English 311: American Literature I (Beginnings to 1865)

“She’s a great instructor! I’d recommend her to other students if the opportunity arises.”
 –ENG311 student

“She’s wonderful, very helpful informative and understanding” –ENG311 student

Course Description and Objectives:

In English 311 we will read and consider a wide range of texts written by Americans (or, in some cases, by people who visited North America) from the early colonial period to around 1865. Throughout the semester, we will pursue three main categories of investigation:

1.  Literary analysis: To what possible interpretations do these works lend themselves?  How does textual evidence support or undermine particular interpretations?  How do different works of literature fit together or speak to one another?

2.  Contextualization/Rhetorical Analysis:  How do works of literature speak of (and to) the historical moments in which they were produced?  What rhetorical strategies were authors using in these writings, and to what political, social or literary ends? What kinds of dissonances, productive or otherwise, arise when twenty-first-century readers approach these texts?

3.  Canonization:  How are certain works deemed worthy of study, while others are left out?  What assumptions and decisions do we make in assigning value to works of literature?  How are “classics” made and how are we, as participants in a university course, involved in that process?  What other versions of American literary history are possible or defensible?  How do the conventional periods into which we divide American literature—often related to the various wars in which the US has participated—define and perhaps limit the study of literature?

The goals of the course are as follows.  Students will:

–gain an understanding of various American literary traditions from the colonial, early republic, and antebellum periods.

–develop and refine their ability to assess and interpret literature, both orally and in writing.

–gain an understanding of how literary works, canons, and histories develop, and how those processes are involved with complex political and social exigencies.

–become more comfortable with and cognizant of the terms, ideas, and questions that inform literary and rhetorical study.

Major Assignments:

Presentations: You will sign up to give one 10 minute presentation to the class this term. Each presentation will respond to a particular day’s readings, incorporating at least one outside source (preferably archival) to add something additional to the class’s understanding of texts, authors, and/or contexts discussed. Archival resources can be located online at American Periodical Series Online or other databases (Accessible through the library’s website under databases.  Please see me during my office hours well in advance of your presentation if you have questions or concerns about archival or other research). You’ll have an opportunity to sign up for a specific class day in the first week of the semester. In order to assure preparation and synthesis, as well as maximum benefit to your audience, you are required to compose a one-page handout to be distributed to the each classmate the day of your presentation.

Shorter papers:  You’ll write two shorter papers this semester (3-4 pp. each, double-spaced, in 12 pt. font, with 1” margins).  Each will respond to a particular day’s readings.  Shorter papers can be more informal (that is, you can use a less formal tone than you would in a term paper, and you needn’t build the response around a single interpretive thesis).  They should, however, be clear, thoughtful, and specific in their analyses and inquiries.  Successful response papers will focus on one issue or question related to the reading, rather than mentioning a number of disparate topics or observations. If you choose, you may use one of your shorter papers as an opportunity to further develop thoughts and research from your presentation. You are not required to do so, and no outside research (beyond assigned course readings) is required to write the shorter papers.

NOTE: Each shorter paper is due in hardcopy in class, at the beginning of class (11:20 am) on the day listed below. I also ask that you upload a copy to Blackboard by the beginning of class. Be prepared to share your responses.

Longer Final Paper:

Your longer final paper will be an opportunity to expand on the work from one of your shorter papers. The longer paper will be 4-6 pages in length, double-spaced, in 12 pt. font., with 1” margins. Unlike the shorter papers, the longer paper will be a formal term paper, and as such should build on a single interpretive thesis.  More information on this final writing opportunity will be distributed in writing in the final week of class.

(Thanks to Susan Ryan for sharing materials that informed this course design)