Reading & Composition

Reading & Composition

Being Wrong: Mistakes, Mishaps, and Errors in Judgment
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Wendi Bootes
3:30-5 pm
211 Dwinelle

“Fallor ergo sum.” (“I err, therefore I am.”)

            —St. Augustine, 5th century


“C’est plus qu’un crime, c’est une faute.” (“It’s more than a crime, it’s a mistake.”)

            — Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe, 1804

The quotes above encapsulate two radically different—and paradoxically simultaneous—views that we hold about error. While we commonly agree that it’s only human to make mistakes, we nevertheless seem perpetually afraid of actually making them. Of course, we may “learn from our mistakes,” but doing so runs the risk of inviting the critical verdict: #FAIL. In art, too, errors produce multitudes, as both the machine of tragedy and the stuff of comedy. This class will examine literature, essays, and films that broadly explore the idea of error: from minor slip-ups, to grave miscalculations, to everything in between. We will think about error thematically, ranging from blundering characters, to cases of mistaken identity, to comedic and tragic misunderstandings. As we consider the potential and danger of error, we’ll also ponder what happens when authors miss the mark, and when works’ very features themselves contain formal flaws. When are mistakes—in judgment, taste, execution, conception—productive, and when are they intolerable? Do they possess value only as a pedagogical tool, or could we come to value them in their own right?

This is a Reading and Composition course, in which we’ll work to hone our close-reading skills and to craft clear, compelling, and relevant arguments about how texts work. To that end, substantial class time will be devoted to writing workshops and peer reviews. In addition to completing frequent essay assignments and revisions, students will be expected to read up to 100 pages of literary and scholarly texts each week, and to participate actively in class and virtual discussions.

Possible texts include:

Sophocles, Oedipus Rex (429 BC)

Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism” (1711)

Nikolai Gogol, The Government Inspector (1836)

Yury Tynianov, “About the Literary Fact” (1924)

Elizabeth Bishop, selected poems

Frank Kermode, The Uses of Error (excerpts, 1991)

Anne Carson, “Essay on What I Think About Most” (2000)

Zadie Smith, “Fail Better” (2007)

Melanie Stefan, “A CV of Failures” (2010)

Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (excerpts, 2011)

“Error: The Art of Imperfection,” Ars Electronica Exhibit, Berlin (2019)