Studies in Literature and Culture: Literature and the Public Good

Literature and the Public Good


This class will be conducted in a Here Or There (HOT) format. Some students will attend in person; others will attend online.

The turmoil in US politics in recent years, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has raised pressing questions about citizenship, race relations, poverty, liberty, and the role government should play in the lives of individuals and communities. This class addresses these questions by exploring connections between 20th- and 21st-century American literary texts and developments in US public policy from the New Deal of the 1930s through civil rights legislation in the mid-20th century to current debates on issues such as immigration, health care, law enforcement, afforable housing, labor practices, economic disparity, and environmental protection. Our discussions will focus on how literary works challenge us to image a “public” and a “public good” that is inclusive, just, and committed to the well-being of everyone living in the territory delimited, for better or for worse, by the borders of the United States. Assigned texts include novels, a film, a drama, a graphic memoir, short stories, poems, performances, and artworks that intersect with key policy issues.

In addition to building your skills in analyzing these works, with a particular emphasis on narrative forms and strategies, you will learn how to research public policy and to examine policy documents with an eye to the implicit stories they tell and the assumptions they make about what constitutes “the public” and “the good.” You will also engage with critics and theorists who invite us to reflect on our conceptions of public life, including Lauren Berlant, Lisa Duggan, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, and Michael Warner. For your final research project, you will write a critical study of one (or more) literary text, film, performance, social media site, podcast, or other form cultural production, linking it with a particular policy or set of policies. Your participation in this class might inspire you to consider a career in law, the non-profit sector, and/or public service.

Required Texts (subject to change until August 2021)

Babb, Sanora. Whose Names Are Unknown (novel)

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun (drama)

Adam Haslett, Union Atlantic (novel)

Ledesma, Alberto. Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer (graphic memoir)

Long Soldier, Layli. Whereas (poems)

Sapphire, Push (novel) and Daniels, Lee (dir.) Precious (film)

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath (novel)

I will provide other readings as links or files in Laulima.

Student Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course you should be able to

  • read literary texts and other cultural productions critically, attending to details such as narrative structure, style, figurative language, allusions, and dominant themes
  • situate literary texts and films in their historical and social contexts, accounting for formal, stylistic, thematic, and other relevant features in relation to these contexts
  • identify and describe major developments in US public policy in the past century and discuss their ongoing impact on American culture and society
  • engage in engaged, well-informed, and collegial conversations with peers about literature and culture
  • demonstrate the ability to design and conduct an independent research project in literary/cultural studies
  • conduct research with appropriate online datatbases and other resources
  • write clear, coherent analyses of literary texts and other cultural productions for an academic audience
  • employ the terminology of literary criticism with confidence and precision
  • demonstrate sound argumentation in your writing
  • document sources accurately and responsibly in your writing using a standard academic style
  • employ online collaboration tools effectively


Your grade will be based on your performance in the following assignments. I will provide more detailed descriptions of these assignments within the first two weeks of the semester.

  • one  weekly contribution to the class Forum discussions (I will provide a prompt) and two responses to your teammates’ contributions  (75 points; 25%)
  • one  proposal for a term paper (1 page) (30 points; 10%)
  • one  critical evaluation of a peer’s draft (30 points; 10%)
  • one  term paper based on independent research (15-20 pages) (75 points; 25%)
  • one  take-home midterm examination (45 points; 15%)
  • one  take-home final examination (45 points; 15%)