English 407: Deep Focus: A Cultural Studies Approach to Interpreting Fiction and Film
If an exploration of a particular culture will lead to a heightened understanding of a work of literature produced within that culture, so too a careful reading of a work of literature will lead to a heightened understanding of the culture within which it was produce.
--Stephen Greenblatt, "Culture"
Culture shapes the way we think; it tells us what “makes sense.” It holds people together by providing us with a shared set of customs, values, ideas, and beliefs, as well as a common language. We live enmeshed in this cultural web; it influences the way we relate to others, the way we look, our tastes, our habits; it enters our dreams and desires. But as culture binds us together it also selectively blinds us. As we grow up, we accept ways of looking at the world, ways of thinking and being that might best be characterized as cultural frames of reference or cultural myths [my emphasis]. These myths help us to understand our place in the world—our place as prescribed by our culture. They define our relationships to friends and lovers, to the past and future, to nature, to power, and to nation. Becoming a critical thinker means learning how to look beyond these [socially constructed] cultural myths and the assumptions embedded in them.
--Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, Bonnie Lisle, Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing
This is a course that focuses on reading contemporary fiction and film to discover how society affects and shapes people's values, behaviors, and beliefs, as well as the consequences of that kind of social molding. We will be analyzing various authors' cultural critiques embedded in stories and how those stories mirror social myths that we are taught to believe are absolute, exclusively valuable truths, but which the stories' authors often re-present fictionally as dangerous to certain groups of individuals as well as to society at large.
Our core texts will be Michael Ryan's Cultural Studies, a Practical Introduction, along with 20th-century American short stories thematically centered on exploring social myths and truths carefully imbedded in the stories, which serve to mirror actual social beliefs and practices. We will detect and analyze those myths as they affect the fictional characters in the story, and, by association, actual readers--including us.
Later in the course we will take a close look at one or more feature films to discover how feature movies sometimes marketed as merely "entertainments" likewise mirror and critique serious sociocultural conditioning/molding. Some stories include Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," Cisneros' "Barbie-Q," and Jackson's "The Lottery." Feature films screened in class might include Rabbit-Proof Fence or Up in the Air, or perhaps, No Country for Old Men, among other possible contemporary films.
Class requirements include regular weekly attendance and preparation, vocal, thoughtful in-class analysis, discussion and presentations (no silent auditing!) and textual and contextual readings of fascinating but sometimes unsettling historical themes embedded in the stories and films (e.g., Rabbit-Proof Fence is a provocative feature film about an Australian historically-accurate account Aboriginal oppression, but it is as well an engrossing, uplifting story in which 3 young Aboriginal girls defy, expose, and outwit their Eurocentric government's adult oppressors/kidnappers, causing their widespread public humiliation). The course also requires written interpretive analysis, applying cultural-studies premises to interpret stories and films, and practicing the use of standard literary and film critical terminology.