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Sample Syllabi

Connections and Continuities: In this course we will be “reading across time” from the age of the Anglo-Saxons up to the return of Charles Stuart to the throne in 1660. The texts allow us to explore a variety of human connections—the fellowship of warriors, the passion of lovers, the soul’s search for the divine, and women’s role within their communities. By tracing these threads as they weave in and out of different genres, forms, and literary movements, we can see the larger tapestry they create, as each theme is rewoven to fit its own time. The course will place texts into their literary and social contexts to help us seek out the enjoyment and meanings they gave their original readers. From that vantage point, we will look for our own connections to the texts, listening carefully for how they still speak to our own age. 

Poetry is language distilled to a more potent form. While it is possible to gulp down grape juice, you have to sip a fine distilled brandy slowly in order to appreciate it. That is what we will be doing with the poems this semester. We will slow down and notice the carefully crafted language of each poem, sipping it thoughtfully and rolling it around our tongues. This course will teach you to read poetry and will help you figure out what poetry you like (and might perhaps want to write.) We will be reading poems on various topics from different time periods. The emphasis in the course is on being able to read a poem on your own, understand it, and write about the features in it that have made it memorable. 

Restoration to 18th Century British Literature

The Restoration and Eighteenth-century are a time of intense sociability among writers, thinkers, and artists. With a cup in hand of the newly popular beverages (coffee and tea) people gathered to debate the great issues of their time. These ranged from critiques of

the plays being performed at the re-opened theaters (where women actors were making their débuts), to critiques of the new science. Enlightenment writers, such as Locke and Burke, pursued research and theories to determine what science can tell us about our world and ourselves—while satirists such as Pope and Swift raspberried the pretensions of “false” knowledge.  This is a time when women poets and writers similarly critiqued the misogyny of

both groups of men.

Shakespeare's Plays

Shakespeare’s stage is inhabited by rulers, liars, servants, creatures out of fairy, lovers, soldiers, parents, true friends, and betrayers. In addition to letting us see their actions, the major characters in each play turn to us to share their internal struggle to find their

place in the world, their identity. Whether they make us laugh or cry, these figures  present us with life questions that still resonate in our own lives. Who should wield power—in a friendship, in a marriage, in a nation? When should we pursue justice, vengeance, or mercy? (And is the answer the same for all of us?) How can we achieve a right relationship with nature and our fellow humans? What is true love—and how can we find it?  As we read six Shakespeare plays together, we will carefully trace how various identities (individual, social, and national) are constructed, performed, and exploded. We will also explore Shakespeare’s identity—as a writer and actor churning out popular entertainment in noisy, bawdy, renaissance London, (the Globe Theater was just around the corner from the Bear Pit after all!)—and his afterlife as the “bard” of English literature, revered for a wit, power, and poetry that have embedded these plays into our literature and lives.

Like a medieval form of social media, the Canterbury Tales is filled with conversation and debate from different points of view. A sleepy eyed lover, nuns, a con-man, a knight, craftsmen, would-be saints and sinners—a wide slice of humanity who temporarily travel together and play a tale-telling game to pass the time. In the Middle Ages, the Tales would have been read aloud among a group of friends as entertainment. Like the travelers inside the text, these readers enjoyed the humor and drama of the stories, while also listening for the questions—the conversational gambits—embedded in them. Both then and now, these questions prompt readers to comment on topics and participate in lively multi-voiced debates. In this course, we will read Chaucer’s Tales as this kind of interactive text—thinking through the different answers that radiate out from his questions.  For instance, which path leads to true love? What happens when we take revenge? How can we work for the “common good?” How does money affect a person? What are the positive and negative stereotypes about women? (A surprising number of these are still in the news.)  

Old English is the version of English spoken and written prior to the Norman Invasion in 1066. It  was the first written “language of the people” to be used extensively for law, literature, and history in Britain. At a time when “literacy” meant being able to read in Latin, the Anglo-Saxons began writing in their own vernacular language, saving for us their rich literature and giving us a legacy for our own language. Around 70% of the words we use in our everyday conversations are derived from Old English: bed, awaken, eat, bread, work, husband, wife, friend, mother, kiss, fight, evening—just to name a few. These similarities between Old and Modern English will enable us to do short reading assignments from the very beginning of class. However, English has also changed substantially in the past thousand years, so we will systematically learn the  paradigms and core vocabulary for Old English. The final weeks of the course will be spent reading prose excerpts from Bede and Ælfric, and reading poetry such as the Exeter Book riddles and The Wanderer. [This course is a prerequisite for taking ENGL 4300/5300 Beowulf.]

Knowing the roots of our mother tongue provides teachers and crafters of literature—

poets, singers, teachers, readers, writers, scholars, and linguists—the ground-work for their chosen fields. By tracing the lineage of English we can understand how spoken and written words form our language, how meter and sound work in our poetry, how our mouths form the sounds of English, how the words in earlier literatures changed their sounds and meanings as our language shifted over time, and how Modern English’s seemingly irregular spellings can be explained through those shifts. By sampling tastes of English as it moves through time, we are both, better prepared to work with the English-es of the past, and also more ready to wield our own version of the language in the present.

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