English R1A

Reading and Composition: Genres of Plague: 1347, 1981, 2020

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Fall 2020 Hinojosa, Bernardo S.
MWF 10-11

Book List

Julian of Norwich (trans. Windeatt): Revelations of Divine Love; Kushner, Tony: Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes; Mandel, Emily St John: Station Eleven: A Novel; Sontag, Susan: Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors

Other Readings and Media

Additional readings by Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, anonymous medieval chroniclers, Melvin Dixon, Reginald Shepherd, Susan Sontag, and Virginia Woolf will be made available on bCourses, alongside various texts on Covid-19 and resources on the craft of writing. We will also screen David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague and an episode from FX’s Pose.


On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) a pandemic. Since this announcement, the pandemic has wreaked havoc in practically every country around the world: millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths have been confirmed, roughly one third of the world’s population is living in some sort of lockdown. The virus, as well as public health measures to contain it, are guaranteed to transform the global economy and society as we know it. This account of the pandemic most likely provides no new information. Covid-19 has shaped every facet of our lived experience and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

In this course, we will look to the past in order to understand our present. We will explore how writers working in different genres (prose, poetry, drama, television, documentary film, theory, and journalism, among others) have sought to capture the experience of a health crisis, an experience that is simultaneously intimate and collective. A novel (Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven) and an essay (Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill”), which theorize the relationship between literature and disease, will frame our engagement with texts concerning two historical moments: the recurring onslaught of the plague in fourteenth-century Europe and the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the US in the late twentieth century. We will read and discuss these texts both historically and transhistorically, that is, both as cultural products of a particular moment in time and as texts that speak to our experience of pandemic in 2020. How and why did medieval poets use allegory in order to render comprehensible the social upheavals catalyzed by the plague? How have queer writers and writers of color captured the sense of loss brought about by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in their communities? Do pandemics change how we understand the shape of history? We will conclude by analyzing texts on Covid-19, many of which will be published over the course of the semester. We will read, for instance, journalistic essays, political speeches, and internet memes in relation both to the aforementioned historical crises and to our own lived experience of a pandemic.

In addition to exploring how writers have recorded pandemic, we will also cultivate the craft of writing. Indeed, the issues we read about and discuss will serve as topics, prompts, and starting points for you to plan, write, and edit your own work. Throughout the semester, you will develop your critical writing skills by producing a number of written assignments which will include both traditional academic essays, as well as other genres such as personal essays, tweets, and reviews.

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