Introduction to Criticism

9:30a-10:45a TR (30) 3 cr.


PREREQUISITE: L202 with grade of C- or better. NOTE: The English Department will strictly enforce this prerequisite. Students who have not completed L202 with a grade of C- or better will have their registration administratively cancelled.

Our L371 will have two major sections. Both will use a historical resource book as the basis and grounding, and both will branch out to institutions’s environmental self-awareness, writing, literature, and criticism. The first perspective is global and the second is local or regional. For our first and global unit, our main text will be Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning study Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1998). This work takes a long view and looks at the fates and interactions of peoples, societies, and environments over the past 13,000 years. Diamond is especially interested in the question of how certain societies came to have more “cargo” (including guns, germs, and steel) than others. His explanations are anti-racialist and environmental. We will use Diamond’s book enhance our global and historical perspectives on the making of cultures on different continents. A couple sets of episodes in his grand overview should be especially germane for our studies in L371. Diamond deals with the rise of writing. As he notes, all the various episodes in the invention of writing “involved socially stratified societies with complex centralized political organization” and a complex relationship agriculture. Our class will ask how a few Greek and Roman inventions in the realm of writing became literary. I expect that our texts might include translations of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, part of Virgil’s Georgics, and a selection from Thucydides’ account of the plague of Athens in his Peloponesian War. For criticism, we’ll at least look at Aristotle’s the Poetics and Longinus’ essay on the sublime. Those two texts should introduce us to formalist criticisms that construct themselves by analogy to the single organism, and to “nature” criticisms that examine psychological responses to big and sublime entities like the ocean, mountains, or volcanoes. Thucydides should fit nicely with the “germs” part of Diamond’s story. Assumptions about stratified societies and their surroundings play important roles in all these works. Another set of episodes in Diamond’s global overview has to do with “Hemispheres Colliding,” and in particular the collision between the Spanish and the Native Americans of Mexico and Peru in the New World. The role of writing once more comes to the fore. Spanish writing on Mexico provided a how to do it manual for the Conquest of Peru, and also for many subsequent encounters between Europeans and Native American peoples. Our allied texts for this discussion will probably include parts Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, the opening sequence of William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico, and perhaps a James Fenimore Cooper novel.

The second major section of our L371 course will move us from the global to the local. By local, I mean the state of Indiana and our own immediate surroundings in Bloomington and its greater environs. It is not enough just to read about environments. We also need to think about how we actually live in our environments and experience them. Our major resource book for this unit will be the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Indiana Academy of Science publication, The Natural Heritage of Indiana. The book has chapters on many different kinds of things one might need to know in order to inhabit, appreciate, and understand an environment. Topics in this book range from land, soils, wetlands, the Ice Age, and extinct mammals to Native Americans, settlement, deforestation, writing, and the emergence of protection and the natural preserves and state parks of Indiana. Some of our accompanying texts will probably include at least two books by Indiana writers, Gene Stratton-Porter’s novel A Girl of the Limberlost and Edwin Way Teale’s autobiography of his boyhood near Chesterton, Indiana, Dune Boy. We’ll think about these writings in formal and literary terms, and we’ll also think about them as works that perhaps eventually helped to make and shape changes in the Indiana environment. That is, writing does not just reflect, depict, or represent the surrounding environment; writing can also help to create the surrounding environment. We’ll ask how writing and criticism can actively help us to enhance our own personal experience in our immediate surroundings.

I hope to have a few outside speakers visit the course, including perhaps one or two of the contributors to the Natural Heritage of Indiana volume. We will also take a number of walks and field trips to significant Indiana environments.

Student work in the course will probably consist of a mid-term exam, a final exam, two papers of circa 8-10 page length, a series of short(one or two paragraph length) working papers, and some short in-class response statements. The class meetings will have some lecturing; but most class sessions involve heavy doses of discussion. Participation in some of the field outings will be expected. It will be spring by then, and we’ll want to get out-of-doors and smell the flowers and feel the warm air.