Archive for the Teaching Category

Fall 2012 Course: Media and Technology: McLuhan, Flusser, Stiegler

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , on 2 January 2013 by Ben

Here are the materials for my course from this past fall on McLuhan, Flusser, and Stiegler. The course was a senior capstone seminar (Critical Thinking in English Studies). This was difficult material and the students in the class responded well. I include here the syllabus, the reading schedule, and the assignment for the final project which produced some outstanding work. For example: a painting in response to Flusser.

ENGL 4038 Syllabus

ENGL 4038 Schedule

ENGL 4038 Final Project


Course materials for Baseball and American Culture

Posted in Teaching, Uncategorized on 29 December 2011 by Ben

Here are the course materials for my Spring 2012 course on Baseball and American Culture. Not quite as complete at this stage as the materials for my course on fantasy–I’ve yet to write the assignments for the midterm paper and the final project, but that’s the usual case at this stage.


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Course materials for Fantasy After Tolkien

Posted in Teaching on 28 December 2011 by Ben

Here are the course materials for my Spring 2012 Modern and Contemporary Literature course, Fantasy after Tolkien.

The syllabus includes course policies, grading information, and CU boilerplate stuff on disabilities, etc.

The Daily Schedule lists due dates for readings, papers, and quizzes.

The Text List lists. . . err. . . texts.

I have also included here the prompts for the course’s six short writing assignments (of which the students will complete three of their choice). I have created all six assignments ahead of time to give the course some shape and to allow students to look ahead and think about which writing tasks most interest them.

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Nine theses on teaching with technology

Posted in Teaching on 26 December 2011 by Ben

The following theses come out of my experience with a faculty seminar at CU Boulder on the subject of Teaching with Technology sponsored by Arts and Sciences Support of Education Through Technology (ASSETT). I do not claim any sort of comprehensiveness nor exhaustiveness. There are further things to be said and any number of issues that I have ignored. I do not claim that any of these theses are correct or proven; they are places to begin.

1. We always “teach with technology”

Before there were computers, there were textbooks. Before there was presentation software, there were black and white boards. Before there were word processors, there were notebooks and pens. Before there was print, there was writing. Before there was writing, there was speech. And don’t forget about purposeful images. If teaching involves a passing along of knowledge, skill, etc. in a process that is not simply nor merely mimetic, but involves some sort of abstraction, then teaching involves technology.

2. “Teaching with technology” is redundant

The usefulness of the phrase has less to do with its brute truthfulness than it does with how it informs us in another manner, how it draws our attention to what we have been doing and how we have been previously informed or disciplined. In short, we have always taught with technology, even before we were aware of doing so. Our use of such technologies was mimetic (based on having seen others doing something similar), done without an abstract knowledge of what we were doing. Thus “teaching with technology” abstracts our practices so that we might know them.

3. We never teach “with” technology

Following from the claims above, we must understand that technology is never something that is simply “with” us, in two senses. First, and most simply, if teaching always involves some form of technology (from language to the Internet), then we cannot use “with.” Such would be the equivalent of “I eat with my mouth” or “I see with my eyes.” Without a mouth, I don’t eat. Without eyes, I don’t see. (Or at least not in the ways I am used to). Second, technology is not simply “with” us. That is, technology is neither transparent nor neutral. Technology adds to (or disposes of) teaching in unexpected ways, often in ways that do not conform to our desires or our expectations. Thus technology is not “with” us. That’s not to say that it is “against” us, but rather to say that whatever its allegiances seem to be at any given moment, they have, in fact, no concern for us whatsoever.

4. We need to think harder about what we mean by “technology”

We focus on computers, networks, and course management software. We think about presentation software and, maybe, clickers. We do not think hard enough about (text)books, pens, spiral-bound notebooks, backboards, our language as language, etc. No doubt there is a vast body of research on these matters, but seminars, conferences, and informal discussions on “teaching with technology” tend to focus on digital technologies. There are other technologies at work in the classroom (and outside of the classroom, where a great deal of what comprises teaching in the classroom gets done in terms of prep). Because these technologies are not neutral, because they operate in the classroom in unexpected and sometimes uncontrollable ways, we need to see that, when it comes to teaching, it’s technology all the way down; we need to think about what various layers of technology do and afford.

5. Interdisciplinarity should consist, in part, in recognizing discipline-specific technologies

There are technologies in engineering classrooms and physics laboratories that do not, at present, translate into literature courses or business seminars as technology. “Teaching with technology” effaces such difference in the name of interdisciplinarity, an interdiscipinarity that then only operates at one level of abstraction: the level on which these disciplines already meet (we all use Twitter, or Facebook, or Powerpoint, or clickers, or Blackboard cum DesireToLearn, etc.). What happens when Powerpoint meets the Bunsen burner? When Word meets a wind tunnel? Certain disciplines (cultural studies, philosophy) might be able to make sense of these meetings as objects of inquiry, but such making sense is not interdisciplinarity, but meta-disciplinarity.

6. Technology should be attached to a problem, which it tries to solves

We must resist using technology for its own sake. A wiki does not add to teaching outside of any other context, nor does a blog, Twitter, a textbook, or a pencil. A textbook provides a standardized means of disseminating information (whether it accomplishes this task is another question). A pencil provides a means of “remembering” information as well as providing a means of editing such “memories.” Each technology solves (or tries to solve) a problem, even if it introduces other problems (textbooks go out of date or limit the flexibility of a syllabus; pencils can distract from listening and notes can provide a false sense of security). Teaching with any technology must include a consideration of intended/desired outcomes: what will this specific technology do in this class under these conditions? Is there a problem here? What technology might solve that problem? How?

7. Technology is more than the latest, shiniest thing

We cannot fetishize technology as an end. We should not seek technology for its own sake. We should not listen to vendors of technology explain to us what we might do with their shiny things. We should ask ourselves what we need to do and then think of what we need to accomplish our self-set task. Because technology is not neutral and because it affords some things and not others, giving technology primacy likewise gives primacy to those things that technologies affords rather than to those things that we might desire in its absence. Homer: “The blade itself incites to violence.” The promise of technology all too often becomes bound up in the promise of the commodity: “Buy this software for whiter whites!” “Use this blogging platform and everyone will love you!” “Tweet your troubles away!” Our whites might be fine, we may be loved already, and our troubles might, it turns out, come from the new thing rather than being solve by it.

8. We must not simply instrumentalize technology

We should think about what problems technology might solve, and how, and avoid using technology for its own sake (and thus use it for our own sakes). At the same time, we must also understand the previous theses, and never forget that technology will not solve any problem without creating new ones, or that it might solve a problem in unexpected ways, or fail to solve a problem altogether. Technology should not become an end in itself, but nor should we think therefore that it can ever simply be a means to an otherwise neutral end. The introduction of any new technology to the classroom reorganizes “means” & “ends,” “subjects” & “objects.” The question of who (or what) is in control is complex, but we must never assume that the answer is simply “the professor” or some such.

9. There should be no single theory of “teaching with technology”

Technology cuts across many spaces: in-class/outside-of-class; personal space within class (the laptop screen)/public space outside of the classroom (the laptop screen at the coffee shop). Technology reconfigures memory. Technology is a (non-neutral) product and a (non-neutral) means of production. Technolgies overlap and interpenetrate one another (writing in textbooks and online) but cannot be reduced to one another (a television program on Hulu is not the same as the one on NBC). There is no single thing “technology” that is utterly coherent in all contexts, for all individuals. As such, we should not look for any single answer or even single set of answers to the question of “teaching with technology.”

Tools for thought

I wrote much of the above in the wake of (or under the influence of) the following theoretical texts (and, doubtless, others I fail to recall here).

  • Agamben, Giorgio. “What is an Apparatus?” An apparatus is not simply that device over there, but the things we say about it, the institutions and individuals who use it, the economies that spring up around it, etc.
  • Bousquet, Marc. How the University Works. The “informationalization” of the university (and the concomitant casualization of its workforce) has detrimental effects on teaching, research, and society.
  • Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on Control Societies.” While discipline still exists, it has been supplemented if not succeeded by control: the control of the individual through technologies specific to that individual (rather than general to the masses).
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. How does power interact with bodies? How do we become disciplined?
  • —. “The Subject and Power.” There are not subjects without power and there is no power without subjectivity.
  • —. “What is Enlightenment?” Reads Kant’s answer to this question as a new moment in history. Historical progress is no longer the culmination of some series of events, but an escape from the past. We escape from one power to another.
  • Flusser, Vilém. Does Writing Have a Future? In a word: no.
  • —. Into the Universe of Technical Images. Human history as a history of its means of abstracting the world through images, writing, and other technologies.
  • Golumbia, David. The Cultural Logic of Computation. “Computationalism” (the equation of any number of things with computers) has detrimental effects on thought, society, etc.
  • Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Enlightenment is the free public use of reason.
  • McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. What we call the human begins with the Gutenberg technology and the subsequent shift in sense ratios away from hearing what surrounds us and towards seeing what is before us (from our particular points of view).
  • —. Laws of Media: The New Science. All media (by which MM means “thing”) can be understood according to the the following laws: enhance (What does the medium make possible or improve? Search engines enhance our capacities for research.); reverse (How does the medium contradict its own effects when pushed to its limit? Search engines provide so many results that we are lost in the data stream.); retrieve (What older behavior does the new medium bring back into practice? The search engine makes plagiarism easier and perhaps more prevalent.); obsolesce (What older medium is pushed aside by the new medium? The card catalog is no longer useful.)
  • —. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Shifts in media environments involves shifts in sense ratios (the primacy afforded one or more senses over others). We must understand such shifts in order to recognize how different individuals learn differently (via the eye, the ear, etc.).
  • Stiegler, Bernard. For a New Critique of Political Economy. Human memory is more and more frequently embodied in technology. This “grammatization” (the breaking of language or being into smaller and smaller parts) must be thought in terms of a political economy different than that of Marx and the nineteenth century.
  • —. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. New technologies destroy our capacities for attention and contemplation. This issue must be thought in terms of a general organology that considers 1) human organs (the body and its parts); 2) technical organs (devices; think of organ in terms of “organon”); and 3) social organizations.
  • —. Technics and Time, Volume I: The Fault of Epithemeus: How can we think technology and its evolution outside of humanist concerns and parameters?
  • Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media. Media do not operate on human time scales and are therefore deeply inhuman.

Spring 2012 Course: Fanatsy after Tolkien

Posted in Teaching on 10 October 2011 by Ben

A lot of people who do 20th century lit, the posthuman, media studies, etc seem to have started their path to lifelong readerdom as SF aficionados. Not I. My first love was fantasy, although I now understand that my reading of fantasy was largely restricted to Tolkien clones. Seriously, I can recall one trilogy (fantasy is almost ALWAYS written in trilogies since Tolkien, even the heterodox stuff) that was nearly the same EXACT story complete with little people, a kraken guarding and long abandoned mine, and numerous other similarities so similar I can’t believe that there wasn’t a lawsuit. Wish I could remember the name of it. Likely buried in my parents basement along with Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, and my complete Narnia collection.

In any case, it’s only been recently that I have returned to fantasy (thank you Richard Morgan for The Steel Remains!) and have been asking myself whether there is something there beyond a tenuous connection to Rabelais, Beowulf, the classical epic, etc. Hence this class.

Like the baseball class, I am somewhat nervous about this one. With baseball, that nervousness derives from the fact that I have thought SO MUCH about the topic without actually conversing about that thought with anyone but myself. The nervousness here derives from the fact that I have not done a tremendous amount of thinking about the topic, was not even aware that there was thinking about the subject to be done until recently. As such, I am only dimly aware of the themes that we need to explore in the class. I am confident that 1) these themes will clarify themselves as time goes on (I am giving myself a crash course in the fantasy I don’t know very well right now: Howard, Leiber, Moorcock, Anderson and a bit of Lovecraft for this purpose); and 2) that this immediate non-knowledge will be a feature and not a bug–classes seem to go better for me when they becoming a process of discovery with students rather than a redistribution of knowledge that flows from me to them. We’ll see. In any case, I am excited to be thinking about this stuff and for the possibilities it opens for rethinking the 20th century.

Oh, and I have to say it: next term is very boy heavy, between this and baseball. Baseball seems a given, and fantasy it turns out is not much better in this respect. There are other women who could be included here beyond Clarke, but the two with which I am most familiar (Susan Cooper and Anne McCaffrey) are not appropriate I think (the reading level of each is not right for the class, and McCaffrey strays too much towards SF). I am sure that there are others I am missing, and regret that. I also regret that race is not more of an issue for the class, although Delaney touches on it (and the question of sexuality). I think that this shortcoming has to do with the genre and its intended audience (I recently read that the “hottest” woman in the history of D&D is the one who is willing to play a role-playing game with boys). However, I am also aware that I could use to learn more about the alt-history of fantasy. I am sure its out there.

ENGL 3060-009 & -010: Modern and Contemporary Literature

Fantasy after Tolkien


Fantasy literature offers something of a contradiction. On one hand, it is a thoroughly contemporary genre. Yes, the fantastic has a longer history than that provided by the twentieth century, but it was the twentieth century that gave the world fantastic as fantasy, magic that no one believed in, monsters that only existed in the imagination. However, on the other hand, fantasy implicitly and explicitly continues to allude to moments in the past when our understandings of the world were not quite set by science and rationality. The conflict endemic to a great deal of fantasy literature is that of modernity: the passing away of the supernatural and its replacement by the mundane. Think of Tolkein’s elves leaving Middle Earth or Lewis’ children who grow up and can no longer find Narnia.


Considered in this context, fantasy literature offers up a number of avenues of investigation. What happens to the fantastic in the face of the rational? Why is the fantastic so often portrayed according to the tropes of realism? How do various representations of the fantastic allow us to rethink the history of modernity in the United States and the West? This class will read fantasy literature produced in the wake of and against Tolkien as an evolving set of genre conventions and as a literature committed to experimental considerations of nature and history.


Evaluation will be based on quizzes, class presentations, response papers, and a final essay.


Reading List

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Samuel R. Delaney: Tales of Neveryon

Stephen R. Donaldson: Lord Foul’s Bane

Neil Gaiman: American Gods

Felix Gilman: The Half-Made World

Robert E. Howard: “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Fritz Leiber: “Ill Met in Lankhmar”

George RR Martin: A Game of Thrones

China Miéville: Perdido Street Station

Michael Moorcock: Elric: Stealer of Souls

JRR Tolkien: The Return of the King

Spring 2012 Course: Baseball and American Culture

Posted in Teaching on 10 October 2011 by Ben

What I really wanted to say about the quote from Field of Dreams: “utter bullshit.”

In any case, I am tremendously excited about this course and tremendously nervous about it. I have been having a  conversation about baseball with myself for about the last 15 years, one that has matured and developed in complexity over that time. the problem: I rarely talk about baseball out loud except in the most conventional ways, namely with relatives as a fan. I never ever bust out with my ideas about anti-intellectualism in sportswriting or the ways in which race remains an important, invisible, and deplorable aspect of our national conversation on sports. So now I get to talk about these things for a whole semester! Out loud! Let’s hope they still make sense when their words in the air rather than in my brain.

ENGL 3246: Topics in Popular Culture

Baseball and American Culture


People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.


Such is the story that we tell, or once told, ourselves about baseball. But it’s just that: a story. Of course, baseball is intimately involved in American culture, but that involvement is historical rather than natural or transcendental. This class is not “about” baseball. Rather, it is about the stories we tell about baseball, about the myth of baseball: how that myth comes to be and the consequences of that myth.


Our work for the course will be divided into three unequal parts. We will first consider Roland Barthes great work of cultural criticism, Mythologies, so that we may develop a framework in which to understand America’s cultural concerns with baseball. From there we will consider certain novels about the interaction of baseball with American culture and life as well as contemporary discussions about baseball (focused on steroids, statistics, and race). We will supplement these three aspects of the class—myth theory, literature, contemporary sportswriting—with essays about the history of baseball and the themes it presents in the American culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Evaluation will be based on class presentations, blog posts, and two or three short to medium length essays.


Partial reading list

Roland Barthes: Mythologies

Leonard Cassuto and Stephen Partridge, eds: The Cambridge Companion to Baseball

Robert Coover: The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

Don DeLillo: Underworld

Kenneth Goldsmith: Sports

Michael Lewis: Moneyball

Phillip Roth: The Great American Novel



Fall 2011 Course: Topics in Advanced Theory: Posthuman Media

Posted in Teaching on 7 April 2011 by Ben

Ah, the posthuman. We all want to be it. But I doubt we are it or ever will be it. That’s just the way it is. We’re too comfortable with being human, with thinking in a human manner. We are so good at being ourselves and recognizing ourselves wherever we go and I doubt that can or will change.

Of course, that won’t stop me from teaching a class about what media might be like outside of a human or humanist context.

I am still not certain about everything I will be dealing with, and therefore no course documents yet. But here is the course description. I would love comments and feedback. Oh, and a big shout out to this bibliography from Eileen Joy, which has helped me remember things I would have otherwise not remembered and has drawn my attention to things I would not have otherwise found.

ENGL 3116: Topics in Advanced Theory
Posthuman Media: Life, Animals, Nature, Things

Marshall McLuhan famously calls media “extensions of man.” In other words, media is that which exists in a relationship with the human and must be understood from a humanistic point of view. This course will challenge these assumptions and consider media outside of the context of the human.

Is not air a medium for sound? Does not what we call nature extend the insect beyond itself? Does not our own, which is to say “human,” media evolve in relationships with things beyond the strictly human? Do you know what is going on inside your computer right now or what it “feels” like to travel through a wire? Are we even sure that we know what it means to be human?

We will address these and other questions through a consideration of several figures or concepts, among them: life, the animal, nature and ecology, and the thing or matter.

Partial/potential reading list:

  • Giorgio Agamben: The Open
  • Karen Barad: from Meeting the Universe Halfway
  • Jane Bennett: from Vibrant Matter
  • Ian Bogost: “Alien Carpentry”
  • William Burroughs: from Word Virus: The William Burroughs Reader (fiction)
  • Octavia Butler: Adulthood Rites (novel)
  • David Cronenberg: The Fly (film)
  • Manuel DeLanda: from 1000 Years of Nonlinear History
  • Gilles Deleuze: “Ethology: Spinoza and Us”
  • Roberto Esposito: from Bios
  • Elizabeth Grosz: “The Thing”
  • Félix Guattari: from The Three Ecologies
  • Donna Haraway: from When Species Meet
  • Timothy Morton: from The Ecological Thought
  • Jussi Parikka: from Insect Media and The Spam Book
  • Ridley Scott: Blade Runner (film)
  • Steven Shaviro: from Doom Patrols
  • Bernard Stiegler: from Technics and Tim, Volume I: The Fault of Epithemeus
  • Eugene Thacker: from Biomedia and After Life


Fall 2011 Course: Modern and Contemporary Literature: Encounters with the Non-Human

Posted in Teaching on 7 April 2011 by Ben

No course documents for this one yet, but here is the description. I don’t have much to say about it. Fairly straightforward course whose main recommendation is that it will let me teach some stuff that I really want to teach right now (although I could not find a way to make The City & the City work here–damn). My first time teaching Lovecraft, so there’s that. Also, my first time teaching Imago, which is a great novel, but the third in a trilogy. I don’t think it will be a problem, but given that it’s told from the POV of a non-human and other-gendered being, the first two books in the series help put it in perspective. Also, first time teaching Mielville. The Scar is the second in a trilogy, but I don’t think that matters at all given the nature of the Bas Lag novels. Finally, I don’t much like Accelerando, but it should work well here. And, really finally, I love Roadside Picnic. Thank god it’s online (PDF), as it’s been out of print forever. (And, now that I am thinking about it, and speaking of out of print stuff, Joe McElroy’s Plus would have been great here.)

ENGL 3060-021 & 022: Modern and Contemporary Literature
Encounters with the Nonhuman
Benjamin J Robertson

Science fiction has long imagined the encounter between the human and the alien and, at the same time, demonstrated the unwillingness on the part of humans to confront the nonhuman’s nonhumanity. In the words of Stanislaw Lem: “We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds.”

This class will read science fiction that deals with meetings between the human and its others in order to consider the following questions, among others: How does the human react to the alien? How does the human construct itself in the face of the other? Is it possible to think from a nonhuman perspective? Can we imagine a culture other than our own? Do we even know what the terms “human” or “human culture” even mean?

Reading List

  • JG Ballard: Crash
  • Octavia Buter: Imago
  • Ursula LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Stanislaw Lem: Solaris
  • HP Lovecraft: At the Mountains of Madness
  • China Mielville: The Scar
  • Joanna Russ: The Female Man
  • Charles Stross: Accelerando
  • Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: Roadside Picnic

Summer 2011 Course: Introduction to Literary Theory

Posted in Teaching on 7 April 2011 by Ben

I hate the traditional theory course. I plan to introduce students to my course this summer with a smattering of theory syllabi I have found online, most of which teach the same texts in the same order and seem to understand theory as a meta-discourse: that which operates as an instrument through whose mechanisms we might reveal the real meaning of literature. This tool, which looks like a greatest hits list offered each Fourth of July by your local classic rock channel (with the ok of Clear Channels): the only question is whether “Let it Be,” “Stairway to Heaven,” or “Satisfaction” will be number one (or in this case, whether you will get Barthes or Foucault or both on the question of authorship). You know they’ll be there in some permutation, in some order, but they will be there. Because nothing recent is worth anything and theory, apparently, was something that we did in the 60s and 70s and no only read about. For a discourse that helped dispel the notion of canonicity, it sure does have a, well. . . oh I won’t say it.

What I hate even more about the intro to theory class is the a la carte or cafeteria-style approach it seems to take.

“How would you like to approach the text today sir?”

“How’s the Marxism?”

“A trifle dry sir. Perhaps the reader response?”

“I did that yesterday. I will try the second wave feminism.”

“Excellent. That comes with a side of postcolonical studies.”

“Fine, but could I have that only lightly historicized?”

“Of course sir.”

We throw all of these ideas at students without any historical context, without any explanation of how they fit together, and with an implicit claim that it’s all more or less the same, you just have to choose. And then what do we get? Endless deconstructions or psychoanalysis of characters. Some of that is to be expected, of course, as people new to theory are going to have to try things out. But in the context of the traditional theory class it seems that “trying things out” is preliminary to “getting it right.” I don’t believe in getting things right. I believe in experimenting. I also believe that it’s better to know one thing well than numerous things poorly. So, in this class, we will be dealing with only a few theoretical models in the hopes that we will understand them well in order to take off from them, to experiment with them. Of course, there is some tension here. We are dealing with a lot of Deleuze and this constraint will limit experimentation no doubt. I can live with that, however. By beginning with Cusset’s French Theory I hope we 1) will gain a sense of a broad range of theory and 2) will gain some historical understanding of theory as a developing thing rather than a static one. This latter issue will, hopefully, allow me to impress on the class that we can only ever start in one place and that we cannot hope in a single class to learn everything anyway. As such, we are admitting failure to begin with in order to pick our battles more wisely. (And what is with all of the violent metaphors? I don’t know).

I hope that this class will be more of a laboratory, where we can develop ideas rather than parroting old ones. The focus on Deleuze will, I hope, allow for that.

So, here is the course description I gave the department, although it has changed a bit. I am not dealing with Lacan, Derrida, and Poe. Mostly, I just don’t care for Lacan. More importantly, and perhaps related: I don’t know that I could adequately teach this conversation. So, in stead we are starting with Cusset (most of it) for the reasons mentioned. Following that we will deal with several Deleuzean readings of literature beginning with Whitman. Then we will read Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, along with “The Burrow,” the Metamorphosis, and then In the Penal Colony. This last text will give us an opportunity to look at Liz Grosz’s Nietzschean reading of Kafka in Volatile Bodies and compare what she does with what Judith Butler does, albeit with far less Kafka, in Gender Trouble. Then we deal with everyone’s favorite cypher, Bartleby, and readings by Deleuze, Agamben, and Cornelia Vismann, whose Files: Law and Media Technology I am currently enjoying very much. We move then into the endgame with Barthes’ Mythologies and Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play. . .” (my only real nod to theory’s greatest hits). The idea in this last section of the course is to ask students to do, first, a mythology–to write a short essay on a cultural phenomenon that we can understand in Barthes’ structuralist terms–and then to deconstruct that mythology along the lines that Derrida suggests. We then conclude with the Habermas/Lyotard debate (which serves its purpose regardless of whether it really happened) and a statement by Michael Bérubé from the edited volume What’s Left of Theory?

Course Description
ENGL 2010: Introduction to Literary Theory
Summer B Term
Benjamin J Robertson

Three questions:

  • What is theory?
  • Why do we do theory?
  • How do we do theory?

This class will probably fail to answer these questions not because they are unanswerable, but because we don’t always acknowledge what they are asking. For example, when we ask “What is theory?” we might think we are asking about a definite thing that forms, before we ever encounter it, a widely agreed upon discipline or set of methodologies. And we might be asking exactly that and therefore answer something like, “Theory is a tool that provides a means by which to understand literature.” But what if that question means something else? What if that question, instead of being an inquiry in pursuit of knowledge, in fact presupposes that knowledge? That is, what if when we ask the question we already know the answer, namely, that there is a thing called theory that we might know? If we already know that, that there is theory and it can be understood in terms of its qualities x, y, and z, then the other questions fall into line. Why do we do theory? We do theory so we have a way to understand literature. How do we do theory? We do theory according to the methods provided by the texts that we already know to be theoretical.

This class takes a different approach to this issue. We will pursue two lines of inquiry. First, we will consider where our understanding of “theory” comes from and how this understanding has produced certain reading strategies and, in a very real sense, the contemporary discipline of English in the United States. Second, we will engage in an experimental practice of theory in order to understand how our use of theoretical texts, in combination with literary texts, produce new ideas and knowledges. For example, we will read Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener” with Gilles Deleuze’s “Bartley; or, The Formula” and Giorgio Agamben’s “Bartleby, or On Contingency” in order to understand how different starting assumptions about language and the literary text produce different readings of particular texts. We will similarly engage with clusters such as Poe/Lacan/Derrida and Kafka/Deleuze/Grosz/Butler. We will conclude the term with Roland Barthes’ Mythologies in order to think about how “literary theory” can provide for a means to think beyond the literary.

Potential partial reading list

  • Agamben: “Bartleby, or On Contingency”
  • Barthes: Mythologies
  • Butler: from Gender Trouble
  • Conley: “I and My Deleuze”
  • Cusset: French Theory
  • Deleuze: “Bartelby; or, The Formula”
  • Deleuze & Guattari: Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature
  • Derrida: “The Purveyor of Truth”
  • Grosz: from Volatile Bodies
  • Kafka: “In the Penal Colony” and “The Burrow”
  • Lacan: seminar on “The Purloined Letter”
  • Melville: “Bartelby, The Scrivener”
  • Poe: “The Purloined Letter”

Here is the schedule. I have not yet created a text list, although they should be easy enough to track down from the schedule.

Spring 2011 Course: American Literature Since 1865

Posted in Teaching on 7 April 2011 by Ben

An old standby I was asked to teach for Continuing Ed. As familiar as this material is, and as “easy” as it seems to pick it out and plug it in, this course was difficult to define and to teach. I’ve thought so much about some of this material I find myself caught between trying to say too much and too little. On the one hand, I want to make clear why these texts work so well together, how they define an historical trajectory. On the other, I find myself wondering whether I only wind up talking about “shit only Ben cares about.” I had a rather large epiphany about The Great Gatsby while writing up and recording the lecture. And then I wondered if I was only just realizing what everyone already knows about the text. And then I wondered whether it’s worth sharing with students if its either obscure or obvious. Sometimes it’s easier to teach things no one teaches or things that are very new. You don’t have to deal with a critical history or the weight of students’ past interactions. Of course, that is why I deal mainly in contemporary American literature, when I deal with literature at all. And damn if I’m going to teach Huck Finn anytime soon. It’s my new Beloved.

ENGL 3665: American Literature since 1860
Instructor: Benjamin J Robertson

This course will cover some of the broader periods/movements of American literature since the Civil War including: realism, naturalism, modernism, and postmodernism. The focus of the class will be on how these periods, and the literary styles endemic to each, address questions regarding gender, race, class, and, above all, Americanness.

We will begin the course with a consideration of American founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. We will then consider several responses to these documents and the history that engendered them in order to advance certain questions that will prove useful in our study of the literature to follow. We will look at influential studies of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Herman Melville and Henry James to help us frame these questions.

After this initial part of the course is through we will move on to examples of American literature from the second half of the 19th century, including work by Dickinson, Whitman, Twain, and Crane. We will then spend some time considering American attitudes regarding race and gender at the turn of the century through texts by Du Bois, Washington, Gilman, and Chopin. From there we move into the modernist period with Eliot, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, O’Connor, Stein, and Ellison. We will conclude with several examples of postmodern fiction and poetry by Hejinian, Perelman, Pynchon, and Morrison. As we progress through the material we will pay careful attention to the conversations these texts carry on and how they return to the same questions over and over, reshaping them in the context of new artistic practices, historical moments, and cultural events.

Understand the major movements in American literature since the Civil War
Learn to recognize the styles of various writers and how those styles contribute to American literature
Develop critical skills necessary for writing strong arguments and taking positions on challenging questions about the nature and history of American culture

6 quizzes based on reading and lectures: 30%
Participation in discussion threads: 15%
2 short essays: 20%
1 long essay: 20%
Weekly, paragraph-long responses to reading: 15%


  • Stephen Crane: Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (Bantam, 1986; ISBN: 978-0553213553)
  • Kate Chopin, The Awakening (Bantam, 1985; ISBN: 978-0553213300)
  • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Norton, 1998; ISBN: 978-0393966404)
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (Scribner, 1999; ISBN: 978-0743273565)
  • Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (Harper, 2006; 978-0060913076)
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved (Vintage, 2004; ISBN: 978-1400033416)
  • other texts available online or through CULearn

Note: Copies of the Crane and the Chopin will be ordered at the CU Bookstore, but you are free to use one of the legally available online versions of those texts. If you choose to do so, please make sure you find those versions legible. The Chopin, for example, is formatted in manner that some might find annoying. In the case of the Twain, please buy the Norton Critical edition. Other editions are very different and this difference will affect your reading of the novel. You may use any available editions of the other texts, although in most cases there is only one version available.

Text list