English R1B

Reading and Composition: Quarantine/Pandemic, Alienation/Globalization, Alone/Together

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
13 Fall 2020 McWilliams, Ryan
MW 5-6:30


Does Covid-19 have you feeling isolated and alone? Unusually connected to far-flung strangers, friends, and family members who are going through the same thing at the same time? Perhaps both? In this course, readings and essay topics will consider the peculiar mixture of solitude and collective experience that characterizes quarantine. Before discussing a selection of pandemic texts from the fourteenth century to the 2010s, we will investigate the features of this historical moment that feel all-too-familiar from more ubiquitous systems of interconnection and vulnerability. In particular, we will query ways that the virus-induced social distancing compares to feelings of alienation produced by global capitalism within texts ranging from Thoreau's Walden to zombie films to Ling Ma's recent apocalyptic novel Severance.

Research and writing will also be a major focus of our course. Over the course of the semester you will learn how to propose a research topic, respond to scholarly criticism, and produce a well-researched ten-page final paper. We will also experiment with other, briefer genres ranging from literature reviews to public-facing forms such as personal essays or op-eds.

Required readings: Henry David Thoreau: Walden; or Life in the Woods (Norton Critical Edition). ISBN 13: 978-0393930900; and Ling, Ma: Severance ISBN 13: 978-0374261597

A note on the readings: We will definitely begin with Walden— a rich criticism of consumer society and experiment in deliberate isolation—and end with Severance, so please feel free to order these texts. To keep our readings timely, other required books will be announced on the first day of class. Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (where isolation is enforced by slavery rather than chosen as a mode of protest), Colson Whitehead's Zone One (a postapocalyptic novel), and Tony Kushner's play Angels in America (about the HIV/AIDS epidemic) are potential inclusions. We will also discuss films and television episodes—such as Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, or episodes of Black Mirror—where brain-dead commuters and brain-eating zombies are portrayed as virtually indistinguishable forms of mass consumers. Finally, bCourses readings will include excerpts from writers including Boccaccio, Daniel Defoe, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Marx, as well as assorted secondary criticism.


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