Studies in Composition/Rhetoric/Language: The Rhetoric of Utopias and Dystopias

This “Studies” course is both a survey of utopian and dystopian literature from Plato to Louise Erdrich and an introduction to the way that rhetoric can elucidate various aspects of literary texts. Although covering mainly twentieth- and twenty-first century texts, we will read several pre-twentieth-century texts as needed background. After Plato, we will jump to the sixteenth century (one text), move on to the nineteenth century (three texts), and then take up early twentieth-century American and British texts (three), later twentieth-century American, British, and Canadian texts (four), and early twenty-first century American texts (two). The reading list is about one-third utopian texts, one-third dystopian, and one-third “hybrid” (utopian/dystopian; some of these texts are called “critical utopias”). Because this is a “Studies” course, students will be doing individual research, culminating in a major research project due at the end of the term. Also because this is a “Studies” course, it carries a writing-intensive (“W”) designation.

The rhetorical part of the course will come from at least four places: (a) the chapters on kairos, stasis theory, ethos, logos, and pathos in Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee, Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, (b) the relevant chapters (via students reports) from James A. Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction; and (c) a selection of articles on rhetoric in utopian/dystopian texts (including from Jonathan Alexander’s work and the relevant parts of John Rieder’s Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System). Throughout the course, then, we will be attending to how these texts function rhetorically: many of them call for dramatic changes in human behavior, frequently through warning about what will happen “if this goes on”–how, then, do utopian/dystopian authors make their fictions persuasive?

Besides frequent electronic letters posted to the entire class about the shared reading (and a portfolio at the end of the term based on these letters) and the major research project, students in this “Studies” course will also work on a non-shared text (preparing a plot summary of, and synopses of three critical articles on, the non-shared text; and delivering an oral report to the class on the text), will be expected to participate frequently in class discussions, will do some collaborative work (in pairs) on one of the shared readings, will read (and summarize) a critical book on our topic, and will critique a draft of a peer’s major research project.

REQUIRED TEXTS: Plato, Republic; Thomas More, Utopia; Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887; William Morris, News from Nowhere; H. G. Wells, The Time Machine; Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland; Thomas Huxley, Brave New World; George Orwell, 1984; Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451; Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange; Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed; Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale; Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games; and Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God.