Senior Seminar: The Literature of Political Engagement

An intensive study of a selected literary genre, movement, or period from either British or American literature. Students produce a research seminar paper related to the topic studied. Required of senior English majors; other students may enroll with permission of the instructor. English majors must earn a grade of C or better. Prerequisite: EN 102. Liberal Arts Core/ University Requirements Designation: WI. (3)

This semester we’ll be focusing on the literature of political engagement and examining a variety of circumstances where literature attempts to voice political concerns or impact political thought or action. We’ll explore what affect, if any, a literary text can have on the political systems and events that surround it. We’ll also consider the ways literary texts are affected by the political environment in which they are composed.

We will also be thinking, more broadly, about the purpose of literature and about some of the ethical issues surrounding the writing and reading of literary texts. Here are some questions we may want to consider, among others…

  • What is the obligation of the writer, of the text, and of us as readers and critics, to address issues of political significance? Does literature have an ethical responsibility to expose injustice, to bear witness, to speak for the voiceless?

  • What concerns are most essential in a literary text—the private sufferings of the individual human soul, or the social and political strivings and failures of human society as a whole? Are the two somehow connected?

  • Does writing for a political cause weaken or strengthen a piece of literature? Does literature suffer when it involves itself too much in its immediate political and social circumstances? Should it be striving to tell a larger truth, a truth beyond the immediate present? Can it do both at once?

  • Can literature exist in a political vacuum? Are there any universal truths that literature can tell? Can it speak to all people at all times? Is there something universal in the human spirit that literature can depict? Is it possible to understand a text without understanding its historical context? Or is everything a matter of political circumstance? Can literature escape being a product of its specific social and political moment?

  • What does it mean to be political? To be literary?

Some quotes to think about…

  • “In a stratified society all literature is engaged politically and morally, whether it’s so perceived by the author or not.” –Marge Piercy

  • “It is as absurd to assume that you can solve political and social problems with a poem as it is to call in a painter and ask him to save from death a man with appendicitis by painting a picture.” –James Farrell

  • “The study of literature, however it is conducted, will not save any individual, any more than it will improve any society… The relationship is altogether solitary, despite all of tradition’s obscene attempts to socialize it.” –Harold Bloom

  • “The ultimate responsibility of the writer is to witness.”—E.L. Doctorow

  • “A writer should care about one thing—the language. To write well: that is his duty. That is his only duty. The rest is an attempt to subordinate the writer to some statesman’s purpose.” –Joseph Brodsky

  • “I believe that political pathology is necessarily more ‘important’ than private suffering. During times of political upheaval, the relationship between external reality and the individual’s interior world is destabilized.” –Robert Stone

  • “[Poetry’s] sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or Truth.” –Edgar Allan Poe

  • "Language, that most innocent and spontaneous of common currencies, is in reality a terrain scarred, fissured and divided by the cataclysms of political history, strewn with the relics of imperialist, nationalist, regionalist, and class combat." –Terry Eagleton

  • “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” –William Carlos Williams

COURSE OBJECTIVES: Upon successful completion of this course, students will be expected to

  • Respond to literary texts in a way that reflects an awareness of aesthetic values, historical context, ideological orientation, and critical approach.

  • Analyze literary works - in all genres - with respect to structure, style, and theme.

  • Construct coherent, well-organized essays that establish a clear focus, provide appropriate evidence, and are grammatically correct.

  • Generate effective research questions about a literary text in connection with its political and social context.

  • Conduct appropriate research on a literary text of their choice and synthesize their own original ideas with those advanced by literary critics and other scholars.

  • Demonstrate information and technological literacy in research and competence in MLA documentation.

  • Deliver oral presentations that are focused, well-organized, effective, and establish a connection with the audience.

  • Assess the responsibility of literature, and our responsibility as readers and critics, to engage with the social and political circumstances in which we live.

  • Analyze some specific moments where literature has impacted (or attempted to impact) sociopolitical thought or action.

  • Construct a personal philosophy about the purpose and nature of literature in relation to both the individual human being and the larger social/political structures in which we live.

  • Evaluate the efficacy of a variety of schools of thought on the nature of literature and political engagement.

TEACHING METHOD (Adapted from Dr. Hoare)
Seminar. This term signifies that the course will be far more collaborative than other literature courses. You will need to be able to work with me, to work on your own, and to work with each other. Whether the course has value for you individually--and whether you ultimately look back on the semester as a good experience or an unredeemed ordeal--will depend partly on whether the students as a group develop any chemistry.

"Conversation" is a popular word with contemporary intellectuals, and there is no reason we can't use it. So: this course will be tantamount to a conversation about the literature of political engagement in specific and the purpose and function of literature in general.

Ideally, you will write a paper which you can later present at a conference [such as the Marymount student research conference next spring] or use as a writing sample when applying to graduate school. Your seminar paper will cover a text or group of texts you are personally interested in or curious about, and your individual projects will consume much of the time and energy of the course. You will need to approach your choice with the course focus in mind, but since (as we will discuss) even an “apolitical” design can be a political choice, you will have a good deal of freedom in selecting your text(s).

Seminar/research paper (15 pages) 40%
Research presentation 5%
Annotated Bibliography and presentation 10%
Class discussion presentation 5%
Course preparation and participation 10%
Midterm 15%
Final 15%

Note: We man adjust the schedule as we go along according to the needs of the class.
The readings listed on the schedule represent the major texts we will discuss this semester. We will also be reading brief articles not listed on the syllabus that will allow us to explore a variety of approaches to literature and political engagement, including New Criticism, New Historicism, Marxism, Feminism, Reader-Response, and Deconstruction. Some of these we will read during class together, and others I will ask you to read before class. They will all be available on Blackboard or online.

F 8/29     Introduction: Should literature be personal or political?
Carolyn Forche, Introduction to Against Forgetting; Poetry of political witness (we’ll read together in class)

F 9/5      Uncle Tom’s Cabin

F 9/12     Uncle Tom’s Cabin

F 9/19     Aunt Phyllis’s Cabin (Available online and on Blackboard; please read through chapter 13 for our class, though I encourage you to read the entire text.)

F 9/26     Twelve Years a Slave (Available online and on Blackboard; please read through chapter 13 for our class, though I encourage you to read the entire text if you haven’t already.)

F 10/3     Poetry on slavery (on Blackboard)

Film: Twelve Years a Slave

F 10/17    The Crucible

F 10/24    1984

F 10/31    1984

F 11/7      Handmaid’s Tale
ROUGH DRAFT OF SEMINAR PAPER DUE [At least five pages, more if possible. The draft should show where you’re going and block out how secondary sources are to be used.]
Conferences outside of class

F 11/14     Handmaid’s Tale

F 11/21    Contemporary poetry of political engagement (readings on Blackboard)
Conferences outside of class

F 11/28    Thanksgiving Recess – No Class

F 12/5     Research presentations

F 12/12    FRIDAY, DECEMBER 12: FINAL EXAMINATION, 9:00 A.M. - 11:30 A.M.

YOU MUST HAVE A HARD COPY of each of these texts, though you are not required to have any particular edition. The copies available in the bookstore are cheap and contain helpful contextual materials.
1. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
2. Arthur Miller, The Crucible
3. George Orwell, 1984
4. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Other course materials are available online or through Blackboard and can be read electronically.