Dr. Lucia Knoles
Honors Major American Literature
AREAS OF SPECIALIZATION FOR THE SEMESTERIn this course, we are studying the way in which literature draws from and contributes to the debate that takes place over significant issues in American culture as a whole. Below I have listed several issues that are a subject of discussion in American life and literature since the earliest days of colonial history. You will find that these are also issues that receive particular attention in both Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the subject of our research project, and The House of Mirth, a focus of our final examination. Over the course of the semester, you should develop an understanding of the discussion that has taken place in American literature, culture, and scholarship regarding the topic of your choice.Think about which of the following topics you would most enjoy reading, thinking, and writing about in the coming weeks. If possible, choose a question that matters to you. By developing an area of expertise, you will be able to make a particular contribution to our class discussion and research.If you wish, you may choose to collaborate with other members of the class interested in the same subject. Scholars often find it useful—even necessary—to consult with their colleagues. You may find that exchanging information, ideas, and questions will enable you to move more deeply into your subject than you expected.
The Value of Work, the Meaning of the MarketplaceWhat is the meaning of work in a country dedicated to the “pursuit of happiness”? Does our work define us? Does work have a moral value—in other words, are we better people if we work well or work in a particular way? Does the marketplace—what we are paid, or what price is placed on us—define our value? Is the marketplace the only thing or the primary thing that defines our value? If so, what gets left out of our lives? Is the domestic sphere, home and family life, as important as the marketplace? To what extent are all Americans—or specific groups of Americans—defined primarily as commodities or products? If so, what does that say about American values? What happens when people are excluded from the marketplace; do they cease to have value? Do some kinds of work have a higher status than others? For example, does the work of the head matter more than the work of the hand? Does work in a business matter more than work in a home? What role has been played by American literature in the discussion of the meaning of work and worth?
Manners, Morality, and ChristianityIn a republic, what responsibilities do we have for other people? Why do manners matter? Is polite behavior the same or different as moral behavior? What is more important to “success” in life, manners or morals--or are they, once again, the same? Are different codes of manners applied to different groups of people; if so, why? Are different codes of morals applied to different people; if so, why? Do Americans think that using different codes to apply to different groups is inconsistent with our republican notions of “equality,” or is this just a way of acknowledging the natural differences between human beings? How and why have manners changed over time? As we become more “polite” do we become better people? Are manners a way for people to bridge the gaps between classes or are they away of sorting out the different strata of society? Have morals changed too? How have Americans managed to negotiate differences in manners—or morality? Has Christianity ever been promoted in a way that did not promote morality? What do Americans understand by the term “Christianity”? How has Christianity been used to promote morality, and has there ever been a tension between morality and things promoted as “Christian” precepts? How has American literature contributed to this discussion on manners, morals, and Christianity and the relationship between the three.
Reading, Education, and Self-CultivationWhy do Americans seem to place such a high value on reading and learning? Is it so we can “get ahead” in our business or social lives? Is it so we can be better citizens? Is it so we can be better Christians? Is it so we can be more complete human beings? Have our ways of defining education or “cultivation” changed over time? Have our ways of pursuing an education changed over time. Does our education define us; does it define our value? Should all Americans have the right to an education? Do we see American literature reflecting and contributing to the discussion of the value of education?
Social Reform, American Perfectionism and ExceptionalismHow do Americans go about the business of trying to make things better? Why do some groups feel so passionate about engaging in reform; what kinds of arguments or experiences inspire people to support reform movements? What kinds of claims do reformers use to promote reform and do those claims reflect particular visions of America and American values? Do reform movements reflect a particular view of America as exceptional and perfectible? Are we still trying to become that “shining citie on a hill”? How can you engage in debates over social change without disrupting the social order (or is it a good thing to disrupt the social order)? Are organized and outspoken reformers the "good guys" or busybodies? How are reformers and reform movements portayed in American literature? How has American literature contributed to the discussion of reform and the promotion or blocking of reform movements?
Gendered “Spheres” and Racial RolesAre we defined by our gender and our race? Do gender and race define the types of abilities, aptitudes, and feelings that we have? Do the members of different genders have different "spheres" in which they should work? Do different "spheres" or "roles" carry different privileges and responsibilities? What role has American literature participated in the debates over gender and/or race that have gone on throughout our history? What other kinds of "texts" have played roles in this discussion, and how do these texts "speak" to each other—to they take up one another's arguments or rhetorical techniques?
The Good Death
How is death viewed in American culture and does that view change over time? How is death used in American literature, and how does that portrayal of death reflect the attitudes towards death in the culture as a whole? Is the "noble death" merely a literary device, or do other "texts" use death in similar or different ways?
Remember, this is merely a list of starting-points for your inquiry. These are not the only options possible; feel free to consult with me if you have an alternative in mind. In addition, the follow up questions are a starting place for your thinking, but you'll find you cannot answer all of them and you are likely to come up with new questions of your own. Finally, you may well have noticed that these questions overlap. That's good because it will mean that although people will be exploring different questions, their interests will intersect.