ENGL 308 A: Marxism and Literary Theory

Meeting Time: 
TTh 9:30am - 11:20am
* *
Alys Weinbaum
Alys Eve Weinbaum

Syllabus Description:



Professor Alys Weinbaum

Office hours:   by appointment, set up via email

Email:  alysw@uw.edu

Course meeting time: Tuesdays and Thursday  9:30-11:20


Class Zoom Link: https://washington.zoom.us/j/97707455130


Course Description

This course begins with a world changing text by Marx and his collaborator, Engels, and then proceeds to examine the debates that have emerged among Marxist thinkers who have taken up Marxist ideas and run with them.  These thinkers have expanded on Marx’s and Engels’s insights about class conflict and history, and have sought to understand how capitalism, racism, and sexism work together to create dominant systems of power, or hegemony. At the center of the course is therefore the question of how 19th century ideas about political economy (aka economics), history, and philosophy were taken up by 20th and 21st century scholars, and how a distinct tradition of interpreting literature, culture, and society from a Marxist perspective, using Marxist tools, has developed over time.

By contrast to other models of literary and cultural criticism which often seek to find in art and other cultural texts transcendent messages and universal meanings, Marxist thinkers have instead situated art and other cultural texts within their historical contexts of production and reception. In so doing, they have sought to understand how  power dynamics (including those informed by race, gender, and sexuality) create meaning, and how the conflicts that result from the imposition of power impact the meaning, message, genre, style, and form of literature and all other forms of art and cultural production.

Our study of Marxist theory will necessarily involve close, intensive reading of dense and often highly philosophical texts. Through engagement with these texts we will seek to understand how a materialist method indebted to Marx and Engels emerged as dominant (if often unnamed or acknowledged) within contemporary literary and cultural studies scholarship, and how diverse critical practices (given labels such as “critical theory,” “feminist theory,” “critical race theory,” and “cultural studies”) sit within an expansive Marxist intellectual tradition. Over the course of the quarter we will treat several cultural texts, literary and filmic. We will consider how our understanding of each is shaped by the Marxist frameworks that the course introduces, and how each, in turn, may be used to reveal the possibilities and pitfalls of Marxist methodologies.


Course goals and learning objectives

  • To read and understand dense theoretical texts.
  • To write about them with clarity and nuance.
  • To write about a range of cultural texts by setting the theories examined in this course to work.
  • To understand how Marxist theory develops out of intensive dialogue among scholars.
  • To evaluate the usefulness of Marxist theory as a distinct critical practice.
  • To evaluate the limitations of Marxist approaches to art and cultural production more broadly.
  • To be able to talk in class about theoretical and cultural texts in informed and nuanced ways.


Course requirements.  Active, prepared, and informed participation in zoom-class meetings and small breakout groups.  A set of written analytical responses to course materials.  As discussed below, each student determines how many responses they will write based on their desired grade. 


All responses are due on Mondays (save #7, which is due on a Friday), as specified on the schedule of readings and assignments.  All responses MUST respond to the prompts that are included in the schedule of readings and assignments to be counted, and must account for any changes to these prompts that are discussed in class. 


Participation .  This is largely a discussion based course.  For this reason, if regular synchronous participation will not be possible for you, you should select a different course this quarter. 


All students may miss up two zoom class meetings without penalty.  Be advised that it is not possible to do well in this course without regularly attending zoom class and fully and thoughtfully completing the readings as they come due.  If you do not attend class and/or fall behind in the readings, it will be exceedingly difficult to submit written work that meets the minimum requirements for this course.


Grades.  Your course grade is based on a combination of regular in-class participation, and submission of a set of responses that clearly demonstrates deep engagement with course materials, lectures, and discussion of materials in class.  Response that meet the expectation of deep engagement will be counted toward you grade.  Responses that fail to meet this expectation will receive partial or no credit.  For instance, responses that are too short, underdeveloped, or carelessly written or edited will only receive half credit (2 points).  If you wish to know how your responses are being assessed, you need to email me to set up a meeting during office hours.  


Deep engagement is demonstrated by

1) offering THOUGHTFUL ideas and asking RELEVANT questions about the assigned materials that clearly demonstrate that you have spent considerable time reading/viewing them in their entirety, reviewing them prior to class, and engaging with the ideas that have been presented in lectures and discussion about materials.  As the course proceeds, you responses will increasingly make connections across readings.

2) writing about the course materials in a DETAILED manner that ALWAYS makes reference to specific passages, scenes, etc… and thus demonstrates your deep engagement with the materials.  In other words, the more close reading you do the better!  Please see “Prof. Weinbaum's Guidelines to Responses” for more information about how to approach responses.

3) submitting written work that is carefully prepared. In other words, all response should be organized, edited, and proof read to the best of your ability.  Sloppy work will result in partial credit for the response in question.


Your starting grade in this course is 3.4 or B+.  This grade will be given to all students who regularly participate in class and who complete 5 of 7 response assignments that demonstrate deep engagement (see above). 

Response format.  All response are 3 pages or 750 words.  Responses must be double spaced.

Each missing response below 5 will result in four numeral points (.4) off of your final grade.  For instance, the first missing response will drop your course grade to 3.0, the second to 2.6, the third to 2.2, the fourth to 1.8 etc… Note: the minimal grade required for this course to count toward the major is 2.0.

To receive a grad higher than 3.4 you must complete additional responses.  Those who complete 6 responses will receive a starting grade of 3.7 (or A-), and those who complete 7 responses will receive a starting grade between (3.8-4.0).  As with all responses, additional responses must demonstrate deep engagement (see above).

Please note that late responses will not count toward your grade.  If you have missed a response due to exceptional circumstances, please contact me by email prior to the next response due date so that we can work out a plan to addresses your situation.



All course readings are available on Canvas in the “files” section. One course text is also available through the University Bookstore:  Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (I will be using the Oxford edition in class for pagination).

The following schedule is subject to revision. Revisions will be discussed in class and/or sent out as announcements.  It is your responsibility to check your email daily and to stay abreast of all changes to readings and assignments (including changes in due dates).



Tuesday, January 5

Introduction to the course 

Thursday, January 7

Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto (1848), sections I and II (pp. 1-26 Oxford edition)

Naomi Klein, Corona-Capitalism (Links to an external site.)



Response #1 due Monday January 11, 12-noon. 

This response must treat The Communist Manifesto.  It should include a summary of at least one of the first three sections of the text, and must raise a question about the argument that comes out of your treatment of a particular passage that you found either especially interesting, perplexing, or surprising. 

Tuesday, January 12

Final two sections of Communist Manifesto (pp.27-39) and the "Prefaces" to the English (1888), German (1890), and Polish (1892) editions.

Thursday, January 1

Karl Marx, “Theses Concerning Feuerbach” (1845)

Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”



Response #2 due Monday January 18, 12-noon.  This response must treat “Bartleby” in relation to The Communist Manifesto.  Choose a character in the story and explain how his in/action illuminates a particular idea or argument that you found important within The Communist Manifesto.  Consider if and how this short story offers a critique of capitalism.

Tuesday, January 19

Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Ideological Tensions of Capitalism:  Universalism versus Racism and Sexism” and “Class Conflict in Capitalist World Economy.” 

Thursday, January 21

Nicole Hannah-Jones, “What is Owed”


Matthew Desmond, (the second essay--scroll through), "If you want to understand the brutality of American Capitalism...". Nicole Hannah-Jones et al., The 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine



Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/?utm_source=atl&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=share (Links to an external site.)

Read other parts of the 1619 project!  The lead essay by Hannah-Jones is excellent; also see the essay on music by Wesley Morris or any others that interest you.  

Extra credit response possible on Coates or any of these other essays!              



Tuesday, January 26

Keeanga-Yamahatta Taylor, “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation”

Thursday, January 28

Boots Riley dir., Sorry to Bother You.

The film is available on Netflix and other platforms.  You are responsible for viewing the film prior to class, and taking viewing notes for reference during class discussion.

Robin D. G. Kelley, “The Rebellion Against Racial Capitalism”

Available on the Intercept as article or podcast: https://theintercept.com/2020/06/24/the-rebellion-against-racial-capitalism/


Jodi Melamed, “Racial Capitalism”



Response #3 due Monday February 1, 12-noon.  This response must offer an analysis of a particular scene in Riley’s film. Use your analysis of this scene to meditate on a key insight that you have drawn from one of the readings on the relationship between racism and capitalism (Wallerstein, Hannah-Jones, Desmond, Taylor, Kelley).  First elaborate the theoretical insight you have selected,  then set it to work through an analysis of the scene from the film.

Tuesday, February 2

Silvia Federici, "Wages Against Housework" and "Why Sexuality is Work" 

Thursday, February 4

Melissa Wright, “The Dialectics of a Still Life:  Murder, Women and Disposability”



Tuesday, February 9

Elizabeth Bernstein, “Bounded Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex”

Kimberly Kay Hoang, "Economies of Emotion, Familiarity, Fantasy, and Desire:  Emotional Labor in Ho Chi Minh City's Sex Industry"

Thursday, February 11

Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”                     



Response #4 due Monday February 15, 12-noon.  This response must consider how Butler’s short story resonates with at least one of the preceding readings (Federici, Wright, Bernstein, Hoang) that theorizes the relationship between sexism and capitalism.  As in the previous response, first elaborate on the theoretical insight, then set it to work in relation to a particular passage or scene from the story.

Tuesday, February 16

Marx, “The Fetishism of the Commodity” (this is the final section of Chapter 1 of Capital)

Thursday, February 18

Althusser “Ideological State Apparatus” to page 177



Response #5 due on Monday February 22, 12-noon.  This response must explore one major idea you have taken from Althusser’s essay.  It must explore how this particular idea helps you understand something about your own participation in “the family/school dyad.”

Tuesday, February 23

Althusser “ISA” completed

Althusser, “A Letter on Art in Reply to Andre Daspre”



Response # 6 due Monday March 1, 12-noon.  This response must make an argument for why one word that is in use today and we hear on a regular basis counts as a keyword.  Be sure to offer a definition of “keyword” based on your reading of Williams before discussing how and why the word you have selected ought to be understood as a keyword.

Tuesday, March 2

Raymond Williams, “Introduction” to Keywords and keyword entries: “Art,” “Class,” and “Literature”

[Possible alternative text: Banksy dir., “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”  Note:  If we do the film, the prompt for response #6 will change accordingly]

Thursday, March 4

Raymond Williams, Chapters 6, 8, 9 from Marxism and Literature



Tuesday, March 9

Bong Joon-Ho dir.  Parasite

The film is available on Netflix and other platforms.  It is your responsibility to view the film prior to class.  You should take viewing notes for reference during class discussion.

Thursday, March 11

Herbert Marcuse, “Liberation from the Affluent Society”

Response #7 is due on Friday March 12, 12-noon.  This final response must treat Parasite in relation to any two readings  we have done this quarter.



Zoom Etiquette

To facilitate smooth synchronous meetings, please adhere to the following standards of etiquette:

  1. Mute your microphone upon entering the meeting; unmute your microphone only when you talk
  2. Wear clothes that would be acceptable in a physical classroom space on campus
  3. Use the "chat" feature for vital communication only, as chat can distract from the primary discussion
  4. Raise your hand physically or with the raise hand feature under the participants tab
  5. Leave your video on whenever possible (I understand it will not be possible in all circumstances)
  6. Do not text or engage in activities unrelated to class on your computer or otherwise during Zoom meetings.
  7. If you need to step away from your computer momentarily, mute your microphone, stop your video, and display the “away” button on your screen (available via the participants tab).


Classroom Etiquette

This class deals with politicized material. You do not have to agree with everything we read. Our collective goal is to treat other people’s ideas with respect and interrogate them with critical rigor. It is important that you come to class each day with an open mind, a sense of humor, and a willingness to discuss ideas in polite dialogue with others. By doing so, we all ensure that this course remains a forum in which we can learn from one another. Language or behavior that is sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and so on prevents the exchange of ideas and will confronted on the spot.  


Synchronous Participation via Zoom

We will meet synchronously via Zoom during our regularly scheduled class time. At the outset let’s plan to meet for roughly 75 to 90 minutes, twice per week, starting at 9:30 am. If we decide to adjust meeting length, we can do so.

Discussing course materials with other people is the best ways to master the learning objectives of the course. I therefore encourage to you share your ideas often and without hesitation during Zoom meetings. I assess deep engagement in synchronous Zoom meetings in the following ways:

  • Your contributions to class discussions: You offer your own ideas, ask questions, respond to me or other students, read passages aloud when given the opportunity, share points of concern or confusion, and offer your own interpretations of texts.
  • Your preparedness for class discussions: You have completed the readings AND have engaged with them deeply prior to class.
  • Your participation in breakout rooms: You have actively contributed to the completion of the assigned task, taken responsibility for an equitable portion of the group’s intellectual labor, and have generously offered your own questions and insights, thus contributing significantly to expanding the discussion in your breakout room.


Asynchronous Participation

While I strongly encourage you to attend all synchronous meetings, I understand that attending every meeting may not be possible for everyone. I know that people have varying access to reliable Wi-Fi, webcams, and physical space from which to video conference. Synchronous participation can therefore be combined with asynchronous participation when this is absolutely necessary.

Asynchronous Participation involves submitting substantial contributions to the online discussion board.  If you will be participating asynchronously you should contribute to the board  by 5 pm on the evening prior to class.   You must submit a comment or question of at least 250 words.  This is in addition to your regular reader response.

To protect all our privacy, I will not be regularly recording Zoom meetings (I will only do so occasionally for my own use). Therefore, on occasions when you must participate asynchronously, I encourage you to communicate with one or more of your classmates in order to get notes from the Zoom lecture and discussion. I also encourage you to meet with at least one fellow student virtually (and, if necessary, with me during office hours) to talk about anything related to the class session you have missed about which you have questions.



You are not required to consult outside sources in writing responses. This noted, if you do consult websites, blogs, academic articles, discussion boards, etc… it is your responsibility to accurately and fully acknowledge these sources.  Any failure to do so amounts to plagiarism.  For instance, failure to provide citations for quoted or paraphrased formulations and ideas, and submission of a paragraph, sentence, phrase or concept conceived of by someone else without full attribution all constitute plagiarism. Work containing plagiarism, however minor, will be excluded from consideration toward your grade. All instances of plagiarism will be immediately reported to appropriate authorities.



If you contact me via email to set up office hours or for any other reason, please allow at least 24 hours for my response. Please also understand that I am unable to respond to email after 5 p.m. or on weekends.  



Religious accommodation

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-accommodation...). 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/).


Writing resources

I encourage you to take advantage of the writing resources available to you at no charge:

The CLUE Writing Center in the Gateway Center of Mary Gates Hall is open Sunday to Thursday from 7pm to midnight. The graduate tutors are adept at helping you develop your claims and improve your essays. You do not need to make an appointment, so arrive early in case there is a wait. You may visit their site here: http://depts.washington.edu/clue/dropintutor_writing.php

The Odegaard Writing and Research Center offers a range of one-on-one appointment times, Sunday to Friday. It provides a research-integrated approach to writing instruction. Make an appointment on the website: www.depts.washington.edu/owrc

The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) allows you to browse or search writing related questions. It is also an excellent resource for questions about MLA formatting and citation. You can visit the site here: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/

Ask Betty is a UW-designed grammar resource center for FAQs on common subjects including how to work with instructor feedback on writing. You can find the site here: http://depts.washington.edu/engl/askbetty/


Disability accommodation

If you need accommodation of any sort, please do not hesitate to talk to me so that I can work with the UW Disability Resource for Students (DRS) to provide what you require. More information about accommodation may be found at http://www.washington.edu/students/drs/


UW Safe Campus

Preventing violence is everyone’s responsibility. If you’re concerned, tell someone.

  • Always call 911 if you or others may be in danger.
  • Call 206-685-SAFE (7233) to report non-urgent threats of violence and for referrals to UW counseling and/or safety resources. TTY or VP callers, please call through your preferred relay service.
  • Don’t walk alone. Campus safety guards can walk with you on campus after dark. Call Husky Night Walk 206-685-WALK (9255).
  • Stay connected in an emergency with UW Alert. Register your mobile number to receive instant notification of campus emergencies via text and voice messaging. Sign up online at www.washington.edu/alert.

For more information, visit the SafeCampus website at www.washington.edu/safecampus.





Catalog Description: 
Introduces Marxist theory and methodology. Explores how and why Marx's writings, Marxist theory, and materialist methods became central to the study of literature and culture over the course of the twentieth century.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
October 13, 2020 - 4:40am