ENGL 250 A: American Literature

Atoms, Eccentrics, Citizens, and Solipsists: American Individualism, 1840—2015

Meeting Time: 
MW 12:30pm - 2:20pm
THO 119
Heather Arvidson

Syllabus Description:






Fall 2015| Thomas 119
MW 12.30–2.20 pm

English 250a: Introduction to American Literature

Atoms, Eccentrics, Citizens, Solipsists: American Individualism, 1840–2015


Instructor: Dr. Heather Arvidson
Email: arvidson@uw.edu
Office hours: M 2.45–4.45 pm in Padelford A504

Web: https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/988872

PDF version of syllabus

PDF of class calendar





This class begins circa 1840 with the entrance into common usage of the term individualism to describe a uniquely modern—and American—political institution. Individualism persists as a defining mythos of American culture, although its meaning has been subjected to innumerable revisions and critiques. In reading poetry, fiction, and non-fiction essays that engage many variations on individualism, we will endeavor to move beyond the binary of the individual versus society in order to figure out: a) how individuality is conceived at different moments in time and from the vantage of various cultural locations; and b) what problems, paradoxes, and exclusions the term may contain. In particular, we will examine the implicitly racialized and gendered assumptions that have contributed to certain dominant ideals of American individuality, even as we explore the concept’s persistent allure.

As a targeted survey of American literature, the class will introduce you to a range of canonical and emerging authors and to a selection of pivotal documents in American cultural history. We will proceed both historically and conceptually: we’ll read texts (more or less) in chronological order, and we’ll use these texts to examine certain conceptual, and often co-existing, strains of individualism: i.e., atomistic, expressive, possessive, rugged, invisible, communal, and digital individualism.

Our inquiry will be oriented by the following questions:

  • How does literature contribute to ongoing conversations about American individualism?
  • How has individualism adapted over time, and what cultural changes has it adapted in response to? In particular, how do ideas of individualism shift according to various cultural perspectives?
  • How can understanding the history of individualism impact our understanding of contemporary American culture? How does it help us to locate ourselves within this culture?



Required materials

  • Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener (1853)
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
  • Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
  • Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine (1984/2009) (ISBN: 9780062206312)
  • Active UW email account
  • Access to printing; shorter literary and secondary texts will be posted as PDFs at https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/988872/modules


Weekly: Assignments

F November 13: Take-home midterm

M December 14: Take-home final


The learning goals for the course are to:

  1. Become familiar with major texts in American Literature and begin to trace significant lines of connection between them.
  2. Use literary texts to engage in critical conversations about American history and culture.
  3. Develop a complex understanding of the concept of “individualism” and the tensions it encompasses.
  4. Analyze specific passages of a text in relation to both the text’s overall ideas and larger cultural conversations about individualism.

Classes will be based primarily in discussion and will incorporate short lectures and some group work.


Constructing knowledge is a collective process. To arrive at a fuller, more nuanced understanding than what we may come up with alone, we rely on each other to ask incisive questions, provoke discussion, and test out new points of view. Each of these depends on listening actively to what others have to say. In discussion it is equally imperative that we leave space to hear from everyone in the room and that each person seizes opportunities to speak.

Students of literature confront complex subjects that may challenge prior understandings of cultural categories such as gender, sexuality, race, class, religion, nationality, language background, and ability. To engage this kind of work, respect for diversity of all kinds is vital. So are curiosity and openness to new questions and to reframing cultural knowledge. In committing to this class you are agreeing to:

  1. approach class topics, texts, and peer contributions with interest and critically-tuned but open minds;
  2. subject your own viewpoints, however natural or normal they may seem to you, to the same scrutiny you would apply to those of others;
  3. be willing to risk your ideas to thoughtful examination by others; and
  4. respect the right of all others to express viewpoints different from your own.

If you feel this agreement is not being observed in the course of our work together, please set up a conversation with me as soon as possible.

Take-home exams (65%)

Formal writing for this class will consist of two take-home exams:

Midterm exam (25%), due F November 13; includes material from 9/30–11/2

            Final exam (40%), due F December 14; includes material from 9/30–12/9

Both exams will consist of several short-answer and essay-format questions and will provide some choice. The questions will be available in class and on Canvas two weeks prior to the due date.

Exams will be graded on their demonstration of knowledge, quality of independent thinking and analysis, and engagement with course texts. Although they will not be graded on the merits of your writing per se, it is worth noting that your ideas will be clearest and best situated if your take-home essays are well written and proofread to the best of your ability.

 Exams must meet the usual MLA formatting requirements: double-spaced; 1-inch margins; 12-point font. There will be no need to use outside sources for your exams, but any source that you consult and that informs your ideas or your language (including Wikipedia, Sparknotes, etc.) must be cited in a works consulted list and formatted according to MLA.


Exams are due as electronic documents on our class Canvas site at 4:00 pm (see https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/988872/assignments). Late exams will not be accepted. If it’s possible that an extreme illness or emergency will prevent you from turning your exam in on time, you need to notify me as soon as possible and before the deadline in order to make alternate arrangements.

Assignments (20%)

Writing is a vital part of active, effective reading, and the success of a discussion-based class hinges on this kind of engagement with class texts. To support these aims, you will be writing one class preparation assignment per week. Each week, you may choose to complete the assignment on either Monday or Wednesday. Each assignment will address the reading for that day’s class and will respond to one of the questions below in 300–500 words.

  1. Find a passage in today’s text that you feel you don’t fully understand, but that seems to merit understanding. Work closely with the language of your chosen passage to come to a fuller understanding, and write about the interpretation that emerges. As you write, be sure to explain your process of reasoning in a way that might help others work through the same difficulties. Be specific: what details (words, sentences, figures of speech) led to your interpretation? Finally, what questions remain? How have your questions shifted by slowing down over this passage?
  2. Identify an aspect of today’s text that tells us something about American individualism. First of all, describe this aspect in specific terms. What variety (or varieties) of individualism do you see engaged here? What questions does the text raise about individualism, and how does it seem to answer these questions? After articulating this text’s version of individualism, you may wish to compare it to other texts or ideas we’ve covered in the course so far.

You’ll note that on the course calendar some reading assignments are marked as “context”: these are required readings but are not eligible texts for weekly writing assignments.

Over the course of the quarter you will write 10 of these assignments, to be graded on completion (complete/incomplete). To receive credit, an assignment must respond to the prompt and remain on topic; meet the 300-word length minimum; and be submitted on Canvas by 10:00 am on the day it is due. Late, incomplete, or off-topic assignments will be marked incomplete. Your final score will be assessed according to the following guidelines:

4.0       10 assignments completed

3.5       9

3.0       8

2.5       7

2.0       6 assignments completed

1.0       5

0.7       4

0.0       3 or fewer

Once you have submitted your assignment, you will have access to read other class members’ postings; it would be a great idea to make a habit of perusing a few other assignments before class in order to deepen your understanding of the text.


Participation (15%)

Participation will be graded holistically. Excellent participation means that you:

  • Complete the reading and writing assignments for each class.
  • Annotate and make note of questions as you read.

Questions, uncertainty, and ideas that occur to you are invaluable seeds for discussion, clarifying explanations, and formal writing for the class. Full participation and successful writing rely on this kind of active reading.

  • Attend every class, equipped with appropriate texts and materials.
  • Arrive on time; coming late is poor form, interferes with others’ learning, and will detract from your grade. If there is a reason you expect to be late on a regular basis you should let me know why.
  • Contribute actively to discussions and group work.

This means ask questions, offer ideas, and take initiative when working in groups; listen attentively when others are speaking; stay on topic and bring stray comments back to the text; take ideas ventured in class seriously.

Especially given the challenge of the literature we are studying, I cannot stress enough how valuable questions or moments of confusion can be: bringing up these moments in discussion is an excellent way to contribute to the class, and we will all be the better for it. Knowing where you get confused is a sign of intelligence, not the reverse. If you are concerned that you will not be able to participate fully in class, you should arrange to meet with me in office hours to discuss alternatives.

  • Demonstrate the preparation you’ve done in (irregularly scheduled) in-class writing.

Some of these I will take in for credit. In-class writing cannot be made up unless you have alerted me of your absence in advance.

  • Devote your attention to what is happening in the room. Absolutely no cell phone use, texting, or emailing; if I see these things happening, I may ask you to stop. However, whether or not I interrupt class to do so, this behavior will negatively impact your participation grade.



As a survey of American literature, this class involves a very heavy reading load. To budget your time, I recommend you pay close attention to readings that are coming up. You are always welcome to read beyond the pages that the class will cover on a given day—and in fact I strongly recommend you get a head-start on the longer novels (especially Invisible Man—a whopping 581 pages).


If you need to miss multiple classes due to illness or personal emergency, contact me to make alternate arrangements for assignments or class activities. It is your responsibility to make up any missed material, so be sure that you have contact information for several classmates. Although exam prompts and handouts will be posted to the Canvas website, notes taken from class discussion will be invaluable for writing your exams; be sure that you have some means for reviewing classes you miss.


Office hours

I encourage you to make early and frequent use of my office hours, which I hold in Padelford A504 on Mondays from 2:45 to 4:45 pm. These sessions are casual and low-stakes. If your schedule conflicts with this time, contact me by email to set up an appointment (arvidson@uw.edu).

If you have any kind of concerns about the class, please take them up with me as they arise. I will note that here, as elsewhere at the University, you are entitled to generically communicate any complicating factors (family, work, health, etc.) that may affect your performance in the class if you would prefer not to disclose details.


Please let me know if you need accommodations. I am happy to work with UW Disability Resources for Students (DRS) and am very willing to take suggestions specific to this class. I consider myself to be learning on an ongoing basis how to make my classes more accessible and will appreciate your feedback. This syllabus is available in large print, as are other class materials—just ask.

Writing centers

The Odegaard Writing and Research Center (OWRC) offers free, one-on-one help with all aspects of writing and at any stage in the writing process. Located on the third floor of the Odegaard Library, the OWRC is open Sunday through Thursday; check the appointment schedule for available times. To make an appointment or browse the center’s online resources, visit depts.washington.edu/owrc. Appointments fill up quickly—I recommend signing up for a session on Sunday mornings to ensure you get a spot that week.

The CLUE Writing Center in Mary Gates Hall (main level) is open Sunday to Thursday from 6.30 pm to midnight. CLUE is first-come, first-served. In case tutors are having a busy night, arrive early and be prepared to wait. See http://depts.washington.edu/aspuw/clue/home/ for more information.

Academic Integrity

In written work for this course I am interested exclusively in your thinking about our texts and topics. If you are responding to someone else’s intellectual work or getting help from someone else’s overview of a text, the distinction between your thinking and theirs must be made absolutely, plainly clear. Academic integrity means rigorously keeping aware of and acknowledging the sources of your ideas.

By contrast, plagiarism means presenting someone else’s ideas or writing as your own—which includes integrating someone else’s ideas or writing in an unmarked way. Any source that you consult, quote, or refer to in your work needs to be cited in MLA format. This includes any contextual information that you find on the internet: if a source shapes or informs what you write, it must be documented. Pragmatically, this means that you should only be consulting reliable, authoritative sources and should be avoiding informal pieces by unknown authors. They will look bad as citations, and yet if omitted from documentation, they may undermine your academic integrity.

If you are ever uncertain about appropriately and productively building from and referring to others’ work, ask for clarification in class or office hours.

Plagiarism is serious offense. University policy requires that any student found to have plagiarized any piece of writing be reported to the College of Arts & Sciences for review. For more information, refer to UW’s Student Conduct Code at www.washington.edu/students/handbook/conduct.html. Holding yourself to the highest possible standard of academic integrity is your responsibility: be sure you know what this means.

Additional Details:

This class begins circa 1840 with the entrance into the English language of the term individualism to describe a uniquely modern--and American--political institution. "Individualism" persists as a defining mythos of American culture, although its meaning has been subjected to innumerable revisions and critiques. In reading poetry, fiction, and non-fiction essays that engage individualism, we will endeavor to move beyond the binary of the individual versus society in order to figure out: a) how individuality is conceived at different moments in time and according to various authors; and b) what problems, paradoxes, and exclusions the term may contain. In particular, we will examine the implicitly racial and gendered assumptions that have contributed to certain dominant ideals of American individuality, even as we explore the concept's persistent allure.

Authors may include: Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Nella Larsen, Willa Cather, John Dewey, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Allen Ginsberg, David Foster Wallace, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

This will be a reading intensive class: students should be prepared to devote substantial time and effort each week to careful reading of course texts. Assessment will be based on a combination of: participation in class discussion and small group work; frequent, brief written responses to assigned readings; take-home exams; and formal academic writing.

Catalog Description: 
Introduces American culture through a careful reading of a variety of representative texts in their historical contexts.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Other Requirements Met: 
Last updated: 
March 16, 2016 - 12:38pm