Literary Hub

The Classes 25 Famous Writers Teach

Plenty of writers teach. Even famous ones. This is a known fact of the universe. After all, academy jobs are notoriously cushy; what you give up in writing time you get back in the form of a steady salary, summers off, and the nebulous reward of eager minds to mold. As for how exactly they might be molded, well, that’s up to the writer in question.

Last week, I started looking through college catalogs to see what interesting literature courses I might read along with this fall, and in the process I stumbled across more than a few descriptions for classes taught by famous writers—and some of them surprised me. Who knew, for instance, that Jonathan Lethem loved animals enough to build a course around them? Or that in addition to writing workshops, Jim Shepard likes to teach horror movies at Williams? On the other hand, I’m not at all surprised to find that Claudia Rankine teaches classes that seek to unpack the nature of whiteness, but I’m thrilled to have come across her meticulous reading list for last year’s course.

Below, I’ve collected course descriptions for classes taught by 25 well-known writers at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Most of these are from the current school year, but a few have been culled from recent semesters. Though plenty of writers teach straight workshops (whether poetry, fiction, or non-fiction), I’ve omitted those here, since we all pretty much know what a workshop consists of. Instead, I’ve picked out the more interesting options, whether themed workshops or literature classes, which give a little more insight into the writer’s interests, academic or otherwise. It’s enough to make any reader envious of the youth today—and to that end, if you’re lucky enough to be at one of these schools right now, I suggest that you don’t miss taking one of these classes with a literary legend.

Photo: Andrew Allen Moore/New York Magazine

Lorrie Moore:

Special Topics in Creative Writing: “What’s So Funny?: An Investigation” (Engl. 3891.01), Vanderbilt University, Spring 2017

Course Description: A look at literary texts from Shakespeare to Toni Cade Bambara to discover how literary humor is used in writing. What are the mechanics of making it occur? What are its various attributes and categories and sub-species? What are the underlying theories in practice? This is not a lecture course but an intensive reading and discussion course—class presentations and quizzes required but only a little writing.

Photo: Mike Vorrasi

Jonathan Lethem:

Topics in Contemporary Fiction: Animals (ENGL055B PO), Pomona College; Spring 2015

Course Description: Readings in stories, novels, and essays in which the subject of the lives of animals invites consideration of topics of empathy, suffering and the body, in contemporary writing and thought generally. We’ll also take more than a sidelong glance at the function and uses of literary strategies of allegory, parable and fable. Letter grade only.

Impossible Novels: The Man Without Qualities (ENGL055A PO), Pomona College; Spring 2016

Course Description: In the poet Randall Jarrell’s definition, “a novel is a prose narrative of a certain length with something wrong with it.” The Austrian Modernist Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, an unfinished novel of 1700 pages in its most comprehensive edition, is an exemplary case of the above. Musil is often classed with Proust and Joyce in the 20th Century pantheon; he’s also rarely read. In this seminar we’ll tackle this vast book directly and by using a number of historical and critical sources, as well as Musil’s diaries, to surround and inform it with useful context. The result will be a reading expedition to an unknown shore. Letter grade only.

Photo: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Writing Narrative (ENGL 302), USC, Fall 2016

Course Description: This course takes as its premise that art and politics can co-exist. e writers that we will read grapple with what it means to be an “other” and how to write about it. Frequently this involves dealing with the history that has produced one’s otherness; with the task of translation that often falls on the other; with the burden of representing the marginalized community from which one comes; with crossing borders of all kinds — linguistic, sexual, geographical, generic. All the writers we will read are hard to classify, because they rebel against classi cation itself, which seeks to pin the other down into a manageable category (race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, etc.). As writers, students will have the chance to experiment with narrative, to disregard generic boundaries, to take on di cult subjects, to be critical in their creative writing, or to be creative in their critical writing. e form of what will be written is secondary to the story that needs narration.

Introduction to Literary and Cultural Criticism and Theory (ENGL 501), USC, Fall 2015

Course Description: As the title indicates, this course is an introduction. It requires no advance knowledge of literary and cultural criticism and theory. We will read excerpts from the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism on the major theorists and philosophers who have shaped contemporary criticism (in no particular order: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Stuart Hall, Fredric Jameson, and others). In addition, given that half of the seminar will be composed of creative writers and the other half of literary critics (although perhaps some may cross the line and do both), we will also look at some figures who do both creative and critical work, such as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Claudia Rankine, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Trinh T. Minh-ha, in an effort to see how criticism can inform creative work, and vice versa. Figuring out what terms like structuralism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism, and others, do in literary and cultural theory will also be on the agenda. Be prepared to lead the seminar in discussion, to participate in the conversation both in seminar and online, and to write a research paper or an essay.

Photo: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Junot Díaz:

Apocalyptic Storytelling (CMS.848), MIT, Fall 2017

Course Description: Focuses on the critical making of apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories across various narrative media. Considers the long history of Western apocalypticism as well as the uses and abuses of apocalypticism across time. Examines a wide variety of influential texts in order to enhance students’ creative and theoretical repertoires. Students create their own apocalyptic stories and present on selected texts. Investigates conventions such as plague, zombies, nuclear destruction, robot uprising, alien invasion, environmental collapse, and supernatural calamities. Considers questions of race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, trauma, memory, witness, and genocide. Intended for students with prior creative writing experience. Students taking graduate version complete additional assignments. Limited to 15.

Critical Worldbuilding (CMS.307), MIT, Fall 2017

Course Description: Studies the design and analysis of invented (or constructed) worlds for narrative media, such as television, films, comics, and literary texts. Provides the practical, historical and critical tools with which to understand the function and structure of imagined worlds. Examines world-building strategies in the various media and genres in order to develop a critical and creative repertoire. Participants create their own invented worlds. Students taking graduate version complete additional assignments. Limited to 13.

Photo: M. Sharkey

Alexander Chee:

Imaginary Countries (ENGL 87.04), Dartmouth College, Fall 2017

Course Description: This course introduces the techniques used in speculative fiction—literary novels and stories using either science fiction, magical realism, or myth, or a mix of these, so the author can reinvent a country’s history, the country itself—even the world. We will read for technique, and discuss the effects these fictions achieve with their structures and the narrative and aesthetic strategies deployed. Students will write and workshop two stories. Readings may include: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Andrew Sean Greer’s “Darkness”, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Chris Adrian’s “Every Night For A Thousand Years”, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Yiyun Li’s “Immortality”, Jan Morris’ Hav, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Carmen Machado’s “The Husband Stitch.”

Photo: Dan Addison

Jeffery Renard Allen:

Shadow Narration (ENG8510), University of Virginia; Fall 2017

Course Description: In this course we will look at experimentation in prose narrative over the last one hundred years or so, using Marcel Proust’s 1913 novel Swann’s Way as a frame for this examination. Given that this is a course primarily designed for writers, we will engage in close readings of a number of exemplary texts as way to think through an understanding of certain key narrative concerns and techniques that define modernist and postmodernist prose. Texts include book-length works of fiction and nonfiction by Mavis Gallant, Ishmael Reed, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Clarice Lispector, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Ondaatje, Edouard Leve, John Edgar Wideman, and Marlene van Niekerk. As we will see, shadow narration represents an extensive tradition of experimentation that stretches back to the origins of both spoken and written narrative. At the same time, it represents a range of narrative gestures and strategies that allow for the layering of subtext. Indeed, one might best think of subtext as shadow narration, as the totality of meaning and implication that accompanies the narrative as written on the page.

The Fantastic (ENLP4550), University of Virginia, Fall 2017

Course Description: The course will look at the fantastic as a narrative in fiction and film. We will read some representative texts, both classic and contemporary, and from here and abroad. Assignments will include short response pieces to the assigned readings and films, as well as creative exercises based on the readings and screenings. Texts will include short stories, novels, graphic novels, and films by Helen Oyeyemi, Stephen Graham Jones, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Julio Cortazar, Silvina Ocampo, David Cronenberg, Anais Nin, Larry Cohen, Juan Rulfo, Leonara Carrington, Hideo Nakata, J.G. Ballard, Anais Nin, Rene’ Depestre, Philip K. Dick, Souleymane Cisse, and Colson Whitehead. Genres will include the undead (zombies, vampires, and ghosts), shapeshifters, speculative fiction, surrealism, expressionism, magical realism, and Afro-Futurism, among others. From time to time over the course of the semester, we will draw a few critical texts to inform our discussion, including Tzevtan Todorov’s important study The Supernatural.

Photo: Anna Caritj

Lisa Russ Spaar:

The Poetics of Ecstasy (ENG8520), University of Virginia; Fall 2017

Course Description: The Greek word ekstasis signifies displacement, trance—literally, “standing elsewhere.” In this seminar class, serious makers and readers of poems will explore the poetics of fervor—erotic, visionary, psychosomatic, negative, religious, mystical.  When the precincts of poetry and rapture intersect, what transpires? What is possible? What is at stake and why does it matter? We will read widely and deeply across cultures and time, including work by Dickinson, Whitman, Carson, Hopkins, Sappho, Keats, Juan de la Cruz, Rilke, Mirabai, Rumi, Ginsberg, Rimbaud, Teare, Young, and other ancient, modern, and contemporary writers who have explored the experience of being beside one’s self in the transport of ecstasy.  Key critical texts include readings from Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, Michel de Certeau’s The Mystic Fable, Georges Bataille’s Erotism:  Death and Sensuality, and Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse.

Photo: Deborah Feingold/HarperCollins

Mary Karr:

Forms: Poetry, Memoir, & Nonfiction (ENG 650-3), Syracuse University, Fall 2017

Course Description: We’ll read and discuss eleven memoirs, plus excerpts of a few others. Work for the semester will consist of reading and being engaged with the books. Assignments will include: small creative projects and in-class writing sprinkled through the semester; a presentation on one of the writers; and a final paper, memoir, or 10 poems. Readings may include (a) poems by Roger Fanning, Louise Gluck, Robert Hass, Terrance Hayes, Seamus Heaney, Yusef Komunyaaka, William Matthews, Heather McHugh, Pablo Neruda, Craig Raine, Charles Simic, and Dean Young; (b) fiction by George Saunders; (c) essays by James Wood, and (d) a memoir by Elif Batuman.

Photo: Syreeta McFadden

Kaitlyn Greenidge:

Forms: Ghost Stories (ENG 650-9), Syracuse University, Fall 2017

Course Description: In this class, we will explore the use of ghosts and ghost stories in literature. We will begin by establishing the elements in classic ghost stories of the nineteenth century and move on to modern interpretations in contemporary fiction. We will also explore ghosts in folklore. During this class, we will explore the symbolism of ghosts in literature and attempt to uncover why this genre of storytelling remains popular. Students will be required to write creative and/or critical response papers, make oral presentations, and produce either a final 10-page ghost story of their own or a critical essay, subject to the instructor’s approval.

Photo: Simon Koy

Justin Torres:

Adaptation, Inspiration, and Reinvention: Queer Lit and Film (English 118C), UCLA, Fall 2017

Course Description: This course will ask what are the costs, and what are the compensations, of adaptation both in art and in life? We will look at a wide range of literary works with queer themes and their cinematic adaptations: Billy Budd / Beau Travail, The Color Purple, The Haunting of Hill House, and Kiss of the Spider Woman are just some examples. How have filmmakers like Almodovar, Campion, Jarman, and Fassbinder, approached literary adaptation? What, if anything, is queer about adaptation?

Photo: Karen Robinson / The Observer

Anne Fadiman:

Writing About Oneself (ENGL 455), Yale University, Spring 2018

Course Description: This is a reading and writing class—part lecture, part seminar, part workshop—in which students explore a series of themes (including love, loss, family, and identity) both by writing about their own lives and by reading British and American memoirs, autobiographies, letters, and personal essays.

First-person writing is a peculiar blend of candor, catharsis, narcissism, and indiscretion. The purpose of this class is to harness these elements with sufficient rigor and imagination that self-portraiture becomes interesting to others as well as to oneself. Each week, we will read two works on a particular theme, one “old” (ranging from four decades to more than two centuries ago) and one “new” (mostly from the last two decades) —a coupling designed to erode the traditional academic boundaries between eras and between “ought” and “want” reading. (For instance, when we consider the theme of love, we will read excerpts from H. G. Wells’s On Loves and the Lover-Shadow and Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World, and write personal essays on an aspect of love, not necessarily romantic.) Readings will include works by James Baldwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Joan Didion, Lucy Grealy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Mary McCarthy, James Thurber, and Virginia Woolf, among others. Our connections to the readings will be reinforced by several author visits. By writing a thousand-word first-person essay every other week, students will face the same problems the authors in our syllabus have faced, though they may come up with very different solutions. Students will critique each other’s work in class and by e-mail. Each student will have at least five individual conferences with me, most of them an hour long, in which we’ll edit your work together.

Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Claudia Rankine:

Constructions of Whiteness (ENGL 233), Yale University, Spring 2018

Course Description: An interdisciplinary approach to the understanding of whiteness. Discussion of whiteness as a culturally constructed and economic incorporated entity, which touches upon and assigns value to nearly every aspect of American life and culture.

Class and Gender (ENGL 504), USC, Fall 2016

Course Description: This course will consider the construction of whiteness in contemporary America.

Historical Overview
1. The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter (W. W. Norton)
2. Look, A White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness, by George Yancy (Temple University Press)
3. The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control, by
Theodore W. Allen and Jeffrey B. Perry
4. The Invention of the White Race, Volume 2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-
America, by Theodore W. Allen and Jeffrey B. Perry
5. Dear White America, by Tim Wise (City Lights Open Media)
6. Working Towards Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange
Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs, David R. Roediger
7. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, by Kenneth T. Jackson
(Oxford University Press)

Entertainment & Media
1. White: Essays on Race and Culture by Richard Dyer (Oxford)
2. White Girls, by Hilton Als (McSweeney’s)
3. The Devil Finds Work, by James Baldwin (Vintage)

White Activism (And Failures)
1. Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism, by Shannon Sullivan (State University of New York Press)
2. Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, by Shannon Sullivan (Indiana University Press)
3. Between Barack and a Hard Place, by Tim Wise (Soft Skull Press)

Confronting Whiteness: Systemic Racism, Economic Inequality, Prison Complex, Housing Discrimination
1. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, by Thomas J. Sugrue (Princeton University Press)
2. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (The New Press)
3. Race Matters, by Cornell West (Vintage)
4. “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” by Claudia Rankine, (New York Times
Op-Ed)

Literary Criticism
1. Reading Race: White American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century, by Aldon Lynn Nielsen (University of Georgia Press)
2. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison (Vintage)

Memoirs & Personal Narratives
1. White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, by Tim Wise
2. Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff (Penguin)
3. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)
4. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, by Samuel R. Delany (New York University
Press)

Poetry
1. Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde, by Cathy Park Hong (Lana Turner onine)
2. White Papers, by Martha Collins (Pitt Poetry Series)
3. The Forage House, by Tess Taylor (Red Hen Press)
4. The Cloud Corporation, by Timothy Donnelly (Wave Books)
5. Metropole, by Geoffrey G. O’Brien (University of California Press)

Photo: John Bresland

Eula Biss:

The Situation of Writing (ENG 392), Northwestern University, Fall 2015

Course Description: Writers are the inheritors, perpetuators, and innovators of literary culture. In this class we will explore the contemporary landscape of creative writing, with a particular emphasis on the role of small presses and small journals and magazines. We will explore how venues for writing, including online publications, shape contemporary literature. We will discuss the distinct missions and personalities of a number of presses, while exploring the relationship between press and practitioner. This course is designed especially for students who hope to forge careers as writers, and it will challenge all participants to think creatively about the place of literature in our society.

Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation / Mark Bialek

Stuart Dybek:

Advanced Creative Writing: Fabulous Fictions (ENG 307), Northwestern University, Winter 2018

Course Description: Fabulous Fictions focuses on writing that departs from realism. Often the subject matter of such writing explores states of mind that are referred to as non-ordinary reality. A wide variety of genres and subgenres fall under this heading: fabulism, myth, fairy tales, fantasy, science ction, speculative ction, horror, the grotesque, the supernatural, surrealism, etc. Obviously, in a mere quarter we could not hope to study each of these categories in the kind of detail that might be found in a literature class. The aim in 307 is to discern and employ writing techniques that overarch these various genres, to study the subject through doing—by writing your own fabulist stories. We will read examples of fabulism as writers read: to understand how these ctions are made—studying them from the inside out, so to speak. Many of these genres overlap. For instance, they are all rooted in the tale, a kind of story that goes back to primitive sources. They all speculate: they ask the question, What If? They all are stories that demand invention, which, along with the word transformation, will be a key term in the course. The invention might be a monster, a method of time travel, an alien world, etc., but with rare exceptions the story will demand an invention and that invention will often also be the central image of the story. So, in discussing how these stories work we will also be learning some of the most basic, primitive moves in storytelling. To get you going I will be bringing in exercises that employ fabulist techniques and hopefully will promote stories. These time-tested techniques will be your entrances—your rabbit holes and magic doorways—into the gurative. You will be asked to keep a dream journal, which will serve as basis for one of the exercises. Besides the exercises, two full-length stories will be required, as well as written critiques of one another’s work. Because we all serve to make up an audience for the writer, attendance is mandatory.

Photo: Dartmouth College / Robert Gill

Vievee Francis:

Engaging Hybridity: Race, Gender, Genre (ENGL 87.10), Dartmouth College, Fall 2017

Course Description: In this course, from the graphic novel written by poets to the narrative collage to the imagined tweets of Anne Sexton, all of the contemporary readings and visual materials dare take on social, political and cultural engagement with this anxious moment in history. The stakes are high. We will consider the diverse and provocative creative work of Mat Johnson (Incognegro), Maggie Nelson (Bluets), Sebastian Matthews (Beginner’s Guide to A Head On Collision), Claudia Rankine (Citizen), Tyehimba Jess (Olio), Kwame Dawes (Duppy Conqueror), A. Van Jordan (The Cineaste) and Dee Matthews (Simulacra), among others, to explore hybrid genres (such as the prose poem) and other sites of artistic production met through intersection, exchange, conflict, inhabitance, resistance, and cultural address. These writers and artists may work as well in more than one distinct genre and or take on hybridity of forms and approaches within a particular genre. We will respond to the readings (and visual material) by creating our own. Further, this class will encourage topical discussion and readings will include author interviews, commentaries, and critical analyses of their process and production, as we ask what kind of parameters, if any, art, particularly literature, truly requires? Are they porous enough? Is there a skein where a wall is necessary? What role does identity play in the choice to cross such borders?

Photo: TIm Moxley

Kevin Young:

Special Topics in Creative Writing: The Lyric (ENGCW379W-01P), Emory University, Fall 2016

Course Description: The Lyric will explore recent adventures in the ancient form of the lyric, that primal mode of song and sustenance. In this advanced course, students will study and write in a range of forms, from the manifesto to the three-line novel, from sonnets to erasures, the prose poem and the lyrical essay, in order to discover new paths in reading and writing. They will emerge with their own work and their own sense of the English-language tradition, the avant-garde, and the counterculture.

We will also explore primary materials, discovering many of these works in their original form in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (the Rose Library) and its Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, where I serve as curator. The course reflects the broad scope of the Danowski Poetry Library itself, which, despite its name, also includes prose, counterculture, the roots of the lyric essay, and artists’ books.

Besides weekly reading and writing assignments, students also will be monitoring new media, including Twitter, where much of this new lyricism might be found. The result would also involve a possible web presence as students familiarize themselves with the latest in digital scholarship. The course concludes with students curating a final project. All these innovations are meant to help students understand the widespread place of the lyric in culture. In its fresh mix of digital and dust jackets, new media and material culture, The Lyric Essay’s investigations and instigations will help us discover the lyric mode in the modern world, and ourselves.

Photo: Rogelio V. Solis / AP

Natasha Trethewey:

Poetry and the Muse of History (ENGCW190-000), Emory University, Fall 2016

Course Description: A freshman-only workshop for students who have had little or no experience in creative writing. Not a prerequisite for other courses in the program. The course will take an in-depth look at poems that seek to engage and document our stories—those histories both public and private, real and imagined. We will discuss the ways that some poets have used personal and public history in their work, define some strategies for using information gathered from our research, and begin writing some poems that engage those histories to which we have some connection. In all of this, we will focus on cultivating the craft of poetry with particular emphasis on what makes a poem work—metaphor, image, musicality, voice, etc. We will work to develop the critical language necessary for discussing each other’s work and for critically approaching our own poems during the important process of revision.

Photo: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

Vikram Chandra:

The Short Story (English 180H), University of California, Berkeley, Fall 2017

Course Description:

The lyf so short, the crafte so longe to lerne. . .
—Chaucer

This course will investigate how authors craft stories, so that both non-writers and writers may gain a new perspective on reading stories. In thinking of short stories as artefacts produced by humans, we will consider—without any assertions of certainty—how those people may have experienced themselves and their world, and how history and culture may have participated in the making of these stories. So, in this course we will explore the making, purposes, and pleasures of the short story form. We will read—widely, actively and carefully—many published stories from various countries in order to begin to understand the conventions of the form, and how this form may function in diverse cultures. Students will write a short story and revise it; engaging with a short story as a writer will aid them in their investigations as readers and critics. Students will also write two analytical papers about stories we read in class. Attendance is mandatory.

Photo: Graybird Images

Lyn Hejinian:

Slow Seeing / Slow Reading (English 190), University of California, Berkeley, Fall 2016

Course Description: This is a seminar in the poetics of reading poems and seeing paintings. Over the course of the semester, students will undertake prolonged, exploratory, multi-contextual readings of a selection of recent and contemporary “difficult” poems. Each student will also undertake a similar engagement with a 20th/21st century painting of his or her choice from the permanent collection of the Berkeley Art Museum. Poems by W. B. Yeats, Claude McKay, Rae Armantrout, Elizabeth Bishop, Ed Roberson, Marianne Moore, Juliana Spahr, and Susan Howe are among the poems that will be considered. Paintings by Philip Guston, Hans Hoffman, Willem de Kooning, and Helen Frankenthaler are among the paintings that will be available for repeated viewing. The individual poems and paintings will be read/seen against the backdrop of their historical moment and contextual purport and in conjunction with assigned critical texts, but students will be expected to conduct their own research, using primary and secondary sources in the process of coming to relevant, meaningful readings/seeings of the works. Students will be asked to maintain a reading/seeing journal and to write two critical papers.

“English 190: Slow Seeing / Slow Reading” is an experiment, and is offered as a collaboration between Lyn Hejinian, of the English Department, and Apsara DiQuinzio, of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Among the outcomes of the course will be an exhibition at BAMPFA that will be part of a new exhibition series at the museum titled Cal Conversations; the materials for the “Slow Seeing / Slow Reading” exhibition will be determined by the seminar’s students and include some of their course writings.

21st-Century American Writing (English 134), University of California, Berkeley, Fall 2016

Course Description: In this course we will take seriously the notion of “the contemporary” as that which coexists with us and is relevant to our times—or our spaces. All the works on the syllabus have been published in the past ten years, most within the past three. They offer examples of current literature’s attempts to dwell in the present while thinking both about that temporal situation (“the present”) and that activity (“dwelling”). Not all the works are readily categorizable as to genre; the syllabus is weighted toward prose, but some of the prose works are, arguably, poetry. In many, communication, and even humanness, appear to be in question. Or, perhaps, they are evolving into new forms. But, as many of the books on the course reading list suggest, one thing that is not vanishing is the centrality of desire in the experiencing of lived life.

The first two books on the syllabus are Open City, by Teju Cole, and SPRAWL, by Danielle Dutton. It is suggested that at least the first, and preferably both, be purchased in advance, so that the course can proceed without anyone’s falling behind.

Book List: Brown, Brandon: Top 40; Clevidence, Cody-Rose: Beast Feast; Coates, Ta-Nehisi: Between the World and Me; Cole, Teju: Open City; Dutton, Danielle: Sprawl; Díaz, Junot: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Gladman, Renee: Event Factory; Lerner, Ben: 10:04; Moten, Fred: The Service Porch; Notley, Alice: Certain Magical Acts; Rankine, Claudea: Citizen: An American Lyric; Robertson, Lisa: Nilling; Spahr, Juliana and Buuck, David: The Army of Lovers

Photo: Jason Oddy

Geoff Dyer:

Reporting and Literature (ENGL 620), USC, Spring 2017

Course Description: At what point does reporting become literature? How does the obligation to record facts or document events sit alongside the artistic urge to shape and embellish? To what extent can a highly individual personal style conflict with reliability? These are some of the questions to be raised in a survey of landmark books by—among others—Gay Talese, Janet Malcolm, Rebecca West, Dexter Filkins, Norman Mailer and Ryszard Kapuscinski. We will also consider some photographic books, especially collaborations between writers and photographers such as A Fortunate Man by John Berger and Jean Mohr and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans. It was Evans, after all, who expressed the crux of the matter most concisely by making a distinction between documentary and what he insisted on calling “documentary style.”

Photo: Michael Lionstar

Jim Shepard:

Motherhood and Horror: The Movie (ENGL 380), Williams College, Spring 2018

Course Description: Horror might be the most durable of film genres as well as the genre that’s done the most work in terms of transforming the medium as a whole, and its transgressive nature has insured it attention, giving its most famous texts enormous cultural reach when it comes to ongoing conversations as to what defines evil, what constitutes normality, or what comprises the taboo. A look at the particular anxieties the genre has—especially recently—mobilized through its portraits of mothers and motherhood. The course will also touch on other genres that suggest an unspeakable invisible beneath the maternal quotidian. Films to be studied will include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Jee-Woo Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters, Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, James Cameron’s Aliens, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later, and Veronika Franz’s and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy.

Hollywood Film (ENGL 204), Williams College, Fall 2017

Course Description: For almost a century, Hollywood films have been the world’s most influential art form, shaping how we dress and talk, how we think about sex, race, and power, and what it means to be American. We’ll examine both the characteristic pleasures provided by Hollywood’s dominant genres—including action films, horror films, thrillers and romantic comedies—and the complex, sometimes unsavory fantasies they mobilize. We will do this by looking carefully at a dozen or so iconic films, probably including Psycho; Casablanca; The Godfather; Schindler’s List; Bridesmaids; Groundhog Day, and 12 Years a Slave. In addition to the assigned reading, students will be required to attend free screenings of course films on Sunday evenings at Images Cinema.

Photo: Barry Goldstein

Karen Shepard:

Imagination and Authority (ENGL 154), Williams College, Fall 2017

Course Description: A course on the subject of who gets to write about what when it comes to fiction. Among the questions we’ll be taking up: What are the outer boundaries of those imaginative acts that should be attempted? The central goal of this course is to teach you how to write a well-argued and interesting analytical paper. We will spend most of our class time actively engaged in a variety of techniques to improve your critical reasoning and analytical skills, both written and oral. Though the skills you learn will be applicable to other disciplines, this is also a literature class, designed as well to prepare you for upper level courses in the English Department.

Photo: Lawrence Schwartzwald / Splash News / Corbis

Frank Bidart:

Great Works of Poetry (English 115), Wellesley College, Spring 2018

Course Description: We live in a culture that has lost any collective agreement or wisdom about what a poem is, or why we read poetry. Yet many of the greatest things ever written are poems. How can we read poems so that we experience them as brilliantly made things, as powerful, seductive works of art? This course will look at great poems from the whole history of poetry in English (and at some poems in translation). Why read poetry? This course attempts to tackle that question head-on, with an emphasis on the pleasure and insight great art brings.

Contemporary American Poetry (English 253), Wellesley College, Fall 2017

Course Description: A survey of the great poems and poets of the last 75 years, a period of immense invention and brilliant creation. Our poets articulate the inside story of what being an American person feels like in an age of mounting visual spectacle, and in an environment where identities are suddenly, often thrillingly, sometimes distressingly, in question. Without repudiating the great heritage of Modernism, how have the poets that followed added to it? Poets include: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, the poets of “The New York School” (John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara), Adrienne Rich, Louise Glück, Robert Pinsky, Anne Carson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, Dan Chiasson, and others.

Photo: Mosaic Magazine

Tiphanie Yanique:

Girls: Character Development Across Genres (ENGL 312), Wesleyan University, Fall 2017

Course Description: In this special topics course we will study the craft of character building. We will focus on how novelists, short story writers, film makers, poets and essayists over the 20th and the beginning of 21st century have crafted the female child in literature to have a broad but challenging conversation about narration, voice, subjectivity, and agency. We will use the course materials and discussions as impetus to write characters that challenge easy tropes while also contributing to ongoing conversations about literature and writing.

Possible texts include:
Girls dir by Lena Dunham
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley

Living Room: Place and Structure in the Novel and Short Story (ENGL 318), Wesleyan University, Spring 2018

Course Description: In this special topics course we will study the craft of structure and setting. We will focus on how novelists and short story writers have made use of architecture and the environment as a means to shape story, reveal character, and direct plot. We will apply our learning to our own fiction by writing work that reveals a sophisticated awareness of the relationship between content and form.

Possible texts include:
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Blindness by Jose Saramago
A House for Mr. Biswas by VS Naipaul
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Photo: Penguin Random House

Hisham Matar:

Estrangement and Exile in Global Novels (ENGL BC3192), Barnard College, Fall 2017

Course Description: “I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.” —Jean Rhys.

This course examines the experiential life of the novelist as both artist and citizen. Through the study of the work of two towering figures in 20th century literature, we will look at the seemingly contradictory condition of the novelist as both outsider and integral to society, as both observer and expresser of time’s yearnings and passions. In different ways and with different repercussions, Jean Rhys and Albert Camus were born into realities shaped by colonialism. They lived across borders, identities and allegiances. Rhys was neither black-Caribbean nor white-English. Albert Camus could be said to have been both French and Algerian, both the occupier and the occupied, and, perhaps, neither. We will look at how their work reflects the contradictions into which they were born. We will trace, through close reading and open discussion, the ways in which their art continues to have lasting power and remain, in light of the complexities of our own time, vivid, true and alive. The objective is to pinpoint connections between novelistic form and historical time. The uniqueness of the texts we will read lies not just in their use of narrative, ideas and myths, but also in their resistance to generalization. We will examine how our novelists’ existential position, as both witnesses and participants, creates an opportunity for fiction to reveal more than the author intends and, on the other hand, more than power desires.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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