ENGL 200 D: Reading Literary Forms

Meeting Time: 
MTWTh 12:30pm - 1:20pm
SMI 407
Photo of Ben Wirth
James Benson Wirth

Syllabus Description:

ENGL 200 D: Reading Literary Forms: The Immigrant Experience as a Literary Form

Location/Time: SMI 407 / MTWTh 12:30 PM - 1:20 PM

Instructor: Dr. Ben Wirth

Office: Padelford B-410

Office Hours: Thursdays, 2:30 - 4:30 PM, or by appointment

Instructor E-mail: jbwirth@uw.edu

Discord Invite: https://discord.gg/TcP9N6f

Dorothea Lange, "Japanese-American owned grocery store, Oakland, California"

Course Description

English 200 is a course on reading literary forms--the key word here is forms, plural. This is a course where we will be using a variety of forms, organized around a central theme for the course. The goal of this multi-modal engagement is to apply our skills of literary analysis across a variety of different texts, and it will allow us to see how these skills are transmutable and applicable beyond the university classroom to nothing less than how we critically position ourselves as consumers of ever-expanding forms of media. We will use literature, poetry, film, and video games to do so, but this class will also have us look outside these forms as often as possible.

For this course, we will be investigating a hot topic in contemporary cultural politics and asking a few important questions about it—namely, immigration and the immigrant experience as rendered in a variety of literary forms. I want to engage these representations of the immigrant experience that will we be encountering in two ways. First, some background: in an interview about the Syrian migrant “crisis,” philosopher and public intellectual Slavoj Žižek argued that a failure of progressives is that you are expected to care on some emotional or sentimental level about the subject in which you are being progressive about. As such, he argues, there is a connection made between one’s ability to feel sympathy for someone and our ability to think that they deserve justice. Žižek thinks it shouldn’t be this way—that, in other words, you don’t have to care about anyone else in order to think they deserve to be treated justly.

For a while, I found this to be a very lucrative way of thinking, so that I could allow myself to think progressively about these issues without thinking much about what I felt about them. Yet, what is lost when we stop sympathizing and empathizing with a subject, in our case the varying plights of migrants across the world? Instead of removing empathetic modes of thinking, what happens if we reinvest it? As readers/thinkers/writers, what relationship do we establish with the texts we will be discussing when we interrogate our position as that who is the one sympathizing? These are some questions I am interested in exploring in our class. As well, as we try to fix our own sense of sympathetic/empathetic identity to our process of reading, we will also be interrogating the kinds of identity questions explored throughout texts about migration.

To do so, we’re going to be using the idea of a “literary text” somewhat loosely in our exploration of forms. We’ll hit on the major ones—three contemporary, highly praised novels, a selection of short fiction and essays, and a smattering of poetry. However, we will also move beyond these traditional forms and consider how films and video games can be read as forms as well, and we will make use of these materials later on in our course.


Texts and Materials

  • The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
  • Brother, I'm Dying, Edwidge Danticat
  • The Penguin Book of Migrant Literature
  • Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant Refugee Experience
  • Films TBD
  • Video Games TBD



Midterm (15%) & Final Paper (30%)

Twice during the quarter you will be crafting longer, graded essays. These essays will make use of our contract grading system, to be discussed later on. The goal of these papers will be to demonstrate the ability to synthesize the various texts of our course into an argument, with literary analysis being the primary focus. You have a great deal of freedom on these assignments, but there will be some guidelines.
Closer to the due dates for these assignments, I will distribute some suggested prompts to help you get started. These are not meant to be the only options for your papers, but merely suggestions that have developed from our discussions in class. Once your papers are turned in, I will read and provide feedback to you. You will have the option of submitting a revision of your midterm paper (your revision will determine the grade on your midterm), but not the final paper. Details on this revision will be made clear in the assignment prompt.

Group Project (15%)

During the quarter, you will complete a group project on our course theme that incorporates materials from visual narratives--these can be films or video games, but I'm open to you arguing for other visual media. I will provide an archive to you of the material you can choose from. In a group of 4, you will produce a short paper and a corresponding presentation on the material you have chosen, then you will present this information during the last week of the quarter. More details of this assignment will be given after we complete our midterm.

Discussion Boards (20%)

Before each class, one or more students will be tasked with leading a discussion of the readings for that day’s class, and you are responsible for posting in these discussions as well. Consider these as a buffer should speaking in class not be your strongest skill—you will have time to organize your thoughts, and will always have something to say in class. Since this assignment is a bit more complex, I have made a separate page with more details: Discussion Boards

Participation (20%)

Participation is fundamental to this class, and there are a variety of ways in which participation manifests itself. Here are a few:

  • Participation during in-class discussions – Speaking in class is the most important way for you to participate in class. Your willingness to enhance the class discussion with thoughtful questions and comments is as important as anything else in this class—the primary determiner in your participation grade is what you bring to each class every day. Not only is it a way to demonstrate your completion of our readings, but is also an opportunity to try out ideas that can be developed into future papers.  
  • On-task communication during group work – Occasionally we will make use of smaller, independent group discussions before our whole-class discussions of material. I encourage non-linear thinking in class, but a failure to achieve assigned tasks in group discussions or a consistent lack of contribution will also be a problem for your participation grade. 
  • Coherent attendance – Just showing up for the class is the lowest possible bar for participation, and merely being a presence will not do much for your participation grade. An inability to stay coherent during class (checking your phone, daydreaming, falling asleep, etc.) will adversely impact your participation grade, as you are both inattentive and distracting.

A failure to achieve these roles asked of you in the classroom will negatively impact your overall participation grade. If you are a naturally quiet student, there are other opportunities to buffer the impact on your participation grade, but nothing can replace making your voice heard in class. It’s what I want to hear the most (rather than mine), and I will encourage all of you to use my class as a place to conquer your fears of speaking in a respectful, supportive environment—one which may be difficult to find in other classrooms and other places in your life.

Course Policies


You are expected to be an active participant in class, so come prepared to contribute to the discussion and participate in activities. When you miss a class, you miss the opportunity to be a member of the class community. If you know you are going to miss class, please let me know in advance. Also, find another student to get class notes from and propose to me how you plan to make up missed work in a timely manner.  Remember as well that it is particularly important for you to arrive on time. If you come in after class has started, even by only a few minutes, you will be considered late. Attendance problems will negatively affect your participation grade.


There will be selective use of technology for this course. When we are discussing film, laptops will be allowed for this course, but at all other times the use of a laptop will not be allowed. This may seem annoying, but hear me out: this course is primarily about reading and discussing literature, something that requires reflection and focus, not distraction. As well, our class meets for only 50 minutes, 4 times a week. It seems to me not a huge ask, and perhaps even a brief respite, to disconnect yourself from technology for that time. Consider what you are paying this university to attend it, then consider if my 50 minute class would be best spent on reddit.  Additionally, silence your cell phones and do not text message in class. It is a distraction, and, no matter what you think, will always be obvious to me that you are doing it. Any abuse of this rule will negatively affect your participation grade.

Late Work

All assignments are due on the date specified before the start of class, and I will not accept papers by email. Use the Canvas assignments page to submit your assignments. Each late paper will result in a deduction of 2.5% out of the total 30% possible for your participation grade. I will also not give feedback on any assignments that are turned in late or incomplete. However, late work will still need to be completed, as all assignments must be completed in order to receive a passing grade. If you are having trouble and may be unable to turn things in on time, please contact me ASAP—before the assignment is due. Please note that work that does not fulfill page length requirements will be considered incomplete and will not receive feedback.


Plagiarism, or academic dishonesty, is presenting someone else's ideas or writing as your own. In your writing for this class, you are encouraged to refer to other people's thoughts and writing--as long as you cite them. As a matter of policy, any student found to have plagiarized any piece of writing in this class will be immediately reported to the College of Arts and Sciences for review.


If you need accommodation of any sort, please let me know so that I can work with the UW Disability Services Office (DSO) to provide what you require. This syllabus is available in large print, as are other class materials. More information about accommodation may be found at http://www.washington.edu/admin/dso/.

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Religious Accommodations

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy (https://registrar.washington.edu/staffandfaculty/religious-accommodations-policy/). Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form (https://registrar.washington.edu/students/religious-accommodations-request/).


Catalog Description: 
Covers techniques and practice in reading and enjoying literature in its various forms: poetry, drama, prose fiction, and film. Examines such features of literary meanings as imagery, characterization, narration, and patterning in sound and sense. Offered: AWSp.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
August 2, 2019 - 10:50pm