The Honors Program

What is the English Honors Program?

Challenging & Distinguished: An opportunity for you to study intensively with a full-time faculty member in a senior seminar over two semesters, and to graduate with departmental honors after completing the honors exam

Collaborative: Work closely with a small group of dedicated fellow students over the course of a year and present your work together at a college-wide conference in the spring

Self-guided: You’ll get the chance to develop an original research project on a topic that you design with the help of your professor

The best part of the honors seminar has to be your fellow students! I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by brilliant, kind, creative people who always introduced me to ideas that I had not thought of myself.

–Cara , honors program alum

Next year’s seminar

Speculation: Fabulation, Fabrication, & The Literary Imagination

Prof. Duncan Faherty

Mondays 1:40-5:30 PM
or Tuesdays 5:00-8:50 PM

Learn more by contacting program chair Prof. Steven Kruger.

Tip: get started as early as you can in your English major and plan ahead!

Speculation, the activity of guessing possible answers to a question without having enough information to be certain, is an action born out of a lack that refuses to accept its condition and theorizes despite insufficient evidence.
– Carlota Ortiz Monasterio

Speculation is a multivalent term that signals all manner of conjecture, whether poetic, philosophical, technocratic, or economic. Literary speculation involves imagination and fabulation, creating alternative realities and fantastic worlds that involve an uneven, unpredictable mixture of the true and the unverifiable. As we read a diverse collection of speculative texts — including poems, plays, novels, and graphic narratives – we will consider how a range of authors (from a variety of periods, places, and traditions) employed speculation to express what cannot be definitively known. In so doing, we will examine how they understood speculation as a mode of inquiry with epistemological, socio-political, and temporal dimensions.

Across the semester we will explore speculation as a way of thinking which may insist upon or disavow uncertainty, unknowability, openness, and risk. And we will contemplate how speculation might refer to a narrative practice, an aesthetic disposition, or a particular character’s orientation; and how it can point in utopian and dystopian directions, grounded simultaneously in hopeful idealism, pessimistic realism, and calculative cynicism.

Authors might include: Kyle Baker, William Blake, Octavia Butler, Jennifer Chang, Geoffrey Chaucer, Suzanne Collins, Saidiya Hartman, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Avery Gordon, Marlon James, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, John Keene, Karl Marx, John Milton, Thomas Moore, Carlos Santos Perez, Christine de Pizan, Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Héctor Tobar, Eve Tuck, W.B. Yeats, and Charles Yu.

ApplyingFeaturesGraduationExperiencesPast Seminars
Students must apply by their junior year, but are encouraged to apply as early as possible. Eligible majors must have at least a 3.3 GPA. Prof. Steven Kruger will advise prospective students about courses they may take to prepare them for the program. Registration forms (see below) for the program should be submitted to Prof. Kruger by email.

Note: Students MUST sign up for the first (fall) half of the honors seminar during the spring semester of their junior year. No student will be admitted to the second (spring) semester of the honors seminar who has not completed the work of the preceding semester. There will be two sections of the seminar each semester, one during the day and one during the evening. Taking these will serve as a replacement for the English major’s required senior seminar and one of its electives.

To apply to the Honors Program in English (two semesters of ENG 399W), please download, fill out and return the form below to Professor Steven Kruger

Features of the Honors Program include:

  • Two-semester (eight-credit) seminar during your senior year
  • Independent research paper (the honors essay)
  • Honors exam
  • Honors conference

Over the course of the year, your work as an honors student will look like this:

Fall semester

Weekly seminar reading and discussion: Analysis of literary works focusing on a common theme—for example, “Conversion / Identity” or “Humor as a Form of Inquiry”—and a selection of scholarly essays. Some of the texts for the fall semester are announced the preceding spring.

Research project: You will create an independent research project related to the theme of the seminar, developed through a series of conversations with your professor and completed in stages (for example: a proposal, annotated bibliography, draft, and revision). Your research topic is subject to the approval of your professor.

Guest faculty: Your seminar may invite faculty with special expertise in the works you are studying to lead or participate in class discussions.

Class blog: Much of the work of the seminar is shared on a class blog or other digital platform, allowing for ongoing interaction between you and your professor and among your fellow students. You can see blogs from previous years’ seminars here: “The Observed Life: Gossip, Secrecy, and the Circulation of Social Knowledge” and “Adaptation of Narrative across Media.”

Exam list: Late in the semester, your seminar will collaboratively choose ten works from your fall syllabus to go onto the reading list for the honors exam in the spring. (Soon after that, faculty members on the honors committee create the other half of the list and share that with your professor, who will share it with you.)

Spring semester

Seminar work focuses on three tasks:

Completing your research paper: With help from your professor, and from your classmates in peer review, you’ll complete the paper you began in the fall. The final paper of 5000-7000 words (20-24 pages) is due midway through the spring semester.

Studying in groups for the honors exam: Your professor will guide you through exam preparations, which include class discussions and practice with past exams. The essay-based exam, usually held in April, centers on the reading list and has three parts: an essay in literary history/historical context; an essay in genre; and an essay focused on theory. This mirrors the structure of the methodology courses in the English major (the 240s).

Designing, organizing, and presenting at an academic conference: The culminating event of the honors seminar, the conference is based on your and your classmates’ research projects. You’ll present your work to an audience of faculty, students, family, and friends. Finally, you’ll get to work with your professor to create a website documenting the conference and your experience as an honors student.

Honors students who meet the standards of the program will graduate with Honors, High Honors, or Highest Honors. Each student’s honors designation is based on four criteria: final GPA; final GPA in English; achievement in the research paper; and performance on the honors exam. Two members of the faculty Honors Committee grade the paper; additional members grade the exam. Grading is done anonymously. All faculty graders vote on each student’s honors designation, which will appear on your transcript.

If you’re a prospective English honors student and you would like to know more about what it’s like to be part of the honors program–its perks and pressures alike–check out this Q&A compiled by students of the 2019-2020 seminar. [Q&A link is temporarily broken. Check back later for updates!]
2023-2024: So Much Drama! Performance & Performativity in Literature and Culture

There’s drama everywhere – and this course is about “drama” as a vernacular phrase, a literary genre, and an aid to cultural theory. Our seminar will include literary genres that were meant to be performed, from bardic poetry to drama and slam poetry. We will cover the transition from religious ceremony to urban professional theatre, including both stage and typological conventions. We’ll examine the impact of theater and film on the form and content of other literary genres, such as the novel. Our primary frame for exploring drama in all these varieties will be theories of performativity – how we do things with words, gestures, and clothing such as signal desire, identity, and belonging.

Likely authors will include Aristophanes, Terence, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, Behn, Dryden, Brockden Brown, Melville, Achebe, Parks, Kennedy, and Naylor. Like theorists will include Louis Althusser, J.L. Austin, Judith Butler, Philip Brian Harper, and Marquis Bey.

Prof. Miles Grier

2022–23: Scenes of Instruction: Learning in Literature

We have all devoted considerable time to educating ourselves and to being educated. But what is learning, exactly? How have our ideas about learning shifted across history? Through what means have writers unsettled our understandings of learning in order to be more inclusive and just? In this seminar, we’ll consider how literature has dramatized instruction, and how it has been enlisted to develop the literacies we need to navigate an ever-changing world. We will pay particular attention to transgressive examples that challenge prevailing paradigms, and consider the spaces beyond the school where education occurs. As a capstone course in the major, the seminar also invites us to cast a critical eye on our own educations, something that seems especially urgent as the pandemic has disrupted our normal operations and revealed sometimes strange scenes of instruction for us all.

Likely texts for the class include: Plato’s Symposium, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, Zitkala-Sa’s School Days of an Indian Girl, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education, Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, and Ocean’s Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

Prof. William Orchard

2021–22: Fox in Socks: Anthropomorphism in Literature and Culture

In that country the animals
have the faces of people

–Margaret Atwood

This year, the honors seminar will consider the role and function of anthropomorphism in literary and cultural history–from its roots in mythology and folklore to contemporary books. Why do so many of our cultural forms humanize supernatural and divine beings, inanimate objects, and non-human animals? What forms does anthropomorphism take, and what critical tools do we have available to understand it?

Prof. Carrie Hintz

2020–21: Love in Wartime

An ancient theme in literature—including the Hebrew Bible, Homer’s Iliad, and Virgil’s Aeneid—is the intersection between the erotic and the military, love and war. This honors seminar will consider how literature written in English has engaged, developed, and interrogated that theme, sometimes directly referring to ancient stories (Samson and Delilah, the Fall of Troy, Dido and Aeneas), and sometimes engaging contemporary history to put the passions and desires of individual characters into play within the framework of violence and crisis. The course will begin with a consideration of how medieval and early modern writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare engage with ancient stories of love and war. It will then move to consider how, in later moments of conflict, stories of love are mobilized—to emphasize the human stakes of warfare; to deflect attention from histories of conquest and exploitation; to suggest some of the ways in which erotic/romantic relationships are themselves often conflictual; to interrogate the connections between romance and rape culture; to undermine the dominant political ideologies of a particular historical moment.

Prof. Steve Kruger

2019-2020: The Power of the Popular (or, All Our Faves Are Problematic)

“popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is.” —bell hooks

Stuart Hall says of popular culture, “It is an arena that is profoundly mythic. It is a theater of popular desires, a theater of popular fantasies. It is where we discover and play with the identifications of ourselves, where we are imagined, where we are represented, not only to the audiences out there who do not get the message, but to ourselves for the first time.” There’s no denying the power and potential of popular culture. That said, pop culture’s functions, meanings, and effects are never straightforward or static. As Robert G. Lee notes, pop culture is “always contested terrain.” It is a site of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and ambivalence, that functions as a “screen” onto which social and cultural anxieties and desires are projected and played out, where individual and collective identities are deconstructed and remade.

We will explore the problems and pleasures of pop culture and theorize the idea of the popular, broadly conceived. We will examine a variety of popular literature and pop-cultural productions that imagine and enact the popular in interesting and inventive ways, within the specific contexts of their production and consumption. As we study how pop culture has always shaped our understandings of our subjectivities, our communities, our nations, and our world, we will necessarily attend to the complicated relationship between the popular and the political, whether it manifests as propaganda and soft power on the one hand or in the service of dissent and resistance on the other. Along the way, we will also be engaging our own problematic fandoms and practicing the important work of critiquing the things we love.

Prof. Caroline K. Hong

2018-2019: What Good Is Literature?

In 1740, Samuel Richardson published the first novel in English, and it was sold as a guide for people who want to be good. Telling the story of a young lady’s resistance to her predatory boss, Pamela advertised its potential to “cultivate the principles of virtue and religion in the minds of youth of both sexes.”

That claim for the ethical good of reading was rephrased more politically in 1821, when P.B. Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” And a very different argument was made for the political benefits of literary work in 1993, when Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The first African-American woman to win that honor, she won it with her race and gender noted. The Swedish Academy praised her work for its “visionary force and poetic import,” which “gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

But this value that accrues to literature as a source of cross-cultural information is historically particular to our time, and, even now, it is easy to discount. The governor of Florida didn’t see it in 2012, for example, when he proposed that tuition would be charged differently by major. Students who pursued degrees in English would have to pay more than their peers in science and business, because the profits they bring to the state are less calculable in dollars. And why should the state have to pay for a good that’s a luxury?

We’ll pore through literary history in this seminar to consider the arguments for and against the time it takes to read literature— as a source of moral improvement, maybe, political insight, or intelligence that is useful on the job market.

Prof. Gloria Fisk

2017-2018: Bad Romance: Fragments, Heartbreaks, and Other Tales of When Love Is Not Enough

Someone tells me: this kind of love is not viable. But how can you evaluate viability? Why is the viable a Good Thing? Why is it better to last than to burn?
–Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse

Falling in love is not a good way of getting to know someone.
–Adam Phillips, “On Love”

“‘I didn’t think it would turn out this way’ is the secret epitaph of intimacy,” writes the literary critic Lauren Berlant. This is because, when we establish an intimate relationship, we also enter into a shared narrative, one that is defined by predictable conventions and an agreed ending. In literature, this narrative often takes the form of a romance. The conventions of romance are so predictable that one of its best-known variations, the marriage plot, ends at the nuptials, as though the life that follows will proceed the way we imagined. But what about those bad romances, where things don’t turn out as we thought they would? In life, we might think of these as failures, but, as we will explore, they are also places of possibility where we are provided an opportunity to imagine new ways of living in the world and new ways of attaching to others. In this English Honors Senior Seminar, we will examine this complicated intersection between love, intimacy, and genre, attending to examples where the conventions that bind these three things together begin to unravel. Among the questions we might consider are: What forms beyond the family and the couple can intimacy take? What types of love are revolutionary and emancipatory? And, how do we represent those? What are love’s genres? Although we think of love as eternal, in what ways are its horizons constrained by a historical moment? What does love help us know? When is it better to burn than to last?

Likely reading will include Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Plato’s Symposium, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, George Meredith’s “Modern Love,” Pauline Hopkins’s One Blood, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard,” John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and poems by Eduardo Corral, Philip Larkin, Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Sappho, and William Shakespeare. Films might include Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Stella Dallas, Imitation of Life, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Talk to Her. We will read a wide range of criticism about love, intimacy, and genre by such writers as Jessica Benjamin, Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, Sigmund Freud, Michael Hardt, Rosemary Hennessey, Laura Kipnis, Melanie Klein, Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, Adam Phillips, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and D. W. Winnicott.

Prof. Bill Orchard

2016-2017: Reading Minds Touching Brains

“My brain is always sending me off on little missions,” writes memoirist Naoki Higashida, “whether I want to do them or not.” Higashida asks readers to imagine his physical brain as a kind of portal to his mind. You can hold a brain or examine a neuron, but you can’t touch a self or read a mind. Nevertheless, we spend a great deal of time trying—in life and in literature. When we read literature, we experience simulations of other people’s mental lives—perception, emotion, memory, imagination, consciousness. The words on the page stimulate brain activity, shape our perceptions, and elicit responses from our bodies (for example, tears, hair standing on end, or spontaneous smiles). In this year’s English Honors Seminar, we will read literary works that tell stories about relations among brain, mind, body, and self. We will also read psychological, neuroscientific, and literary theories that explore questions raised by those relations: What can the brain teach us about the mind? Or the mind about the brain? Why are fantasies of touching brains to find minds so prevalent in literature? Why do we spend so much time imagining the mental lives of others? How do literary tools like language, aesthetics, and rhetoric enable—or impede—access to the minds of others? What do scientific tools like brain imaging and neurosurgery teach us about selfhood? What might we learn about being human through examining altered states of consciousness or neurological difference?

We’ll read a wide variety of literary works, in various genres, from various eras and cultures, by writers with a range of experiences and points of view–including works by The Gawain Poet, Emily Dickinson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Siri Hustvedt, Herman Melville, William Shakespeare, Ralph Ellison, Charlotte Perkins-Gilman, and Queens College’s own Kimiko Hahn.

Prof. Jason Tougaw

2014-2015: Conversion/Identity

I have become a problem to myself.
–Augustine, Confessions

This morning I woke up in another part of my brain…. The “I” of my self had crawled through the thickness of memory and consciousness to some other place in the structure of the brain and emerged within a new gray coil.
–David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives

One of the central problems of literary texts in the Western tradition is defined in an early and influential form in Augustine’s autobiographical Confessions: how can one be one’s self and at the same time experience a radical change within that self? What does it mean to have an established identity and yet undergo a conversion? Is it possible, even, to have an identity whose main feature is that it lives its history as non-self-identical? Would this be the identity of the convert, a conversion-identity?

This seminar considers the ways in which a wide range of literary texts engages with such questions about identity, conversion, and their interrelationship. While conversion experience in the tradition initiated by Augustine is often conceived strictly in terms of religious change, we will also consider texts where other categories of identity (race/ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexuality) stand at the center. And we will consider the ways in which a change in one of these identity categories is thought to impinge upon the others: does, for instance, a change in religious status also alter how one’s race or gender or sexuality is conceived?

The seminar will consider primary texts in close relation to a set of theoretical/ critical readings that take up questions of identity: recent work on religion by such writers as Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Jean-François Lyotard; feminist and queer theory; postcolonial and critical race theory. Primary texts will include poetry, drama, prose fiction, and memoir and will be drawn from a number of historical moments and from American, British, and Anglophone traditions.

The course will be organized around three broad rubrics: (1) “Confessions (?)” – writing that plays with the first-person confessing voice of the Augustinian tradition, (2) “Dramatic Turns” – texts that represent conversion experiences on stage, and “The Art of Losing/Finding the Self” – narratives of lives in “identity crisis.”

Readings will include some of the following (texts listed here that don’t ultimately end up on the course syllabus might provide students with ideas for their individual projects):


The Book of Margery Kempe
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life
David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives
Jennifer Finney Boylan, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders

Dramatic Turns

The Croxton Play of the Sacrament
Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta
Samuel Beckett, Endgame
Tony Kushner, Angels in America

The Art of Losing/Finding the Self

The Middle English Pearl
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko
John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
William Wordsworth, The Prelude
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions

Prof. Steve Kruger

2013-2014: Humor as a Method of Inquiry

What makes people laugh? How does that laughter affect the human psyche? How does humor differ within and across cultures? These are just a few of the questions that might arise when we use humor as a lens through which we examine culture. While the seminar will focus particularly on the use of humor in English and American literary culture, students will be free to choose anything as the subject for their seminar papers.

After an exploring the evolution of theories about humor from Classical to Contemporary, students will interpret roles that humor plays in artistic expression in relation to relevant theoretical bases. We will examine how modes of expression such as irony and sarcasm are constructed, expressed and received through literature and performance. Along the way we will explore the interaction between oral and literary deliveries of humor, and the roles that historical, geographical, and social contexts of race, gender, ethnicity and lifestyle play in the production and reception of humor in England and the United States.

Artists covered include Chaucer, Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mark Twain, Ralph Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, Uncle Remus, Fanny Fern, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy Parker, Woody Allen, Chris Rock, Margaret Cho, Sherman Alexie, Russell Peters, Carlos Mencia, and others.

This focused investigation into humor and culture will provide you with a model for creating your own, original investigation into a subject matter that will become the basis for your seminar paper. The seminar is designed to model the sort of flexible, multileveled analysis that you will pursue in your Honors Essay. I do not expect you to resolve the generic and methodological complexities that we encounter, nor do I intend to lead our texts into a definitive or unified narrative. It is my hope that the very heterogeneity of our reading might help to suggest the range of projects that can spring from our central theme.

Prof. Fred Gardaphe

2012-2013: Adaptation of Narrative across Media

Shall we read the novel or wait for the movie to come out? We expect that popular novels will become films, that successful films will made into operas, and that comic book characters will show up in Broadway musicals. J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, the prequel to Lord of the Rings, has been transformed into an animated film, into two live-action films to be released next year, a graphic novel (adapted by Dixon and Deming), and, like some other quest fantasies, into two role-playing video games. Jane Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, has been made into two films set in Regency England and transposed into other films set in today’s London (Bridget Jones’s Diary), and India (Bride and Prejudice) and Utah (A Latter-Day Comedy).

There is a tendency to treat adaptation as a one-dimensional process–to begin and end by asking what has gotten lost in translation–particularly when the “original” is a respected literary text and the adaptation is a movie which, most of the time, is just a movie. But adaptation involves creative interpretation, and two film adaptations of the same text can present very different interpretations, as do Laurence Olivier’s and Kenneth Branagh’s versions of Shakespeare’s Henry V, which read into the same text opposing attitudes toward patriotism and war.

And “getting it right” can’t be the whole story, in any case, since many canonical texts are adaptations of texts that might otherwise have been forgotten. To continue with Shakespeare, Othello was adapted from “Un capitano Moro,” a short tale by Giovan Battista Giraldi aka Cinthio, and it’s clear that there a great deal was gained in the translation. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida was taken from Chaucer’sTroilus and Criseyde, behind which we can glimpse Boccaccio’s Filostrato and, a long way back of that, Homer’s Iliad. There we can see adaptive interpretations involved in an elaborate process of creative destruction, each new work a genuine rethinking and reframing of the earlier work, and scholars argue whether what emerged was successful or not. And sometimes the destruction is done with malice aforethought, as with Martin Rowson’s “graphic novel” version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, an oppositional adaptation, adaptation as critique, with Rowson using film noir imagery–drawn from the Howard Hawks film of The Big Sleep–to parody the iconic modernist poem.

This seminar will focus on the differences in the ways stories are told in prose, in film, in graphic designs, the storytelling practices and strategies and techniques that operate within specific media (and resist translation), the changes adaptation force not only in the manner of telling but in what can be told, and, inevitably, the social, cultural, and political motives that may underlie these changes. We will not be interested primarily in safe and faithful reproductions of originals, but in adaptations that either take artistic liberties or challenge the rules of their own medium by attempting a literal translation, as in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew, or Eric Rohmer’s Percival (from a medieval grail legend by Chretien de Troyes).

In addition to some of those named above, the seminar may include texts such as Akira Kurosawa’sRan (based on Shakespeare’s King Lear), Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (based Jane Austen’s novel, letters and juvenilia), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (based on Anthony Burgess’s novel) and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (based on Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel). Students will work on individually chosen projects.

Professor David Richter

2011-2012: The Observed Life: Gossip, Secrecy and the Making of Social Knowledge

Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.
–Oscar Wilde

The practice of gossip is as old as language itself, assuming a dominant role in our daily interactions and calling up powerful cultural embodiments from Virgil’s creaturely portrayal of the goddess Fama, covered with a multitude of eyes, ears, and tongues, to the disembodied voice-over and distilled malice of Kristen Bell’s Gossip Girl. As social media such as Twitter and Facebook hasten the flow of social information, raising unprecedented possibilities of intervention, access, and injury, now seems an opportune and urgent moment to reconsider the stories we tell, how they circulate, and what they reveal about what we know (or what we want to know/be known) about ourselves and others: our appetites, loyalties, preoccupations, and passions.

The word “gossip” has shifted dramatically from its Old English and Norse roots, when it designated a godparent (“god-sibbe”) of either sex who became a child’s spiritual sponsor at baptism. Samuel Johnson’s eighteenth-century dictionary offers two further definitions: “a tippling companion”; and “One who runs about like women at a lying-in” (that is, at the birth of a child). Confronting the negative connection of gossip with women and its progressive denigration as a loose, idle, and unproductive mode of speech, feminists—and other subgroups/counterpublics—have sought to reclaim gossip as a form of subjugated and subversive discourse, resistant to and critical of majority culture. Other gossip theorists in the fields of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and communication theory have explored how gossip functions both as an instrument of behavioral control and as a form of exchange in which information is lucratively traded for other goods in the social marketplace. We’ll be drawing on these theorizations of gossip and considering how useful they are for capturing its operations in different historical moments, across oral, scribal, printed, and digital media, and within changing legal and normative conceptions of public-private relations. Most important, we’ll be exploring gossip’s hermeneutic power as a narrative model, pressing the continuities between sites, protocols, and modes of gossip and works of literature which not only thematize its practice but reflect on their own (often troubled) relation to its forms.

The readings for the seminar are yet to be finalized since they depend, to a large extent, on the specialties and enthusiasms of the guest teachers I will be inviting to join us. But here are some sample readings/films to give you an idea of what to expect: Chaucer, The House of Fame and “The Manciple’s Tale”; Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing and Othello; Samuel Pepys, Diary; William Wycherley, The Country Wife; Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year; James Boswell, London Journal; Thomas Jefferson, Anas; Mary Hassal, Secret History; Jane Austen, Emma; Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan; Stephen Early, Alfred Hitchcock, and Eliot Elisofon, “Have You Heard” (Life Magazine, 1942); Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; Mike Leigh, Secrets and Lies; Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen); David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network.

Prof. Andrea Walkden

2010-2011: Literature and Technology

Since the beginnings of Anglophone literature, psyches, societies, places, environments and bodies have been dramatically reshaped, again and again, by technology. Indeed, that process is accelerating rapidly today; some even feel that we have long since passed the point we live in a natural or given universe and that we now, instead, dwell in a wholly artificial, and increasingly easily modified life-world—a life-world that has become a technosphere. Whether this is catastrophe or triumph is hotly debated.

In this class, we will focus on a long history of technological intervention and how, unebeknownst to many of us, literary culture has been affected by and responded to it. In fact, history’s accumulation of technologies and techniques arguably is one of the large, relatively unexamined and often unconscious foundations of our psyches, societies, and cultures. From the time English literature begins, people have been consciously and unconsciously changed and shaped by a succession of specific in(ter)ventions, from gunpowder and printing to steam power, electricity, the automobile, television, computers, genetic technology, and robotics. But our growing technological unconscious is not just littered with these; some have tried to find order within this welter of technological changes and assert that it has a definite historical shape. The idea that there has been, in Western history, a succession of different technological “revolutions” has become familiar to many of us, as people have argued that we have gone through not just one, but two, three, or even four of these “revolutions”—i.e. larger systemic changes that have come from an accumulation of many symbolic and literal synergies between society and sets of individual technologies.

We will consider how these in(ter)ventions and the synergies between them throw new light on not just historical, but also cultural change. From Renaissance humanism to postmodern simulation, new technological eras have provided ghostly companions to the eras mapped out by literary and cultural history. Also, individual texts are regularly responsive to, and a key part of society’s absorption of, technological change. Texts that reveal these parallels between technological infrastructure and imagination are extremely various. We will pick a limited number of poetic, fictional, non-fictional, and filmic texts to show how probing their technological unconscious greatly expands their range of possible meanings and even provides an interesting new perspective on their changing styles and kinds of aesthetic impact.

Throughout the course, we will be mindful that our subject engages one of the most talked-about and thought-about issues in today’s public discourse, namely the character and value of the technologized world we increasingly inhabit. These issues are fascinating intellectually and also crucial to the shape and perhaps even continuance of lifeworlds, our economy, our society, our culture, and even, some say, our biosphere. Two key things to remember as we proceed in the course are 1) You DON’T need to be a technological enthusiast to thrive in this course; we will criticize every bit as much as we honor technology in our attempt to see how it is interwoven into our culture. 2) We will constantly THINK HISTORICALLY, always keeping our eye on the intertwining of literary and cultural history with technological history.


Marie Borroff, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Philip K. Dick, Ub
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2
Octavia Butler, Lilith’s Brood
Wendell Berry, Remembering

Prof. Fred Buell

2007-2008: Representing the Environment: Literature and Ecocriticism

For the last five decades, a growing group of environmental scientists and activists have been predicting the end of life as we know it, thanks to environmental crisis; still others have been saying, oops, we’ve gone too far, but it’s not that bad, we can change; and still others have been saying that environmental pessimism like that is for chicken-littles, and that the truth is we’re living (not just despite, but because of all our supposedly nature-destroying ways) better than ever before.

The questions, however, have gotten pretty intimate these days. Did you know, for example, that a recent, and serious, legislative proposal would have allowed and encouraged industry to recycle used, still-radioactive metal from the nuclear industry into our metal stream—potentially putting it (as alarmists said) into our forks, knives, and spoons, our clothing zippers, the rods in the walls of our apartments, our bicycle seats and our mattress springs? And did you know that the proposal had a certain plausibility because we have been accumulating not just spent nuclear fuel, but also decommissioned equipment for using, processing, and handling it, without having any truly safe way of disposing of it? Well, perhaps you didn’t want to know that people had thought of such things—and even had real reasons for weighing them.

The reason for all this is that environmental issues have become, in our now clearly finite world (a world of finite resources and finite sinks to flush wastes down) more and more a source of complex controversy and concern. As this has happened, writers, artists, cultural theorists, literary historians, and philosophers have also been exploring how environmental questions go straight to the heart of our culture as well as society. What place(s) does nature have—and has it had in the past—in our culture? How has modern Western culture conceived of nature from the Renaissance to the present; what have the dominant trends been, and what alternative traditions have persisted/been invented along with them? To what extent do the “natures” so conceived still exist today, given the massive recent changes brought on by post-World War II and then postmodern economic development, population growth, urbanization, paradigm-breaking technological change, and equally paradigm-breaking intellectual and cultural change? Is there anything left— and should there be anything left—of Romanticism’s legacy of nature as central to human creativity, beauty, social transformation, and psycho-spiritual fulfillment? Should that legacy be continued when nature is increasingly endangered and nature experience possibly outmoded? Or does postmodern society in fact dwell, these days, not in nature, but in technologically- and culturally-altered environments—in a “second nature”—and do we not in fact need to demystify and jettison the old romantic notions in order to live fully consciously in our present condition? Or are these enthusiasms for the postmodern and these dismissals of Romanticism’s nature only yet another sign of our society’s hubris, as it heads deeper than ever into environmental disregard and therefore towards its own destruction?

Thanks to three decades of revolution in literary study, the ways we as readers consume and interpret literary texts have changed dramatically. New intellectual and ethical perspectives on literature and culture have flourished, provided, for example, by feminism, multiculturalism, postcolonialism, structuralism, postructuralism, and postmodernism. Now ecocriticism joins this list as its newest member. As more and more urgent, hot-button environmental questions are perceived to be tucked away everywhere in society, they have emerged in culture, literature and literary study as well.

We will, as you might expect, discuss various kinds of writing about nature. But, just as important, we will focus also on texts that have little or nothing (overtly) to do with nature and the natural, exploring what it means to read this literature also through an ecocritical lens. Studying a wide variety of verbal—and also visual—texts from the Renaissance to the present, we will work from the ground up (or the pavement up? or the commercial carpet up? One has to watch one’s metaphors) to an understanding of what ecocriticsm involves. We’ll study Shakespeare and science fiction, nature writing and urban literature, idylls and apocalypses, the comedic and the cynical, prose and poetry. We’ll also work with photographic and filmic texts and, on a regular basis, use photography and journaling as tools for investigating our human relationships with our larger, non-human context.

Required Texts:

Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
William Golding, Lord of the Flies
Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces
Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer
Don DeLillo, White Noise
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go,
Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower

Prof. Frederick Buell

2006-2007: Dreams

Can dreams help us understand the self, as Freud argues? Or do they blot out the self entirely, as Faulkner suggests? Are dreams mystical missives? Meaningless by-products of firing neurons? Do they consolidate memory? Drive artistic endeavors? The elusiveness of dreams, which propel us to imagined worlds whose logic falters when we wake, has made them an inspiration to innumerable artists and an object of study for neurologists, psychologists, and philosophers.

In this two-semester Honors Seminar, we will explore the art and science of dreaming. We will read classic dream theories by Aristotle, Freud, and Jung; examine contemporary theories by dream researchers such as J. Allan Hobson, Ernest Hartmann, and Stephen La Berge; read literary texts by writers such as William Shakespeare, Charlotte Brontë, Jean Rhys, Franz Kafka, and Kazuo Ishiguro; listen to music by Kurt Weill, Bob Dylan, and The Postal Service; view a variety of films, including Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and Richard Linklater’s Waking Life; and take a virtual tour of Dalí’s Dream of Venus, the surrealist funhouse he built for the 1939 World’s Fair (in Queens!).

We will all keep dream blogs, documenting our dream lives and reflecting on them through the lens of our course readings and discussions. Students will develop interdisciplinary research projects that address current questions in the field of dream studies and present their work at a student conference in the spring.

Required Texts

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams
Ernest L. Hartmann, Dreams and Nightmares: The New Theory on the Origin and Meaning of Dreams
Allan J. Hobson, The Dream Drugstore: Chemically Altered States of Consciousness
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled
C. G. Jung, Dreams
John Ratey, A User’s Guide to the Brain
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Professor Jason Tougaw

This is the class where I felt I had the most control over what I could focus on and dedicate time to, both in my own personal work as well as during class.

— Emily, honors program alum