"Why read? Why live? Do the two questions have the same answers? What does reading have to do with living?
In this course, we will take these questions as a framework through which to approach comparative literature as something people study and as a way they study it. But wait, there's more! The books you read, the thoughts you think, and the words you hear, speak, and write will slip under your skin with excruciating sweetness. They might make you feel itchy and uncomfortable. It may be difficult to walk and talk normally. You may begin to hear voices and to tell stories. I promise... But only if you do the reading (which will include work by authors such as Cortazar, Borges, McCullers, Puig, Suzuki, Nietzsche, Marx, Shelley, Oliver, and Snyder), writing (weekly short papers, one or two longer essays), talking, and thinking (constantly)"
That was the course description for "Reading to Live" (also known as Comparative Literature 240: Introduction to Comparative Literature). I taught this course every Fall semester save one from 1996 through 2003. It's an introductory course, formatted so that I would give a lecture every Monday to the whole course, and then 2 graduate student instructors and myself would divide that group up for two discussion section meetings per week. Probably more than any teaching experience I've had, this course profoundly altered the way I think about what it is I do as a human being paid to read, think, write, and teach.
My basic stance to the course, especially after the first couple of times I taught it, was that my lectures must always be fresh, out of my current reading/living experience at that moment. So, even if readings were repeated from one Fall to the next, the lectures were never repeated. Of course, some ideas remained important to me when I would reread texts, but other were entirely new, and even the ones that were familiar were given new inflections by the life context in which I was reading them. I don't know when I'll teach the course again. The last time I did it, I found that my life context at the time really didn't yield up the freshness of energy for the class that I felt it deserved and so, this fall I moved on to other things. But it was a powerful course for me and, I believe, for the students. Here's the course guidelines and the syllabus for the version I gave in Fall 2003.
Comparative Literature 240: Reading to Live
General Course Guidelines
- Come to each lecture with the text assigned for that date already read.
- As you read, keep several things in mind:
- Notice what happens as you read: your body, your feelings, your mind
- See everything that you read as the expression of a way of seeing the world.
- Learn about this way of seeing the world, understand it.
- Even or especially if it bugs you, make the imaginative effort required to pretend that you sympathize with it, that it is your way of seeing the world. Notice what effects this has on you (again, body, feeling mind) and try to imagine what implications would follow for you as a result of seeing the world in this way.
- Take notes (you might want to reserve a special notebook, or a section of a notebook just for this purpose).
- Write down events and characters and page numbers. Or find some other way to mark the text so that you can remember it and be prepared to discuss it specifically in your discussion section.
- Write down page numbers of passages that struck you (for whatever reason) or copy these passages down, along with a brief note to remind you of why they struck you.
- Jot down, roughly is fine, any more extended responses (agreement, disagreement, pleasure, pleasure) that arise as you read.
- Quotes and Notes (subject to modification at the discretion of discussion section instructors)
- Write down two "quotes"
- one from the lecture notes you took on Monday
- one from the text that you read for Monday
- Write down two "notes", one corresponding to each quote.
- Reflect and elaborate upon the "quotes." What do you think it means? But equally importantly: why do you think it struck you? What is the meaning of your having chosen this particular quotation? You can talk about this in terms of feelings (physical or otherwise), thoughts and ideas (related to other courses if you like), or to events in your life (or all of the above).
- No more than 3 or 4 pp. (tops!)
- Turn them into your section instructor on the first section meeting after Mondays lecture.
- Self-Grading: You will decide what grade will appear on your transcript for this class.
- Logistics: At the end of the semester, you should each turn into your discussion section instructor two things:
- Your letter grade for the course
- A narrative account of your experience in this course. Reflect on your efforts, accomplishments, lapses, and growth in this course. You may find it easier to be honest with yourself and with us if you don't think of this as connected to the grade you've given yourself.
- Each section instructor will be responsible for filling in the final details of this process.
- This is part of the course - maybe the most important part. Treat it as such. Whatever feelings (and they won't only be good and happy ones) arise as a result of the fact that you have the responsibility, the freedom, and the capacity to assess the quality of your own work are feelings that you should articulate explicitly, examine, and incorporate into the experience of the course itself.
Assume the responsibilities that go with being free. Assume the freedom that goes with being responsible. Recognize that all of the guidelines set forth above, along with any additional guidelines your section instructors provide are just that: guidelines. They are not "course requirements" or "homework assignments." We propose them based on our experience of them as useful tools for students in this course. If you choose to do them, you are responsible for that choice. If you choose not to, you are responsible for that choice. Do not attempt to shift either of those responsibilities onto us.
M 9.8 - Introductory Lecture - Breathing
M 9.15 - Negative Capability and the I Ching (coursepack Keats and Pullman and Balkin on the I Ching + Wing at Shaman Drum + 3 pennies)
M 9.22 - Julio Cortazar, "Continuity of Parks" (coursepack)
M 9.29 - Jorge Luis Borges, "The South" (coursepack)
M 10.6 - Carson McCullers, Ballad of the Sad Café (Shaman Drum)
M 10.20 - Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman (Shaman Drum)
M 10.27 - Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (Shaman drum)
M 11.3 - Nietzsche, selections from The Gay Science (Shaman Drum)
M 11.10 - Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Shaman Drum)
M 11.17 - Julio Cortazar "The Southern Thruway" (Coursepack)
M 11.24 - Mary Shelley Frankenstein (Shaman Drum)
M 12.1 - Mary Oliver, The Leaf and the Cloud (Shaman Drum)
M 12.8 - Gary Snyder, "The Real Work Interview" (Coursepack)