Category Archives: Teaching

Murder, jazz, and more: English 485 this fall

It’s that time when we start to advertise special topics courses. I could lead with “this one has no exam,” but quite honestly, that’s not as compelling as tales of jazz, mystery, racial passing, and the hoops African American authors jumped through to get them published. Welcome to English 485, Claiming the Narrative: African American Novels from Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (offered Fall 2018, M/W 1:00-2:20).

Claiming the Narrative: African American Novels from Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance
Dr. Jennifer Harris

A satire featuring a machine that turns black people white; a murder mystery where the corpse isn’t dead; a utopian tale of a secret black nationalist state in Texas; an expressionist jazz novel. Following the abolition of slavery African American readers swelled in numbers; so too, did their desire for diverse novels with protagonists who looked like them or shared their sensibilities and concerns. This course opens in the 1890s when, for the first time, African American authors could reasonably assume that the majority of their black readers hadn’t been denied access to literacy and had exposure to a variety of literary forms. Yet, access to publishing remained vexed; white newspapers did not equally review black novels, mainstream literary journals expressed a preference for particular iterations of black life, and white publishers proclaimed there was no audience for a “black book.” Drawing on literary studies and print culture studies, we will consider eight novels, the context in which they were produced, and the ways in which they circulated. Select academic essays on African American print culture and literary history will complement our study. As there is no exam, additional emphasis will be placed on engagement in the classroom.

Course readings
Fauset, Jessie Redmon. Plum Bun (1928)
Fisher, Rudolph. The Conjure Man Dies (1932)
Griggs, Sutton. Imperium in Imperio (1899)
Harper, Frances E. W. Iola Leroy (1892)
Johnson, James Weldon. Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)
Larsen, Nella. Passing (1929)
McKay, Claude. Home to Harlem (1927)
Thurman, Wallace. Black No More (1931)
* select academic articles will be posted on learn

Course components
Two written reports (3 pages each) on reception of a novel (2 x 10%=20%)
Presentation (25 minutes) (25%)
Essay proposal (10%)
Essay peer review component (5%)
Final essay (8-10 pages) (25%)
Class participation (15%)
* no exam


On Confederate Monuments and American Literature

I teach African American Literature, from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. Like many people, the past few days I have found myself explaining things that I thought didn’t require explanation. Among these things is that Confederate statues are not war memorials as generally understood, but monuments intended to memorialize and romanticize the Confederacy, a nation explicitly founded to defend the right of whites to enslave black children, women, and men. We take it for granted that statuary of Nazi military leaders from the war years are better suited to museums than public squares; but statues of leaders of armies mustered to preserve slavery are somehow treated differently. Research demonstrates these Confederate monuments were erected—many during the Civil Rights era—to validate narratives of white supremacy, to commemorate not individuals but a way of life dependent upon inflicting exceptional physical and psychic violence upon black children, women, and men. An estimated sixty to twenty million people died in the transatlantic slave trade. Somehow, the personal pain of these black children, women, and men, the murders, rapes, and other violences of slavery, are glossed over by the mythology these statues help perpetuate. As I point out to students, so successful has this propaganda been that many have never questioned the ethics of marketing plantation houses—sites of sustained racial terror—as romantic wedding venues.

So how is this about literature? For those who are unaware, Documenting the American South has made available an unprecedented number of novel-length narratives by those formerly enslaved, in which they recount portions of their experiences of slavery. (I say portions because many refrained from recounting fully what they witnessed or experienced out of respect for Victorian conventions.)

The full-length narratives most commonly taught are by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, and sit firmly within the canon of American Literature. Douglass is considered one of the greatest orators and rhetoricians of American letters; Jacobs is a master of a variety of literary forms, weaving them together to craft a compelling and persuasive account which students find absolutely gripping. (She spent seven years hiding in a crawl space to prevent her children being sold.) These narratives remind us in deeply personal ways of what slavery meant to those enslaved, while also being among the nineteenth-century’s most important literary works.

For those who prefer fiction to non-fiction, there is also the genre of the neo-slave narrative, essentially a modern work set during slavery. Many neo-slave narratives have proven to be critical successes: Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer, as did Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1988), and Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (2003). Octavia Butler’s Kindred is always popular when I teach it; so is Sherley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose.

It’s obvious to literary scholars and students: we read and interpret narratives all of the time; our understanding of the world is shaped by the narratives we encounter. And often we don’t realize what those narratives are—as the saying goes, a fish can’t tell you the colour of water. But sometimes events reveal narratives some weren’t even aware of, and that’s where I’ve found myself the last few days, having to argue that the Confederacy wasn’t an underdog nation we should honour for adhering to its foolish beliefs in the face of overwhelming odds, but a nation founded to defend racial terror as a  way of life.

Images are of advertisements placed following the Civil War, as African Americans sought to locate family lost through slavery. See: and

Bring your high school students!

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Every so often I get asked if I can host a few high school students–or even a whole class–in one of my English classes. It can be a lot of fun–if you can fit everyone in the room! I’ve had the pleasure of hosting a group of students from St. Benedict C.S.S. in Cambridge in the past; this year they visited classes taught by Jay Dolmage and Victoria Lamont. Their teacher, Denise Wittmann, composed a report for the school newspaper, and has graciously allowed us to reprint it.

Enriched English Class goes on their Annual Trip to the University of Waterloo
By Mrs. D. Wittmann

Tuesday, March 7th, the Grade 10 Enriched English Class went on their annual trip to the University of Waterloo. The day began with a Campus Tour, and despite the inclement weather, we sojourned on.

After the tour we joined a second-year Academic Writing Course with Professor Jay Dolmage. Here, the students were put in groups and received revision and editing tips from the students to improve their own essays – which the Grade 10 students had brought with them. After lunch, the class sat in on a “Literature and Pop Culture” lecture with Professor Victoria Lamont. The day’s subject was visual rhetoric. Students saw examples from numerous television programs and how they are constructed.

Award for PhD candidate Houman Mehrabian!

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Congratulations to UWaterloo English PhD candidate Houman Mehrabian, who has won the Amit and Meena Chakma Award for Exceptional Teaching by a Student (AETS). The awards committee writes:

“Houman Mehrabian, an Arts PhD student in English Language and Literature, is highly recognized for his dedication to learning and teaching. When asked about Mehrabian’s impact on student learning, one undergraduate student explained that “his teaching went [far beyond] and always incorporated [a] set of knowledge from other respected fields, such as philosophy and politics.” Another student wrote that “he enjoys what he is teaching and manages to allow that to flow over to his students. He is highly knowledgeable in what he is teaching and makes courses enjoyable. He’s a great influence.” In addition to his student support, one faculty member also highlighted that “he is the most dedicated student I have encountered in my 30 years of university teaching, and I can easily see how this commitment to excellence shines through in his teaching.” His support serves as a testament to this recognition. Mehrabian has been an instructor for ENGL 109, ENGL 309C EL, and DRAMA 387/ENGL 363 EL. He has also been a teaching assistant for ENGL 109 EL and ENGL 210F EL.”

Houman’s dissertation explores the complex relationship between emotions and the construction of character – between pathos and ethos – in Aristotle’s rhetorical, ethical, and poetical theories; William Shakespeare’s plays; and Friedrich Nietzsche’s oeuvre.

What are our Harry Potter Students doing?

This semester we ran three sections of English 108P: Popular Potter. The classes had some overlaps, and some differences. We all applied literary and cultural theory to the texts; we all mined the books for various literary archetypes and devices; we all worked on producing writing which demonstrated understanding of the Harry Potter universe and the conventions J. K. Rowling deployed in crafting it. As one of my students said today–the last class–“I don’t want it to end! This should be a full year course!”

At two points in the semester I asked my students what had been most notable thing we had discussed so far: they noted the books’ intertextuality, the effect of limited third person omniscient narration on the reader, Rowling’s use of myth and history–they had a lot to say about the French Resistance, Hitler Youth, and the Fabian Society–the applicability of Critical Race Studies, Rowling’s representation of ethics, the development of critical reading skills by the characters, and much much more. In an interesting twist, Cho emerged as a new star of the series.

If you want to see what some of our 108P students have been doing, check out this edition of the Daily Prophet, produced by Dr. Frankie Condon‘s class. Intended to commemorate “The Battle of Hogwarts: 10th Anniversary,”headlines include: “He Who Must be Named,” “Our Fallen Heroes,” and “Learning from Our Past: Ministry of Magic Reformed.” For just five galleons, this special commemorative edition can be yours!

Three Cheers for Superheroes!

The new Macleans issue ranking universities is out. It’s hard to resist leafing through it to see where we place, and who might have been mentioned. UWaterloo is holding steady in its ranking, though true to form sciences and engineering get more attention than Arts. (Co-op does get a nod of course–it seems redundant to note we have co-op in English, though I’ll do it anyways.) But wait… scroll down. There we are! Of the two offerings included under the heading “Cool Courses,” we take first place with English 108A, The Superhero.

Of course, there are any number of English courses they could have chosen from. Do you know about 108D: Digital Lives? According to the calendar, it is “An examination of how digital communication technologies create and promote online identities and social spaces, as well as interpersonal and communal interactions.” Then there’s English 208G: Gothic Monsters, “A study of monstrosity, fear, terror, and horror in the gothic mode from its origins to the present, with attention to the ways various genres (from the novel to new media) represent gothic sexualities, genders, politics, and aesthetics.” 208H covers Arthurian Legend,  218 is Mennonite Literature, and 309G is the Discourse of Dissent, “A study of the social, historical, and rhetorical dimensions of collective action. Topics may include health and welfare movements, civil rights and anti-war protests, and environmentalism.” English 325 is “A study of selected novels by Jane Austen, including Pride and Prejudice and Emma. Her letters and juvenilia may also be considered, as well as some of the films based on or inspired by her novels.” If you haven’t reviewed our course offerings recently, you might be surprised by the variety and breadth of offerings.

Image source.

Need a Medieval to Romantic credit?

Are you looking for a winter course? Do you need to fill the “Literatures Medieval to Romantic” requirement of the English Department’s “Literature” and “Literature and Rhetoric” degrees? Have you taken a class before with Dr. Kenneth Graham and can’t wait to repeat the experience? Do you like Shakespeare’s sonnets or John Donne’s lyrics? If you answered yes to any of the above, you might be interested to know about English 330A: Sixteenth-Century Literature 1, where you will survey English poetry from Thomas Wyatt to Donne, focussing on the Petrarchan influence on love poetry and the development of political and philosophical verse. Here’s your chance to discover such writers as George Gascoigne, Isabella Whitney, Fulke Greville, and Mary Sidney Herbert.