Post-Apocalyptic Fictions for Apocalyptic Times
The end of the world is a universal human obsession, and has been throughout history. But at particular moments in time, the apocalypse seems to capture our imaginations in particularly powerful ways. In the early twenty-first century, we are confronted with the potentially world-ending reality of climate change and mass extinction, as well as the still looming threat of nuclear war, untreatable pandemics, and other threats, both man-made and “natural.” In these perilous times, narrating possible apocalypses and imagining post-apocalyptic futures are a dominant strand of contemporary literature, film, and art.
In this University Literature Seminar, we will read a variety of post-apocalyptic fictions in an attempt to understand the work this type of narrative does in cultures that are beset by crisis. Do they help us to prepare for the worst, or are they ways of displacing our anxieties about the trajectory of our society into the realm of fantasy? Are they calls to action or do they point to nihilistic acceptance of our fate as being the only rational response to the feeling that everything is falling apart. We will trace the history of the post-apocalyptic imaginary from ancient myths of Armageddon and Ragnarok, through early modern incarnations of the trope like Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and into contemporary novels such as Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne, Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. We will contextualize these fictions with theoretical work by authors like Timothy Morton, Andrew McMurray, and Notre Dame’s own Roy Scranton. Throughout, the political implications of imagining the world ending, ended, or about to end will be at the center of our analysis.
On the Move: Migration in American Literature
In this class, we will examine the importance of migration in twentieth century U.S. Literature. We will consider how migration has been integral in telling or representing the American experience, particularly by investigating how movement has been used by authors to shape texts, ideas, and characters. In asking ourselves how the ideas of flux and movement impact both the content and the structure of a novel, we will reflect on how migration alters political ideas, ideals, and trends. Finally, we will explore the many ways that migration shapes or constructs our conceptions of homeland and region.
The Bible in English Literature
This course explores how the Bible has influenced English literature from the medieval to the modern eras. We'll read major narratives from the Bible -- the story of the creation and the fall; stories of exile and return; narratives of the Incarnation and Passion of Christ; and important parables such as the Parable of the Prodigal Son -- and consider how major authors such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, George Herbert, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, T. S. Eliot, Geoffrey Hill, and Marilynne Robinson adapt and respond to the Bible in their creative work. You will have a chance to think about the Bible and its literary adaptations in short exercises, essays, and an optional creative project. By the end of this course, you'll have a good understanding of the many ways English literary traditions draw on and transform their biblical inheritance; you'll know the differences between quotation, allusion, and echo; you'll learn how to read poetry well; and you will develop your skills as a writer, preparing yourself for the rest of your academic career at Notre Dame.
Autobiography and Subjectivity
Life-writing is a capacious term that can be used to describe a variety of private and public statements about the self. Some of these are easily recognizable as artistic representations of subjectivity (for example, memoirs, diaries, letters, self-portraits) and some less so (for example, legal testimony, graphic novels, blogs, social media, even medical forms have been read as part of the complex project of articulating subjectivity). This course will attend to a wide variety of forms of life-writing in order to trace shifting notions of what counts as a self and track the complex project of defining and representing subjectivity. A broad range of critical approaches to subjectivity and definitions of the autobiographical project will assist us as we attempt to map changing notions of the self. Our materials will be drawn from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries: texts may include a selection of writings by Wordsworth and Mill, Art Spiegelman's graphic family memoir Maus, Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Virginia Woolf's “Sketch of the Past,” Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home, selections from Knausgård’s multi-volume My Struggle, autofictions such as Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, self-portraits by Frieda Kahlo, social media, political and legal testimony, witnessing, and other examples of autobiography at work will also be considered.
Frankenstein and Friends: The Monstrous in Literature and Film
This course will explore the cultural construction of monsters and the monstrous through the enduring figure and myth of Mary Shelley’s Creature, popularly known as Frankenstein. We will begin by reading Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818; 1831) alongside sources for her lonely and rebellious monster in Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, and John Milton, Paradise Lost (selections). We will then turn to Frankenstein’s Victorian analogues in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), as well as a modern rewriting in Kirsten Bakis, Lives of the Monster Dogs (1997). We will also examine the Frankenstein monster on film, including screenings of or clips from James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and campy Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Mel Brooks’ satiric comedy Young Frankenstein (1974), and Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie (1984) and Edward Scissorhands (1990). We will be reading scholarly articles as well as primary texts.
As we discuss and analyze Mary Shelley’s monstrous myth, including its sources and its fictional and cinematic legacy, we will approach each text or film with such questions as: Who are the monsters? What are they? Where do they come from? How are they created? Where do they dwell? What borders do they cross? What do they do? Is their “monstrosity” physical, psychological, or moral? What threat do they pose? What emotions do they inspire? Are monsters ever tragic, inspiring pity as well as fear and horror? What is the relationship between the human and the monstrous? How do individuals and societies define themselves through or against the monstrous? What do monsters tell us about ourselves and our deepest values? What makes the Frankenstein monster so fascinating, adaptable, and durable?
This course is discussion-based and writing-intensive. Students will write four analytic papers and will have the opportunity to write about film, as well as about literary texts. There will be a group project on the Frankenstein films.
Theories and Literature
In studying literature, and the humanities in general, the term theory demarcates a way of looking at things. For example, a gender theorist focuses upon the importance of gender or sexual identities, a Marxist theorist emphasizes how economic conditions affect social and political realities, and a narrative theorist examines the operations of such matters as perspective and plotting in storytelling. This course does not promote any one theoretical perspective but instead surveys numerous styles of literary theory and criticism in order to develop students' intellectual fluency in seeing across different ways of thinking. While a great deal of sheer fun and surprise awaits in learning about different theory approaches, such knowledge is also empowering: it raises our consciousness concerning our commitments and interests as readers and citizens. Our primary literary texts will likely include E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman," Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, selections of poetry, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, numerous examples from film and modern mass media. These texts will help us to make quite various critical approaches more concrete. Such a course serves all students contemplating work in the humanities, but it should also stimulate students interested in law, political topics, and cultural tensions in their varied historical unfoldings. Graded coursework involves collaborative online work, midterm and several small assignments, and a final paper documenting a point of theory controversy that interests you individually, taking up a literary or cultural context of your choosing. Regular journal writings and active participation are also graded factors.
On the Road: The History of Quest Literature
The title of Jack Kerouac’s experimental Beat Era novel On the Road represents a modern variation on one of the most powerful trajectories in the great traditions of literary history. Narratives of pilgrimage and quest permeate these traditions, expressing fundamental, abiding human aspirations toward transcendental ideals. Yet this compelling quest motif also addresses the particular cultural and political priorities of specific societies and historical contexts. This seminar will explore the many different cultural inflections of quest narratives and the ways in which they reveal profound tensions between the persisting human search for the ideal and the ever changing historical forces at work in specific social communities. Our own journey of exploration will begin with Biblical and Classical sources, Homer in particular, followed by medieval quest romance. We will then proceed to forms of ironic and radically modernized quest narratives in selected works from the eighteenth century to the present by Swift, Voltaire, Byron, MW Shelley, Tennyson, Kerouac, and the Monty Python troupe.
In this course we will examine a range of novels which might loosely be understood as “spy fiction,” yet each of them has a very different understanding of what it means to spy. We will ask what these novels can tell us about the relationship between literature and history, and what they reveal about ways of looking and narrative point of view. We will be reading novels by (among others): G.K. Chesterton, Ian Fleming, Patricia Highsmith, John Le Carré, and George Orwell. This course will be discussion based and will require regular written assignments designed to hone critical reading skills.
Victorian Literature and Its Steampunk Heirs
This class asks why modern-day writers use settings and plots from Victorian novels to work through their own ideas about technology, transportation, information, and the complex social structures of modern society. We will explore Victorian fiction that deals with rapid social and technological change, and then try to see how modern authors adapt those attitudes for use in a twenty-first century society. From the Victorian era we will read Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son, Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, and H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. From the modern era we will read Sydney Padua’s graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine and China Mieville’s incredibly weird fantasy novel, Perdido Street Station. Students can expect to spend a lot of time talking, writing and reading about trains, computers, factories, flying machines, economics, and riots; about how we construct and enforce differences among genders, humans, animals, and robots; and about how the industrial world uses fiction.
Writing for Social Justice
We read about these issues in the media every day: homelessness, disability, immigration, AIDS. Perhaps we read about government proposals designed to address these topics or about battles in Congress over funding such proposals. We may read statements by leaders of national advocacy organizations about how to improve the lives of the homeless, the disabled, new immigrants, and people with AIDS. What are often missing from such accounts are the voices of those who are living these experiences. Often we do not hear from the homeless mother with three children, the intellectually disabled man working at a factory, the immigrant family studying English, or the woman living with HIV. We do not hear their stories directly from them, and so we cannot learn what they may have to teach us.
This class is about listening to those voices. We will partner with South Bend community agencies serving marginalized groups whose voices are rarely heard, and whose stories are seldom told. We will listen to those stories, record and transcribe them, and use them as the basis for examining questions of social justice, which we shall define broadly as concern for the lives of the poor and the vulnerable. You will be expected to read extensively, research assiduously, and write regularly. Most important, you will be expected to listen, which will be the foundation of our learning.