2016-17 Seminars - The University of Iowa

English Honors Seminars
Department of English
University of Iowa
Fall 2016
(Please note that these are tentative course descriptions and may be subject to change.)
1) ENGL:4001
“Marilynne Robinson” – Taught by Prof. Lori Branch
This honors seminar focuses on the fiction and nonfiction works of the Pulitzer Prize winning Iowa
novelist Marilynne Robinson. In this course we will read all four of Robinson’s novels to date –
Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014) – as well as a broad swathe of
her nonfiction prose, focusing on Death of Adam (1998), Absence of Mind (2010), and The
Givenness of Things (2015).
The seminar will be animated by a postsecular critical spirit, pursuing questions that probe the
relationship between Robinson’s scintillating prose fiction style and her religious beliefs as
expressed in her nonfiction. What particular sort of religiousness do we glimpse in Robinson’s
fiction and nonfiction? What is the relationship between religion and secularism in Robinson’s
writings? How can we account for Robinson’s explicitly religious fiction speaking powerfully to
secular readers in a secular age? In what sense might her novels productively be thought of as
postsecular? At its furthest reaches, our reading of Robinson’s fiction will enable us to participate
in scholarly conversations about the fundamental relationship many critics have posited between
the secularism and the genre of the novel.
AREA: American Literature
PERIOD: 20th/21st-Century Literature
2) ENGL:4003
“What are you going to do with that? The Arts and Humanities in the Creative Economy”
– Taught by Prof. Claire Fox
This seminar explores ways in which the arts, literature, and other creative endeavors enter into
economies and systems of value in contemporary society. What is collectively called the “creative
economy” encompasses a range of activities in diverse locations, from traditional arts and
humanities professions to broad economic sectors in which creativity plays a role, including DIY
productions, fan culture, street art, urban planning, cultural tourism, media production, gaming,
crafting, branding, upcycling, and sharing.
How do creativity and the market interact and intersect? This seminar departs from the paradox of
attaching monetary value to the imagination, a paradox with which UI English majors are likely
familiar, since they are not only drawn to creativity, but also positioned alternately as ‘consumers’
and ‘products’ in a rapidly changing public university system. Through discussion of literature,
movies, criticism, visual art and performance, we explore current debates about the economic value
of the arts, literature, and culture, and about theories of value and utility more generally. I hope
that English majors will not only leave this class with a few good answers up their sleeve when
asked, “what are you going to do with that?” but also prepared to enter into conversations about the
arts and humanities in their everyday life.
The course is divided into two sections. In the first part of the semester, we read books and articles
and watch films that explore aspects of the creative economy as it pertains to higher education,
urban life, popular and mass culture, and globalization. In the second part of the semester, students
identify one aspect of the creative economy that they would like to investigate in greater depth, in
consultation with the professor. They develop a research proposal and methodology for carrying
out the project, which, depending on the topic, might include participant observation, ethnography,
interviews, oral histories, archival research, and textual or visual analysis. Class meetings during
this part of the semester feature peer reporting and review and meetings with the professor. The
final project can be a critical essay, creative essay, or other research project of approximately 15-20
pages in length. Students present their research findings at our final class meeting.
AREA: Literary Theory and Interdisciplinary Studies
PERIOD: 20th/21st- Century Literature
3) ENGL:4005
“Media Shift: Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allan Poe, and Dave Eggers” – Taught by Prof.
Matt Brown
Why did Benjamin Franklin prefer the Spanish print-house custom of inverting a question
mark at the beginning of a query? Why did Edgar Allan Poe attempt an early form of
photocopying, known as “anastatic printing”? Why did Dave Eggers make Garamond 3 the
typeface of choice for McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern? These questions illustrate the kinds of
inquiry and appreciation pursued in the field known as book studies.
The subject of this course will be the dynamics of literary expression in the context of
information revolutions. Class members explore three (extended) moments of media shift, by
which is meant a change in how words and images are delivered to audiences. We will
examine the hand-press era of eighteenth-century colonial America through the figure of
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), when the meanings of print, handwriting, and speech were
transformed due to the spread of print-houses and the rise of the public sphere. Next we will
appreciate the career of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), caught as it was in the teeth of mass,
industrial printing. Poe’s struggles involved the use of old media and new formats to advance
his writerly goals. Finally, we will survey our current transitional phase—where the print
and the digital coexist—through the work of Dave Eggers (1970- ). Toggling between the
traditional book format and new media venues, Eggers engages readers with writing that is
simultaneously playful and serious. All three figures are both literary artists and book
business entrepreneurs: that is, they are authors, editors, publishers, designers, and makers.
In-class discussion and brief lectures will be complemented by visits to Special Collections in
the Main Library. Along with preparation and participation, coursework includes short
writing assignments, research exercises, and formal essays.
AREA: American Literature
PERIOD: 18th/19th- Century Literature
Spring 2017
(Please note that these are tentative course descriptions and may be subject to change.)
1) ENGL:4003
“Being Human: Foundations in Environmental Humanities” – Taught by Prof. Barbara
Being human isn’t what it used to be. Or rather, it is what it used to be but now we know more
about it.
o We know that our own human bodies are largely made up of other microscopic creatures, that
the environment is us and we are the environment. (See Jane Hirschfield’s cool poem “My
o We know that we humans have been biological agents for a long time, deliberately or
inadvertently moving all sorts of plants and animals around the globe as we colonized lands,
fought wars, climbed mountains, crossed seas. (Everything from smallpox to breadfruit.)
o We know that we humans have also been geological agents for quite some time, that our
industrial, agricultural, and even just domestic activity has changed the atmosphere and thus the
oceans and the land. (Some would say we have created a geological age with our name on it,
an anthropocene, discernible in the history of rocks. Some would also say that the future, not
the past, now determines the present.)
o We know that we are not the only agents on the globe, that viruses and hummingbirds, floods
and electrons have their own—well—ideas.
o And yes, we know that the risks created by our human activity—toxins and rising seas and
unclean water and resource extraction messes—are not distributed equally among humans
specifically and among living things generally.
This seminar engages what we now know about the relationship of humans and environment to ask
what artists, interpreters of the arts, and critical thinkers are doing and can do with this knowledge.
The seminar is organized like this: first it reconsiders the definitions of “environment,” “nature,”
“wilderness,” and “human.” It then takes up four case studies, each in three different ways. Those
case studies are climate change, extraction, extinction, and waste. The three approaches for each
are matters of fact, matters of environmental justice, and matters of feelings. At the end of the
seminar we return to definitions, this time looking at ways of imagining the future creatively:
“resilience,” “sustainability,” “rewilding,” “survivance.” Although the seminar makes use of crossdisciplinary knowledge and introduces exciting literary and other artistic practices engaging
environmental ideas, the larger point is that this twenty-first century version of being human
inspires us to rethink all of literary history, all of human history. There’s so much for artists,
interpreters, and critical thinkers to do!
Students will be asked to be experts on particular class readings, shaping discussion and writing
annotations, and they will be asked to write short reading response essays and create a final
research project of some 10 pages. There will also be an opportunity for the class to take their
expertise into the public realm. In addition to English Honors students, this seminar is appropriate
for Sustainability Certificate students seeking a course from which to build a final project.
Areas: Literary Theory & Interdisciplinary Studies
Period: 20th/21st-Century Literature
2) ENGL:4006
“Charles Dickens and Narrative Theory” – Taught by Prof. Garrett Stewart
As the most popular major novelist in English literary history, Dickens laid down the tracks for any
number of narrative strategies that persist today in ambitious fiction as well as Hollywood film.
Beyond his stylistic genius, unprecedented except by Shakespeare, his novels steadily
experimented with, tweaked, renovated, or pressed to the point of ironic breakdown an entire
arsenal of narrative techniques that have received much discussion (and adaptation) since, from
“omniscience” to “free indirect discourse” and other varieties of “focalization,” including “stream
of consciousness,” “frame narrative,” and “reader address,” not to mention a sustained fascination
with what we now call the “metafictional” dimension of literary plotting. At the same time, his
experiments in “point of view,” “jump cuts,” “parallel montage,” etc., offered early film directors a
ready-made ocular vocabulary for the new medium.
With some sideways attention to this Dickensian legacy in film structure and editing (rather than
the endless filming and televising of his fiction), we will read selected novels of his mature period
against the developing backdrop of representative essays and books in contemporary narrative
theory, with a special emphasis on influential works in a structuralist, psychoanalytic, and Marxist
vein. Novels like Dombey and Son, Bleak House, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend will
thus come into conversation with theorists like Roland Barthes, René Girard, Peter Brooks, and
Fredric Jameson.
The course is designed for “creative writers” as well as “literary critics,” and we will make space
(if there is an interest in this) to test some of the narrative devices in your own writing (chapter
openings, transitional phrasings, perspectival shifts, closure, including as well the stylistic finesse
of diction and syntax, metaphor and wordplay) against touchstone moments in Dickensian prose.
Though known as “the Inimitable” in his day, Dickens nonetheless offers a wealth of ongoing
models for narrative inventiveness across media, and not least (given his monthly-installment
format) on the current prestige of serial TV. Frequent oral reports and a 15-20 page seminar will
pace and distill, respectively, your immersive reading.
AREA: British Literature
PERIOD: 18th/19th- Century Literature