Every so often I have an opportunity to teach a section of Davidson College’s first year writing course, WRI 101. It’s the only required class that all Davidson students take, but each section is shaped around a different topic. In Fall 2018 topics will range from “Writing about Modern Physics and Technology” (Section A) to “Monsters” (Section Y). In between are classes devoted to democracy, medicine, Africa, and much more. In the past I’ve taught a WRI 101 course focused on graphic novels and another on toys and games. But this fall, I’m the guy behind Section Y, i.e. Monsters.
Why monsters? Because horror is the literary genre best-suited for our scary times. And to that end, I’ve decided to teach only 21st century works. This means I could leave behind the old standards like Frankenstein and Dracula that appear on almost every monster syllabus. I also decided that each of my works would somehow be reworking the genre. Here’s the list of major texts (which will be supplemented with key theoretical readings as well as short stories, games, and films like Get Out):
Colson Whitehead’s Zone One(2011) reworks the zombie apocalypse;
Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels(2016) reworks werewolves;
Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters (2017) reworks, wow, everything. This graphic novel is a powerful metatext about the role of monsters in social life, drawn from the point of view of a young girl who sees herself as a monster on the margins of society. The mob of angry townspeople in the drawing above appears early in the graphic novel.
You can see from the list that I also leave behind the usual suspects synonymous with horror. The Stephen Kings and the like. Now more than ever it is critical to read, watch, and play horror coming from perspectives that are not CIS white males. The powerful race and gender implications of monsters come into sharp focus with this approach. I’ll share the syllabus when it’s finalized, but for now, here’s the course description:
WRI 101: Monsters
Ghosts. Zombies. Vampires and werewolves. What is it about monsters? Why do they both terrify and delight us? Whether it’s the haunted house in Tananarive Due’s The Good House (2004), Kanye’s monster persona in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), the walking dead in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), Native American werewolves in Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels (2016), or even white suburbia in Get Out (2017), monsters are always about more than just spine-tingling horror. This writing class explores monstrosity in the 21st century, paying particular attention to intersections with race and gender. Through a sequence of writing projects we will explore a central question: what do monsters mean? Our first project asks students to reflect on the home as a space of monstrosity. Our second and third projects address the idea of the monstrous other. Our final project uses contemporary literary and media theory to understand how monsters expose the limits of what counts as human. Along the way, we’ll experiment with our own little Frankenstein-like compositional monsters.
“Data” is often considered to be the domain of scientists and statisticians. But with the proliferation of databases across nearly all aspects of modern life, data has become an everyday concern. Bank accounts, FaceTime records, Snapchat posts, Xbox leaderboards, CatCard purchases, your DNA—at the heart of all them is data. To live today is to breathe and exhale data, wherever you go, online and off. And at the same time data has become a function of daily life, it has also become the subject of—and vehicle for—literary and artistic critiques.
This course explores the role of data and databases in contemporary culture, with an eye toward understanding how data shapes the way we perceive—and misperceive—the world. After historicizing the origins of modern databases in 19th century industrialization and census efforts, we will survey our present-day data landscape, considering data mining, data visualization, and database art. We will encounter nearly evangelical enthusiasm for “Big Data” but also rigorous criticisms of what we might call naïve empiricism. The ethical considerations of data collection and analysis will be at the forefront of our conversation, as will be issues surrounding privacy and surveillance. Continue reading “DIG 210: Data Culture”→
A tentative syllabus for DIG 350: History & Future of the Book, a course just approved for the Digital Studies program at my new academic home, Davidson College. Many thanks to Ryan Cordell, Lisa Gitelman, Kari Kraus, Jessica Pressman, Peter Stallybrass, and many others, whose research and classes inspired this one.
Each of these works offers a meditation upon the act of reading or writing, the power of stories, the role of storytellers, and the materiality of books themselves as physical objects. In addition to these printed and (mostly) bound texts, my English Honors Seminar students will encounter a range of other unconventional narrative forms, from Jonathan Blow’s Braid to Kate Pullinger’s Inanimate Alice, from Christopher Strachey’s machine-generated love letters to Robert Coover’s deck of storytelling playing cards. Along the way we’ll also consider mash-ups, databased stories, role-playing games, interactive fiction, and a host of other narrative forms. We’ll also (a heads-up to my students) create some of our own post-print beasties…
• Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Harvest Books, ISBN 0156439611)
• Don DeLillo, Mao II (Penguin, ISBN 978-0140152746)
• Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (Pantheon, ISBN 978-0375703768)
• Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper (Mariner, ISBN 978-0156032117)
• Anne Carson, Nox (New Directions, ISBN 978-0811218702)
Here is an early, tentative course description for my Fall 2011 senior seminar for the English Honors students. I welcome comments or reading recommendations!
Post-Print Fiction (ENGL 400 Honors Seminar)
For several centuries the novel has been associated with a single material form: the bound book, made of paper and printed with ink. But what happens when storytelling diverges from the book? What happens when writers weave stories that extend beyond the printed word? What happens when fiction appears in digital form, generated from a reader’s actions or embedded in a videogame? What happens when a novel has no novelist behind it, but a crowd of authors—or no human at all, just an algorithm? We will address these questions and many more in this English Honors Seminar dedicated to post-print fiction. We will begin with two “traditional” novels that nonetheless ponder the meaning of narrative, books, and technology, and move quickly into several novels that, depending upon one’s point of view, either represent that last dying gasp of the printed book or herald a renaissance of the form. Finally, we will devote the latter part of the semester exploring electronic literature, kinetic poetry, transmedia narratives, and paranovels that both challenge and enrich our understanding of fiction in the 21st century.
Possible works to be studied include Mao II by Don DeLillo, The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer, Personal Effects: Dark Arts by J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman, This Is Not a Book by Keri Smith, Braid by Jonathan Blow, The Baron by Victor Gijspers, as well as works by Deena Larsen, Nick Montfort, Mary Flanagan, Jason Nelson, Jonathan Harris, Shelley Jackson, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Stephanie Strickland, and many more.
[Typewriter photograph courtesy of Flickr user paulmorriss / Creative Commons License]
I always agonize over which books to teach during any given semester. It’s not for a lack of possibilities. Indeed, there are always too many choices, too many great books to teach in the fields of postmodern literature and experimental literature. And I always want to get the syllabus just right for my students, balancing the absolute must-reads in the field with more obscure but just as rich texts. My upcoming graduate class in graphic novels has been particularly difficult. There is an embarrassment of riches in graphic narrative and at some point the selection seems to become arbitrary.
That said, my finalized reading list for ENGL 685 (Graphic Novels) does have a few thematic contours. And though I’m well aware of the many gaps and missing texts, I’m excited about the list and am looking forward to the course.
Here, then, is the primary reading list for ENGL 685 (Fall 2010), organized thematically:
Here’s the course description for my Fall 2010 graduate class on graphic novels (ENGL 685:003):
This course considers the storytelling potential of graphic novels, an often neglected form of artistic and narrative expression with a long and rich history. Boldly combining images and text, graphic novels of recent years have explored divisive issues often considered the domain of “serious” literature: immigration, racism, war and terrorism, dysfunctional families, and much more. Informed by literary theory and visual culture studies, we will analyze both mainstream and indie graphic novels. In particular, we will be especially attentive to the unique visual grammar of the medium, exploring graphic novels that challenge the conventions of genre, narrative, and high and low culture. While our focus will be on American graphic novelists, we will touch upon artistic traditions from across the globe. Works studied may include Nat Turner by Kyle Baker, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Black Hole by Charles Burns, Sand Man by Neil Gaiman, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan, Watchmen by Alan Moore, Uzumaki by Junji Ito, In My Hour of Darkness by Wilfred Santiago, Maus by Art Speigelman, and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware.
HNRS 353: Videogames in Critical Contexts T/R 1:30-2:45pm
In this Honors Seminar we will study the history and cultural impact of videogames from a number of critical perspectives. As products of a complicated network of social, economic, and technological forces, videogames are dense cultural texts, deeply layered with multiple meanings. Whether we consider early arcade games like Pac-Man or the latest blockbusters for next-gen consoles, we find that videogames reveal much about our cultural values, hopes and anxieties, and assumptions about the world. We will examine a range of genres (interaction fiction, first person shooters, simulations, role playing games, and so on) as we strive to understand both the narrative and formal aspects of videogames. At the same time we will map connections between videogames and their broader social contexts — how games are designed, who plays them and where, and in what ways videogames can be more than entertainment.
ENGL 610: Teaching the Reading of Literature
How do we as teachers read literature? How do our students read literature? What is the difference between the two? And how can we teach our students the process of interpretation — of transforming a naive reading of a literary work into a critical reading? This course addresses these questions by considering theoretical approaches to the teaching of literature as well as practical techniques and tools that teachers and students alike can use. Among these strategies we will emphasize the role of writing as a means to deepen students’ understanding of what they read. ENGL 610 is designed for current teachers, those considering careers in teaching, and anyone drawn to the experience of reading and analyzing literature. Most of our course readings are relevant to high school and college English classrooms, but many ideas we consider may be adapted for the teaching of younger readers.