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Fall 2011 Undergraduate English Courses: Twentieth Century

350:437 Seminar: Topics in Twentieth Century Literature and Culture

01 MW5 CAC 28258 DEKOVEN MU-115
02 MW4 CAC 35115 MCCLURE MU-204

01-Modern Literary Animals
Have you noticed how frequently animals appear in contemporary popular culture?  All the animated animal films, made for children and their parents, immediately come to mind, as do all the commercials in which animals, actual and animated, adorable and mischievous, smart and stupid, human-like and human-unlike, sell a remarkable range of products (the Geico Gecko is my personal favorite).   There are also popular novels and memoirs featuring animals, some made into films: Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, for example, or John Grogan’s Marley and Me.

At the same time, a new interdisciplinary field called “animal studies” has emerged, and is growing rapidly.  Animal studies brings together scholars from the sciences, social sciences and humanities, along with artists in many media, to investigate human-animal relationships, animal intelligence, emotion, and communication, species and environmental interactions, and the complex issues surrounding “anthropocentrism” (understanding and evaluating human-animal interactions only in relation to the immediate interests of humans).

We will follow a literary-historical trail from the early 20th century to the present, looking at how modern authors have relied on nonhuman animals to tell their stories, convey their meanings, give form to their ideas and emotions.  We will read authors including some of the following: Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Marianne Moore, Jack London, Djuna Barnes, Zora Neale Hurston, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, J.M. Coetzee, Yann Martel, Richard Powers, David Wrobleski, and, perhaps, Sara Gruen and John Grogan themselves.

This course is ideal for students who are interested in animals (are nonhuman animals part of your family?), who are open to thinking about them in unfamiliar ways, and who want to learn about the force of animal representation in modern literature.

Course work for this seminar will consist of two short papers (approximately 5 pp. each) that will lead to a final, 10 pp. paper.  Basic research and use of secondary sources will be involved, as will revision. Your body of written work from the entire semester will be the basis of your grade.

Attendance is required.  More than four unexcused absences will lower your grade.  Regular, frequent class participation will raise your grade.

02- The Postsecular Novel
In popular culture, philosophy, and literature, the late twentieth century saw a dramatic and unexpected resurgence of spiritually inflected ways of seeing and being. In some cases this resurgence entailed efforts to reassert the “fundamentals” of traditional Western monotheisms. But in others, it led to radical forms of spiritual exploration and innovation: the selective appropriation of non-Western traditions, the improvisation of what might be called “homeless” spiritualities. Literature, particularly, has been interested in this second sort of resurgence. Jack Kerouac, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Don Delillo, Michael Ondaatje, and others tell stories about characters who “convert,” as it were, from secular to spiritually suffused but culturally unorthodox styles of seeing and being. Leslie Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Lousie Erdrich and others celebrate the reinvigoration of culturally marginalized Native American  traditions.

In this course we will explore novelistic treatments of the choice between secular and spiritual modes of being and novelistic depictions of the path that leads from one to the other. What draws or drives characters in this fiction toward spirituality? What choices, opportunities, demands, and dangers do they encounter on this path? And what new modes of life and ways of seeing do they fashion? We’ll pay particular attention to the novels’ depiction of spiritual self-formation and in their celebration of earth-centered spiritualities.

Reading quizzes on each text, plus a midterm take-home essay and a substantial final essay (12-15 pages) drawing together the theoretical and literary works.