ENGL 459 explores what the influential critic and novelist Susan Sontag has called “the imagination of disaster.” Sontag is speaking of Hollywood cinema of the fifties and sixties, arguing that end-of-the-world films of this era simultaneously aestheticize destruction and address a perversely utopian impulse for moral simplification. But what about disasters in contemporary fiction? While natural and unnatural disasters have provided Hollywood with predictable script material for decades, less familiar are the meditations on disasters that serious novelists have taken up in literary fiction. In this class we will consider how novelists imagine catastrophe. From uncontrollable natural disasters to genocide and terrorist attacks, from swift destruction unleashed by human avarice to the slow death of a dying world, we will examine the ways fiction reaffirms, questions, or rewrites the modalities of disaster. Along the way we will consider the social, historical, and political contexts of disaster fiction, exploring what it means to “think the unthinkable” in different times and places.



  1. Participation in the day’s discussion is essential. And of course, to get the most out of the discussion, you must have read the day’s assigned work, thoroughly and critically. Occasional quizzes, impromptu presentations, and in-class writing activities will be counted toward your class participation grade.
  2. Every student will contribute to the course blog at least once a week. Posts should run about 300 words and strive to be thoughtful and nuanced, offering questions and insights rather than descriptions or summaries. You have between Sunday at the beginning of the school week through Saturday at the end of the week to post for that week. Late posts cannot be made up; if you miss a week, you receive no credit for that week’s blog. Occasionally I will provide questions for you to respond to, but often the posts will be open-ended. You might begin with an aspect of the reading that you don’t quite understand, and work out a tentative answer in your post. Or you can post follow-up thoughts to our class discussion, perhaps addressing something you felt we missed during class. You may also respond to another student’s post by building upon it, disagreeing with it, or re-thinking it.
  3. There will be a mid-semester blogging audit. This is a reflective analysis of your blogging activity up to this point in the semester, combined with an expansion of a few of your original posts into longer essays. The blogging audit is due Tuesday, October 27.
  4. The annotated bibliography is a catalyst for your final research paper, in which you explore some of the recent academic scholarship related to your research agenda. The bibliography is due Tuesday, November 24.
  5. The final project for the class will be an 10-12 page analytical paper, which offers a critical interpretation of a disaster-oriented text. This paper will require outside research, using sources from established academic journals or academic press books. The final project is due Tuesday, December 15.


The final grade will be weighted and calculated in the following manner:

  • Class Participation: 20%
  • Blogging: 20%
  • Blogging Audit: 20%
  • Annotated Bibliography: 20%
  • Final Research Project: 20%

I evaluate individual blog entries on a scale of 0-4, while I give every other assignment a letter grade that has a percentage equivalent:

A+ = 100% /A = 95% /A- = 90%
B+ = 88% / B = 85% / B- = 80%
C+ = 78% / C = 75% / C- = 70%
D = 65% /F = below 60%

Attendance is mandatory (excepting medical emergencies or observation of religious holidays). If you cannot attend ENGL 459 regularly, please reconsider your decision to enroll. From the 2008-2009 University Catalog:

Students are expected to attend the class periods of the courses for which they register. In-class participation is important not only to the individual student, but to the class as a whole. Because class participation may be a factor in grading, instructors may use absence, tardiness, or early departure as de facto evidence of nonparticipation.

Late assignments will be lowered one letter grade for every weekday they are overdue, unless prior arrangements are made. Even if you are not in class the day an assignment is due, it is still due for you that day. Assignments more than a week late for any reason will simply not be accepted. Therefore, failure to hand in every assignment on time will make it extremely difficult to pass the course.

Students are responsible for verifying their enrollment in this class. The last day to add this course is September 15, 2009. The last day to drop this course is October 2, 2009. After the last day to drop a class, withdrawal from ENGL 459 requires the approval of the dean and is only allowed for nonacademic reasons.

A Note About Research

Remember that all written assignments must follow MLA research guidelines. Never take credit for someone else’s ideas or words and always document your sources. George Mason University has an Honor Code, which requires all members of this community to maintain the highest standards of academic honesty and integrity. Cheating, plagiarism, lying, and stealing are all prohibited. All violations of the Honor Code will be reported to the Honor Committee. See honorcode.gmu.edu for more detailed information.

If you do not own a style guide that covers MLA format, I recommend getting one. I also encourage you to begin using Zotero, a freely available open source reference manager for Windows and Mac, which runs as a Firefox extension. See www.zotero.org for more information.


Laptops may be used in class but only for classroom activities such as note-taking. Talking or texting on cell phones is not acceptable. The use of portable media players or game systems during class is also unacceptable.

Late arrivals and early departures from class are disruptive and should be avoided as well.


If you are a student with a disability and you need academic accommodations, please see me and contact the Disability Resource Center (DRC) at 993-2474. All academic accommodations must be arranged through the DRC.


George Mason issues emergency warnings affecting the university community through its Mason Alert system. If you have not already signed up to receive email, page, or text message alerts, please do so at alert.gmu.edu.