How this course will progress is something of a mystery to me; I have put it together without any secret grand narrative to be unwrapped on the final day of class like some fantastic present that explains everything. It will not move, then, like most courses, toward somewhere in particular (a theory, a goal, a larger understanding). Instead I am thinking of it as an act of piling on—we will read things and talk about them and then put them in a pile of things we know; as the pile gets bigger we will begin to use our new readings to scrape at it, or frame it, or as tools for seeing new shapes in the pile. By the end of the semester I’m hoping we like the shape of the pile, or, failing like, that we at least will see in the pile some ways in which our realities have been shaped by what we have put there.
What will this course do for you? It is designed primarily for those of you working in or on literature; specifically it aims to give you a background in the history of the ideas (and the history of “history”) that have shaped the past two centuries in the sciences and social sciences, particularly as they anticipate, relate, or participate in the creation of modernism and modernity (two vitally different things). Within the limitations of a semester, we will not cover everything; but we are aiming for a general look at things rather than a specific one (that is, the course is not a course in 18th century natural history). As we read, you will be asked to write two papers and do one class presentation focused specifically on the course material (and only on the course material); these papers should be close readings of one text or another that take up some interesting (even vital) concern and the modes of its expression. Toward the end of the course, you will write a final paper that weds the course material with some literary or cultural material of your own choice—preferably, for your sake, literary or cultural material that relates in some way to your own particular literary or cultural interests.
As a prelude to writing the paper, and in order to provide you with professional training that will be useful to those of you who wish to become professors, you will be required not only to produce an abstract of your final paper (in response to its assignment, which will be written as a call for papers), but also to be interviewed by your peers in the class about the abstract, its relation to the ideas in the course, and its relation to whatever you conceive as your own “work.” Your submission of the final paper will be accompanied by a revised abstract, both of them produced, hopefully, under the influence of some useful suggestions received during the interview process.
Download the Course Syllabus