Introduction to English Literature

Otherness, Alienation, and the Construction of Civil Society

What is this class about?

As a product of civil society, literature has quite a bit to say about the social codes and relationships that define our daily lives. In this class, we will read a broad survey of texts that take up the question of what makes a society civilized. We will explore the ways that civil society defines itself against groups of others and what it means to be either an insider or an outsider. Additionally, we will ask how the rules that define civil society can also result in the alienation of citizens, and what that ultimately means for how a society is constructed. You should keep these questions in mind for every text that we read.

What should I expect from the texts we read?

The texts we read will challenge you in different ways. Some may contain content that is disturbing or offensive, while others use humor as a means of subtle critique. Some texts may not seem approachable to you at all, either because they use language you’re unfamiliar with, or because they deliberately explore the ways that language, tone and subject matter can alienate readers. It is your job as a reader to consider why a text makes certain choices, and what kind of work on its subject those choices ultimately do.

Which texts are we reading?

  • The Tempest by William Shakespeare

  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

  • Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

  • Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

  • Translations by Brian Friel

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

  • Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

  • Some supplemental poetry

Must I buy a specific edition of each text? 

In most cases I have chosen the cheapest edition available, but you may use whatever unabridged edition you like, including ebooks and online texts. I don’t recommend using an audio text as your primary means of reading because it’s far too difficult to refer back to a specific moment. Many of the texts we will read, especially the older ones, are available online for free, in their entirety. You may find, however, that using the assigned edition allows you to more easily navigate class discussion, where we will often refer to a particular line or page.

What work does this course require?

In addition to completing the assigned readings and participating vigorously in class discussion, you will complete five formal response papers and a group interpretive project that involves a presentation, leading discussion, and a paper. You will also take a midterm and final exam.

A word to the wise: this is a literature course, which means that you have to read every day in order to complete the required work.  If you’re not prepared to devote time to reading, you’d be better off in a different kind of class.

How much is each required component worth? 

Each component of the course is worth 20% of your grade. See the breakdown below:

Midterm: 20%

Final: 20%

Participation: 20%

Project: 20% (10% presentation, 10% paper)

Responses: 20%

Total: 100%

Can you give me specifics about the response papers? 

Sure. At the beginning of the semester, you will sign up to complete response papers on certain days. This will ensure that you don’t end up doing all of them at the end of the semester, and ensure that there are people in each class meeting who have given meaningful thought to the day’s assigned reading. I will post the response schedule as a google doc that will be shared with the class. You will have the opportunity to schedule your responses during the first two weeks of class. Failure to schedule during this period will result in a 1-letter grade penalty off your response grade.  After the first two weeks of class you won’t have write access to the google doc. If you need to move one of your response dates, let me know and I will alter the document.

Each response paper must be between 1-2 pages (double-spaced) in length. It must present an analysis of an aspect of the text, and include both a thesis and evidence to support that thesis. The topic of each response is up to you—basically, I want you to pick an aspect (e.g. a theme, a character, or a scene) of the text that you think is interesting and discuss what kind of work you think the text does on that issue.

You may also incorporate a discussion of relevant media into your response.  For example, you might find a picture that illustrates an aspect of the text, and you can write a response that explains how this image or series of images illuminates the aspect of the text that you have decided to treat.  Simply attach the image(s) to your response paper and note the source of the image.  Other relevant media may include either a website or a youtube clip.  Just make sure to include the web address in your response. Keep in mind that if you choose to incorporate media into your response, your focus must still be on the primary text.

Response papers will be graded on their insightfulness, as well as how coherently they make and support their case. See the grading rubric at for more information.

You may not write more than one response paper per text, nor may you write a response paper on your presentation text.

What is this group project you mentioned? 

You and two partners will sign up to present on one of the assigned texts (you’ll sign up during the first week of class). Like the response paper schedule, the presentation schedule will be available as a google doc. Failure to schedule during this period will result in a 1-letter grade penalty off your project grade.

You will present a creative interpretation of your chosen text that you and your partners develop together. This interpretation can take many forms: a dramatic reading or staged scene, either live during class or on film; a video-based project; a board game; a web-based project; an illustrated text; or something else that you develop and that I approve. We will devote class time to viewing (perhaps participating in) and discussing your project in conjunction with the text that your project treats. You should be prepared to lead the discussion of your presentation. The paper (5-6 pages) that your group writes will discuss how your project interprets and helps others to interpret the text. Your paper must have an interpretive argument and it must support that argument with evidence from the text. Please label each section of your paper with the name of the person who wrote it. The paper will be due on the day that you present.

I will grade your presentations not on how “cool” or innovative your project is, but rather on how well your presentation conveys your interpretation of the text, as well as on the interpretation itself. The point of challenging you to be creative in your presentations is to encourage you to think outside of the traditional model of academic learning, and to open up new avenues for understanding literature. Like the response papers, the paper that accompanies the group project will be evaluated on its insightfulness, as well as how coherently it makes and supports its case. See the grading rubric at for more information.

As with any group project, you are expected to conduct yourself respectfully and carry your share of the work.  Please let me know if you are having problems with a group member. I will separate the grade of any person failing to hold up their end.

You and your group MUST meet with me a week prior to your presentation so that I can give you feedback on your plan and organize the rest of the class session around your presentation. Failing to meet with me will result in a 1-letter grade penalty on the assignment. This penalty will be applied individually—this means that if the rest of your group shows up and you don’t, you’re the only person who will be penalized.

You may not present on a text for which you write a response paper.

Is the final exam cumulative? How are exams structured?

Yes, the final exam is cumulative.  Both the midterm and final will be structured in the same way: a series of short answer questions relating to each of the texts we have read.

What is the attendance/participation policy for this class?

Since I know that you are a responsible and dedicated student, I know that you will show up every day and be prepared to participate actively in class discussion.  However, even responsible students might need to miss a class here and there.  Therefore, you get four personal days to use as you wish. After that, absences will result in a 1-letter grade penalty off of your participation grade for each additional absence. If you exhaust your participation grade, penalties will then come off of your final course grade (which essentially means you’re going to fail and should probably drop the class while you can).  Be advised that sitting in class without participating, or showing up more than 10 minutes late to class, is tantamount to an absence.  Also be advised that you need to keep track of your own attendance. While I take attendance, I will not warn you if you are close to the penalty line—as a responsible student, you should know whether or not you’ve missed too much class.

In addition to active participation in discussion, I also expect that you will respectful and responsive to your classmates. Reading, writing and interpretation are not objective, and everybody brings something different and valuable to the table. You will have a far more productive experience if you listen, learn and argue respectfully with your classmates.