements of literary fiction (a).

Reading Fiction Critically

Reading fiction critically demands careful attention to both formal elements and thematic meaning. Confronted with any work of short fiction, you should consider how the elements of the story—the plot, characters, imagery, setting, and so forth—help you to enjoy and understand the work.

Fiction shows us worlds and experiences that may be radically different from our own while still offering us insight into our own lives. It can be helpful to begin by considering your affective responses to the work—that is to say, how the work makes you feel. Do you sympathize or identify with a main character, witness an important change or a determined resistance? Do you see a central conflict or issue, one that is eventually resolved? Do you find yourself confronting an important question or issue? Also, however, reading critically—with careful attention to the following formal elements of fiction—will help you understand both how the work is constructed and what you think it to mean.




Plot is the arrangement of events in a story. Many plots—call them conventional narratives—follow a common path. First, the exposition provides information about the setting and character. A protagonist is presented, as is some antagonist—either another character or some force of nature or culture. Then, a conflict occurs, either between two characters or between one character and some opposing force. Conflicts can be essentially external (taking place in the physical realm) or internal (on intellectual, emotional, or spiritual levels). The conflict intensifies until a crisis is reached, and a main character must take action in a resolution. Finally, a denouement concludes the plot, revealing the main characters’ fates. Less conventional plots can begin in media res ("in the middle") and use flashbacks to provide exposition.

When reading for the plot, pay particular attention to the development and resolution of conflicts; as they are resolved, the story’s theme often becomes more clear and your own understanding of the work more definitive.



Our engagement with fiction often rests on our interest in the characters. We may be infuriated by them, be disgusted by them, or identify with them, but a successful fictional character is one we feel something about. A character’s personality is often revealed through small clues to his appearance, thoughts, speech, actions, and possessions. Further information is given by other characters’ reactions. Characters may be round (with a complex, developed personality) or flat (possessing but one or two dominant traits); they can also be described as static (unchanging) or dynamic (experiencing change or growth). Some characters function as stereotypes or stock characters whose traits immediately mark them as recognizable types, others as foils—dramatic counterpoints to the protagonist, their presence underscoring the contrasting traits of the main character.

When studying character, it helps a great deal to annotate the expressions, actions, and other clues to a character’s personality as you read, then to make inferences and generalizations based on your annotations. Your conclusions about a character will then be well supported by evidence from the text itself.


Point of View

As you read fiction, a voice speaks to you: the perspective from which it comes is called the point of view. The narrator—not to be confused with the author—is someone the author constructs to tell the story. A first person point of view occurs when we hear the voice of an "I" telling the story. First person narrators can play major or minor roles in the story; they can also be, in some cases, na�ve or unreliable in their storytelling, but they have no access to the thoughts inside others’ heads. A third person narrator describes events from the perspective of someone "outside" the story. Third person narrators can have a degree of omniscience—the ability to know what thoughts occur in characters’ minds. A common perspective is that of limited omniscience, where the narrator seems to have access to only one character’s thinking. More rarely used is the second person perspective, where the reader is addressed directly ("You are not the kind of person to find yourself in a situation like this"). A dramatic, or objective point of view, finally, renders events without access to the interior perspective of any character.

When assessing the story’s point of view, it is perhaps most important to understand who the narrator is, what his or her characteristics are, and how those characteristics shape or determine the telling of the story.



Every story occurs in a particular time, place, and context, and details of the story’s setting offer a background against which the plot unfolds. More importantly, however, details of the setting establish a story’s atmosphere or mood; they can support a story’s thematic meaning; and they can provide characterization.

Although it can be tempting to read past descriptive details that seem to exist only to provide depth to a backdrop, to read critically you’ll need to look closely to see what impressions and information the details convey.



A symbol is an object or action that represents something else. Some symbols, of course, are universal or cultural, having meaning well beyond the context of the story itself: flags, water, plants, certain colors. Others are more local, specific to a certain context: for instance, a Brooklyn Dodgers home jersey with number 42—the white jersey with red and blue trim worn by Jackie Robinson, the first black to play baseball in the major leagues—can represent both a history of racial oppression and an instance of historic integration. Finally, some symbols acquire meaning only within the story itself; outside the story, they do not convey the same meaning. These literary symbols accumulate their meaning through repetition (such repetition becoming a motif), through the value placed on an object or action by a character, or through their comparison with other objects, actions, or events.

Reading symbols critically depends on an ability to make inferences about the objects and actions you see. Since literary symbols often accumulate meaning through repetition, it is crucial to take note of actions, objects, ideas, or words that are repeated in the course of the plot.



The term "style" can be used to refer to many details about a literary work: its use of language, symbolism, and narration; its level or realism or fantasy; its tone or mood; and its use of irony. First, style can refer to how a writer might use diction (word choice) and syntax (word order and sentence structure) that marks the language as formal, informal, belletristic, or experimental; a narrator’s use of language might reveal clues about class, education, and attitude. Second, style can refer to the degree of realism in a work: its events and characters may be entirely plausible, or they might contain varying degrees of fantasy, mystery, or inexplicability. Third, style can refer to the tone of a piece, its prevailing mood: the tone of a story can be distant, ironic, absurd, joyous, tragic, comic, disturbing, or playful.

Finally, style often refers to the use of irony—what happens when there is a meaningful discrepancy between what is said or expected and what is meant or what actually occurs. Verbal irony occurs when one thing is said, but another is meant (often the opposite). Situational irony occurs when we are led to expect something to occur, and instead, something else happens (again, often the opposite). And dramatic irony occurs when readers are aware that what a characters unwittingly says or believes is not "the way things really are."

The key to understanding irony is that these contrasts must somehow be meaningful, and not merely coincidental. Assessing the style of a work, then, depends upon a critical reading of a number of elements: diction, syntax, narration, realism, tone, and irony.



To state a story’s theme is to paraphrase its central meaning or idea. Thematic meaning generally transcends a verifiable statement about a story’s contents to present a more general (if not universal) statement about life. Traditional narratives often present us with one or more clearly identifiable, yet intellectually challenging themes; one of the reasons we read is for the challenge of new ideas that literature presents, the way the work asks us to reconsider the conditions of our own lives. Yet to read solely for the theme is to reduce a complex work of art to a brief statement about its meaning, so care must be taken not to oversimplify the work when trying to articulate a theme.

Considering a story’s theme, then—an important step in reading fiction critically—demands a careful analysis of the questions and issues the work raises, as well as an ability to paraphrase its ideas without oversimplification.



Reading fiction critically depends upon more than a simple consumption of words and sentences in the order they appear; rather, to read critically asks that you read actively, annotating and questioning the work as you read, articulating and revising your inferences about its events, characters, symbols, style, and meanings. Read with a pencil in hand, and keep its point close to the page. As you reread the work, try to articulate more definitive understandings of its formal elements, and bring some conclusions about its thematic meanings and some questions about its contents to your subsequent discussions. You’ll then find your dialogue stimulating and your knowledge growing.