From 2017-2021 I taught first-year students in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts and Sciences new curriculum in the ‘aesthetics’, ‘ethics’ and 'empirical' streams: Extinction in Literature and Culture; The Novel and the Refugee Crisis; The Hidden Lives of Everyday Objects; World on Fire: Communicating Environmental Crisis; Does Reading Literature Make You More Ethical? Really? New curriculum courses are trans-disciplinary, intensive and discussion-based seminars, often organized around a difficult question or problem. They are designed to develop students’ critical thinking skills and hone their abilities to analyze, query and engage texts rigorously and creatively. Readings for my classes have included Aristotle, Melville, Marx, J.M. Coetzee, Mohsin Hamid, Woolf, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Barthes, John Berger, Amitav Ghosh, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Tracey Emin. Course descriptions below are from classes I created in this program.
EGMT 1510: Extinction in Literature and Culture
Scientists recently suggested that the contemporary era should be designated the sixth age of mass extinction, and the first in which humanity has played the primary role. This class explores how man-made, or anthropogenic, extinction is being conceptualized and represented in literature, visual art and other cultural artifacts. We will explore how writers and artists use creative forms to think about and with the idea of our age of extinction as an urgent conceptual, representational and ethical problem, and the modes and media they use. Aesthetic approaches to this environmental crisis implicitly or explicitly force us to address the question of the ethical possibilities of the arts and encourage us to rethink what aesthetic and ethical engagement might look like across longer timescales and global networks of action.
We’ll address one of the most pressing global issues of our time through the close analysis of literary texts, visual art, data visualizations, audio recordings, photojournalism, advertising and film that try to give a shape to a process that is not always visible, immediately experienced, or easily apprehended. We will ask how extinction has been imagined, through what forms and aesthetic expressions, and to what uses it has been put. What kinds of historical narratives and innovative aesthetic strategies emerge from efforts to imagine extinction? How do writers and artists conceptualize the idea of extinction within and alongside other historical, cultural and scientific processes – imperial expansion and colonization, conflict, fantasies of lost worlds, “deep” time, re-wilding, and so-called “de-extinction,” the resurrection of species?
EGMT 1510: The Hidden Lives of Everyday Objects
This course explores objects through aesthetics. How do art and literature help us describe the relationships we hold with the everyday objects that populate the world around us? We live surrounded by stuff. What are the stories we tell about it? This course will introduce students to key critical concepts about objects and their intersections with aesthetics. How are you linked to the globe and the planet through what you wear, the things you carry, the material residue or debris you leave behind? What social meanings, cultural and emotional values do we invest in them? And how can aesthetic expressions – from poems to art installations to essays to museum collections – tell their hidden stories?
We’ll be giving equal time to aesthetic expressions and to theories about our relationships to our stuff – or what is broadly termed ‘material culture’. We’ll interrogate the history of ideas around such terms as the ‘everyday’ object, the ‘found object’, the commodity, and look at objects across different historical and cultural contexts. We’ll analyze Karl Marx’s idea of the commodity fetish as governing modern life. We’ll explore Sherlock Holmes’s disarming ability to analyze the cultural markers of the things worn and carried by his suspects. We’ll follow Thomas Henry Huxley as he uncovers a deep history of the world in a single piece of chalk and see what visions of the world are at work in writing ecological histories through objects. We’ll examine the history of ‘found objects’ in art and poetry and create our own object-poems and installation art. We’ll interrogate Roland Barthes’s claim that modern toys condition children to become owners instead of creators. We’ll critique Virginia Woolf's efforts to make visible the webs of imperialism and globalization in which everyday objects such as your wool sweater are embedded. Finally, we’ll address things that are ontologically ambiguous, either on the cusp of objecthood (both object and not-object) such as trees, or really enormous ‘objects’ like global warming, that force us to rethink radically how we imagine objects and our relations to them. Throughout, we’ll ask: what are the stories we tell about the things we live with, and how can literature and art help us tell them?
EGMT 1540: Does Reading Literature Make You More Ethical? Really?
From antiquity onwards it has often been claimed that literature can have an ethical effect upon the reader; in short, that literary works can change us for the better, but also, perhaps, for the worse. In this class we’ll explore those claims in depth, examining a diverse set of ethical commitments both within literary works and in arguments about them. We will ask what kinds of ethical commitments those might be, and whether and how they may transfer from the page to the life beyond it.
Does reading literature provide models for human flourishing? Make us inhabit modes of life different from our own? If so, does that lead to different action in the world? And how durable are its effects? What are the distinctions between ‘real experience’ and knowledge gained from the page? Is there such a thing as ‘character’? We will consider arguments about how literary works afford explorations of ethics in ways that non-literary modes cannot, and how diverse thinkers have argued for – and against – links between ethics and literature and reading literature as a public good. From Aristotle to George Orwell, J.M. Coetzee and J.K. Rowling we’ll read works on imperialism, animal rights and violence, asking for example, whether a novel or poem can turn you into a vegetarian. And we’ll consider the intersection of reading certain types of imaginative writing with accounts of the modern self. Finally, we’ll ask: does reading literature, in the media-rich world of today, still retain distinct or unique ethical power?
EGMT 1540: The Novel and the Refugee Crisis
Does reading literature increase empathy for others and what do we mean by that? Is 'empathy' the best driver of social change? Can literary works can change us, influence our sense of our obligations to others, even alter our behaviors? In fact, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is currently considering how works of literature might be deployed to gain support for humanitarian action and be a powerful driver of social change. In this class we’ll be exploring these questions in depth in the context of the current global refugee crisis, examining a diverse set of ethical commitments both within literary works and in arguments about them, and considering these arguments in their potential application to an urgent contemporary issue. To do so, we will be running the class as a lab space for a collaborative investigation into the possible uses – and, perhaps, limits – of literature for humanitarian advocacy.
We will ask what kinds of ethical commitments literature might afford, and whether and how they may transfer from the page to the life beyond it. We’ll interrogate the historical and cultural conditions that comprise our individual moral particularity and ask to what extent that particularity is malleable. And we’ll look at how diverse thinkers have argued for – and against – links between ethics and literature and reading literature as a public good. The culmination of the course will be the collaborative creation of a white paper for the United Nations with recommendations for the incorporation of literature into UNOCHA’s public advocacy campaign and a student-created portfolio of suggested reading materials with accompanying critical tools and apparatus.