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English 506, Fall 2009

Assignments and Updates



See also: Blackboard

(for help with close-reading, try: Thumb-plunging, or the Art of Literary Noticing)

This is the Assignments and Updates Page. All assignments and updates to earlier assignments will be posted here, beginning with the most recent first.

This is the most up-to-date information available on this website. Please check this page frequently throughout the quarter!!

December 9 before and after presentation: party. Bring whatever holiday treat or gnosh, or favorite "small eat" you can. (More on this at our first post Thanksgiving meeting.)

Writing: Portfolio due. For assignment, click here

December 1, 3, 8, 9:

Reading and Writing: Précis for your final projects. For the assignment and our criteria for successful completion, click here.)

November 24:

Reading: Spivak, “Imperialism and Sexual Difference” (Richter 340) and Rabindranath Tagore, "Bride and Bridegroom." (The Kipling story, "William the Conqueror," that Spivak critiques in her article, can be found at:

(Scroll down half a page to find the table of contents--"William the Conqueror" is there in two parts.) (It's actually not very long--its two parts notwithstanding.)

Writing: The prompt for the Final Project asks that you not only summarize your piece in precis form and put it into conversation with key figures we've read, but also "discuss a literary or cultural text to which the critical essay’s theoretical approach might usefully be applied."

For Tuesday, write a GoPost screenful in which you do a dry run for this by briefly applying Spivak's approach in "Imperialism and Sexual Difference" to the Tagore story.

November 19:

Reading: Foucault, “What is an Author?” [Although we thought we remembered that this was in Richter's collection, it isn't. So we'll put copies of this piece in your boxes tomorrow; if you don't need one, send Gary a note.]

Writing: Though he doesn't say so in the piece itself, Foucault is answering, in part, Barthes' piece on "The Death of the Author." His piece is, quite literally, in conversation with Barthes--and with some other writers as well, of course. In a GoPost screen or two, locate and describe one of these conversations, and then explain how you see Foucault adding to that conversation. (Please post by 7am Thursday morning.)

November 17:

Reading: Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, and ETA Hoffmann, "The Sandman." Cf. supplemental materials for reading C and D here

Writing: We talked Thursday about Freud and criticism, and we will come back to that a bit on Tuesday; we want also to talk Tuesday about Freud and teaching. I am hoping that my third and fourth postings on the supplemental materials link—the course description for the “Shakespeare, Spenser and a little bit of Freud” course, and the essay in which I outline my take on how reading Freud can help make sense of Spenser—will show how Freud can be used profitably by putting C and D into conversation with Spenser. For me that means not simply outlining Freud’s system and making claims about how the Faerie Queene is “Freudian.” By itself I think that would at the very least reductive, not to say unhistorical.

But I have found that students find it very difficult to develop their own sense of how Spenser’s poem works as an anatomy of love, sexuality, gender, power, friendship and action both in the private and the public realms without a kind of comparative frame. C and D provides us such a frame. Freud, I try to make clear, is not a key for reading Spenser; rather he is someone who has a similar project, and can thereby offer a place to start for the reading of Spenser. Beginning with Freud’s relatively clear and “scientific” exposition of his understanding of these issues (not transparent, mind you, just relatively clear!), students have an extra-textual reference point against which their thinking about what they see in the Faerie Queene can be better noticed and described. The Spenser and Freud: Beyond Repression essay is one way I offer them to set a context for their reading. (This is not a random selection, of course; I do indeed see parallels that make Freud an apt correlative, even if in the end the details of his system and his notion of the nature of human happiness as well are quite different.)

Spenser aside, we’d like to spend some time on Tuesday with our doing the same with Hoffmann’s story. So read, or re-read, Hoffman’s story, with your reading of Freud in mind, looking not just to see what he can explain (and does in fact claim to explain in “The Uncanny”), but also to see what he may not explain, and thereby leaves open to view against or in parallel to the case he does make.

For your Go Post for Tuesday, then, give us a single screen-sized response about one or more elements you see in the "The Sandman" that can be put into some kind of relation to or conversation with either “the Uncanny” or with C and D. (Please post by 7 am Tuesday morning.)

(As an example: I began doing just this in class on Tuesday by talking about the theme of schooling, disciplining, and narcissism. That is not something Freud discusses, but it would seem to be relatable to what he does discuss--even if by contrast, since I think a reading that sees the story as focused on the effect of education is not the same as a reading focused, as Freud's is in "The Uncanny," on a putative fear of castration.

(The question we want to deal with is thus not "how Freudian is this story." Rather, we want to ask about how best to use Freud as a context within which to read--in the way modeled by the last essay posted on the Supplemental Freud materials page on Reading Spenser in the Context of Freud:

November 12:

Reading: Freud, “The Uncanny” (Esp parts 2 and 3) On-line here

Writing: "Uncanny" in German is "unheimlich," literally: "not home like" and therefore different or even weird. It also can connote eerieness, and in fact as Freud uses it I tend to think "eerie" might often be a better translation. That is certainly what the strangeness of Hoffman's story strikes me as. It is from a collection called Spukgeschichten und Märchen, which can be Englished as Ghost Stories and Fairy Tales. Very eerie indeed, and itself mysterious enough that, like Tuesday's reading, it invites questions. So:

Having read the essay, post on GoPost a "Question to Be Asked." You'll notice that this request depends upon the passive voice. Questions are normally asked by someone, but here we don't specify who must do the asking. You are welcome to ask it in propria persona--your own question. Or, if you find it more useful, you can ask it in anyone else's persona. What question would Barthes, or Arnold, or Plato or Aristotle, or Bayard have? Or, what do you think an undergrad might ask? include with your question a short explanation of why you think the questioner you imagine would have asked the question he or she asks. (Try to keep it to one text box, certainly under two, and please post by Wednesday midnight.)

November 10:

Reading: Wilde, "The Decay of Lying." On-line here.

Writing: In Critical Theory Since Plato Hazard Adams comments on Wilde as a contributor to the reversal of a centuries-long view of art as an imitation of life. He writes: "This trend, at least since Kant and Coleridge, had been to emphasize art's power to make, not to copy." For Wilde, art has a major formative influence on how, and even what, we see, and for him, art is thus able to construct reality itself. Taken literally, this is quite a claim for the power of art. It is, of course, a remarkable shift. Traditionally art's power was to "Hold the mirror up to nature" (in Hamlet's phrase) and thereby enable understanding, reflection, critique, commentary. But here emerges a very different notion of art's instrumentality, and with it a new set of activities--some of which may seem rather unsavory. If art makes the world, after all, are we back to art as deception as Plato argued? And maybe even more so since now seen as implicated in the very construction of reality itself? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?! Who will watch the watchers?, or updated, Who will keep the poets honest? (By the way, the recent burst of energy around the graphic novel Watchman and its recent movie realization centers on just these questions, too!)

It's actually hard to locate Wilde on this or any question. Wilde's mode of discourse is itself ironic, intensely so, and shows up as such perhaps no more clearly than in Vivian's remark that "In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people." Adams also comments on another way in which Wilde exaggerates the Kantian notion of aesthetic judgment. Kant famously used the phrase "purposeless purposefulness" on order to suggest that "to judge a work of art in terms of its use is not to make an aesthetic judgment." He did not, however, suggest that art could have no use. Adams concludes his introduction by asking, "Why does Wilde talk of art as lying?" and answers his own question by suggesting that it's a way to attack "the dominance in his time of scientific and discursive modes of structuring our reality." Wilde's strategy is thus not to try to take back "truth" as art's work, but to cede it entirely, but in doing so to privilege lying over truth.

So. Having read the essay, post on GoPost a "Question to Be Asked." You'll notice that this request depends upon the passive voice. Questions are normally asked by someone, but here we don't specify who must do the asking. You are welcome to ask it in propria persona--your own question. Or, if you find it more useful, you can ask it in anyone else's persona. What question would Barthes, or Arnold, or Plato or Aristotle, or Bayard have? Or, what do you think an undergrad might ask? include with your question a short explanation of why you think the questioner you imagine would have asked the question he or she asks. (Try to keep it to one text box, certainly under two, and please post by Monday midnight.)

As for me, I don't know if Nietzsche had a sense of humor, but I wonder what questions he would have had after reading this essay (which, though published ten years before Nietzsche's death, is for a number of reasons pretty unlikely).

November 5:

Reading: Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” (online link here); selections from Human, All Too Human (Xerox)

Writing: Like Barthes and, as we shall also see, Wilde, Nietzsche likes a good aphorism. One example: "Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions." Find an aphorism you think especially useful in either of the Nietzsche readings, cite it, and explain what you need to know to understand it. (The aphorism above, for example, would require a summary of N's theory of language's dependence upon exclusion.)

November 3:

Reading: Woolf, A Room of One's Own. Crews, Pooh Perplex, Chap 2 (Martin Tempralis).

Writing: Go Post assignment: It is obvious enough that Woolf's title refers to the material conditions of the production of literary texts--"a room of one's own and £500 a year." But Marx is not a name that she uses anywhere in her text. That creates room for the question: What would Woolf say about the strengths and limits of a strictly Marxist analysis of literature? Include in your post a textual kernal from Woolf--by which we mean a quotation of no longer than one sentence. (Limit two text boxes.)

October 29:

Reading: Marx, Selections on Xerox handout.

Writing: These readings, though not long, are remarkably disparate. Pick from them what you take to be three KEY concepts ("most key"?!). Describe/define each of your three key concepts, and then give us a paragraph in which you explain as best you can why you think them important. (Something of a condensed "What, Why, So What" exercise).

October 27:

Reading: Said, “The Politics of Knowledge” (Richter 189).

Writing: Said was one of the founders of “postcolonialism,” currently one of our profession’s major modes of critical discourse. The “poco” (to give it its usual nickname) movement began as pushback against the (allegedly) Euro-centric tendencies of the then-dominant schools of criticism, both in terms of which books and authors dominated the world canon, and in terms of how that literature, and discourses about that literature, could be seen as instrumental to colonialist and post-colonialist political and cultural domination. Over its relatively short lifespan postcolonialism has morphed into something more abstract: there are now postcolonial studies of pre-colonial literature, for example.

The Wikipedia entry for Said provides useful summaries of both his work and his own complicated and somewhat controversial personal history:

For your response to this reading, however, let’s keep closer to home. For October 15 we asked you to write a dialogue among critics about Keats' urn. For Thursday’s class you can write act 2 of the play that that dialogue might turn into, in which Said converses with two or three of the most recent critics we’ve read. Having considered Said's description of his project in “The Politics of Knowledge,” what do you imagine Said would say about the arguments between Barthes and Rabinowitz, for example, concerning reader and author? or how Arnold or Radway might read Keats' Ode? How might they answer him? Again, you can set this wherever you want, and with whatever props you deem most appropriate.

October 22:

Reading: Rabinowitz, "Actual Reader and Authorial Reader"; Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, Chapters 1 and 2.

Writing: In spite of its title, much of Bayard's book isn't really about NOT reading. Rather, it's about how complicated the process of reading is, and how rarely even very sophisticated readers actually think much about reading's complications. Thus a more accurate title for Bayard's book might have been: Why You Rarely Read Books in the Way You Think You Do, And How You Go On To Talk About Them Anyway. (It was first published in French, and its title was actually slightly different from the title of its English translation.  In its translation it is titled How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read; in French its title is:  Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus? or, How does one talk about books one has not read?  The difference [the French title is in the form of a question, and not a statement] is small, but meaningful.) 

In a sense, Bayard’s whole book follows from the conversation we saw beginning with Barthes’ notion of the birth of the reader.  For Barthes’ notion of the birth of the reader invites us to begin a deeper conversation about what, exactly, a “reader” is.  Barthes has one idea, Rabinowitz another (or more properly “others”—since he has more than one!), Radway still another.  Said and Spivak, too, will have things to tell us about readers—though not as directly as the other folks.  Bayard joins the conversation by changing it a bit, focusing less on “readers” than on “reading”—but the issues he wants to raise are connected.  Or at least that’s what WE say.

That said (!), the project for Thursday is to get clear on what Bayard's first two chapters are arguing.  What we ’d like you to do is locate in each chapter your candidate for the title of “Key Passage”—the paragraph that, once someone has fully understood it, provides the interpretive key to understanding the whole point Bayard seems to be making  So—locate a paragraph that seems like the key, and then do your best to explain why. 

As for Rabinowitz: locate what you take to be The Key Sentence, and come to class ready both to cite that sentence, and to explain both it and why you think it is important to a full understanding of the piece.

October 20:

Reading: Radway, Introduction to A Feeling for Books (Richter 199). (Note that we are postponing Rabinowitz until next meeting).

Writing: Two tasks.

1. Go-post response on Radway. With which of the readings we've already discussed do you see Radway's essay most interestingly in conversation? What points of connection, agreement, and/or disagreement do you see between Radway and the critic you have chosen? One screen limit. Please post by 6pm on Monday (and feel free to respond to other postings as part of yours).

2. Précis Assignment: Pick any one of the readings you will have completed by the end of class on Tuesday, excluding Plato and Aristotle, and write a précis of its arguments (i.e., Barthes, Arnold, Brooks, Radway). Include three elements: What, Why, and So What ?

  1. The first asks for a clear and full summary of the article's argument, with a premium on thoroughness ("fullness"), which means take care not to skip over important ideas or steps in the argument.
  2. The second asks for a brief explanation of why the author might be making the sorts of claims that she or he does; i.e., how is the article as you summarize it a move in an ongoing critical conversation?
  3. The third question asks you to give some account of what you think the conversational move made here amounts to. So what? Why do these ideas matter, or what are their implications?

Length: NO MORE THAN 1 single-spaced page, 12 point type. Due at start of class on Tuesday, October 20. (The three Elements of What, Why, and So What can either be broken out as separate elements or integrated into a single essay.)

October 15:

Reading: Cleanth Brooks, “Irony as a Principle of Literary Structure” (Handout); Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn." (Click here for link)

Writing: Adams writes in introducing Brooks's essay in Critical Theory Since Plato: "Brooks defines irony very broadly as the acknowledgment at all times by the poem of the pressure of the context on any given part of the poem. The meaning, or perhaps better, the 'being' of the poem, lies in its formal structure, not in a paraphrase abstracted from it. Brooks is therefore wary of Ransom's assertion that the poem has a 'paraphrasable' core. His theory of organicism leads him to insist that the paraphrasable core is not an element of the poem, but a creation of the poem's interpreter. One of Brooks's complaints against Romantic poetry is that much of it insists on its most portentous statments being taken out of context, as if the rest of the poem were merely a surrounding embellishment."

Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is about as well-known as any poem in English. We want here to use it as our own kind of "touchstone"--a work upon which we can test out our five different ways of theorizing poetry. We've read Plato, Aristotle, Arnold, and Barthes--and for today Brooks. Pick three of these authors you think might have something interesting to say about Keats' "Ode" and ventriloquize them. Role-play a short conversation amongst them as they discuss the Ode.

October 13:

Reading: Arnold, “The Study of Poetry ” (Click here for link); Richter “Introduction” (1-12)

For Arnold, read the whole first part of the essay, and then go on at least through the Chaucer section of the second part. The whole thing is worth reading, since it gives you explicit examples of how Arnold applies the criteria he lays out in part 1, and it is one of the early definitions of the English canon. (It is I who calls these "parts" by the way; Arnold doesn't label them as such.)

Writing: Two things here. First, on "The Study of Poetry." Arnold's is a very famous piece of theoretical criticism, one of a number Arnold wrote which established him as something like the founder of modern literary criticism. Many trace back to Arnold much of what 20th century readers thought the practice of criticism was. Here's what Hazard Adams, in Critical Theory Since Plato, says in introducing readers to the piece:

"Arnold is fond of terms like poetic truth and high seriousness.... His method in 'The Study of Poetry' is not to define these terms but instead to offer poetic examples of them--'touchstones.' These touchstones can be as short as a single line. Like several of his Romantic predecessors, Arnold thinks not so much of the quality of a poem as a whole as he does of the presence of an undefinable poetic quality somewhere in a poem. There is no discursively expressible standard for these touchstones, and the catch-all evaluative term "high seriousness" is not explained. An educated reader [that would be YOU!] is supposed to sense the presence of high seriousness. The critical power grows as the result of a liberal education. Sound critical judgments are made by educated people, not by those who make a mindless application of principle or method."

Adams goes on: "Arnold's point [is] that one must finally depend on the developed taste and erudition of the critic. [In an earlier essay] Arnold speaks of 'judging' as the critic's business," where that judging (in Arnold's own words) must be 'judgment which almost insensibly forms itself in a fair and clear mind, along with fresh knowldge.'" (pp. 585-6)

Once you've read the piece, decide on what you take to be his (three or four?) foundational terms or phrases. Describe each briefly, and then go on to see if you can figure out how the "touchstones" he offers you (one of the terms everyone of you will likely put in your list) actually make sense of his criteria. I'll add that as confident as Arnold is that offering you this list will clarify his criteria, many a reader has read this piece, gone through these lines, and had no idea what Arnold was talking about. Is it simply gobbledigook? Or can you put into words what Arnold chose not to? (The Chaucer section may help you with this, too)

Second, on Richter. A Go-Post exercise. Once you've read the Richter, think about the narrative he gives. Then, based on what you know already about theory and its emergence, answer one of the following two questions in no more than a screenful:

  • what question could you pose to Richter's narrative? or,
  • how might you suggest revising Richter's account of the how or why of this "fortunate fall" into theory?

October 8:

Reading: Aristotle's Poetics. We ask that you read the entire text, but with special emphasis on those sections that have gotten the most attention over the past two millenia: 6-18, 24-25. (Text available of the Butcher translation on line at: (Please print it out for use in class!) Read as well "A Conceptual Frame for English 302 and Critical Practice," on the Blackboard.

Writing: One exercise that helps undergraduates break down a complex reading like this into more easily managed and remembered material is a "key terms" exercise. We ask them to locate the three to five terms that in their readings stand as most central--the terms that when fully understood can more or less stand for the piece's most important arguments/ideas--and then explain how each of their chosen terms is "key." One such term in Plato's thinking, for example, is "imitation." That term is truly central to understanding Plato's critique of poetry, but only if you understand fully what Plato means by it (Aristotle's use of the term is very different, of course--an important point of contrast between the two).

So two tasks here. First, select from your reading YOUR 3 nominations for Aristotle's key terms, and write an explanation for each of why exactly it is "key." Second, amongst all the sections of the Poetics NOT included in the sections listed above as having received the most critical attention, find one passage (in length from a sentence to a whole section) that you would like to nominate for membership in a list of "Interesting Passages from the Poetics that People Sometimes Miss." Characterize the passage you choose, and explain what you found of interest in it.

October 6:

Reading: Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (Richter, 253); Plato, “Ion” (on-line at Plato's Ion) and selections from The Republic (handout).

Writing: This piece is short, but most people find it challenging on their first reading. It truly is a classic of "theory," both in terms of the argument it makes about the nature of literary discourse and literary commentary, and in terms of its rhetorical stance of ironic transgression. Part of its effect follows from Barthes' use of aphoristic passages. I've posted on the Blackboard a set of aphoristic passages from Barthes' essay--some just a sentence, some two or three sentences long. As you read, pick THREE of these passages from the whole that you think are "key" moments. Explain first what you think they mean, and second, why you think they could be thought important. (Don't worry about being highly successful at this--the point is to have you become at least preliminary experts on at least three ideas you encounter in the text.) And if you find an aphoristic passage you like BETTER than any on my list, feel free to use what you find in place of those offered here.

(If you find Barthes particularly tough going, you might also want to read, or re-read, "Five Principles for Reading Difficult Texts" on the Blackboard. I wrote that for undergraduates, but they are strategies I myself use more often than I'd like to admit.)

October 1:

Reading: "Boys and Girls"

Writing: Go to the Catalyst Website (click here) and take a turn in the conversation I invite you into there.