Seminar in Critical Race Theory
Spring 2018, Spring 2019

This course introduces students to theoretical approaches to what Toni Morrison calls the “wholly racialized society” of the United States. We 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 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 review the methods of critical race and ethnic studies and consider how academics and activists have brought those methods to bear on the world outside the classroom. After reading foundational writing from Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Audre Lorde, Michael Omi, and Howard Winant, we engage with current theories of intersectionality, indigeneity, whiteness, racial knowledge, and racial capitalism. This course is about theory, but it is also 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.

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

Introduction to American Studies
Fall 2017, Fall 2018, Spring 2019

In his 1935 poem “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes wrote, “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 considers the idea of “America” as an imagined past and promised future that, as Hughes knew, never has been achieved and yet remains embedded in national consciousness. It introduces 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 investigate the meaning and making of American culture from the colonial period to the twenty-first century. We ask 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 moves through five themed units focused on nationalism, transnationalism, exclusion and belonging, blurred identities, and memory. Our readings and conversation introduce students to a new way of thinking about culture and the work it does in shaping the nation.

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

Photograph by Martha Sprieser, Flannery O’Connor’s roommate
Flannery O’Connor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 1947. Photograph courtesy of the Flannery O’Connor Collection at Georgia College.

Studies in Twentieth-Century American Literature: “Institutions of American Literature”
Fall 2018

No novelist is an island. All works of literature emerge not just from the minds of their authors but also from the institutions that fund, edit, publish, promote, and value them. This course invites students to read twentieth- and twenty-first-century American writing as a creative, collaborative, and sometimes bureaucratic act. Through criticism, institutional histories, and fiction and memoir by such authors as Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison, and Dave Eggers, we consider the genre of “literary fiction” as an institutional invention––an invention to which even this course contributes. How do universities and publishers determine what gets written, who writes what, and how a book gets read? How have book critics and awards committees defined what we value as capital-L literature? Moving through four units focused on the creative writing program, editing, the book award, and the independent press, we ask, How did the Iowa Writers’ Workshop mold O’Connor’s writing? What influence did Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, have on his? How did winning the Pulitzer Prize (and not winning the National Book Award) change Morrison’s career? How did independent publishing facilitate Eggers’s? This course is about how literature gets made, and why it gets made the way it does.

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

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

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

This seminar examines 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 consider the theories, methods, and debates that have animated memory studies across the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. After tracing the origins of the field through the work of Walter Benjamin, Maurice Halbwachs, Michel Foucault, and Pierre Nora, we 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 offers 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 course, we 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.

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 investigates 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 considers 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 examine how the Cold War––and the social movements it in part motivated––gave rise to what we now call Asian American literature. Our readings introduce you 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.

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 explores 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 consider 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 ask 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.

Other Courses Taught

US Multiethnic Literature
American Fiction, 1960 to the Present
Major American Writers
American Literature since 1880
Seminar in Writing through Literature
Seminar in Academic Writing