Fall 2018

English 490: Literature, Science, Race (1700 - 1865)

Course Description: The American nineteenth century is the era of biological essentialism, the ideology that skin color and other physical features are evidence of differences in identity, character, and capacities. There is no scientific basis for this ideology, yet it sanctioned deep and irreparable damage by justifying slavery, colonial expansion, and other violent projects that depended upon—and further encouraged—dividing persons from one another and into “full humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans” (to cite Alexander Weheliye, a contemporary theorist of race). The U.S. still struggles with the terrible legacy of biological essentialism. This course proposes that building a better future requires examining where this notion came from, why it held such power in the early U.S., and what alternatives we might pursue.

Accordingly, we will examine key eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American literary reflections on race in a broad range of genres, including the colonial land survey of William Byrd, the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, Thomas Jefferson’s natural history of Virginia, Olaudah Equiano’s narrative of slavery, and the nineteenth-century novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Wells Brown, who is frequently hailed as the first African American novelist. Alongside these works we will read selections from a variety of historical writings on race and nature that allow us to chart changes in scientific theories of human difference across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Guiding our study will be carefully chosen, short selections from current scholarship that provides a critical vocabulary for analyzing race and gender. Primarily, this course grounds students in the complex intellectual, historical, and literary genealogies of nineteenth-century U.S. writing about human difference; simultaneously, it examines the roots and routes of, and potential alternatives to, deeply harmful forms of racial imagining that persist today.

Spring 2017

English 349: American Literature, Beginnings Through 1820

“One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read?”
— Florens, narrator of A Mercy (2008) by Toni Morrison

Course Description: Florens’s questions—questions of responsibility and legibility—will guide our semester-long investigation of encounters, conflicts, class and racial differences, friendships, alliances, and familial relations among white, black, creole, Indian, French, Spanish, and other populations striving to occupy North America between 1620 and 1820. “Who is responsible?” and “can you read?” are questions with high stakes in early America. For ultimately Florens is asking, Who is allowed the liberty to interpret the world and others? Who is denied that liberty, and thus intended only to be the object of others’ interpretations? Who is allowed the freedom of constructing a narrative and publishing it for contemporaries and posterity? Whose narratives are preserved? And whose narratives—and thus perspectives, persons, stories, voices, and histories—are inevitably omitted or silenced? The answers to these questions depend on us, as critical readers of the past. For this reason, we will return to these questions frequently as we survey a wide variety of writings, historical topics, and authors across a vast time span and a broad range of genres, including poetry, captivity narrative, political essay, short story, slave narrative, novel, and drama. By doing so we will develop for ourselves a more complex, richly textured narrative of early American literature and culture—and thereby of our own present.

English 141 - American Literature, Beginnings Through 1865

Course Description: This course surveys American writing from the arrival of the English on the eastern seaboard in the early seventeenth century through the end of the American Civil War. As a survey, this course will involve reading—and writing about—texts from a variety of genres, including poetry, captivity narrative, political essay, short story, slave narrative, and novel. The primary goal of this course is to gain a richer sense of American literature and culture by examining multiple perspectives and modes of expression from an earlier historical period, and by making connections between our present and America’s past. To that end, all of the assignments for this course are carefully designed to help students identify and analyze less familiar styles and genres of writing, and to form questions and arguments about texts—skills that are critical not only for this course, but also for other courses across campus, and for life beyond the classroom as well.

Fall 2016

English 670 / ENGLISH 495 Capstone -
Imagining American Geographies, 1700-1865

Course Description: According to colonial surveyor William Byrd, all parts of the continent south of Virginia produce “gross humours” and provide a great “refuge for all debtors and fugitives.” Byrd’s History of the Dividing Line (1728) tells us that as early as 1728—long before there was any U.S. nation to speak of—many people already felt that different geographic parts of the continent produced and sustained different types of behaviors, practices, and even cultures. This course examines the patterns of language and literature through which people contemplated and constructed the various geographies and regions of early America. Together we will explore the roots of concepts of space and land that persist today—such as “North,” “South,” “desert,” “swamp,” “riverine,” “coast,” and “oceanic”—in a broad range of classic and lesser-known Anglo-American works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including geographies, maps, travel narratives, and novels. 

The course includes a digital component requiring students to collaborate in a digital mapping project.