Literature in Action: Reading and Responsibility

Module code: AM3021
Module coordinator: Dr Zalfa Feghali

From the earliest writings about the Americas, to slave narratives, to the form of the open/viral letter on social media, American writing has sought to move readers to action in ingenious and sometimes (un)convincing ways. This module will allows you to explore your own responses to a range of literary texts, considering for example the strategies employed by authors in aid of a particular political or social cause. 

In the final year of your degree, you will be given the opportunity to refocus your study on the fundamental and instrumental questions of reading literature:

  • Why do we read?
  • What shared experiences unite readers? 
  • Can, or indeed should, reading move us to social, civic or political action? 
  • Does the literature of social protest work?

Topics covered

The module begins with Yann Martel’s humorous yet earnest 101 Letters to a Prime Minister (2012), a collection of letters and book recommendations in which he pleads with then Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, to read more, sending him a book every fortnight for four years. Martel’s collection allows us to consider the role of books, letters and the epistolary form in moving readers to action. 

From Martel, we return to the 18th and 19th centuries to consider moments when literature and reading were used to appeal to the values of US 'democracy': in reading Judith Sargent Murray’s 'On the Equality of the Sexes' (1790), Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Zitkala Sa’s American Indian Stories (1921) we will consider how literary texts connect to the broader issues of gender inequality and women’s suffrage, abolition and slavery, and the cultural genocide of Native Americans. 

Rodolfo Gonzalez’s Chicano civil rights tract, I am Joaquin (1967), Joan Didion’s writing on the 1960s, Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968), Barbara Ehrenreich’s controversial Nickel and Dimed (2001), and Dorothy Allison’s short stories in Trash: Stories (2002) offer insight into writing that aims to expose the complex underbelly of US society. 

Finally, we will close the module with Claudia Rankine’s award-winning Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), a text that takes on even more profound significance when read in light of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

Learning

  • 20 hours of seminars
  • 130 hours of independent guided study

The module will be taught through weekly two-hour seminars, with the emphasis firmly on student-centred learning and vigorous debate, with students sharing responses to the various texts. For the seminars you will be asked to collaborate beforehand to produce non-assessed discussion papers on the set texts, and to lead class discussions on the texts themselves as well as the social and political contexts in which they were produced. All students are required to read the set text in advance of the seminar and to be prepared to contribute to the discussion.

Assessment

  • Short essay, 1,500 (30%)
  • Long essay, 3,500 words (70%)