“When this circuit learns your job, what are you going to do?” Marshall McLuhan asked this question in 1967, and we’ll plan to look at the questions beneath it and their implications for literary studies now. What do we value as human in an information economy in which many of the key players are algorithms? This seminar in contemporary fiction and digital humanities will take up a cluster of questions related to work, creativity, and the knowledge economy. We’ll consider what kinds of work and leisure both novelists and critics depict and perform, and we’ll use these questions to reflect on recent methodological debates, the place of scholarship in the contemporary media ecology, and other current questions in the field. We’ll be sure to read a few works on the MA reading list and some foundational works of theory and criticism, in addition to getting a foothold in both contemporary literary studies and in digital humanities conversations. We’ll narrow down the reading list of 5 or 6 novels following our first class meeting, but likely primary authors include: Vladimir Nabokov (we’ll definitely start with Pale Fire), Joan Didion, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Chang-Rae Lee, Karen Tei Yamashita, Jennifer Egan, Maggie Nelson, Ben Lerner. We’ll pair the novels with criticism, sociology, and critical theory, and a substantial unit will survey major books and questions in digital literary studies. (Across our secondary readings, we’re likely to encounter Karl Marx, Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, Marshall McLuhan, Fredric Jameson, Susan Sontag, Richard Florida, Boltanski and Chiapello, Alan Liu, Mark McGurl, Amy Hungerford, Franco Moretti, Debates in the Digital Humanities, and others). Requirements include occasional brief reading responses, a small-scale digital experiment (working at your level), and a seminar paper.
This course is an intensive introduction to the knowledge and skills required for reading closely and writing convincingly about literary texts. We will primarily be reading short but challenging works from a variety of time periods and contexts. Loosely linking these works will be the theme of “encounter,” and we’ll look how literary writers have variously staged ethically and erotically charged meetings with the exotic, the foreign, and the unknown. We’ll read selectively in early modern, romantic, and modern poetry, and selections of fiction and drama will likely include work by William Shakespeare, Aphra Behn, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, Nella Larsen, J. M. Coetzee, Arundhati Roy, and/or David Henry Hwang. Assignments to include frequent short responses and close readings, a midterm exam on basic terminology, and a series of focused essay assignments.
What’s the difference between a human and a machine? Would people have thought the same thing fifty years ago? Three hundred years ago? The figure Daedalus in Greek mythology allegedly made statues that could move, and by the eighteenth century, mechanical automata could play musical instruments, draw, and write. When scientists and philosophers think of the mind as a computer, of the body as programmable, or of the universe as clockwork, are the distinctions between the human and automaton in danger of disappearing?
In this course, we’ll read novels, plays, short stories, films, a graphic novel, and nonfiction that have used the figure of the automaton to explore how new technologies and new forms of knowledge might change what it means to be human. We’ll think about how literature tests the limits of the human, explores the meanings of freedom, and asks what we can and can’t know about our bodies, our minds, and each other. Readings will include work by William Shakespeare, René Descartes, Mary Shelley, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and others; film and television screenings will likely include The Manchurian Candidate, The Stepford Wives, and Blade Runner. Assignments will include frequent written responses to readings, midterm and final exams, and a final creative group project that stages an encounter between a human and an automaton.
What can science fiction tell us about the social, ethical, and political dimensions of medicine? In this course, we’ll look at how a few medical categories have changed over recent history, and then we’ll explore how science-fictional “extrapolations” of present technologies help us to think about health and medicine in new ways. We’ll consider how fiction writers, filmmakers, historians, and scientists have imagined the consequences of possible developments such as increased longevity, pandemics, genetic modification, hormone treatments, and more. This course introduces students to concepts in literary studies and science and technology studies that will help us think seriously about how and where medicine and culture intersect in important ways. Likely fiction authors include Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ramez Naam, and we’ll also discuss one or two films.
This graduate course examines the connections between social network analysis, digital humanities methods, and contemporary literary studies with a focus on the U.S. context. We’ll start by looking at how scholars have recently begun to imagine how we periodize “contemporary” literature, with focuses on postmodernism, neoliberalism, knowledge work, and the network society. We’ll then ask how contemporary fiction and other literary forms model and map the social world, and to what ends, with attention to a variety of claims about the political ramifications of peer-to-peer networks and social media. In addition to examining how texts model networks, we’ll also look at strategies for mapping the networks within which authors and their texts circulate. We’ll use these questions and a handful of novels as bases for relating some recent classics of literary and social theory to a broad subset of digital humanities methods and applications. Likely authors: Thomas Pynchon, David Simon, Jennifer Egan, Karen Tei Yamashita, Teju Cole, Tom McCarthy; Amy Hungerford, Mark McGurl, Worden and Gladstone, Marshall McLuhan, Alan Liu, Fredric Jameson, Thacker and Galloway, Patrick Jagoda, Michel Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Ronald Burt, Mohr and White, Albert-László Barabási, Manuel Castells, Long and So, Franco Moretti, Caroline Levine, Bruno Latour.
Note: This course is a senior seminar reserved for students writing honors theses in the English department. I’m unable to add additional students this time, but I hope to teach a similar course as a standard 400-level course soon.
This senior seminar takes the decade—our usual way of dividing, or periodizing, shifts in mood, culture—as a starting point for digging deeper into the relationships between literature, history, and politics in one of the most turbulent periods in U.S. cultural history. As we investigate how ideas from this period inform how we think about the politics of culture and about ourselves, we’ll be asking thorny questions about the terms, assumptions, and methods of literary study: periodization, historical emplotment and national allegory, intellectual history and genealogical methods, sociologies of the literary field, and more.
This focus will give us a more nuanced understanding of this literary period and others, and a critical view of the ways we see our recent cultural history. A set of particularly rich works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from the period will allow students to practice close reading and to reach outward from the texts themselves toward the broader histories of literature and culture that define advanced research in literary studies. Likely authors: Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, John Updike, Ken Kesey, Thomas Pynchon, Betty Friedan, Philip K. Dick, Joan Didion, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, Tom Wolfe, Maxine Hong Kingston, Michael Herr, Leslie Marmon Silko, Luis Valdez, and critical work by Fredric Jameson, Mark McGurl, Amy Hungerford, Michael Szalay, Michel Foucault, Hayden White, and others.
This course in modernist fiction will explore one of the richest and most innovative periods in literary production. We’ll consider a number of contexts that shaped this set of literary movements, with a particular focus on new modes of perception. How did new ideas in psychology and psychoanalysis, growing cosmopolitan metropolises, and revolutions in communications media, we’ll ask, prompt modernists to experiment with new ways of seeing in fiction? We’ll see how novelists experimented with radical new ideas from Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson, among others, and how other novelists carved out new territory for themselves as the cinema became a dominant force in popular culture. We’ll read brief selections from sociological and psychological writings and theories of modernism and modernity, alongside novels, short fiction, and a film or two. In the process, you’ll experiment with new ways of seeing the world, too. Likely authors include: Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Nella Larsen, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Ralph Ellison, Patricia Highsmith, and Vladimir Nabokov. Requirements to include several papers, a group project and presentation, in-class activities and participation, and a final exam.
How have computers and the internet changed fiction? How have they shaped its topics, how we read it, and how critics and scholars write about it? This course introduces students to the literary and critical genres that have arisen alongside the internet in a variety of modes, including fictions about social media, e-literature, and digital humanities approaches. We’ll examine how fiction has reinvented itself in the age of social media, big data, fan fiction, and the wealth of other forms of entertainment media that compete with it today. Students will learn how culture has changed alongside the history of communications media, and we’ll experiment together with new forms of critical engagement that use digital media and computational methods, such as social network analysis, critical games, and distant reading. We’ll read works by authors including Samuel Beckett, Philip K. Dick, Alice Sheldon, Dave Eggers, Jennifer Egan, Teju Cole, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, and Robin Sloan, and criticism from the likes of Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, Edward Tufte, Lisa Nakamura, Evgeny Morozov, and others.
This graduate course is an introduction to digital humanities geared toward applications in literary and cultural studies. While students’ interests will help to shape our syllabus, particularly for sessions in the final weeks, we’ll be experimenting with: text mining and entity extraction, text encoding, social network analysis, web design frameworks, mapping and GIS, topic modeling, and creative visualization. No prior knowledge of computer programming is presumed; all students will learn some basic principles, and many of our lab activities will include options for students who wish to try out more advanced tools and methods. In our discussions of critical readings and a shared literary text, we’ll aim to find ways that digital methods can be integrated with traditional methods as we discuss current literary and cultural studies research problems. Student projects will include conference abstracts, a grant proposal, and a digital project prototype or mock-up accompanied by a conference-length paper.
In this course, we’ll consider the career of the novel in the U.S. over the course of the past eleven decades. This era saw a staggering number of changes in the U.S.: the country’s shifting geopolitical roles, new media and communications technologies, cultural revolutions and radical movements, and institutional transformations in the production and study of literature. We’ll approach the ambitions of novelists in this period of the “great American novel” in two ways. First, we’ll study the country and periods these novelists wanted to speak to and for, through lectures and supplemental readings. Second, we’ll consider the changing cultural roles novelists have taken on for themselves, from arbiters of “hip” to standard-bearers for democracy itself. We’ll read critical essays that connect our works to different historical contexts and theoretical approaches, and a few works of nonfiction by novelists, as well. Likely authors include Theodore Dreiser, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip K. Dick, Maxine Hong Kingston, Leslie Marmon Silko, Toni Morrison, Junot Díaz, David Foster Wallace, and Jennifer Egan. Requirements will include several papers, one with a creative option, a final exam, in-class exercises and participation, and regular written responses to the readings.
Networks in the Contemporary Novel (spring 2013, UCSB)
Particularly since the rise of social media as part of our daily interactions, we think more and more about who we are through the form of the network. Our networks define the reach of our ideas, our access to information and modes of self-expression, and, increasingly, our understandings of power and agency. With regard to the latter, ideas about new networks have shaped the stories we tell about both new manifestations of democracy (Occupy, the 2009 elections in Iran, the Arab Spring) and new forms of control, surveillance, and suppression. In this course we looked at a variety of fictional, sociological, philosophical, and non-fictional approaches to networks. We also experimented with Gephi and other digital technologies for modeling social networks in fiction and elsewhere. The fiction included contemporary re-imaginings of the early internet and 1970s social movements, science fiction about the power of Anonymous-style collectives, and speculative accounts of the Arab Spring and the 2011 U.K. riots written just after they occurred. Fiction, film, and multimedia work by Karen Tei Yamashita, Daniel Suarez, G. Willow Wilson, Jennifer Egan, Steven Soderbergh, China Miéville, and Ted Chiang. Requirements: reading long novels carefully, attendance and active participation, discussion board posts, and two papers, the second with a creative visualization option.
Literatures of Technology: I/Robot (fall 2011, UCSB)
In this advanced course within the Literature and the Culture of Information (LCI) specialization, students examined the relationships between literature and technology through the figure of the robot. Working across the past century, the class charts how this versatile figure has been instrumental for American thinking about the roles of technology, the limits of the human, and the meanings of freedom and unfreedom. Our investigations were split equally between science fiction novels, short fiction, and film, and many of the students collaborated on digital video projects—short films that re-stage a robotic encounter from one of our texts—as a hands-on engagement with the generic conventions, formal techniques, and conceptual stakes of the texts in the course. Works by Fritz Lang, Isaac Asimov, John Frankenheimer, Anthony Burgess, Brian Forbes, Alice Sheldon, Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson, Joss Whedon, Ronald D. Moore.
Mind and Modernism (fall 2012, spring 2012, UCSB)
In this senior seminar, students investigate how various ideas about the human mind have shaped our understandings of community, politics, and ethics. At the turn of the twentieth century, new ideas about the unconscious, the body’s lived experience in time, behavior, and habit inspired some of modernism’s most interesting formal experiments. We consider what those experiments meant for definitions of “modernism,” as we examine how ideas from Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, William James, John B. Watson and others relate to some of the most convincing and enduring literary representations of skepticism, race relations, human connection, isolation, sympathy, memory, and desire. Works and selections from Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Henry James, W.E.B. Du Bois, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens, Marcel Proust, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Nella Larsen, Samuel Beckett, and Alfred Hitchcock.
Race on the American Stage (spring 2012, UCSB)
This course focused on the meanings of the racialized body in twentieth-century and contemporary U.S. drama. We addressed questions about racial performance, passing, authenticity, stereotypes and icons, assimilation, interracial borrowing and imitation, and more. While we focused primarily on African American drama (branching out to other ethnic canons later in the term), we also examined how other popular forms—poetry, a novella, standup comedy, and, most of all, musical performance—supplement our understandings of central course concepts. The central course assignment, a group performance-presentation, allowed students to work hands-on with the formal constraints of drama. Principal texts by Eugene O’Neill, Nella Larsen, Lorraine Hansberry, LeRoi Jones, Ntozake Shange, Luis Valdez, Spike Lee, David Henry Hwang, and Young Jean Lee.
American Literature since 1945 (spring 2011, Macalester)
In this survey course, we examined the cultural roles played by American fiction, essays, drama, and poetry since World War II. What values and ideas has literature promoted—and been used to promote—in an age of American global prominence, of cultural and political upheaval, and of the proliferation of new modes of expression and communication? Our investigations took us through major works by Tennessee Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip K. Dick, Leslie Marmon Silko, David Mamet, Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Moustafa Bayoumi, Don DeLillo, and others.
Intro to U.S. Minority Literatures (winter 2013, winter 2012, UCSB; spring 2011, Macalester)
In this course, we will discuss the relationships between identity, politics, and literary expression in the U.S. since World War II. The course includes major works drawn from several traditions—African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American—and we will engage with some of the problems particular to each tradition as we construct a broader narrative of the recent American literary and intellectual histories of identity, ethnicity, diversity, and race. Beginning with the legacies of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement, we will move through the 1960s and 1970s establishments of ethnic literatures and ethnic studies alike and the celebratory multiculturalism and “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, ending with the new questions about American identity and belonging that have emerged in the decade since 9/11.
The Novel: Fictions of Encounter (fall 2010, Macalester)
This introduction to the English major took “encounter” as a guiding theme for reading British, American, and Anglophone fiction from the eighteenth century to the present. We examined how writers from different countries and periods staged politically, ethically, and erotically charged encounters between different cultures and classes, in works by Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, Herman Melville, H. Rider Haggard, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Bishop, J. M. Coetzee, and Arundhati Roy.
Global Fictions of World War II: Literature, Memory, History (fall 2010, Macalester)
This advanced seminar asked what literature can teach us about the uses of history, through a set of texts that re-think, re-tell, and bear witness to the globally significant events of World War II. We explored how questions about historical emplotment, documentary representation, trauma, and national belonging are brought together in works by Michael Ondaatje, John Okada, Art Spiegelman, Leslie Marmon Silko, Marguerite Duras, Kazuo Ishiguro, and others.
Black Writers in America (fall 2008, UVA)
In this course on the African American literary tradition, we read spirituals and slave narratives of the nineteenth century as well as more recent novels, poetry and plays, paying close attention to writers’ strategic engagements with the assumptions of their black and white contemporaries. Students learned key concepts for thinking about literary history and form as they engaged with landmark works of African American drama, fiction, poetry, autobiography, oratory, and criticism.
Madness in Literature, Philosophy, and Contemporary Culture (fall 2006, spring 2007, spring 2008, UVA)
In this advanced composition course, students explored contemporary issues in the media, such as debates about ADHD medication, perversion, the insanity defense, and addiction, alongside historical, philosophical, and literary texts that afforded us new perspectives on these topics, including work by Plato, Edgar Allan Poe, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sigmund Freud, Sylvia Plath, Fritz Lang, Milos Forman, Vladimir Nabokov, Michel Foucault, David Fincher, Ian Hacking, and Mark Haddon.