Project and Senior Seminars

Fall 2022 Seminars

ENGLIT 1900: Project Seminar, “Conspiracy Theories”

Hannah Johnson, Mo We 4:30-5:45

These days we seem to be surrounded by conspiracy theories. Many of us are worried about their dangerous effects. But how do conspiracy theories work? How do they persuade such large audiences? Most importantly, how can we guard against their harmful impacts? In this project seminar, we’ll be thinking broadly about conspiracy theories as a genre, mode of communication, and form of argument. We’ll consider some explanations for how conspiracy theories spread and convince people of their reality, and break down this cultural phenomenon across a variety of media. Students in the course will collaborate to produce short educational videos that seek to inform people about how to recognize and resist conspiracy theories and other forms of disinformation. By the end of the term, those enrolled will have a great collaborative multimedia research project to add to their resumés.

This class is planned and imagined as an activist course, in which we’ll focus on combatting misinformation and taking the air out of some common conspiracy theories, and the kinds of reasoning and rhetoric that go along with them.

ENGLIT 1900: Project Seminar, “Bleak House and Victorian Culture”

Amy Murray Twyning, Tu 6:00 – 8:30

The Victorian Era in Britain (1837-1901) was a period of immense historical change. It’s the era generally acknowledged as the beginning of the Anthropocene. It’s the era in which industrialization solidified into the capitalist economic system. The era saw the rise of certain forms of middle-class domesticity, the restructuring of gender and gender roles, and the emergence of a new understanding of property and ownership. During this era, the United Kingdom became the British Empire, continuing its wide-spread and intensive, often bloody and brutal, colonization of South Asia and Africa under a different heading. And there are many other aspects of the era that are historical landmarks, both good and bad: the formal institution of a permanent police force; the medical revolution that followed on the discovery of germs; political reform that expanded voting rights, albeit modestly; the institution of a new Poor Law; the liberation of women from the laws of coverture; and much more. These elements of historical change can all be found in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which was published serially from early 1852 to late 1853. As a group, we will study the novel as a literary text, developing an intricate understanding of the narrative structure. At the same time, each student will choose a specific aspect of Victorian culture that is touched on in Bleak House. With my guidance, students will develop and complete independent, original research projects, using primary resources (digitized archives) and secondary resources. Students will also contribute to our collective understanding of the novel by using their research to inform our discussions. Finally, students will have the opportunity to experiment with forms of presentation and create a final project that suits their educational interests and aspirations.

ENGLIT 1910: Senior Seminar,Invisibility in the 20th-Century African American Novel”

William Scott, Tu Th 9:30 – 10:45

In this course, we will closely read Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, “Invisible Man," exploring his redefinition of the basis of modern consciousness as a topographical, and particularly urban, phenomenon. We will also read Percival Everett’s critically acclaimed 2001 novel, “Erasure,” which (from one point of view at least) can be interpreted as a contemporary revision or rewriting of “Invisible Man.”

With these as our core texts, we will examine several of their authors’ social, historical, and cultural points of reference, as well as Ellison’s related essays on fiction-writing, literary form, improvisation, historical representation, performance, and jazz (among other topics) collected in the volume “Shadow and Act.”

The course will devote special attention to the history of these novels’ critical reception and the debates that have surrounded them since their publication, and so we’ll also be reading and writing about a selection of critical essays pertaining to these two authors.

ENGLIT 1910: Senior Seminar, “Word and Image”

Jennifer Waldron, Tu Th 11:00 – 12:15

Addressing a wide variety of hybrid media, from transgenic art to graphic novels to Shakespearean theater, this course will examine cooperation and competition between words and images at various cultural moments. We’ll consider how text-based literary works conjure up visual effects, and how visual media converse with language. Our readings will range from the classical to the early modern, modern and postmodern: the “intimate histories” of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments; Claudia Rankine’s Citizen; the work of Pittsburgh-based interdisciplinary and multimedia artists Alisha Wormsley and Vanessa German; graphic novels such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; and a range of performances and film versions of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. A theme of the course will be how politics and aesthetics have tended to intersect in struggles over word and image, from acts of iconoclasm in Shakespeare’s time to debates over the effects of social media, public art, and censorship now. Students will have a chance to develop a final research project on a topic of their choosing and will complete smaller projects during the term that involve hands-on multimedia work, from making posters in the Text and Context lab to making logos, erasure poems, handmade books, and memes.