English 4675/5675 Contemporary American Literature, Fall 2019

TR 3:30-4:45PM, Arts & Sciences 345

In Class Activities

1. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Metareferentiality

Let's take a break from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and look at two new texts, another critical examination of the literary period—Irmtraud Huber's "Post-Post, Beyond and Back: Literature in the Wake of Postmodernism"—and a metamemoir—Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Break into groups of 3 or 4. First, determine one of Huber's key characterizations of the period. Then, compare and contrast how Wallace's and Eggers' literary works exemplify those traits.

2. Infinite Jest Topics

In order to get us back into David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, let's determine the main topics by breaking into groups, discussing the following issues, and reporting back main points to the class:

  1. entertainment (film and television, sports, the Entertainment)
    • Bonus: Elle Porter's response question: How are the drugs, sports, and entertainment continuously connecting in today's section?
  2. addiction (drug, film and television, sports, other obsessions)
    • Bonus: Elle Porter's response question: How do you think the different childhood trauma in today's section connect to the overall story and Wallace's message?
  3. politics and terrorism (President Gentle, O.N.A.N., the Great Concavity, the Wheelchair Assassins)
    • Bonus: Elle Porter's response question: What is significant about Wallace depicting such intense scenes of trauma (i.e., Matty's abuse, Geoffrey's attack...)?
  4. the novel as metamodernism, post-millenniallism, post-postmodernism (Martin Paul Eve essay)
    • Bonus: Elle Porter's response question: Why do you think Wallace included the plot of Bye-Bye Bureacrat?

3. Infinite Jest Subjects

Last time, we broke into groups to discuss the various topics of the novel. Today, let's divide into groups to address how the novel conceptualizes subjects. Elect a recorder to report your group's ideas to the class.

  1. Self and Subjectivity: How does the novel conceptualize the subject, i.e., the self? In other words, how is a person constituted?
    • Bonus: How do language and desire figure into the construction of subjectivity in the novel? How do subjects respond to irony?
  2. Pleasure and Desire: How does the novel conceive of desire? What does it say about pleasure?
    • Bonus: How do desire and pleasure figure into the construction of subjectivity in the novel? How do language and narrative affect desire in the novel?
  3. Language and Narrative: How does the novel conceive of language, and how does (anticonfluential) narrative function in the novel?
    • Bonus: How does language affect desire in the novel? How are characters subjected to and constructed by language?
  4. Irony and Sincerity: How does the novel conceive of irony and sincerity? How do irony and sincerity function in the novel?
    • Bonus: How does irony affect the constitution of subjectivity in the novel? How does

      irony affect subjects' desires?

4. Braschi's Bananas

To get a handle on Giannina Braschi's hybrid novel, United States of Banana, let's break into groups to explore structure, character, and realism.

  1. Formal Structure: Describe the formal structure of the hybrid novel, including but not limited to its two distinct parts, unnumbered but titled sections, multiple genres (literary essay, dramatic/Platonic dialogue, songs), interjections (italicized statements, verb conjugation, use of English and Spanish). How does the structure fit with the political and cultural themes?
  2. Symbolic Characters: Research the literary and cultural character references (Hamlet, Gertrude, Zarathustra, the Statue of Liberty) and historical character references (Antonin Artaud, Socrates, Rubén Darío). What does their inclusion bring to the cultural conflict and political theme?
  3. Political Characters: Describe the political characters (Wishy, Washy, and Wishy-Washy; Cuba, Puerto Rico, and U.S. of B.) as well as the meaning of their ideological conflict in the novel.
  4. Metarealism: Describe the nature of reality in the novel by commenting on the relationship among and tone of the author-character (Giannina), characters (Basilio and Segismundo), symbolic characters (Hamlet, Zarathustra, the Statue of Liberty), historical characters (Antonin Artaud, Socrates, Rubén Darío), and political characters (Wishy, Washy, and Wishy-Washy; Cuba, Puerto Rico, and U.S. of B.)

5. Sheck's Porous Meanings

To keep our conversation focused on this class period before Thanksgiving break, let's divide into small groups to discuss the various issues at play in Laurie Sheck's hybrid novel, Island of the Mad.

  1. Characters: Conduct brief character studies of Ambrose A., Frieda, and the writer of the lost notebook, paying particular interest to their psyches. What desires and disorders do they share?
  2. References: Briefly research the major artistic, literary, and philosophical references in the first half of the novel: Mikhail Bulgakhov's The Master and Margarita, Pontius Pilate, Titian, Pavel Florensky, and Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot. What meaning do these allusions to bring to Sheck's novel?
  3. Formal Structure: Describe the structure of the novel. Compare and contrast its form and aesthetic style with Giannina Braschi's United States of Banana as well as with Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric.
  4. Meditations and Colors: Discuss the significance of colors (red, white, black) in the novel. The novel meditates on a variety of subjects (kindness and fragility, silence and quietness, infectious language, the borderland of skin). What might the overall theme of the novel be thus far?
  5. Response

Written Component: GeorgiaVIEW

Undergraduate students sign up to write an informal response to a section of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and post it to both GeorgiaVIEW > Course Work > Assignments > Response and GeorgiaVIEW > Course Work > Assignments > Discussion Board two days before we discuss the text in class.


The response should

Oral Component: Informal Presentation

You will also be responsible for a brief, informal presentation. The response presentation should summarize the section of Infinite Jest, share your impressions, and broach questions for class discussion.

Due Dates

  1. Your written assignment will be due in both GeorgiaVIEW > Course Work > Assignments > Response and GeorgiaVIEW > Course Work > Discussion Board two days before we are scheduled to discuss the work. (Note: Summaries will be penalized one letter grade for each day, not class period, that they are turned in late. It is your responsibility to check the sign up schedule and complete the assignment on time.)
  2. Your brief, informal presentation will be due on the day we discuss the essay in class. This date is approximate for we will sometimes fall a day behind. (Note: Failing to present the article to the class without providing a valid absence excuse will result in a one letter grade penalty.)
  3. I will return your graded assignment to you in GeorgiaVIEW > Course Work > Assignments > Response approximately one week after we discuss the article in class. Due to GeorgiaVIEW limitations, I am unable to return graded assignments to you unless and until you submit them to the Assignment dropbox.
  4. For example, we are scheduled to discuss pages 1-127 of Infinite Jest on Thursday, 8-29. Therefore, someone's written response will be due in GeorgiaVIEW in both the Discussion Board and Assignment dropboxes by Tuesday, 8-27. In class on Thursday, 8-29, that student will informally present the main events and issues of the section. I will return the graded response to her the following week in GeorgiaVIEW > Course Work > Assignments > Response. Due to GeorgiaVIEW limitations, I cannot return your graded paper unless and until you upload it to the Dropbox. Here's how to calculate your course grade.

Sign Up


Due Date

Oral Due Date



T, 8-27

R, 8-29


1 Madi Brillhart

2 Jacob Dallas

S, 9-1

T, 9-3




T, 9-3

R, 9-5




S, 9-8

T, 9-10


7 Caroline Duckworth


T, 9-10

R, 9-12


9 Bentley Brock

10 Ben Stokes

T, 10-1

R, 10-3


11 Elle Porter


S, 10-6

T, 10-8


13 Sydney Miller

14 Emilie Skaug

T, 10-8

R, 10-10


15 Rachel Wellman

16 Emmanuel Nsemoh

Close Reading Paper and Presentation

Undergraduate students sign up in pairs first to analyze a brief passage from a work of prose, a 1-2 page scene from a written play, or a poem and then collaboratively write a formal 5-6 page paper and give formal 7-10 minute presentation. Your essay and presentation should 1) do a close reading of the passage and 2) interpret how the passage broaches the core conflict and overall theme of the larger literary work. Your single, collaboratively written essay should be driven by a thesis that argues the work's theme and logically organized by close reading of the text: unpack the tension and conflict, connotation and diction, idea and theme. Your well-organized presentation should clearly convey your ideas to the class, and each member should speak during the presentation.


Sign Up

Due Date



T, 9-24

Eggers, 311-437

1 Sydney Miller

2 Rachel Wellman

R, 10-10

Wallace, 851-983



T, 10-22

Zolf, 46-91

5 Bentley Brock

6 Jacob Dallas

R, 10-24

Hwang, 39-70

7 Madi Brillhart

8 Elle Porter

T, 10-31

Armantrout, 65-121



T, 11-55

Braschi, 145-303



R, 11-21

Rankine, 81-161

13 Caroline Duckworth

14 Emmanuel Nsemoh

T, 12-3

Sheck, 215-429

15 Ben Stokes


Comparison/Contrast Paper

While the close reading paper requires undergraduates to practice attentive analysis of a key passage and the book review calls for graduate students to summarize and evaluate a scholarly book on postmodern literature, the comparison/contrast paper instructs all to analyze how one particular idea, issue, or characteristic functions both the same way and different ways in two works of contemporary American literature we've studied so far. For example, you could compare and contrast the metafiction of Gass and Wallace, the American family in Albee and Eggers, or American identity in Hwang and Braschi. Or you could create an interesting comparison of your own.


Undergraduates should write a 6-7 page comparison/contrast paper on in class works only, but not ones written on in the close reading or research papers.


Graduates should write an 8-10 page comparison/contrast paper on one in class work and one outside class work (let the professor know the outside work at least two weeks before the due date), but not one studied in the presentation or research paper.


Research Paper

The close reading paper asked undergraduates to closely read a work and the comparison/contrast paper required undergraduates and graduate students to make connections and distinctions among two texts. The research paper will afford you the time and space to perform a sustained and sourced discussion of a significant issue in a work of contemporary American literature. Your thesis-driven paper should employ textual analysis and support its interpretation of the issue with scholarly criticism. Here is how to conduct literary research.

Undergraduate Students

Undergraduates will write an 8-10 page research paper on either a work read in class (but not one written on in either the close reading paper or the comparison/contrast paper) or a work not studied in class by one of the authors studied in class. The essay must incorporate at least 1 scholarly article from the syllabus and at least 5 scholarly articles from outside the course.

Graduate Students

Graduate students will write a 12-15 page research paper on either a work read in class (but not one written on in either the comparison/contrast paper or the annotated bibliography and presentation) or a work not studied in class but approved by the professor. The essay must incorporate at least 2 theoretical articles on the literary period of contemporary literature and at least 5 interpretive articles on the specific literary work. In order to prepare for giving conference presentations, graduate students only will compose a 250-word research proposal due on Tuesday, November 19 and present a 15-minute version of their work-in-progress to the class and answer questions on Thursday, December 5, one week before the final graduate research due date of Thursday, December 12. If warranted, graduate students should incorporate any pertinent ideas developed from the Q&A into their final essay.


Final Exam

In the take home final exam, undergraduates will write two thesis-driven comparison/contrast essays of their choice from a selection of four to six questions derived from topics generated by the class on Tuesday, December 3.


Although I encourage you to avoid writing about the same topic you wrote about in a previous assignments like the close reading, comparison/contrast, or research paper, you may write about the same topic but you must use different works of literature (if you fear you're recycling a topic from a previous assignment, just switch texts and you'll be fine). Do not use an author or literary work in more than one essay. Not all works are appropriate for all essays. Choose works which afford adequate material to address the question at hand. Have a controlling idea, an interpretation, a thesis that bridges the works. Organize essays by argument and analysis. Make connections and distinctions among the works; compare and contrast the works' key ideas. Support your points with textual evidence and quotations; avoid plot summary. You will be graded on your interpretive understanding of the literary works as well as your ability to compare and contrast meanings and issues.



Papers and Authors

Madi Brillhart

cr: Hwang

cc: Hwang and Braschi

r: Eggers

Bentley Brock

cr: Zolf

cc: Wallace and Eggers

r: Wallace

Jacob Dallas

cr: Zolf

cc: Barth and Egan

r: Wallace

Caroline Duckworth

cr: Rankine

cc: Armantrout and Zolf

r: Eggers

Sydney Miller

cr: Eggers

cc: Barth and Gass

r: Albee

Emannuel Nsemoh

cr: Rankine

cc: Eggers and Wallace

r: Wallace

Elle Porter

cr: Hwang

cc: Albee and Eggers

r: Hwang

Ben Stokes

cr: Sheck

cc: Wallace and Eggers

r: Hwang

Rachel Wellman

cr: Eggers

cc: Barth and Gass

r: Hwang


Barth, "Lost in the Funhouse"

Ashbery, "Daffy Duck in Hollywood"

Gass, Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's

Egan, "Black Box"

Wallace, Infinite Jest

Wallace, "Octet"

Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Albee, The Goat, or, Who Is Sylvia?

Zolf, Human Resources

Hwang, Yellow Face

Armantrout, Versed

Braschi, United States of Banana

Drury, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915

Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Sheck, Island of the Man


Topics determined by the class on Tuesday, December 3 include:


Answer two of the following questions, created by the professor from the class's topics, using different authors' works across the essays and not repeating authors' works previously written about in formal papers:


Annotated Bibliography and Presentation

Graduates students will research a work of literature on the syllabus, compose an annotated bibliography of at least 10 scholarly sources interpreting the text, and teach the work to the class, i.e., lecture and moderate class discussion, with some help from one of the articles on the work. One week before the presentation/teaching demonstration, meet with the professor to go over the lesson plan. The citations in the annotated bibliography should be formatted to MLA style, and each annotation should be approximately 100 words long.


Due Date



R, 9-19

Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work...

Courtney Schmidt

T, 10-8

Wallace, Infinite Jest


R, 10-24

Hwang, Yellow Face


R, 10-31

Armantrout, Versed


R, 11-21

Rankine, Citizen


Book Review

While the annotated bibliography and presentation require graduate students to research, evaluate, and teach a text, the book review compels you to read and evaluate a book of criticism on contemporary American literature. After consulting with the professor on a suitable book (for instance a book from which our class is reading an excerpt, or another of your choosing), write a 8-10 page essay that summarizes the book's overall critical claim and then evaluates the thesis and methodology. Your essay should both appreciate and interrogate the book. The GeorgiaVIEW course packet contains book reviews by Darby, Fest, and Konstantinou; and you can find more examples using GALILEO.