Across more than a decade of classroom experience, I have taught a range of courses at all levels of the curriculum, from freshman composition and general education literature classes to interdisciplinary humanities seminars and upper-division electives on American and African American literature and culture. Below are descriptions of current and past courses as well as of courses that I am developing. You can view syllabi for present and past courses by clicking on the title of the class.
Current and Past Courses
Representing Race: (African) American History on the Page and on the Screen: The past few years have witnessed an outpouring of major Hollywood films that purport to represent key epochs in the history of race in the United States. From 12 Years a Slave and Lincoln to Django Unchained and Selma, these films, like many that have preceded them, engage in the representational and explanatory work of forging a relationship between our nation’s difficult racial past and the present and future. This course examines the aims and implications of such imaginative reconstructions, focusing in particular on how two major forms of media—films and books—engage differently in the process of representing American racial history. Among other questions, we will ask what political and cultural work representations of slavery perform when they appear in a historical moment such as ours, a moment that is characterized at once by a desire for the “postracial” and the dogged persistence of black-white inequality? What do these films—many of which focus on the nineteenth century and its afterlife—teach us about the status of 1865 as a marker of division in the timeline of American history? What are the historical and literary precedents for these filmic treatments of race? How do various narrative structures and forms interact with and even challenge our assumptions about keywords such as history, liberation, political action, and power? As we pursue these and related questions, we will consider the representational techniques deployed by the films and texts on our syllabus, putting these works into dialogue with illuminating historical contexts. In doing so, we will hone our abilities to engage in close readings of both films and literary works, and come to appreciate the complex social, political, and historical contexts out of which both forms of media emerge and in which they circulate.
Reading Invisible Man: Race, Politics, and Culture in America—Past, Present, and Future: In this class we will consider Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man in its historical, cultural, political, philosophical, and literary contexts. We will seek to understand the novel’s complex vision of the intersections of race, politics, and culture in America, drawing not simply on resonant contexts from Ellison’s pre-Civil Rights nation, including some of his own essays, but also on texts, tropes, and ideas from the early republic and the nineteenth-century United States that constitute the backstory of Invisible Man. Accordingly, we will place Ellison’s novel into dialogue with a range of literary works and cultural objects from different historical epochs: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States; Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?”; the Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court cases; and novels, stories and essays by Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others. Students will use these assigned readings as points of departure for their own research into Ellison’s influences, contexts, and intertexts in preparation for the course’s culminating project: an electronic annotated edition of Invisible Man, which members of the class will plan, edit, and execute in a series of stages throughout the semester. This assignment will not simply function to create a compendium to this landmark work, but also as an occasion to meditate on the ways in which Ellison’s novel—with its penetrating vision of democracy, slavery and freedom, history, temporality, and the politics of the imagination—resonates in our own America.
Junior Seminar: Imagining Democracy and Social Justice in Late-Nineteenth-Century American Literature: Both founding texts of American democracy—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—claim among their aims the realization of “justice.” But what precisely is the relationship between democracy and justice? In what ways does this political form promote the configuration of just social structures, and in what ways does democracy hinder the realization of the common good? In this seminar, we will explore these questions by studying American literary works published at the close of the nineteenth century. A period of great economic, political, and social unrest, this era produced literature that explored and exposed pressing issues such as political corruption, urban poverty, gender inequality, and racial violence, and in so doing meditated, sometimes implicitly and other times quite overtly, on the possibilities and problems that democracy presents for the realization of social justice. We will begin by considering various conceptual accounts of the relationship between democracy and justice by classical, early national, and contemporary thinkers. We will then turn to narratives by Henry Adams, Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, and Charles W. Chesnutt, reading these authors’ works through both historical and conceptual lenses. The course will conclude with student presentations of their research papers, in which they will advance an original conception of the relationship between democracy and social justice through the analysis of a literary text. The intense focus on a discrete literary-historical period and set of texts will enable us not simply to devote sustained attention both to the works themselves and to their various historical and conceptual contexts; it will also allow us to consider different ways of pairing text and context (historical, cultural, and philosophical). In this way, the seminar will ultimately function as an exploration of different methods of reading and interpretation.
Introductory Composition and Research: Democracy, Deliberation, and Public Life in the United States: This course aims to develop your capacities as a critical reader, writer, and thinker, and to cultivate intellectual habits that will be essential to your future both within and beyond college. We will frame our attention to these skills around a central area of inquiry: democracy. Surely in the context of the United States, if not in the world more generally, “democracy” is one of the most frequently invoked but least interrogated terms in public life. In this class, we will critically examine “democracy,” both as ideal and practice, asking such questions as: What is “democracy,” and what does it mean to be “democratic’”? What are the various forms that democracy can take? What are the possibilities and problems associated with democracy, particularly with respect to issues of religious belief, military-civilian relations, and public education? What does it mean for a citizen to participate in government, especially in the exercise that is a standard definition of democracy: the act of “self-government”? Moving beyond the notion that voting is the expression par excellence of democratic participation, we will study what political theorists refer to as “deliberative democracy,” a form of democracy that requires the active, informed participation of citizens in debates on issues vital to the public interest and the common good. In this regard, we will consider the relationship between public dialogue and democracy, and we will examine with particular care the ways in which the skills of argumentation, analysis, and research, among others, might be considered crucial democratic capacities.
Survey of American Literature: Beginnings to the Present: This course is an intensive introduction to American literature from its origins to the contemporary period. Throughout the semester, we will explore how the various—and often conflicting—voices that compose this tradition imagine “America,” and the possibilities and problems that this designation represents. Following a roughly chronological path through approximately four centuries of material, we will begin by examining the ways in which language, both written and spoken, shaped the founding and development of the new nation and influenced debates about the kinds of people who ought to govern it. After studying the establishment of a supposedly distinctive literary tradition, which we have come to know as the American Renaissance, we will turn our attention to the problems of disunion, equality, rights, and slavery that led to the Civil War. As we consider the reunited nation that emerged from this internal conflict, we will focus on genre, exploring the ways in which American writers have experimented with form in their engagements with questions of gender, race, and ethnicity, from the Harlem Renaissance to the contemporary period. We will read texts both by authors familiar (such as Emerson, Douglass, and Faulkner) and less familiar (such as David Walker, Anzia Yezierska, and Maxine Hong Kingston), and we will pay special attention to the various forms—poetry, political documents, sermons, letters, and war narratives, to name just a few—that constitute imaginative production in the United States. Throughout the term, we will interrogate the selection and categorization of the texts on the syllabus, with a view toward the manifold ways of imagining “America.”
Introduction to Literature: Literature, Justice, and Judgment: In this course, we will read a range of literary works—from Sophocles’s Antigone and Shakespeare’s The Tempest to J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Toni Morrison’s Beloved—that force us to grapple with some of the most fundamental and difficult questions confronting human beings. What is justice? How do we determine what is right and wrong? Through what kinds of processes should we choose—and enforce—these definitions, and what is the appropriate response to violations of moral and ethical norms? How do the legacies of past wrongs influence and shape the way we live in the present? And what role do narrative, art, and the imagination play in helping us to answer such questions? As we think through these and other issues together, we will pay special attention to the ways literary texts express their ideas not simply through their content but also through their form—that is, not simply through what they say but how the say it. In so doing, you will develop crucial skills of analysis and interpretation; hone your ability to craft oral and written arguments that are clear, complex, and significant; and support your claims with compelling evidence. Perhaps most important, you will grow as a reader, speaker, writer, and thinker, cultivating intellectual habits and capacities that will be vital to your future both within and beyond college.
Interdisciplinary Humanities Freshman Seminar: True Love and Perfect Union: Love, Marriage, and Social Theory (team taught): This course traces some of the manifold ways in which marriage has occupied a central place in American thinking about the Good Society from the mid-eighteenth century to the present. The premise is simple: marital theory was and is social theory. When Americans debated what the ideal marriage should look like, who should be able to enter into (or leave) it, how married and unmarried couples should be treated, and so on, they were also—and usually quite explicitly—expressing deeply held beliefs about citizenship, gender, race, economics, and the future of the Republic. In the process, they created new categories and new, often far more stratified, social hierarchies. This course invites students to think about those relationships from multiple chronological and disciplinary perspectives, to bring the best the humanities have to offer to bear on the question: what is the relation between private life and the public sphere?
Freshman Seminar: Slavery and Freedom, Past and Present: In a speech delivered nearly two decades after the abolition of black bondage in the United States, Frederick Douglass proclaimed that “no man can tell just when” the “foul spirit” of slavery “departed from our land, if, indeed, it has yet departed.” With this statement, Douglass expressed a skepticism about the possibility of marking the “end” of racial servitude in a single date, not merely for fear that to do so would reduce the horror of the institution but out of an awareness that the legal termination of slavery in 1865 did not necessarily signal its conclusion. In what ways does slavery endure in the era of freedom? Taking this question as a point of departure, this course investigates racial slavery, both as historical fact and as a metaphor for varying states of unfreedom from the nation’s founding to the present day. After defining slavery’s constituent elements and reading Douglass’s famous 1845 slave narrative, we will focus on scenes of slavery’s recurrence in postemancipation works by a range of American authors, both black and white, asking what it means to call antiblack violence or sociopolitical subjugation a “second slavery,” as W. E. B. Du Bois does, and thinking about how such an assertion might challenge us to reconfigure our standard conceptions of time, history, and progress. In the final unit of the course, we will turn our attention to current examples of slavery’s afterlife, such as debates about reparations and instances of blackface performance. We also will ask how we might understand racial servitude in relation to modern-day human bondage and the traffic in persons, which, although not race based, are nonetheless forms of slavery that are alive and well, even in the United States.
Revolutionizing the American Renaissance: When in “The American Scholar” (1837) Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to the middle of the nineteenth century as “the age of Revolution” he associated the task of constructing an American cultural identity with the radical energies of the war for independence. In American Renaissance (1941), the groundbreaking study that named this epoch, the literary scholar F. O. Matthiessen extended the analogy, asserting that Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville sought to “give fulfillment to the potentialities freed by the Revolution to provide a culture commensurate with America’s political opportunity.” But just how revolutionary was this American Renaissance? What might we make of the fact that the five authors included in Matthiessen’s book were all white males from the North? To ask the question in another way, what is the relationship among literature, politics, and national identity? In this class, we will examine these and related questions by focusing on the various forms of writing produced in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. The course will be divided into two main units: in the first, we will read works by Matthiessen’s “big five,” getting an initial sense of this era’s commitments and concerns from the perspective of these figures. We will then reconsider the Renaissance in America by studying the literature produced by authors excluded from Matthiessen’s canon: Edgar Allan Poe, Margaret Fuller, Black Hawk, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The course will conclude with student presentations of their final projects: an online encyclopedia of the American Renaissance, variously defined. Through this culminating assignment, students will revisit, synthesize, and revise some of the course’s central terms and texts, ultimately launching their own interpretive revolutions of this vital period in American literary history.
Introduction to African American Literature: This course is an intensive introduction to African American literature. Throughout the term, we will be guided by an overarching question: is “African American literature” better understood as a unified aesthetic and political tradition or as a series of discrete—and often internally divided—movements that resist the coherence such a designation implies? In exploring this query, we will encounter authors ranging from Phillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison, and study a variety of genres, including poetry, drama, and the novel. Rather than charting a single chronological path through our readings, however, the course will be divided into two main units. In the first half of the term, we will approach the texts on our syllabus as forming a cohesive tradition that deploys similar rhetorical strategies and tropes in an effort to contest racial injustice even as the particular historical circumstances in which these works were composed differed. We will then reconsider this tradition, examining some less canonical works and forms, and looking anew at a few of the authors we encountered in the first unit, with an eye toward exploring the discontinuities that have characterized this enterprise across time and space. We will conclude by reading Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, asking whether this contemporary novel provides a more fitting end point to the first or second trajectory we have traced. In so doing, we will revisit some of the course’s major themes—slavery and freedom, gender, sexuality, racial identity, class, authority and authenticity, representation, aurality and orality, history, uplift—and debate what, if any, significance the category “African American literature” holds for our purportedly “postracial” moment.
Senior Seminar: William Faulkner and W. E. B. Du Bois: Civil Rights Between Literary History and Historiography: Two of the most prolific and important American authors of the twentieth century, William Faulkner and W. E. B. Du Bois devoted themselves to the same subject (race), published at the very same moments (their masterworks Black Reconstruction and Absalom, Absalom! appeared in 1935 and 1936, respectively), and died within a year of one another amid the climax of the campaign for Civil Rights (Faulkner in 1962, Du Bois in 1963). But these two figures have yet to be studied in relation. In this seminar, we will embark on this ambitious and necessary task, asking what we can learn if we read Faulkner and Du Bois together. Among other questions, we will ask: How do these writers define “race” and its place in the history of the United States? What does the story of Civil Rights look like if we put these two writers into dialogue? How might such a pairing illuminate and complicate what twenty-first-century historians have identified as the “long” Civil Rights movement, which begins in the early decades of the twentieth century and only culminates in the 1960s? What are the shared formal techniques these writers deploy to develop their expansive narratives about “America,” its promise and problems—past, present, and future? Throughout the semester, students will propose original pairings of these two authors through a series of exercises; the course will conclude with student presentations of their seminar papers, in which they will advance an argument about the meaning of “history” for Du Bois/Faulkner in a particular moment in the twentieth century. The intense focus on a pair of authors will enable us not simply to devote sustained attention both to the works themselves and to their various historical contexts; it will also allow us to consider different ways of pairing text and context. Indeed, students will meditate on the methodological practices that differentiate literary history and historiography, and they will use the tools of close reading—the central method of literary analysis they have cultivated across their careers as English majors—to consider what we might gain if we turn to Faulkner and Du Bois to conceive of and narrate “history.” In this way, the seminar ultimately will function as a capstone meditation on the methods and stakes of reading and interpretation.
African American Literature and Diasporic Consciousness: Writing to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in 1846, Frederick Douglass declared: “[A]s to nation, I belong to none.” Douglass’s statement raises questions not simply about the way we categorize this writer—who generally is understood as a quintessentially black American figure—but also about the very idea of a nationally bounded African American literary tradition. Taking Douglass’s remark as a point of departure, this course approaches African American literature as a transnational—and, indeed, global—enterprise that resists identification with a single territory, nation, or state. To this end, we will read works by authors customarily associated with the black American literary tradition that resist a national framework, such as Douglass’s novella The Heroic Slave and Pauline E. Hopkins’s Of One Blood. We also will pair more familiar texts with contemporaneous works by writers from outside the United States, exploring, for instance, how the seemingly domestic problem of racial segregation in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is in fact inextricably bound up with the questions of colonialism, power, and domination at the center of Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest (Une tempête). Throughout the course, we will explore the cultural, political, and aesthetic implications of “diasporic consciousness,” or the notion that to identify as “black” is to claim membership in a global network of peoples of African descent that spans Africa, Europe, the United States, and the Caribbean.
Whiteness in American Literature and Culture: “As long as you think you’re white,” James Baldwin once remarked, “there’s no hope for you.” This arresting assertion suggests that accounts of “race” and “ethnicity” in the United States are incomplete, even distorted, as long as they ignore what it means to be “white.” Taking this premise as a point of departure, this course examines “whiteness” as a category that is constructed in relation to “blackness” and other ethnic identities such as “Irish American,” “Mexican American,” and “Asian American.” Throughout the semester, we will ask: What are the legal, cultural, and political processes through which some Americans have come to define themselves as “white”? What role do literacy and literature play in this process? What does it mean to “act white”? Can one renounce one’s whiteness, and in what ways might such an endeavor bring about greater racial equality? What, if any, significance does whiteness retain in what some have termed our “postracial” era? We will explore these questions through close readings of literary works by William Apess, Frederick Douglass, Sui Sin Far, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Maxine Hong Kingston; music by Eminem; the film The Jazz Singer; and other cultural texts such as the website Stuff White People Like. In order to thicken our understanding of these works, we also will examine contextual and theoretical accounts of whiteness from a variety of academic disciplines (legal studies, literary criticism, and history, among others). Students will synthesize these primary and secondary sources in a final project, formulating their own positions about the history and future of whiteness in American and literature and culture.
African American Literature Before and (or?) After 1865: Narrating Emancipation, Continuity, and Change in the Nineteenth Century: In narratives of nineteenth-century American history, the year 1865 looms large, signaling an epochal break between the eras of slavery and black freedom, the antebellum and postbellum periods. But even as the nineteenth century was a time of great change, there were also important—and, for black Americans, often devastating—patterns of continuity that troubled this supposed dividing line. In this class, we will consider the manifold forms of writing published by black Americans before and after legal emancipation, from Frederick Douglass’s classic slave narrative to Elizabeth Keckley’s exposé of the Lincoln White House, to Pauline Hopkins’s radical Western heroine Winona, and (back again) to Douglass’s postbellum narrative. As we read these and other works, we will ask what they teach us about the status of 1865 in the timeline of American literary history and also inquire into the ways that narrative form interacts with and even challenges our assumptions about keywords such as history, liberation, political action, and power. Given Hollywood’s recent penchant for adapting nineteenth-century black literature for the screen, we will supplement our study of the literary and critical works on our syllabus by viewing films such as 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln, and Django Unchained.
The Theory and Practice of Literary Criticism: This course is an intensive introduction to various philosophical and theoretical approaches informing the practice of literary criticism. Throughout the semester, we will survey the keywords that have guided the professional and popular study of literature over roughly the last fifty years: structure, deconstruction, the unconscious, performativity, power, race, gender, sexuality, and biopolitics. As we seek to define and assess the ambitions and aims animating these terms, their concomitant interpretive approaches, and the social, political, and intellectual commitments informing both, we will meditate on the theory and practice of reading literature. In doing so, we will ask what is it that we do when we read literature? What role does theory play in this process? And what do our answers to these queries reveal about the act of interpretation itself? To give this necessarily abstract endeavor a concrete textual foundation, we will deploy as a case study a literary work that has been read and reread (and, some have argued, misread) from manifold theoretical approaches: Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.