A note to my students in ENGL 349 this fall (and to whoever else cares)

booksYou probably have questions or, if not questions, curiosities about the course: what are we reading?, what are the writing assignments?, things like that.  Maybe the syllabus (opens in new window) will answer some of the these.  Maybe perusing the OAKS course site will answer a few.  Maybe I can answer a few: send me email or set up a time to meet.

I’m looking forward to the semester.  I hope you are, too.  I’ve taught this course five or six times since coming to the college in the fall of ’05, but this semester marks a change in the approach I’m taking to the material.  As students in the “new English major” (catalog 2010-11 and after) will already know, this course fulfills the “Theme-, Genre-, or Author-Centered Approaches” requirement for the major, 349 being a genre-centered course.  What that means from a practical standpoint is that the class will be dedicated not only to reading and interpreting particular novels in the numerous interesting and valuable ways possible, but also meditating on questions of the novel as a genre–what makes a novel a novel?, what cultural work is the form in its substantial variations capable of doing?, what is the history of the novel in the US before 1900?, what modifications on novel genres are particular writers making and why?

A colleague of mine here at the College, poet Emily Rosko, likes to call genre a “form of attention.” Genres become lenses through which writers represent and create the world, attending to some features of life and not to others (deliberately or not), using figurative language, descriptive language, and formal structures to show the reader particular things (intentionally and unintentionally, as well).  Readers are primed by genre to see the world in certain ways, to attend to some things and not to others.  When we think of what kind of cultural or ideological work novels are capable of doing through generic variation, the stakes of what might seem simple entertainment suddenly ratchet up.  What does the story form of the sentimental novel, its central tropes, its way of deploying and relating sequences of incidents, for instance, tell us about the world writers are trying to describe and the alternatives they may be trying to imagine? What “places” does any genre tend to assign to whom?  What does the genre encourage us to think about agency, about larger forces outside (and maybe inside) of the self, about the potentials (or lack thereof) of the self, particular communities, and/or society writ large?
I’m excited about the possibilities of 349 when we take the matter of genre in the novel head on and use genre as a form of attention ourselves.  It’s going to be a good semester.

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