Re-Writing and Re-Fighting the Civil War

(358:442, Summer 2018; Syllabus)

As recent conflicts over Confederate monuments have shown, the American Civil War remains hotly contested over one hundred and fifty years after its conclusion: why did it begin? what did soldiers or politicians on either side fight for? what was the result? who really “won”? If even such fundamental questions as these seem unclear to so many people, it’s because the story of the Civil War has been retold so many times and for so many different reasons that the war itself has become less important than the stories we tell about it.

The Civil War was started by a book – so we’re told Abraham Lincoln said of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853). From its opening battles up to our present moment, the Civil War has been revisited as a means of debating racial equality, masculinity, government expansion, and economic inequality. Like the war started by a book, these new socio-political battles were spurred on first and foremost by art as well: film, music, painting, monuments, and, especially, literature. Past and present, cause and effect, fact and fiction begin to blur in the face of this complex cultural legacy. This class will explore how and why the Civil War was re-imagined and re-contested from 1860 to the present in order to understand the foundations of the stories we continue to tell about it – and fight over.

The Cultural History of Now: Inequality–The New Gilded Age?

(Co-taught with Brad Evans. 358:275, Spring 2018)

Corporate capitalism and realist fiction came of age together in the nineteenth century. It thus seems fitting that, today, when commentators are looking to describe the inequality of twenty-first century capitalism, they often say that we have entered “a new gilded age,” a term originally coined by the American novelist Mark Twain. However, instead of realist novels, the favored modality of political discourse is now statistical, with graphs and datasets taking the place of plot lines and character studies. Most conspicuously, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement popularized the growing wealth gap by telling a story about the 1%. This course is motivated by the statistical turn in in the contemporary story of inequality to reconsider of the older story told about inequality by nineteenth-century realism.

What happens when we go back to realist novels to tell the story of inequality? Perversely, we find ourselves in a world scarred by unreality, by the fictiveness of evident social truths. Can a painting or a story ever be real? After all, we are talking about made-up novels and images on a canvas, not journalism, not history. But what about the unreality of corporate capitalism and consumer culture? Doesn’t the very idea of a commodity entail a fiction, the consumption of a feeling or a mood as much as real thing? What is a corporation if not a kind of fiction, a legal entity standing in place of an owner? Students will be introduced to the intellectual history of this question about the relation between realism and capitalism in accounts from Marx and Veblen to Lukacs and Jameson. Issues of race and gender will be situated alongside that of wealth. These will help students gain an understanding of the debates literary scholars are still having about how to read fiction.

Principles of Literature: Poetry

(359:201, Fall 2017 and Spring 2017; Syllabus)

All language is ambiguous, elusive, and multi-meaningful, whether it’s in the form of a book, real news, fake news, a quarterly report, or an everyday email. Most uses of language try to cover over this complexity. Literature, and poetry especially, is unique in that it puts these qualities common to all language center-stage. In this course, required for English majors but open to all, we will learn how poems work and read some of the very best ever written, from early modern sonnets to contemporary free verse. In the process we will also outline a timeline of art history. The poets of successive literary movements wrote differently out of different ideas about what poetry ought to be; similarly, successive generations read poetry for different reasons and in different contexts – many of which treated poems more like the way we treat pop songs or Instagram captions today. Much as understanding poetic form helps us recognize the workings of language more fully, understanding poetic history gives us intimate insight into each historical moment’s most fundamental beliefs and concerns. Perhaps just as importantly, knowing both form and history will ultimately enable you to enjoy poetry more.

One of the pleasures of teaching this class is being asked for recommendations for further reading. To facilitate this I’ve assembled a short list of suggestions to complement the course.

Expository Writing

(355:101, Spring 2016 and Fall 2015)

This introductory writing course, mandatory for all Rutgers students, teaches close, critical reading, synthetic thinking across multiple sources, and thesis-driven analytical writing. We will emphasize in particular maintaining the logical progression of claims and the continued development of ideas over the course of a paper. While this requires a degree of lecture-based instruction, group discussion of texts plays a central role as well. Furthermore, one of the main goals of the course is to teach focused and effective editing, both of one’s own work and of one’s peers'.

Digital Humanities Workshops

(Spring 2018 – Spring 2020)

See this page for a full listing and links to materials.