Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920.

Seminar in American Literature since 1900 (graduate): “American Cultural Memory”
Spring 2018

This seminar will examine the meaning and making of American cultural memory. The last thirty years have witnessed what critical theorist Andreas Huyssen identifies as a blurring of history and memory. That blurring, he writes, marks a “fundamental disturbance not just of the relationship between history as objective and scientific, and memory as subjective and personal, but of history itself and its promises.” Cultural memory names the location of that “disturbance.” It is the bridge between historical discourse and individual memory, where officials, writers, artists, and activists struggle to define a national history and, with it, a shared future. How does a culture remember? How does that memory constitute a nation, subnational and transnational communities, an individual? Through the writings of cultural historians, literary and media studies scholars, critical theorists, and social scientists, we will consider the theories, methods, and debates that have animated memory studies across the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. As we trace the origins of the field through the work of Walter Benjamin, Maurice Halbwachs, Michel Foucault, and Pierre Nora, we will read book-length studies from some of the leading American memory studies scholars, including Alison Landsberg, Marita Sturken, Barbie Zelizer, and Viet Nguyen. Their writing will offer different models for how to use memory studies as a method for reading American literature and culture and how to execute a book-length work of criticism. Throughout the fall, we will focus our attention on the form and structure of successful articles and books and discuss the critical strategies most worth stealing. This seminar is about theories of history, cultural memory, and nationalism and includes units on memorials, literature, visual culture, archives, and media.

To view a PDF of the syllabus, please click here.

Gateway Seminar in Critical Race Theory
Spring 2018

This course will introduce students to the theories and methods of critical ethnic studies as they relate to what Toni Morrison calls the “wholly racialized society” of the United States. We will address race as a form of knowledge that structures the nation, government, communities, and individual lives. While the idea of race as “socially constructed” has become common sense––and marshaled by the right and the left to different political ends––we will go further by asking how and why race is constructed. How does racial knowledge change across time? How does it interact with class, gender, sexuality, religion, and nationality? What makes something racial or racist? How is race formed? Where does it come from? Through the work of historians, cultural studies scholars, critical theorists, legal scholars, and sociologists, we will review the methods of critical race theory and consider how academics and activists have brought those methods to bear on the world outside the classroom. After reading foundational writing from such scholars as Michael Omi, Howard Winant, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Audre Lorde, we will engage with current theories of intersectionality, indigeneity, whiteness, racial knowledge, and racial capitalism. This course is about theory, but it is also, as we will see, about the uneven distribution of life chances and how and why we live our lives together and apart.

To view a PDF of the syllabus, please click here.

Nguyen, The SympathizerAsian American Literature: “Asian American Literature and the Cold War”
Fall 2017

In 1968, activists at the University of California, Berkeley, founded the Asian American Political Alliance to mobilize Americans of Asian descent against racism, imperialism, and the war in Southeast Asia. It marked the first time that “Asian American” had been used by a national organization to unite Americans from different Asian ethnic backgrounds. As AAPA founder Yuji Ichioka remembers, “Everyone was lost in the larger rally [against the war]. We figured that if we rallied behind our own banner, behind an Asian American banner, we would have an effect on the larger public.” This course investigated what Ichioka identifies as the intertwined histories of Asian America and the American wars in Korea and Vietnam. Whereas television shows like M*A*S*H (1972–83) and films like Apocalypse Now (1979) imagine the Korean and Vietnam wars through the eyes of the American soldier and veteran, this course instead considered the war stories of first- and second-generation Korean and Vietnamese Americans, from Richard Kim and Susan Choi to Monique Truong and Viet Nguyen. We read their fiction as a framework for rethinking the cultural narratives of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. And we examined how the Cold War––and the social movements it in part motivated––gave rise to what we now call Asian American literature. The readings introduced students to Asian American writing as a political form and a way of reimagining the United States in the world.

To view a PDF of the syllabus, please click here.

Evans, Torn Movie Poster
Walker Evans, Torn Movie Poster, 1931.

Introduction to American Studies
Fall 2017

In his 1935 poem “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes writes, “O, let America be America again–– / The land that never has been yet–– / And yet must be––the land where every man is free.” This course considered the idea of “America” as an imagined past and promised future that, Hughes acknowledges, never has been achieved and yet remains embedded in the national consciousness. It introduced students to the field of American studies, which brings together work from across the humanities and social sciences to examine the histories and cultural narratives that constitute the nation. Through literature, film, news media, sermons, comics, and memorials, we investigated the meaning and making of American culture from the colonial period to the twenty-first century. We asked how writers, artists, activists, officials, and scholars have defined and claimed “America” and “American.” What and where is America? Who and what is American? Framed by a discussion of what American studies has been, is, and could be, this course moved through five themed units focused on nationalism, exceptionalism, empire, citizenship, and memory. The readings and conversation introduced students to a new way of thinking about culture and the work it does in shaping the nation, government, communities, and individual lives.

To view a PDF of the syllabus, please click here.

Topics in Literary Journalism: “Reporting the National Security State”
Spring 2017

On September 16, 2001, days after the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, vice president Dick Cheney sat down for an interview with Meet the Press host Tim Russert. “We’re going to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world,” he told Russert. “A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies.” This course explored how writers have told the stories of these “shadows” and this covert “world.” How have journalists investigated and reported on national security in an age of heightened state secrecy? How have they rendered sometimes opaque government activities––counterterrorism, mass surveillance, cyber war––in narrative form? As a story? Through the work of photojournalists, documentary filmmakers, and the writing of such print journalists as Jane Mayer, Glenn Greenwald, and Fred Kaplan, we considered the growth of the United States’ national security infrastructure since the onset of the cold war and the struggle to tell (and conceal) that story in the twenty-first century. We asked how writers, faced with the challenges of secrecy and complexity, have constructed stories out of material that may, at first glance, seem to resist storytelling.

To view a PDF of the syllabus, please click here.

International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union strike, Little Rock, AR, 1966. Photograph courtesy of the Kheel Center at Cornell University.

US Multiethnic Literatures: “Literature of the Long Civil Rights Movement”
Spring 2016

This advanced undergraduate course examined how the social movements of the mid-twentieth century looked to literature as a guide, cause, and living record of an unfinished struggle. The conventional account of the civil rights movement begins in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education and culminates in 1964 and 1965 with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. It begins in the Supreme Court and ends down the street in the halls of Congress. This course gave a different account. We read the long civil rights movement, a movement that extends from the New Deal era to women of color feminism in the 1970s and 1980s and from Delano, California, to the Rio Grande Valley to Harlem. We investigated the history of the civil rights movement as itself a kind of narrative and read such writers as Vine Deloria, Maxine Hong Kingston, Cherríe Moraga, and Richard Wright as its authors, editors, and critics. How do we tell the story of the civil rights movement? What effect did this telling have then? And what effect does it have today? This course followed the rise of the Black Power, Chicano, Asian American, and American Indian movements and considered how they challenged what it meant to be an American writer and remade what we know as American literature.

Major American Writers: “Writing, and Rewriting, the American Century”
Fall 2015, Spring 2016

This introductory course investigated how major American writers have represented the United States in the world and the world in the United States. Writing in 1941, magazine magnate Henry Luce coined the term American century in imploring the country to renounce isolationism and enter World War II. Luce imagined “America as the dynamic center of ever-widening spheres of enterprise, America as the training center of the skillful servants of mankind, [and] America as the Good Samaritan.” Months later, the United States did enter the war, and, as Luce anticipated, its influence in the world grew throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Through nonfiction essays, memoirs, and novels by such authors as John Hersey, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Mohsin Hamid, students considered how writers have represented, championed, and challenged the concept of the American century. How has the United States shaped other regions of the world? How have other nations, cultures, and peoples shaped American life? And how have American writers addressed their government’s role in Asia, Europe, and across the Americas?

Dai Giang Nguyen, Life in the Camp, 1990. Painting courtesy of the Southeast Asian Archive at the University of California, Irvine.

American Fiction, 1960 to the Present: “American Fiction at War”
Fall 2015

This advanced undergraduate course focused on war in American literature and culture since the mid-twentieth century, an era during which the United States’ influence in the world grew dramatically and was often embodied militarily. While discussing conflicts from the world wars to the intervention against the Islamic State, students asked how fiction has served as a medium through which authors and readers have imagined, denounced, memorialized, and reckoned with military violence. This course defined the term war novel broadly. Some of our readings were about soldiers in combat zones, but most were not. The assigned books included fiction by and about Southeast Asian refugees, antiwar activists, and civilians who revere yet distance themselves from returning veterans. From lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003) to Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012), these readings encouraged students to address the many-sidedness of war in cultural memory and to interrogate why we remember war the way we do––and to what effect.