The human brain—“three pounds of flesh” in the words of neurologist Antonio Damasio—is a central character in the history of literature. As knowledge about the brain has exploded in the past two decades, writers have been responding with new narratives that explore how those three pounds of flesh shape human experience. In addition, brain science is beginning to understand that “story as mental activity is essential to human thought” (in the words of literary critic and cognitive scientist Mark Turner). In this course, we’ll read, discuss, and write about narratives of the brain and mind, both classic and contemporary works of fiction and nonfiction. Students will also write their own, informal brain narratives on course blogs. In addition, we’ll read works of cognitive science, neurobiology, philosophy of mind, and literary criticism written in response to new ideas emerging from the sciences. We’ll pay close attention to the differing (and overlapping ways) that science, literature, and literary criticism explore perplexing questions about what it means to be human: What is consciousness, and how does it work? What is the relationship between brain and self? Brain and mind? Memory and self? How might literary or aesthetic experience be illuminated by brain science? How do the black marks on the page we call letters and words enable us to envision imagined worlds? How does narrative shape thought? Why do we care about literary characters?

English 391W explores in depth significant historical, critical, methodological or theoretical issues within the study of literature, enabling students, as they complete the English major, to reassess their previous work in the field. Readings might be drawn from, for example, a range of historical periods, a variety of genres, or a mix of canonical and non-canonical writings. The course also asks students to think creatively and analytically about literary texts alongside other media, discourses, or modes of critical inquiry and to reflect upon the broader implications of literary studies in relation to other academic disciplines and the world beyond. The course differs from the typical elective in being taught as a small seminar for students with senior standing, allowing for increased student participation and more ambitious individual projects.

This is a writing intensive course. Students will write regularly, both informally and formally. We will write in class on a regular basis. We will discuss our readings as models for various types of writing, with particular rhetorical or aesthetic goals. Students will publish two blog entries each week, experimenting with various types of writing, and will write a seminar essay, completed in stages (as indicated on the Calendar page). We’ll pay careful attention to the stages of the writing process: generating ideas, asking good questions, developing an argument, drafting, peer review, feedback, and serious revision. The goal will be to improve your prose at the level of the sentence and to advance your analytical and rhetorical abilities through writing.

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