January 21, 2008


Here is a link to the syllabus, reading schedule and course assignments

Revised Syllabus

Rutgers Reading Guide

This guide was given to me by a professor during my freshman year at Rutgers University. It has consistently proven itself to be an invaluable resource for thinking and writing about literature. Those of you who want to do well in this class should reread this document several times over the course of the semester. If you have have any questions about some of the ideas it covers, please feel free to bring them up during class or with me during office hours.

Download file

January 22, 2008

Jacques Derrida and The Declaration of Independence

Here is PDF file of the readings for our class on 1/24/08. Just Click on Jaques' head to open it. We will discuss the poem, the Declaration of Independence and the essay on Thursday.


January 23, 2008

Some Thoughts For 1/24/08

On a recent flight from New York to Minneapolis, a slight altercation between me and another passenger started me thinking about the many ways in which we attempt to lay claim to and write ourselves into the spaces around us. After our captain kindly informed us that it was now safe to walk about the cabin, I decided to make my mid-flight trip to the lavatory. While I was seated a mere fifteen rows away from the facilities at the front of the plane, air-traffic safety regulations (and, I would offer, a profound anxiety amongst the moneyed passengers in first-class about rubbing shoulders with the common folk) necessitated I travel to the back of the aircraft. As I attempted to navigate the narrow walkway, a slight shift in our orientation put me slightly off balance and, unbeknownst to me, caused by headphone wire to loop around a female passenger’s armrest. I did not realize this until my head was suddenly jerked backwards from the wire catching. As a direct result of this, the aforementioned woman’s hand was struck, resulting in her spilling her glass of water on the sleeve of her sweater and my pant leg. I turned to her, a profound look of chagrin on my face, but before I could begin to apologize profusely, she countered my clumsiness by screaming, “Watch it you f---ing idiot.? Needless to say I was nonplussed by her willingness to insult a complete stranger in such a callous fashion. On my return trip, I apologized profusely and offered to get her some napkins and/or another drink. However, she successfully parried my attempts to make things right between us, telling me instead “Just don’t worry about it.?

In retrospect, my fellow traveler’s outburst engenders some very real questions about how we as individuals lay claim to public space. While it is true that the “f---ing idiot? comment was meant for me and me alone, the volume at which it was uttered and the proximity of our fellow passengers meant that this private utterance could not help but be a public act. Airplanes by their very structure seem to mesh the private and the public in a unique way. Some people sleep, some work, others read or listen to mp3 players, all somewhat private acts, and yet there is little that is not public on an airplane: laptop screens are clearly visible to no less than three people at any given time, drink orders are said within earshot of at least five to ten people, and a trip to the back of the plane almost certainly means that a passenger is about to engage in some form of bodily cleansing. Yet my experience is singular in that it represented a divergence from the unwritten rules of comportment that govern the ways in which passengers interact with one another. In calling me a “f---ing idiot? in a voice that was loud enough to carry all the way into the first class cabin, my attacker established two things: first, that she was pissed off about having a wet sleeve, and second, that she felt it was her duty to inform me as to the extent of my sin. In essence, she laid claim to not only the immediate space she occupied but also to the area surrounding her, both in word (“f---ing idiot?) and in action (her facial expressions and gesticulations). I still think I remember hearing the teeth of the middle-aged woman sitting beside her chattering with fear for the remainder of the flight. Moreover, in engaging me, she unwittingly forced me to take a position on the public stage, which is to say, I could have responded with anger, with embarrassment, or with any other combinations of emotions. The point being, whatever my reaction, it too would act as a signal to the other passengers about how this collective space would henceforth be used. I remarked upon her apparent violation of the rules that govern air-travel because we as public individuals are constantly pressured by our fellow citizens to abide by unwritten norms of behavior. There is no book of etiquette that governs our behavior in public restrooms, or in movie theaters, or on city sidewalks, and yet we are aware when individuals break them. Similarly, the words we use to define both ourselves and those around us—“black,? “white,? “gay,? “straight,? “poor,? “well-off,? “working class,? “middle class?—undoubtedly carry with them their own cultural baggage. We use these words because we have inherited them from some collective consciousness. Yet such words are fluid in their meaning, thus we should question ourselves when we speak them as though they are without nuance. Thus the purpose of this course is to begin to unpack some of these ideas, both in literature and in our own lives, with the goal of gaining a better understanding of how we can begin to see ourselves as citizens of a university, a nation, the world, etc.

Admittedly, the example above is slightly absurd. After all, it is unlikely that many airline passengers would react to an incident such as the one I described with the same degree of venom I was lucky enough to experience. However, we all struggle, whether consciously or not, to define the spaces (private and public) around us. To a degree, this is one of the topics which I hope to engage with over the course of the semester. Specifically, how do we as public citizens attempt to represent the world and our place within it? Over the next few months, we will encounter a variety of texts (books and films) in which characters will attempt to determine their role within the public sphere. In the first instance, our task will be to examine the different techniques they employ to this end and to explore how their successes and failures comment on our current society. At the same time, we must recognize that the authors of these texts are also engaged in public acts, and, as many of the works we will be discussing stray somewhat from traditional literary conventions, we should ask why this might be the case.

As you read for tomorrow’s class, I want you think about how you would define both yourself and the country you live in. In other words, what is it that makes you American? (assuming you are) Do you consider your ideas to be inline with the majority of American citizens? How do your ideas jive with those of W. H Auden or the “good people? of the Declaration of Independence?


"Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street"

Here is a PDF file of an online version of the story for week two. Click on the image to open the file.


January 27, 2008

In Search of "The Good People"

February 1, 2008

Workshopping Your Thesis

The following is an exercise that has been used by professor John Wright to help students think through a thesis. Read through his explanations and examples and then post either a revision of one of the theses we crafted last class or write one of your own.

What’s a Thesis?

1.) A thesis is a general assertion with which there can be disagreement – an arguable proposition, in other words, that can be debated, illustrated, explained. It is not a simple statement of fact which needs no support, nor a personal observation with which no one can disagree, nor a statement of truth so self-evident that no one would bother to deny it.

2.) A thesis is restricted. That is, it is cut down in size to fit the scope of the assignment. Remember that the task of the writer is to develop the thesis in detail. If the subject is too large and the assignment asks for only three paragraphs or three pages, it will be impossible to completely treat the subject of the thesis in detail.

3.) A thesis reflects the author’s point of view; but it is not merely a statement of opinion or intention (“I think that,? “I propose to,? “I will attempt to,? etc.). You must take a conceptual stand in relationship to the subject rather than writing about it uncommitedly or merely stating an intention or personal opinion.

4.) A thesis is unified. In a single declarative sentence, it introduces a single controlling idea to be developed – the concept to be demonstrated, the hypothesis to be proved, the problem to be solved or, at least, illuminated. [For long papers and books, the thesis is sometimes subdivided into the controlling idea and a separate statement of method that previews the essay’s later development.]

5.) A thesis is precise. It is stated in words, phrases, and clauses that are unambiguous – that are difficult for any reader to misinterpret.

6.) A thesis is likely to be unsatisfactory if it does not convey to the reader the main points of the essay, or the order and method in which you will develop them: for example

Thesis A (rough draft):

James Weldon Johnson’s “The White Witch? updates the traditional theme of the femme fatale.

Thesis B (rough draft):

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is a feminist Bildungsroman.

Rough Draft theses like these will be more effective if revised to indicate the parts of the argument, the ways or methods or reasons or causes or examples you plan to use. The parts should be arranged in the most logically satisfying order – for example, from least to greatest in terms of length, interest, significance, complexity, or persuasiveness – thereby building the reader’s response throughout the essay, to a climax at the close:

Thesis A (revised):

James Weldon Johnson’s “The White Witch,? with its vampiric images and striking feline metaphors, recasts the traditional romantic theme of the femme fatale to capture both the angst of modern interracial love and the seductive dangers of a decadent white civilization for the uncorrupted black soul.

Thesis B (revised):

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is a feminist Bildungsroman which traces the heroine’s development in three contexts: male-female relationships, her identification with or rejection of various female role models, and her self-image in the greater context of society.

7.) If the thesis is highly argumentative, then you should be prepared to identify the contrary arguments and dispose of them by developing your own arguments. Otherwise, you may leave readers unconvinced, with unanswered questions and unrefuted counterarguments. Two ways to organize such a paper are:

a.) Identify each contrary argument and develop your opposing arguments immediately in separate paragraphs throughout the essay, as in a debate. For example, “While some commentators assert that Richard Wright’s psychological theories are Freudian rather than behavioristic, I contend that they overlook a major flaw in this view…?
b.) Identify the major opposing arguments in at most two paragraphs at the beginning of the essay, and devote the balance of the essay to developing your refutations and concluding position.


1.) The refusal of the narrator to effectively manage Bartleby reveals his inner hypocrisy regarding his supposed morals and actual actions.

2.) The narrator justifies his internal strife through the use of biblical allusions and Christian ideals

3.) The narrator masks his guilt for Bartleby's death by retelling the story in a self-praising manner.

4.) The narrator often refers to Bartleby with descriptiosn of inanimate objects which foreshadows Bartleby's fate. This foreshadowing also occurs in descriptions of the setting with references to death.

5.) Bartleby's increasing boredom leads to his inevitable death.

Revised Thesis

Here is my revised version of our thesis, I really don't know if this is right cause that reading didn't help much and I'm still a little confused but here it is:

In the story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" Bartleby's death is easily seen through the narrator's use of inanimate objects and references to death throughout the text.

February 5, 2008

Revised Thesis

I'm still not sure if this thesis has an argument...

In the story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" the narrator justifies his internal strife through the use of biblical allusions and Christian ideals. By mentioning religious archetypes such as God, Adam, and church on Sunday he wants his readers to identify himself as someone who is a decent and religious man.

February 28, 2008

Cornel West