Reading & Composition
Literature and the (Ab)uses of Reason
Nowadays, we are constantly asked to become “savvy” and “techknowledgeable” in new ways. Yet this rapid evolution in the uses of our intellect seems to be rooted in a more fundamental understanding of “rationality” which we all share. Does this concept of “rationality” itself change with technological progress? Or are our ideas about “rationality” older than we realize? Popular imagination, at least, has to this day found no better depiction of what it means to be “rational” than the ubiquitous image of the spinning cog-wheels, as Google Images confirms. Ironically, we refer to this simple yet efficient ancient mechanism to illustrate both how reason operates at its best and how it degrades and dehumanizes, as oppressive systems reduce us to “cogs.”
In this class, literature will be our guide in understanding critically the unexpectedly messy and complicated evolution of the concept of “reason,” throughout modern times and, in particular, as bequeathed by Newtonian mechanics and the Industrial Revolution. We will discuss how literature and the arts have not only embodied and responded to, but also actively shaped what “reason” has meant in different historical and cultural contexts. We will examine how narratives and poetry have used both content and form to address these many incarnations—including mechanistic, scientific, enlightened, theoretical, practical, instrumental, utilitarian, totalitarian versions of reason. Why does literature find itself drawn to discuss what it means to be rational? What characteristics involved in the concept of “reason” have stereotypically been viewed as gendered? What can literature tell us about reason’s victories, perils, and defeats? How does it itself mimic, copy, or follow the precepts of reason? And why, how, and when does literature radically reject reason?
While discussing these and other questions, we will be developing the skill of close reading and learning how to formulate convincing, substantial, original arguments in essay form. In this writing-intensive course, you will acquire the fundamentals of college-level writing and will be asked to write one diagnostic paper and two progressively longer papers, one of which will include a research component. This process will be accompanied by a series of brainstorming assignments, drafts, in-class workshops, peer reviews, and revisions. In addition, you will also complete shorter weekly reading responses and assignments devoted to specific elements of essay writing.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust
Charles Dickens, Hard Times
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground
George Orwell, Animal Farm
Short stories by Virginia Woolf
Essays by Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and others