Historical Fiction / Fictional History -- seminar
There are innumerable gaps and absences in historical archives for accessing dispossessed lives and experiences. With political and ethical commitments at the fore, contemporary fiction authors and theorists have turned to various modes of fictionality, speculation, and the counterfactual to address and encounter these gaps, even if not to fully recover experiences lost to time. These are tender, reparative gestures that begin mournfully, and often end melancholically. “Historical Fiction / Fictional History” will introduce students to literary and critical methods by toggling between narratives deemed historical and narratives deemed fictional to get at the bounds (ethical, political, moral) of speculation that direct each in turn.
This course is intended to introduce students to three central skills cultivated in the English department: clear and detailed argumentation in writing, constructive critical conversation, and individual textual interpretation. We will provide students with both the building blocks of literary analysis, from close reading to developing a critical vocabulary, as well as a rich and varied set of interpretive frameworks.
Introduction to American Studies -- lecture / discussion
About Faces: Case Studies in the History of Reading Faces -- seminar
What aspects of your identity does your face carry and why do we form attachments not only to our own face, but to the faces of those we love (and love a little less) – through photographs, avatars, emoji, even from far away? This course explores aesthetic, philosophical, and ethical theories about human faces as markers of identity and carriers of cultural information, in terms of race, gender and class, and at other times, over and against animal faces. We use the collections of the Princeton Art Museum to work with objects from various time periods, traditions, and mediums to consider how the representation of faces has shifted historically. We consider the ethical hold of the human face alongside studies – aesthetic, scientific, philosophical – of faces. We consider case studies of faces in specific contexts (e.g. in painting, in photography, in early film, in social psychology, in racial science). We pause to ask questions about the difference mediation and form make to the valuation of faces as markers of identity, morality, and value. We also look at specific faces that become stand-ins for ideas themselves (e.g. Marilyn Monroe, Martin Luther King, Jr., Beyonce), that is, icons. Last, we think about the limits of “faciality” – at what point is a face not a face?
Translating America -- seminar
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you…As if Nature could support but one order of understandings.” For Thoreau in Walden, to traffic in language was already to be operating in translation, and to limit expression to the rigors of being understood by just one group was against the natural order. But what about when translations fail? Or are incomplete? Is that more, then, like the “natural order”? Are we always working against the grain of the “natural order” when we traffic in translations at all? Or, is language separate from the “natural order” altogether?
Taking a page from Thoreau, this course asks questions about the bounds of America through thinking deeply with notions of translation about language, identity, and belonging. It argues, first, that translation was a central concern and beloved practice of some of America’s earliest writers. More, it argues that translation continues to be a primary mode through which contemporary novels operate. Students will be introduced to theories of translation in order to better understand not only acts of translation in everyday life, but also how and in what ways American authors have valued journeying between languages and geographies.
We read canonical authors like Washington Irving, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville alongside Jose Maria Heredia, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, and Daniel Alarcon, to name just a few. We encounter contemporary debates in translation through the works of Clarice Lispector (Brazil), whose short stories have recently been translated into English to great acclaim. These contemporary moments help us consider the ramifications of translation and continued investments in monolingualism in today’s America. The readings for each week alternate between theoretical texts and literary texts that take up the meaning, practice, ethics, and limitations of translation. We also pause at several points during the semester to consider why, at various moments in American history, “English only” movements have gained public support and political traction in our multilingual nation. By the end of the course, students will be fluent in some of the major themes of translation theory. They will also understand the historical role of translation in both imperialist and politically subversive visions of America about whom and what languages “belong” here.
We Out Here: An Introduction to Latino Literature – seminar
In Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2003), Richard Rodriguez writes, “I cannot imagine myself a writer, I cannot imagine myself writing these words, without the example of African slaves stealing the English language, learning to read against the law, then transforming the English language into the American tongue, transforming me, rescuing me, with a coruscating nonchalance.” Rodriguez, who was born in California to Mexican parents, cannot imagine his writerly career without the linguistic “thievery” of the enslaved, even as he is distant and distinct from them by any measure: centuries, legal status, geographic origins, mother tongue, and race. This introduction to Latino literature follows Rodriguez’s lead and situates the long history of writing we might belatedly term “Latinx” in a network of linguistic and literary influences across race, geographies, and histories. While we march through the syllabus somewhat in line with historical time, we linger with and luxuriate energy upon literary works to consider the intercultural terrains from which they emerge but by which their aesthetic effects are not constrained.
We read texts across genres including María Amparo Ruíz de Burtón’s The Squatter and the Don, José Marti’s Versos Sencillos, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, and Junot Díaz’s Drown. We will also have the opportunity to attend the world premier of playwright Nilo Cruz's Bathing in Moonlight at the McCarter Theatre. Throughout the semester, we engage questions of identity only to then complicate the relationship between identity and a work’s aesthetic effects. At the same time, we think critically about the shifting politics of writing from the perspective of Mexican, Latin, Boricua, Dominicano, Afro-Latino, Chicano, Hispanic, Mexican-American, Cubano, and Latinx identities.
Imagining Slavery & Gender -- seminar
What does a culture do with atrocities it wishes to forget? How do we remember those chapters of history we collectively wish had not been written? How do our cultural forms—literature, film, visual arts—help us remember the past in ways that will allow us to understand the contemporary impact of the events, practices, and institutions we wish we could undo?
This course takes off from the idea that literary, scientific, documentary, cinematic and other visual artistic representations of racial slavery in the United States give us insight into our current and pressing conversations around justice and violence in the United States. After this course, students will understand not only how contemporary novels and films imagined slavery and its aftermath, but also how these depictions of racial and gendered violence can help us articulate a relationship between the past and the future we might want to build out of a present that is, at times, difficult to bear. In addition to these broader issues, we will also hone in on contemporary moments that draw on the history and memory of American slavery. For example, how can we apprehend the popularity of genetic testing for and YouTube “revelations” of African ancestry in relation to the idea of historical memory? Why is Kara Walker’s art so powerful and controversial? Why was Spike Lee unwilling to watch Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained? Over the course of the semester, we will use such works as Beloved, 12 Years a Slave, A Subtlety, and The Known World to consider the importance of historical memory and the ethics of representation in the present moment.