Undergraduate English Courses

358:200 Once Upon A Time: Why We Tell Stories

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Tell me a story.

Why is storytelling a nearly universal human phenomenon?  Is a world without stories human at all?  We use stories to explain our beginnings, memorialize our past, and discover meaning—including our own.  We begin our lives hearing stories, and we live our lives by understanding the stories of others and creating new ones.  Yet, as Thomas Carlyle once proclaimed, storytelling has “an alarming relationship to lying”; parents, wanting to teach honesty, caution their children, “Don’t tell stories.” 

"Once Upon A Time" probes the tensions in this paradox.  We have a deep need for stories to help us discover meaning, even our own meaning, in life and in our relations with others.  At the same time, we are deeply skeptical about stories, which often seem merely fanciful and unlikely to lead us towards truth. 

Focusing on stories from Genesis and Homer to 21st century best sellers, this course considers why we need stories and how we tell them.  Why is the journey home such a frequent motif? How is storytelling used to create, instruct, and transform societies?  How is it used to sell products?  Why and how have genres like the detective story and emergent forms like graphic novels conformed to or challenged the conventions of storytelling? 

This course is particularly recommended for students who intend to pursue majors or minors in anthropology, classics, communication, comparative literature, criminal justice, English, history, journalism, any language and literature programs, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology, and women’s and gender studies.  The course carries credit toward the major and minor in English. It is also appropriate for life sciences and physical science majors seeking Core or elective credit.  Once Upon A Time can be used to meet the SAS Core Curriculum goals in Arts and Humanities [AHp].