English 207: Introduction to Cultural Studies Approaches to Literature
Days/Time: TTh 330-520 LOW - 102
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 produced. --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 cultural myths and the assumptions embedded in them.
--Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, Bonnie Lisle, Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing0
Course Description & Goals
“Culture,” as Stephen Greenblatt goes on to explain in his essay, is defined by the traditions, beliefs, customs, habits and practices of a society, all of which form the basis of social institutions that socialize us individually. Practitioners of cultural criticism assume that all of us—citizens, readers, authors, directors, and critics alike--are products consciously or unconsciously of our culture.
In this course, we will become conscious practitioners of cultural criticism to augment more traditional ways of interpreting meaning and value in literary texts—specifically short fiction. This way of reading will allow us to mine the cultural assumptions and myths deeply embedded in literary texts and relate those assumptions to real-world social contexts. Doing so will help us to decide to what degree the textual representation of that culture invites us to cultivate, critique, or even condemn its themes, expressed values, and behavioral norms.
By the end of this quarter, you should be able to:
- Define the discipline of Cultural Studies
- “Close read” fiction and film as it mirrors an author’s/director's beliefs about socio-cultural values and consequences of reading superficially or with critical understanding of the culture that the narrative exposes.
- Understand the value of employing these dual approaches in translating fiction into life.
Course Texts & Materials
- Michael Ryan, Cultural Studies: A Practical Introduction (UW Bookstore)
- Diana Hacker, A Pocket Style Guide (UW Bookstore)
- An activated UW email account that you check each weekday
- Printed copies of selected stories and essays (that I email to you) to read, analyze, and bring to class for analytical discussion. (No online/laptop/cell phone editions are allowed in class--this is an in-person/print course--you need to prepare before class and have the print texts with you to make your thematic points to other members of the class.)
- In-class viewing and vocal (not auditing/listening) critical discussion of feature films and memoirs, using a cultural studies' approach to the interpretation. In other words, watching/reading the movies outside of class screenings does not "count" as being in class when we screen and discuss the film segments.
Informed and Engaged Discussion of Texts (1/3 of your overall grade)
To complete course goals, we will focus on fictional texts that cross a variety of historical periods and cultures, the authors publishing these texts since the turn of the 20th century.
Please bear in mind that certain of these texts challenge sharply conventional cultural and literary norms, popular mythologies, and personal belief systems, and that at some point or another you probably might feel disturbed and offended or bored by certain cultural representations in the texts--that is, this is not a Harry Potter kind of curriculum course. Such ideological challenge happens to each of us every day, and in a college-level cultural studies course, a core skill is to think intelligently and objectively about our predispositions, feelings and judgments, our aesthetic and ideological conditioning—to look clearly at cultural mythologies to see how they bind us but also blind us, according to how authors and directors represent the themes.
I will begin by summarizing for you a variety of literary approaches, historical trends related to those approaches, and controversies. You’ll become familiar with more traditional and various approaches. You will become aware of how a cultural studies’ perspective fits into this interpretive mix.
I’ll expect you to prepare for each class session/ interpretive discussion of the fiction or film we are reading and discussing on a particular date. I will credit you individually for the quality and quantity of your vocally-expressed pre-class research efforts that you demonstrate in your in-class discussion---for example, you will need to look up words, images, allusions, etc. in the fictional stories before a class story discussion so as to understand some of the cultural/contextual meanings that the story’s author mirrors in the text. You accrue “attendance” participation discussion credit only for reading and speaking in class about how a story writer or movie director employs fiction and/or a film device can mirror themes about cultural conflicts and power; you will not accrue credit from simply sitting and listening to others (auditing) or by giving simply your emotional impressions of a story ("I liked it.")--you need to prepare before class and come to class with thoughtful, informed commentary to share with others.
This is an in-person course, not online, so you need to be here in class alert and prepared to discuss the stories and movies thoughtfully. Frequent absences will affect your ability to stay current with class discussion and debate and can significantly and adversely affect your overall grade--that is, you could fail.This is not a “drop in” class, or a bridged online/ in-person course. It's an in-person course. If that fits your schedule, great; if not, choose a different kind of course that does fit.
Grading Criteria for Course
A Midterm (1/3 of your overall grade)
Your midterm in-class exam will be a in-class identification/definitions of literary terminology and cultural studies’ critical terms, plus an analytical/interpretive short essay about a story and the application of CS theory to translate the story that you will write out of class, but I will assign the topic. Please keep in mind that this is not a composition course, but a sophomore-level critical thinking/expression course, so you need to be skilled in writing a 3-page essay with a thesis and critically supportive body paragraphs that are coherently and grammatically argumentative, not merely descriptive/a personal journal.
A Final Exam (1/3 of your overall grade)
Somewhat similar to your midterm, your final examination will be part in-class objective definition of literary terms and cultural studies’ critical terms, plus a written essay done in class, in which you interpret a screen shot from one of the films we screened and discussed in detail. The last day of the course will be the day that you write and give to me your final essay/exam.
In-class Prepared/Vocal Discussion of the Critical Theory/Short Stories/and Films (1/3 of your overall grade)
This is not an online or auditing class, one in which you sit and listen to others in class talk. You will accrue credit as you contribute vocally in class your prepared commentary on cultural studies' theory, short story analysis, and film analysis. There is no "extra credit" to substitute for these requirements, and all should help you personally and professionally excel in life.