The Course

“At this point, scholars in literary studies should be jumping on their desks and waving their hands in the air, saying, ‘Hey, look at us! We know how to read really well…there’s a national crisis in reading?  We can help!”

Katherine Hayles, “How We Read”

“…we are likely to think of the desire to be truthful about life—the desire to produce art that accurately sees ‘the way things are’—as a universal literary mode and project, the broad central language of the novel and drama: what James in What Maisie Knew calls ‘the firm ground of fiction, through which indeed there curled the blue river of truth.’”

James Wood, How Fiction Works

Any number of recent studies contend that our reading practices, strategies, and skills are shifting dramatically in light of the digital age (e.g., Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid,”; Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation; Hayles’s How We Think).  In this course, we’ll consider two parallel developments in the debates about the state of reading in the Information Age:

  1. First, we’ll take stock of the contentions above and use them as a staging ground on which to re-examine the ways that literary critics describe reading processes (i.e., affect, intertextuality, paratexts, etc.) as they are shaped by narrative elements.
  2. Second, we’ll look closely at the ways that an array of contemporary narratives themselves thematize the reading practices that we need in order to reach a kind of “truth” or “reality” as it is present in the work.  In other words, we might ask these questions for each narrative we engage: what reading/interpretive strategies do characters use in order to manage their situations?  Which kinds of reading bring them closer to “the way things are’? What, if any, does the text itself privilege?

The collision of contemporary anxieties/enthusiasms about reading present in both critical and creative work should allow us to flesh out this question: to what extent have our investments, expectations and skills as readers fundamentally changed (if at all), and how are contemporary narratives resisting, driving, or acceding to changes in the reader?

Required Texts

Diaz, Junot.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  New York: Riverhead, 2007.

Julavits, Heidi. The Uses of Enchantment. New York: Anchor Books, 2008.

Lethem, Jonathan.  Chronic City. New York: Vintage, 2010.

Perlman, Elliot. Seven Types of Ambiguity. New York: Riverhead, 2004.

Ross, Adam.  Mr. Peanut. New York: Vintage, 2011.

Smith, Zadie.  NW. New York: Penguin, 2012.

*assorted handouts, secondary sources.

Required Viewings

Sherlock, Seasons I and II.  Creators Mark Gatiss, Stephen MoffatHartswood Film, BBC Wales, Masterpiece Theatre. 2010, 2012.  BBC.  (available streaming via Netflix)

Melancholia. Dir. Lars von Trier. Perf. Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg.  Zentropa Entertainments.  2011. (available streaming via Netflix)

Beginners. Dir. Mike Mills.  Perf. Ewan MacGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Melanie Laurent.  Olympus Pictures.  2011.

Learning Objectives

The readings, viewings, and assignments in this course are designed to allow students to develop the following:

  • Deep awareness of the critical debates surrounding reading in the digital age, the stakes of those debates, and the ways that their outcomes may affect the work of readers and writers in the future.
  • An informed position about the role of his/her own array of reading practices vis-à-vis the assumptions and debates about literature in the Information Age.
  • Increasingly sophisticated interpretive strategies across a variety of media
  • Facility with communicating in a variety of formats endemic to contemporary literary scholarship: face-to-face, online, long-form print, etc.

Course Activities

  • Reading and viewing. This class requires you to read, obviously, but also to think about how you read.  As such, you should be reading and viewing texts for the class carefully, noting important moments, questions, observations, along the way.  These observations should include both your increasingly-sophisticated interpretations of the text at hand, as well as your own engagement with the text.
  • Active participation.  Consistent engagement, both listening and speaking, is crucial to success in this class.  I expect you to come to class prepared with places in the text that you’d like to explore, questions you’d like to pose, confusions that you’d like to share, etc.  I’ll solicit these from you at the beginning of every class, so that we can get a sense of where the conversation will go.  Be ready to communicate your ideas to others, and to listen closely and respond to others’ ideas as well.  [As a rule of thumb, I tend to think that two thoughtful contributions per class session is about average—so a C.]
  • Writing.  We’ll engage in a variety of formats and kinds of writing in this class: online and print, informal and formal, process and product-based.  Each of these will be described in detail as we undertake them.
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