The Ideal and the Reality of Race and Sex

In the first half of our semester, the class has made a number of important observations.

  • Whitman and Dickinson both suggest the transcendent: that which surpasses the raw, concrete particulars of the world that is nonetheless necessary for understanding our human experience of the world.
    • Whitman presents particular examples of individuals performing specific acts, but he is doing so in order to suggest something that transcends all those details: the idea of America.
    • Dickinson takes details, sometimes as surprisingly mundane as a ray of light or a buzzing fly, and then probes their spiritual significance.
    • Together, they suggest one way to address questions of America’s identity: by considering what the particular reveals about the ideal.
  • Twain, in comparison, seems more intent on presenting a realistic account of American life, warts and all (although he does this with a fair amount of humor too). However, Huck’s ethical quandaries reveal him as a pragmatist: Huck is attempting to balance reality with the ideal–with ultimately the ideal that matters for him being those relationship-driven values that he can put into action in reality.
  • Our semester therefore suggests two ways to address what America is: by looking at the ideals of America or by looking at the reality of America.
    • Between ideals and reality works a third approach: considering what ideals can pragmatically be made reality through a problem-solving approach to addressing the difficulties affecting the quality of American lives.

After this opening, we considered two topics of special importance in addressing the mismatch between America’s ideals and America’s reality: race and “the woman question.” Through in-class writings, I have been collecting data from you on what you think the readings are revealing to us. For each of these topics, I asked you to write about what our readings revealed about our class’s three “essential questions,” and below is a summary of what you have together told me:

  • In the readings, what social, environmental, and psychological factors are revealed as affecting the quality of individual lives?
    • Race:
      • Economic disparities not only restrict who has the power to buy what, but they also limit who can have the opportunity to improve their position in the future and who has the ability to be self-sustaining in the present.
      • The “race line” limits our ability the socialize with others, which also negatively affects our ability to be happy in our lives.
      • Access to education is a necessary but insufficient means on its own to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to succeed.
      • Political equality is also a necessary but insufficient means on its own to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to succeed.
      • The consequence of racial inequality and the belittlement of African Americans through negative stereotypes is that African Americans have felt shut out of society, affecting them psychologically, fostering depression and an unfair feeling of inadequacy, and forcing them to constantly have to fight for control over their identity.
      • Racism creates a tension between Americans that yields a toxic, hostile environment.
      • Geographical boundaries (such as the area around the town where you grow up) have had significant impacts on what individuals have believed is true or possible, causing surprise when individuals leave their home town. For example, some African Americans only really discovered racism when they left their predominately black home town.
      • The quality of work available for African Americans has often been harsher and more physical, leading to more work-related injuries and degrading the quality of their lives.
      • Racism makes African Americans see themselves negatively through the eyes of others and that America has not “had their back.”
      • Racism makes African Americans manipulate their own behavior to fit the expectations that society places on them.
    • Sex:
      • Negative social pressures interfere with the ability of women to have positive mental health, including the opportunities she has and her ability to connect with others (both alike and not like her).
      • Professions with expertise, such as medicine, have negatively affected women’s mental health (as seen in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”). Women’s input is not received, and the experts simply tell women what’s best for them, without their feedback. Even when their feedback was received, that feedback was discounted as wrong whenever it conflicted with what the male experts believed. This has caused women to experience being shut out of the decisions being made about their own well-being. Even worse, this has led to “gas lighting,” in which women themselves question their own understanding of their reality. Society never listens to people it oppresses.
      • Not being treated as an equal has negatively affected the mental health of women or has caused them to compete needlessly between each other.
      • Putting women on a pedestal as the “angel in the house” traps them: they are not given a chance to better themselves, are actually treated as the weaker sex, and are forced into servitude to men because they have no independent source of income.
      • Women are bound to performing according to the expectations of men, constricting the ability of women to live and achieve according to their own expectations. The expectations also cause a constant pressure to meet the ideals of men without instead being accepted for how women really are.
      • Women have been treated as weak-minded and therefore prevented from having any real impact on society or to be respected professionals coequal with men. Some women have even internalized this belief, such that their own thought processes are affected by the unconscious belief of their own inferiority.
  • What normative values are implicit in the readings, and how do those values suggest a framework by which to define progress?
    • Race:
      • One normative value is the claim that progress is equal to increased wealth.
      • Another way of measuring progress is the extent that individuals all feel as belonging within the whole of America, without being limited in their contact and interaction with others.
      • Another way of measuring progress is the extent to which all individuals are supported in seeing themselves in a positive light rather than being pushed toward self-hate.
      • Another way of measuring progress is the achievement of equality, whether educationally, socially, politically, or economically.
      • While today difference is more appreciated, in the past progress had been measured by how close to “white, wealthy, and male” you are.
      • Progress would be granting African Americans the right to their own personhood by being able to express their identity, including as a black artist, without having to conform to white standards.
      • For some, the prospect of “progress” has actually led to continued enslavement in a new form.
    • Sex:
      • Progress can be made when women can realize their own strength and value.
      • One way of measuring progress is wealth, and for women that has traditionally meant the wealth of their husbands.
      • For women, progress has historically meant trying to succeed somehow in a “man’s world,” which has undermined the mental health of women and pushed women toward jealously competing with each other.
      • Progress would be for women to have opportunities equal to men, equal rights, and equal respect as human beings.
      • Progress requires a society-wide shift in thinking away from an unfair characterization of femininity as lesser.
      • Progress requires women to have independence from men.
      • Progress requires society actually listening to women.
      • Progress requires re-conceiving marriage to allow for the equal personhood of women.
      • Progress has historically been measured by particular “traditional” values that have measured women through the framework of an “ideal” marriage in which the wife stays in the house and takes care of her husband’s every need.
      • In comparison to the stories read in class, there is progress in women obtaining higher education or pursuing careers in the workforce.
      • Progress for women would be freedom from confinement, whether socially through the role that our cultures forces on women or physically through confinement to the domestic home (or to just a particular room in that home).
      • Progress can occur when women work together as a group.
  • What national, group, or personal identities are significant within the readings, and how does the text participate in the construction of those identities?
    • Race:
      • The readings reveal:
        • What it means to be an African American, including by showing instances of individuals being deprived of opportunity, or being persecuted, or of being treated as an “other.” Also, by focusing on a subgroup, such as what it means to be a black woman.
        • What it means for their to be an African American community, with the strength of that community being important for supporting the strength of the individuals of that community.
        • What it means to be from the American South and, more particularly, what it means to be black in the American South.
        • What it means to be an American, including whether it is possible to be both black and American.
        • What it means to be a person and not property.
        • How social pressures construct individuals.
      • “Art mirrors truth, and explains it too. It gives an outsider a perspective on a group’s identity.”
      • Literature can be a way for individuals to insist on their own self-worth.
    • Sex:
      • The readings reveal:
        • What it means to be a woman in a society that holds women back by impeding their ability to pursue opportunities, grow, change, or heal.
        • How being a woman is controlled by particular roles, such as “mother” or “wife,” that are used as a basis to judge them.
        • What it means for women to be a class in which women can sympathize with each other, talk about their shared experience, form a sense of connection between each other, and further their own interests as a class.
        • What it means to be a white woman versus what it means to be a woman of color.
        • How literature can be an important way for women to share their voices, with hearing those voices being important because women know what the experience of being a woman is like better than men.
        • What it means to be a woman without a husband.
        • What it means to be an independent woman.
      • Literature can help readers experience what the lives of women are like.
      • Literature can show how women are hampered by various unfair “ideals” that they can then break free of.

For our next class, we will start by discussing anything that you found surprising about the above, and we will consider again what value literature has in addressing these issues.

Quality of Life, Progress, and Identity

Our semester is now in full swing, and we have read three crucial starting points for the study of American literature since the civil war: Walt Whitman’s poetry, including “Song of Myself”; Emily Dickinson’s poetry; and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It is now time to focus more specifically on the three “essential questions” for this course, which are on the syllabus and restated below. For next class, we will start by trying to answer these questions in relation to Whitman, Dickinson, and Twain. Then, we will expand the conversation to the focus of next class’s readings: race. Please think about these questions in preparation for next class.

  • In the readings, what social, environmental, and psychological factors are revealed as affecting the quality of individual lives?


  • What normative values are implicit in the readings, and how do those values suggest a framework by which to define progress?


  • What national, group, or personal identities are significant within the readings, and how does the text participate in the construction of those identities?

Whitman, Poet X, and Our Essential Questions

In class, we have begun discussing what growing up in America is like today. Our class has so far read through two-thirds of Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poet X. We have also read, as a point of comparison, selections from Walt Whitman’s poems, including “One’s Self I Sing,” “I Hear America Singing,” and “Salut au Monde!” The first two poems are Whitman looking inward at America and emphasizing the particulars of the individuals within America. His catalogs of individuals serve the purpose of defining the larger group. Whatever America is, Whitman is arguing, it encompasses and celebrates each of the singular individuals he presents.  In comparison, “Salut au Monde!” is Whitman looking outward at the rest of the world. Again, Whitman is cataloging the world, and in so doing he is defining a global sense of humanity. At the same time, his posture toward that world is important: he ends by holding up a welcoming hand and declaring in French, “Hello World!”  There is some parallel here between Whitman’s outward facing raised hand of “hello” to the world and the raised torch of the Statue of Liberty (gifted after Whitman’s poem to the U.S. by the French), which is also outward facing toward the world. These two modes of perspective (looking in at ourselves or looking out at the world) can each play a part in defining what America is.

architecture art clouds landmark
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Our class discussion of Poet X has yielded a growing list of details based on the text that you have decided seem either general to growing up in America today or particular to specific upbringings that may vary depending on the household or community:


  • Male sexual attention
  • Moral rules of courtship
  • Insufficient authority over one’s own life
  • Censorship
  • Having your first “crush”
  • Expectations of men as being the “protector”
  • Care for someone means fighting for that person if need be.
  • Rebelling against the moral rules we are taught


  • Individual authority over spiritual questions
  • Draconian parents
  • Emotionally absent parents
  • Parental advocacy for religion
  • Having your first “crush” be negatively associated with drug addiction or bad behavior
  • Relationships supported and framed through music
  • Favored musical genres
  • Whether someone has a sufficient “care network”
  • Whether authority figures are “hard liners” or permit more “fuzzy” lines
  • How large a community is, with “community” here perhaps entailing small groupings within a large city
  • What form of punishment is accepted

There were also two details that the class thought hovered somehow between “General” and “Particular” and that the class was divided on categorizing:

  • Receiving the sexual attention of much older men
  • Caring for someone means personally and physically fighting for that person now, rather than contacting an authority figure instead.

The listed items above generally relate to the following topics:

  • Sexual attention
  • Religion
  • Parents
  • Censorship
  • Negative associations
  • Music
  • Care networks
  • Hard lines vs. “fuzzy” lines
  • Community size
  • Punishment
  • Heritage
  • Individual vs community

In addition, I pointed out that we will be discussing the following additional topics specifically over the course of the semester:

  • Home
  • Family
  • Language
  • Aliens
  • Fences
  • Crossing
  • Americans
  • Beliefs
  • The majority/Congress
  • The courts
priest using microphone
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In class, after some individual free writing, I tasked six groups of you to think about all of the above and propose one “essential” question that you think we should keep returning to for the rest of the semester. The questions you came up with were the following:

  • How do our surroundings (community, family, friends, ect.–or the lack thereof) affect who we are?
  • To what extent should punishment control who you are?
  • What factors can counterbalance the negative effects of a difficult or absent relationship with a parent?
  • How does race, ethnicity, language, and religion play into or change the definition of “American”?
  • How can America support maintaining cultural identity?
  • What should we value more, the beliefs of a person’s culture or the person’s individual beliefs?
white and grey voting day sign
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After a vote in which each of you who were present anonymously voted for two questions, your combined votes selected the three essential questions below that we will be focusing on for the rest of the semester. These three questions are all quite interesting. I am pleased and impressed with what the class has picked. I will post these at the top of our class calendar. Remember, class online discussion posts focusing on these questions will start next week. Here is the online discussion post assignment sheet.

Course Essential Questions

  • Essential Question #1: How do our surroundings (community, family, friends, ect.–or the lack thereof) affect who we are?
  • Essential Question #2: How does race, ethnicity, language, and religion play into or change the definition of “American”?
  • Essential Question #3: What should we value more, the beliefs of a person’s culture or the person’s individual beliefs?

ENGL 2220: Recap

As the course description states, our class will explore “the challenges, problems, and opportunities of a pluralistic American society.” A pluralist society is one that contains a  diversity of perspectives, such as a population containing a wide range of different family heritages or different religious beliefs, rather than a society where most people share the same family background and belief system. According to the CIA, for instance, the Greek population is 91.6% Greek, with 99% of the population speaking Greek, and 81-90% following the Greek Orthodox religion. In comparison, the composition of the U.S., as a country populated mostly by the descendants of immigrants, is much more complex:

us ancestry

We can get a sense of the continuing impact of immigration by comparing the above map to the following two showing the population densities in 1890 for German immigrants and for African Americans:


1890-map-distribution of germans

African Americans


The 1890s may seem remote to us, but the population distribution for both of these groups is not much different today than it was in the 1890s. The effects of who are ancestors were and where they came to America to live continue to have an impact now on who we are and where we live.

At the same time, however, the U.S. is a relatively young country, especially when compared to countries like Greece, and it is continuing to change. The Pew Research Center has outline some major demographic changes reshaping the U.S. here, with a few notable changes being as follows:

  • The share of the U.S. population that is white is aging and dwindling and is projected to no longer comprise the majority of the population around 2055.
  • Asia, not Latin America or Europe, is now the biggest source of new immigrants.
  • More women are raising children alone or acting as the primary provider for their children
  • The middle class is shrinking while the two poles, lower and upper income households, are expanding
  • The number of individuals who profess affiliation with a form of Christianity is declining, and more people than ever before (22.8%) are claiming to be unaffiliated with any particular religion. Those who are unaffiliated now exceed Mainline Protestants (14.7%) and Catholics (20.8%), and they almost equal the number of Evangelical Protestants in America (25.4%).

These diverse and changing demographics and perspectives potentially present challenges and opportunities America must address in order to remain one nation. How can such a country stand united when it is comprised of so many divergent parts?

Walt Whitman’s poetry suggests one answer. Prior to writing poetry, he worked for newspapers for which he engaged in the heated cultural controversies of the 1840s, including the supposed threat that an increasing Catholic presence presented. The following are all quotes from Whitman’s early writing for newspapers. Note the heated and divisive tone and the incorporation of the pronoun “we” as a way to claim authority for his voice:

  • Whitman carried out a heated campaign against Bishop Hughes, “this cunning, flexible, serpent tongued priest, who has had the insolence to appear in the public forum” and to advocate for Catholic schools (“Sectarianism” 43).
  • Bishop Hughes, Whitman claims in one especially overblown attack, “uses his pontifical robes to cover the blackest, most traitorous heart in the broad limits of the American republic” (“The Aurora” 60).
  • Whitman attacked others in the media: “several of the most presumptuous and ignorant newspapers in the city have taken up the cudgels in defence of the Hughes party—those who desire to overturn our admirable system of public instruction. We have nothing to say to these ninnies” (“The Schools” 54).
  • Again regarding Bishop Hughes, “We feel called upon to condemn [him] in the
    strongest terms” because the bishop’s efforts risk “the people’s true interest”(“Sectarianism” 43, emphasis added).
  • “The Aurora, we imagine, . . . needs no certificate of it character for courage. . . . We have nerve enough to face the fire of battle, and stand by our cølors, and peal out the rallying cry to the last, in support of any cause which we sincerely believe to be holy and patriotic. . . . [W]e neither fear this cunning, selfish Hughes, nor any of his wretched gang” (“The Aurora” 59, emphasis added).

These quotes exhibit a Whitman who was quite heated in his engagement with divisive social issues over which he attempted to present himself as speaking for more than himself. Unfortunately for his newspaper career, he was frequently fired for his outspoken views, including for his distaste for slavery. Eventually, he left the newspaper business to work in the family business as a carpenter. In 1855, he released the first version of his famous Leaves of Grass containing a revolutionary poetry that startled and disrupted the accepted sense of the form of poetry and its subject matter. The beginning featured a picture of himself wearing working-class clothes:

walt 1855

This was not what a sophisticate and cultured poet was at that time supposed to look like, and his poetry celebrated the everyday working-class individual, who he routinely connected to America, rather than focusing on nobles, the rich, and the elite. “One’s Self I Sing” (available here) and and “I Hear America Singing” (available here) are good examples. Notice that in “One’s Self I Sing,” he makes an important claim: “One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person, / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” Rather than using the “we” of his newspaper days, he is focusing on the “I” and the self, but in doing so he is claiming that for America, the celebration of the individual self is what can join the myriad selves together. This shift is coupled with a generosity of tone and spirit not equalized in his earlier writing. For Whitman, faced with the challenge of how to represent a pluralist America as one nation, the solution was not to construct one shared perspective but instead to celebrate the multitude of individual selves, because the self contains the multitude.

As we begin working through reading Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poet X, I want to keep the above in mind. What challenges does Poet X suggest are presented by growing up today in America? What opportunities are presented? Does Whitman’s poetry offer any suggestions for today for navigating the cultural controversies of our contemporary period?

If you are interested in reading more of Whitman’s journalism, you can find the articles referenced above here:

Whitman, Walt. “Sectarianism and Our Public Schools.” The Journalism, edited by Herbert Bergman, Douglas A. Noverr, and Edward J. Recchia, vol. 1, Peter Lang, 1998, pp. 42–43.

—. “The Aurora and the School Question.” The Journalism, edited by Herbert Bergman, Douglas A. Noverr, and Edward J. Recchia, vol. 1, Peter Lang, 1998, pp. 59–60.

—. “The Schools, March 15, 1842.” The Journalism, edited by Herbert Bergman, Douglas A. Noverr, and Edward J. Recchia, vol. 1., Peter Lang, 1998, p. 54.


Engl 1100 Class Recap: 9/13/18

Today we began by a short review on MLA style while touring the Purdue OWL website on MLA style found here. Then, we spent most of our time discussing James Joyce’s “The Sisters” and “The Encounter.”  For “The Sisters,” we also talked about your upcoming short essay on the story, its plot, and the literary values the class has listed so far.

The class discussion did a good job at to the sense of “paralysis” that is a theme throughout Dubliners. For “The Sisters,” you were able to pick up on how morally paralyzed the priest seemed to be, especially after the chalice was broken. That leads back to the beginning, with the conversation among the adults about something being “bad for children,” which you interpreted as referring to children spending a lot of time studying with this priest rather than being outside, running around and playing. This potentially speaks. What could be bad here is not just that children should be permitted to be children but also that this paralysis could be transmitted from an older generation to a new one.

woman and three children playing water
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For “The Encounter,” you rightly picked up on the weirdness of the old guy that the two boys encountered in the park. First, he talks about how every boy should have a sweetheart, and then he says every boy who has a sweetheart should be whipped. There were many theories on what sparked this change and about what the man was doing when he wandered away for a few minutes and then came back. The story is quite vague about what the man could be doing, but the overall character of the encounter strongly suggests that the man is doing something very unseemly and sexual in public, for which he might feel shame about afterwards, prompting the abrupt change. This led us to a discussion on how sex and the moral punishments focusing on sex could lead to a sort of paralysis  that never really addresses the underlying issues, just as the man’s talk about the the proper conduct of boys never really addresses his own conduct, which is the real issue.

man in black shirt and gray denim pants sitting on gray padded bench
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After this, we talked briefly about Joyce’s publication woes and about whether this book was “smut” and whether it should have been published. The general class consensus seemed clearly that yes, it should have been published.

Together, these two stories start to give us a sense of what Dubliners is about: giving us a “snapshot” of the Dublin of Joyce’s time. We could get a snapshot another way, such as by having paintings done,  for instance. We could even have paintings done of important moments in these stories, such as the strange encounter between these two boys and the weird old man. Alternatively, we could have a journalist’s account of the city. However, none of these ways of creating a snapshot would really capture the experience of living in Dublin at the time. A complex and multilayered portrayal of the city can only be felt through a careful arrangement of myriad details along with characters moving through the setting that make us feel their lives. Even movies or TV shows would not be quite the same, since there can often (although not always) be more of a sense of being inside a character’s head in literature. This suggests a new value to be added to our list: Literature provides a particular kind of experiential “snapshot” of a place or a culture not easily replicated through other ways.

red stall
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For next time, we will turn to two complex poems Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as well as this essential question: what is added to literature, as a study of humanity, by focus on art as evidence?

Engl 1100 Class Recap: 9/11/18

Today we began class by summarizing our current list of essential questions as well as the answers that we have come up with so far:

1. What is the value of studying literature?

  • A salary
  • Building empathy
  • Touching our emotions
  • Fostering discussion
  • Addressing the affective domain (i.e., rather than memorizing and listing the facts of what a horse is, such as how many legs they have [the cognitive domain], instead considering what the experience of being next to a horse is like or even of what the horse’s personal experience or emotions might be)
  • Addressing cultural controversies

2. How do authors and readers construct meaning?

  • voice
  • characterization
  • sound
  • plot
  • narrator/speaker

3. What is the significance of literature as a form of art?

Regarding the third question, about art, I began by wondering what the significance is for the study of literature that the primary evidence is an art form.  After all, literary studies is one of the humanities disciplines. What does this particular form of evidence add to our study of humanity? Archaeology, for instance, tends to look at evidence that consists of the sort of artifacts that societies leave behind. One of you suggested bowls, for example. The evidence that a psychologist may be interested in, by contrast, may be in the data from experiments involving humans or from questionnaires. As many of you noted, college students will do just about anything for $2, some pizza, or a cool t-shirt. Drawing on the responses from college student populations or from the national population is the basis for much study in psychology. So what could focusing on art as evidence suggest about humanity that bowls or human experiments do not?

One suggestion from one of you is this:

  • Suggests the interests of both the creator and the audience

This is a great point, since generally creators will be creating things that are of particular interest to them. Yet at the same time, they are generally not going to create things that no one else cares about. If the creator has an audience in mind, that creator is going to want to interest both the creator and the audience. Sure, we can get people to catalog their interests through a questionnaire, but this is a way to determine interests that does not depend upon the researcher first developing a sufficiently targeted questionnaire or experiment. The art work serves itself as a data point from which one could interpret the interests of those creating and receiving the art form.

Another of you suggested this:

  • Conveys emotion

This is another great point, and I want to emphasize here the word “convey.” I think a good followup question is this: what about emotion is being conveyed? This student’s suggestion intrigues me because I think it goes beyond merely the conveyance that emotion is happening or what the intellectual description of what that emotion is. Rather, the the thing that the artist could be attempting to convey is the emotional experience itself. This is an interesting way to gain insight in humanity because it leads to reflection upon our own emotional reactions and how they may compare to others and to the artist’s experience. We can talk about what the emotional experience might have been like for those people who drew cave paintings, but that is quite different than the prospect that the emotional experience the artist had could engender an emotional experience within ourselves for us to consider.



After considering the enigma that is art, we turned our focus to Yeats and his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” After taking some time picking this poem apart, one of you noted that is similar to Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Both poems involve the speaker reflecting on a tranquil natural scene. After considering this, we decided that there is some difference between the speakers. Wordsworth’s speaker can reflect from his couch; Yeats’s speaker would not only rise from that couch, he would go to that natural scene and build a cabin so he could live there. This becomes an interesting contrast between these reactions to the peace of the nature. Does the memory support us as we continue to live in civilization, or does it tempt us away from civilization altogether?

This conversation led us into a discussion of the whether you thought there was a difference between being calm and in your home and being calm and in nature. The general consensus was that no, those are two different kinds of calm experience. Some of you thought that you would be calmer at home, where you are safest, and some of you thought you would be calmer in nature, away from stressful reminders. But you also thought that they felt like different sorts of calm, even when they were at roughly the same level. At this point, I suggested that one of the values of literature is in hitting these delicate differences in human experience that perhaps cannot be touched in any other way. To make my point, I turned to an analogy to music theory while drawing the following on the board:

music theory

First, we considered how emotions could be expressed kind of like the power chords often used in heavy metal music. They are formed of the 1st and 5th note in a key. These chords have zero nuance and amount to the emotional impact of a sledgehammer. Nonetheless, they can have a powerful affect. I compared this to the simplistic but heavy emotional impressions frequent within superhero action movies today, twitter flame wars, and soap operas where everyone is either ecstatic or trying to murder each other. A more nuanced set of emotions might be similar to the major chord, which has a third note (the 3rd note of the key) that permits tonal nuance. This chord is the bedrock of much of the rock, pop, classical, and other music that we listen to today. It can be found in anything from the Rolling Stones to a complicated piece of classical piano music. Even more nuance can be found by adding a fourth note (such as the 7th note of the key), which is the something that jazz music does routinely. After explaining all this, I asked you to consider how the human heart could be thought of like a string instrument with two, three, four, or maybe even hundreds of strings. Part of what literature is often trying to do is to hit multiple strings at once in order to set up complex emotional experiences with subtle tonal differences. This is something that the class’s wisdom regarding the difference between being calm at home and being calm in nature suggests warrants attention. Humans are fully able to be sensitive to such subtle differences, but what in our everyday lives points us to consider these delicate gradations of the human experience? If much of everyday life hits us like a power chord, what can also pluck the more nuanced melodies of the heart? And how can we train ourselves to be more sensitive to literary works that are the emotional equivalent of complex jazz?

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Based on the above, the following has been added to our list of values that literature provides:

  • conveying nuanced tones of the human emotional experience that are not easily conveyed otherwise and training us to become more sensitive to those subtle tones

We next moved to “The Second Coming,” for which I drew the following terrible picture on the board demonstrating a falconer launching a falcon who then flies in circles that expand ever outward as the bird searches for prey:


The point of this picture was to get you to imagine the ever expanding circles that would develop as the falcon flies farther and farther out. A most certainly better picture of what Yeats had in mind is this:


Notice that at the point that the circle reaches its widest point, a new center is born from which a new ever-widening cone extends until it reaches the original birth of the first cone. These cones capture Yeats’s conception of the cycles of history. For an interesting summary, if you are interested in learning more, click here.

Turning to “The Second Coming” with all this in mind, the poem becomes more understandable, but the class still raised a number of important questions. For instance, is the “beast” supposed to suggest something about Egypt and the sphinx? Is the beast supposed to be biblical, suggesting the apocalypse? Should we be afraid of the beast? Does our answer change if we step out of a western, christian worldview? How do we determine whether the beast’s slouch toward Bethlehem is good or bad? Don’t we need some sort of “center” to which to tie such value judgments? But what if that center has fallen apart? What if that center cannot hold?

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This conversation of ever-widening questions led into a discussion of Carl Jung’s work on dreams and the collective unconscious. We discussed dreams, and one of you shared a pretty crazy one that reoccurred nightly for a week as part of an ongoing war story involving her family. Jung was interested in what dreams and the images within them may reveal about the workings of our unconscious, which can include workings of the mind that have not or cannot be yet articulated within the conscious mind. Furthermore, since individuals share many aspects of the same culture, there can be some sense of the imagery in dreams tapping into a “collective unconscious.” Are there things that society in general is trying to work through that the individuals in that society process unconsciously?

Yeats felt that an important part of poetry was to attempt to convey the workings of this collective unconscious, using imagery that would affect readers in a fashion that is somehow deeper than can yet be expressed. I admitted that there was something about “The Second Coming” that always freaks me out, and many of you agreed. There is a disturbing underlying feel that is on one level certainly expressed with words likes “slouching,” “pitiless,” and “slow thighs,” but there is something about the language that also aspires to affect us in ways we cannot quite articulate.

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This discussion prompted us to add the following to our list of literature’s values:

  • addressing the collective unconscious

A few of you noted that this poem seems relevant to today and our current political moment. There is a sense some can have today that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Likewise, the sense of things falling apart and anarchy could resonate today. On the other hand, some of you noted that this could be a generational perspective. Someone who is sixteen may not share the same sense of things falling apart that an older person may feel. These are excellent points; we should be attuned to what perspective the reader brings to the interpretation and to consider what bearing that perspective has on the poem’s significance.


For next class, we will finally turn to James Joyce and then to two difficult poems: Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Engl 1100 Class Recap: 9/6/18

We began class by summarizing where we are on our discussion on the value of studying literature with a review of what we have listed as possibilities so far:

1. What is the value of studying literature?

  • A salary
  • Building empathy
  • Touching our emotions
  • Fostering discussion
  • Addressing the affective domain (i.e., rather than memorizing and listing the facts of what a horse is, such as how many legs they have [the cognitive domain], instead considering what the experience of being next to a horse is like or even of what the horse’s personal experience or emotions might be)

Our ongoing discussions so far have also raised a second question. For instance, our discussion of how the 1920s newspaper article we read was constructed or of how we as readers respond to texts suggests another question:

2. How do authors and readers construct meaning?

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To begin working on these questions, we first turned to Lydia Davis’s poem “Head, Heart.” During our discussion you all raised a number of thoughtful points:

  • The head and the heart are in a discussion with each other
  • The language used by each is different. For instance, the voice suggesting heart that is in the first line (“Heart weeps”) seems reminiscent of the simpler language an upset child might use. In contrast, the long and seemingly wise voice of head–“You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even….”–suggests the intellect.
  • One of you even noted that the sound of heart’s voice in the poem suggests the tha-thump sound of a heart beat.
  • We noted that the sound of the poem seems to start with heart, pass through the change in voice to head’s wisdom, only to return to heart, who is still in trouble: “Help, head. Help heart.” This suggests that for all head’s wisdom, there is a gap of experience that the heart is feeling across which the head just cannot quite reach, leaving heart unhelped and alone.
  • The last line also raised the question of who was speaking at the end, since it seems to be a request asked of head to help heart, meaning neither is speaking. However, the speaker seems to be in tune with heart, judging by the sound of the line. But despite being in tune with heart, that speaker is turning to the head to help the heart. Perhaps this suggests our inclination to turn toward the head to solve our emotional issues, even when we can see that there is little the head can provide.

This discussion was helpful in that it together demonstrated how meaning can depend upon multiple elements which can be responses to our second essential question above:

  • voice
  • characterization
  • sound
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We then moved forward with our discussion of some general subgenres of poetry, for which I had offered the following test to help you distinguish them:

poetry test

To help explain this test, we went through a number of poems as examples. Our first poem was Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory,” which sparked a lively discussion about the surprising twist at the poem’s end. Many of you noted that the poem suggests that financial and social prosperity cannot guarantee happiness. I also offered that the poem suggests that even the seemingly least likely of persons may be more of a suicide risk than we may think. Rather than be silent in our admiration, we should reach out to others and affirm them while we can, because you never know what private tribulations they may be going through. This discussion prompted adding another item to our list of the possible value that literature can provide:

  • Teaching lessons

To return to our genre test above, I first explain that the term “Action” refers to the events in a story. “Plot” involves the events of the action plus the consideration of how those events were sequenced. For instance, did the story start at one moment of time, then flashback to twenty years in the past, then return to the present? You have two general time periods–past and present–but they are sequenced as present, past, then present. To help remember this distinction between action and plot, I suggested to think about the word plot as used in a crime story: the criminal mastermind “plots” the perfect murder. So to can you think of the plot as how the author–the “mastermind”–has chosen to construct the sequence of events in the story.

Based on this information, we can determine that “Richard Cory” does have a plot in that we first see him as alive and apparently successful and then he is dead (sequenced in that order). So the answer to the first question in our test is “yes.”

For the narrator question, I asked you whether there was a sense of one person, almost like a storyteller, relating the events that happened. In poetry, such a voice is generally called the “speaker.” You all seemed generally sure that the answer is “yes”: the poem feels like a person is telling us a story. Because the poem has a plot and a narrator, it would therefore generally be categorized as an example of “narrative poetry.”

In contrast, Thomas Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid” did not seem like the presentation of one voice. Instead, as you figured out during our discussion, the poem seems to be the dialogue between two young women with similar backgrounds as poor country girls. They seem to have encountered each other in town after some time apart, and one girl is expressing surprise about how affluent the other girl’s appearance and speech has become. Meanwhile, the other girl keeps responding with variations of her change being the consequence of being “ruined.” When I asked what this word “ruined” suggests, one of you helpfully noted that she appears to have had to give up everything she was before, molding herself to the model of who she is supposed to be as a woman, rather than being able to be herself. Another of you noted that she seems to be unhappy, perhaps in her marriage to the man who buys her all her things. I pushed this one step further: why do we even think she is married? She might be “ruined” in the sense that she has entered into an illicit relationship, out of marriage, in which she receives fancy clothes as part of being a “kept woman.”

Returning to our test, we decided together that there is not the same sense as in the prior poem of one voice relating us the narrative, even though there does seem to be a plot, even if a short one as these two women talk back and forth. Instead, there are two voices: both of the women. We could picture this conversation on a dramatic stage or in a movie. The poem is constructed from the dialogue of multiple characters, rather than being a retelling provided us by a central voice. Because the poem consists of the dialogue of multiple characters, without the intervening presence of a central narrator, Hardy’s poem is an example of “Dramatic poetry.”

We then turned to William Wordsworth’s [I wandered lonely as a cloud]. When I asked you whether there seemed to be an evolving plot with a sequence of events, many of you decided “no.” While there is a sense of the speaker looking back to his past at the memory of vales, hills, lakes, and golden daffodils, the poem seems to be instead focused on the expression of a particular experience from a moment in time. Less about a series of events, the poem is more about the personal expression of the speaker’s state of being–an expression that can also suggest an experience of universal significance. The answer to our first question, whether there is a plot, is “no” here because the focus is on the moment of the speaker’s experience, rather than a sequence of events, marking this as an example of “lyric poetry.”

Finally, we covered a subgenre that does not quite fit neatly into the above categories: the “Dramatic monologue.” These poems can be confusing because they would seem to have one voice like in a narrative poem. However, what marks these poems as different is that there is still a sense of multiple characters interacting with each other in the poem, even if one of those characters is silent. We can see an example in Robert Hayden’s “A Letter from Phillis Wheatley,” which has the form of a letter from “Phillis” to “Obour” that starts with the line “Dear Obour.” The letter is, of course, all the voice of Phillis. However, we are also aware that this letter represents the communication between two characters. The presence of both the speaker and the silent “auditor” (the character receiving the communication) marks the poem as dramatic. As we question the poem, we are questioning not only the speaker but also how that speaker is positioned in the poem in relation to the auditor. This distinction can be tricky, but if you remember back to Wordsworth’s poem, there is no similar suggestion of the presence of a silent auditor. Moreover, Hayden’s poem relates a series of events that together suggest the plot of a story, but Wordsworth’s poem did not. In many ways, it is more similar to Hardy’s poem about the two women talking to each other–if you just imagine that one of those women stays silent the whole time while the other does all the talking. One final example that may be helpful is to think about dramatic monologues in plays like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech has a performance element to it, even though Hamlet’s voice is the only one present in that speech. In a dramatic monologue poem, there is also generally a performance element in which there is a feeling of a character performing in some way for the benefit of an imagined audience.

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This discussion of the subgenres of poetry suggested to us adding the following possibilities to our “how is meaning constructed” question:

  • plot
  • narrator/speaker
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After our break, we turned to discussing the “Woman Question,” which is a phrase that has often been used to refer to the controversy over the rights of women, especially for our purposes during the Victorian era. Our focus was on considering what the relationship between literature and culture may suggest about its value. For this discussion, you read Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” As we started, one of the female students remarked that the readings made her feel grateful to be alive now, rather than in the 1800s. For Chopin’s story, many of you noted that the medical diagnosis of death by way of the “joy that kills” was certainly wrong. One of you pointed out that the doctors at this time were certainly men. These men are “man-splaining” her death completely wrong to fit their notions of how they perceive a wife ought to react to her husband being discovered to still be alive.  For Gilman’s story, the depiction of the wife creeping (probably on all fours) resonated with similar “creeping” images from horror movies. There is an animistic, deviant, and uncanny quality to the creeping, even though it is an action we are all capable of doing.

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The use of the image suggests the extent to which this woman’s imposed “rest cure” has debilitated her.  In both of these stories, therefore, men are reading women wrong, imposing unhealthy limitations on women , and causing women psychological harm as a consequence. Both of these stories speak to the imperative of answering the “women question” in favor of greater autonomy for women. Both of these stories also suggest another value for literature:

  • Addressing cultural controversies

However, this role for literature opened up a new line of questioning. What is significant about using an art form, creative literature, to address controversies? Why not just debate them? What is the reason for using an art form instead? 

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We will continue this conversation next class while talking about a selection of poems by Yeats and the first two stories from Joyce’s Dubliners. As you do the readings for next class, you should think about the questions and ideas we have been talking about so far. After today, our current revised list of essential questions and possible answers is the following:

1. What is the value of studying literature?

  • A salary
  • Building empathy
  • Touching our emotions
  • Fostering discussion
  • Addressing the affective domain (i.e., rather than memorizing and listing the facts of what a horse is, such as how many legs they have [the cognitive domain], instead considering what the experience of being next to a horse is like or even of what the horse’s personal experience or emotions might be)
  • Addressing cultural controversies

2. How do authors and readers construct meaning?

  • voice
  • characterization
  • sound
  • plot
  • narrator/speaker

3. What is the significance of literature as a form of art?




Engl 1100 Class Recap: 9/4/18

In class today, we continued exploring an essential question raised last class period: what is the value of studying literature? Prior to class, I asked you to begin reading from our Norton anthology, focusing on selections that covered the general overview of literature and of responding to fiction, poetry, and drama as separate genres.

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To begin, we considered the basic economic argument: how much money can I expect with a degree in literature? To answer that question, we looked at a couple economic summary reports (links are in the class calendar). The data suggest that having a college degree, no matter the degree, generally leads to a more lucrative career than no degree at all. Considering the humanities and literature in particular, the median salary for someone with a BA majoring in English was around $53,000 in 2013, with a substantially greater range (up to double that amount) for those who continue their studies in graduate school. Another popular career choice is to attend law school, where students with BAs in the humanities can use their communication skills as the basis for a prosperous legal career. In general, those majoring in English may have to spend more time finding their niche after college than those in STEM fields, but lifetime income expectancy still demonstrates a lucrative outcome for completing the degree. Besides the obvious career choices such as the writing and publishing industry, humanities graduates often end up in careers supervising others, according to a recent study you can read about here. For example, the communication skills gained through the humanities could make an employee a valuable project manager. That study also suggests that humanities graduates are generally employed and more satisfied with their jobs than the graduates of other fields. Read here for examples of 10 CEO’s from major companies (Starbucks, Avon, Disney, HBO, YouTube, ect) that graduated with humanities degrees. Each of them certainly had to work hard to gain their position, but the popular myth that pursuing a humanities degree is just throwing your money away is simply not supported by the data. I am not going to tell you that everything is easy and stress free for those pursuing a humanities education, but I do want to stress that you can follow your heart AND make a living at the same time.

After this conversation on the economics of the study of literature, we moved on to considering other sources of value. After asking you to describe some books you enjoy reading, we began working on a list on the board of ways that the study of literature can provides value. Here is our current list, based on suggestions you offered in class, which we will add to over the next few class periods:

  1. A salary
  2. Building empathy
  3. Touching our emotions
  4. Fostering discussion
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We next moved to discussing a general overview of literature, during which we talked at considerable length about how a focus solely on the cognitive domain of facts can miss the affective domain of feeling and personal experience. For example, many of you did not believe that this definition of a horse at the start of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times captured the essence of a horse: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth….” (Norton 1).

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John Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” also suggests the valuable role literature can provide in moving past facts to open up a world of first hand experience (Norton 4).

The 1920s New York Times article we read about the wife accused of killing her alleged lover further suggests that we cannot always be sure of what the facts really are until we start considering the emotional and personal experience of those involved (Norton 12). Some of you thought the article’s presentation of the facts was insufficiently sympathetic to the plight of the accused woman, who claimed she was being sexually assaulted. Others of you rightfully noted that we need to consider her credibility and whether her story makes sense, given that a man lost his life as a result. The news paper article itself, however, is sufficiently vague to support rival interpretations of the nature of what happened: cheating wife who kills her lover after being discovered by her husband or woman defending herself from her abuser. Not only did we touch on the value of empathy here, but this discussion of that article along with the Keats poem and the horse definition resulted in a new addition to our values list: addressing the affective domain.

That news article also emphasized the constructed nature of writing, even a news account. How the facts are arranged and presented can affect how the reader is expected to respond and also suggest something about the narrator’s perspective.

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The old Buddhist story we read about the elephant in the village of the blind suggests how meaning depends on how the reader’s perspective as well. Each of the blind villagers came to different conclusions about what an elephant is based on touching parts of the animal, arguing that it is a long water hose or a rope or a set of pillars, and they were only able to reach a combined construction of the animal after discussing the elephant with each other and with the peddler who brought the elephant, who pointed out how it helps him move his wares as well. So to can readers of literature come away with different opinions that can be combined with or modified by the perspectives of other readers engaged in a shared discussion. This conversation dovetails with the value we listed earlier that literature has in fostering discussion. Through those discussions, our perspectives can change in beneficial ways.

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We concluded class with a brief overview of the distinctions between three general types of poetry: narrative, dramatic, and lyrical. As part of that discussion, I drew the following test to help you determine which type of poetry a given poem might generally be:

poetry test

Of course, the above test will be often challenged by particular examples of poetry, which tends to fight categorization. However, it is a good place for us to start. We will begin looking at examples for each type of poetry next class while returning to the above test. As we do, we will continue considering what the value of studying literature is while also considering closer a second question we have repeatedly touched on this class and last class: how do authors and readers construct meaning?

As a reminder, there are additional readings listed on the calendar that all address somehow the role of literature within society. Please make sure to do those readings and to write a quick one page response to one of the four questions posted on the calendar.

Also, as a final reminder, any terms that come up in our discussions can often be looked up in the back of the Norton anthology. For instance, you could look up the meaning of “narrative” or “plot.” The anthology places in bold all such terms that are defined at the back of the book. I provided a quick explanation of a few terms in class today, which we will address again in the future, but your best resource is the back of your book.

Thanks for a fun and productive second day of class!


Engl 1100 Class Recap: 8/30/18

I had a wonderful time meeting all of you in class today, during which we reviewed the course syllabus and the general direction this course is expected to take. Besides the course polices, I asked you to begin thinking about this question: “What value does literature of provide?” Basically, I want us to think about what the point of our class is and why literary studies matter. After all, “time is money,” and reading takes up a lot of time.


I noted that the primary focus of most literary scholars (and of upper level English courses) is not simply about how to write better papers. Instead, the study of literature can broadly be thought of as a study of humanity, alongside other disciplines in the humanities like anthropology, archaeology, history, religion, law, linguistics, and the visual arts. Each of these studies of humanity tends to look at different sorts of evidence or look at the same evidence but in different ways. For instance, one of you noted how for art history a particular painting might serve as evidence both of the artistic techniques prevalent when it was created and also of the culture in which the painting was produced.  A key difference in literary studies is that the primary focus has traditionally been on textual evidence gleaned from artistic creations such as fiction, poetry, and drama. Today, literary studies may also include related formats that are contemporary developments, such as graphic novels or film.

To begin studying textual evidence, I wrote on the board what appeared to be unintelligible squiggles but were really the unfinished parts of letters. For instance, I left just the dot of an “i” once, but omitted the stem. I asked you to shout out what the meaning of the squiggles were as soon as you figured it out while I slowly finished each of the letters. Before I was finished, the class realized that the squiggles were the words “No vehicles.” What I hoped to highlight in this simple exercise was the key moment when your minds rushed forward to construct meaning from what would still seem to an extraterrestrial being as constituting squiggles on the board. I had not even finished completing all the letters, and your minds were able to supply the meaning. Textual markings cannot provide meaning alone without the ability of readers to use those markings to find meaning.

However, when I added to the text to make it “No vehicles in the park,” we realized that there was more disagreement among the readers of the text about what it meant than we might at first have believed. All of you agreed that a car would be prohibited from being in the park, but the class was divided on whether skateboards would be prohibited. Some of you disagreed that a skateboard counts as a “vehicle,” while others noted that skateboards operate as human transport too and should therefore qualify as a prohibited vehicle. Not only do textual markings require readers in order for meaning to be constructed, but that meaning can change depending on who is doing the reading, even for text as simple as “No vehicles in the park.”

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I then asked you to consider the intent of a hypothetical author, a Kalamazoo politician who sponsored the fictional ordinance. I asked what the text meant if you found out that the politician pushed the ordinance forward after a pack of rogue skateboarders rode through the park knocking down pedestrians. In response, the politician urged for there to be “no vehicles in the park.” Consequently, some of you were more inclined to count a skateboard as a vehicle, given that history, although some of you still thought perhaps the ordinance could have been worded better. I then asked if the meaning would change if the ordinance was passed after a person on a golf cart ran over a skateboarder in the park, prompting the prohibition of “no vehicles in the park.” In that hypothetical, it seemed clearer that skateboards did not count as vehicles. Hence, the meaning of a given text might change depending on our knowledge of the intent of the author.

I then drew on the board this: Author –> Text <– Reader. Both the author and the reader can have an impact on the meaning of the text. However, it is debatable how much of an impact they should have. Some scholars have declared that “the author is dead” and that the intent or the biographical details of the author should have little impact on the text’s meaning. Others might disagree and argue that the author and the culture in which the author produced the work is more important than the reader. After all, the reader may be living centuries or even thousands of years after the work was created. If our intent is to consider what a given work suggests about the culture that produced it, we may want to minimize the bias that a modern reader brings to the text. Still others, such as certain legal scholars, disclaim both authors and readers, arguing that the text itself should govern according to its “plain meaning,” with the reader’s individual perspective being minimized to the greatest extent possible.

I then asked you to consider how the values of everyone involved might affect these interpretations. For instance, a 1920 male reviewer of Edith Wharton’s masterpiece, The Age of Innocence, might harbor conscious or unconscious sexist views about women that could negatively affect his interpretation of the work of a woman. Conversely, feminist scholars studying the work after the 1960s may reach a quite different interpretation on the quality and meaning of Wharton’s work. Throughout this dance between author, texts, and reader, I asked you to think about how explicit or implicit values might affect the interpretation of the text.

Conversely, I also asked you to consider how interpreting a text can impact the values held generally in society. As an example, I mentioned the literature that came out around the early 1900s that highlighted the plight of the working class and the deplorable working conditions prevalent in factories. These works of literature helped lead up to later legal efforts to provide financial and physical protections for workers.

How do values impact interpretation, and how does interpretation impact our values?

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Returning to the central question, I would like you to continue thinking about what the value is in studying literature. We will continue discussing that question while considering the relationship that the author, the reader, and society all have to a given text. We will also be considering how texts can help construct value, and how values are served by constructing texts.

For next class, you will need to complete the readings on the course calendar. Please note that the readings will be almost 50 pages. While not as much reading as you may need to do in upper level courses, you should still set aside some time to complete the readings prior to our class next Tuesday. As part of those readings, you should also write your first reading journal entry pursuant to the assignment sheet that will posted on the course calendar shortly. Hopefully, the readings will be helpful, as they largely consist of general introductory discussions on literature in general and, separately, on fiction, poetry, and drama as distinct considerations. Please do not hesitate to contact me via email if the reading journal assignment sheet is unclear and you feel you need further guidance.

Once again, thank you for what was a very interesting first class!

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