English R1B

Reading & Composition: Literature and the History of the Senses

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
9 Spring 2008 Tracy Auclair
MWF 2-3 222 Wheeler

Other Readings and Media

Classen, Constance. The Color of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination. London: Routledge, 1998; Hacker, Diana. Rules for Writers (5 th ed.); Howes, David, ed. Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader. Oxford, Eng.: Berg, 2005; Course Reader (CR).


"Scholars used to assume that the number, function, and ranking of the senses were determined entirely by biology and, therefore, were among the only constants of human experience across different cultures and throughout the centuries. However, in the late 1960s, Michael McLuhan and Walter Ong argued that social developments like the introduction of writing, the invention of the printing press, and the increase in literacy shifted Western culture from an aural orientation toward a visual one. Since Walter J. Ong�s and Marshall McLuhan�s pivotal studies on the rise of visualism in the West, historians have written extensively on the social construction of sight, documenting how it has been interpreted and deployed as an organizational principle in the realms of art, architecture, literature, science, economics, and government. Yet, as studies on vision proliferated, the role of the other senses was ignored.

This changed in the 1990s with the �sensuous revolution,� when academics from a range of disciplines began to focus on how senses other than sight mediate experience and produce knowledge. The dominance of vision in the western sensorium was denaturalized by anthropologists who described the alternative sensoriums of non-western societies. Within studies of the west, historians and sociologists traced the cultural construction of hearing, smell, touch, and taste, and revealed the relationships between these previously understudied senses to powerful religious, political, and gender ideologies.

In light of these studies, we will think about the representation of the senses in literature. More specifically, we will consider the following questions: what literary techniques do writers use to maximize readers� access to imaginary sights, sounds, smells, and textures? How do literary works that stimulate these sensory experiences provide a larger thematic and stylistic context that inscribes them with particular meanings? How do writers modify literary genres typically structured by visual experience so that these forms can accommodate an alternative sensorium?

Students will explore these issues while learning how to read critically, write clearly, and argue persuasively. Emphasizing the development of research skills, this course will teach them how to locate academic sources, evaluate these outside materials, and use them to construct their own positions. Over the course of the semester, students will produce approximately 32 pages of writing. This writing will be broken down into three essays which will increase in length as the term progresses. For the final two papers, they will be required to perform research tasks and reference texts beyond those provided in class. "

Back to Semester List