English R1B

Reading and Composition: Something Resolutely Indefinable: The African-American Novel, the Individual, and Sociological Thought

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
16 Spring 2019 Creasy, CFS
TTh 12:30-2 204 Dwinelle

Book List

Baldwin, James: Giovanni's Room; Hurston, Zora Neale: Their Eyes Were Watching God; Morrison, Toni: The Bluest Eye; Wright, Richard: Native Son

Other Readings and Media

A course reader including short excerpts and essays, as well as writing exercises.


This class will consider how a series of important 20th-century African-American novels confront questions of individual identity, categrization, social definition. To this end, we shall attend to the complex connection between the tradition of black American literrature and the discourse of socoology—the science of social institutions and relationships. As an emergent scientific discipline in 20th-century America, sociology was, along with anthropology, an important resource that numerous black artists drew upon artistically as well as politically. However, sociology's aspiration to systematic categorization of social groups and interactions struck many as a problematic pigeonholing of the individual human being. While Zora Neale Hurston was a practicing anthropologist, in her novels she "tried to deal with life as we actually live it—not as the sociologists imagine it." More strenuously still, James Baldwin believed sociological thinking disavowed an irreducible kernel of uniqueness and freedom: the individual "is not, after all, merely a member of a Society or a Group or a deplorable conundrum to be explained by Science. He is—and how old-fashioned the words sound!—something more than that, something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable." With thoughts like these as our guiding lights, we shall attempt to consider the achievements of the African-American novel as an artistic form representing the paradoxical and often tragic relations between the individual and society. While our main focus will of course be race, other intersecting concerns such as gender and sexuality will also concern us.

Our readings will open onto the underlying pragmatical goal of this course, which is to facilitate the deveolopment of your critical reflection and writing skills. We will use the questions that this material poses of us, as well as those we pose of it, to construct persuasive and cogent arguments out of them. Building on what you have already learned in the first of the Reading and Composition courses, this second course will use the questions that this material poses of us, as well as those we pose of it, to develop  your critical reflection as well as your writing and research skills that will culminate in a larger research paper at the end of the semester. Our attention will be devoted in large part to approaching a research paper as a series of cumulative but individually small and manageable pieces. Supplementing the successively longer essays, these intermediate steps will include things like peer editing, an annotated bibliography, and a draft outline.

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