Ethics and Fiction Syllabus 2012

As has become an annual tradition (see 2009 and 2011. No idea what happened to 2010!), I’m posting this year’s syllabus for the upper level undergraduate course I teach on Ethics and Fiction. The course is cross listed with the English and Philosophy departments and capped at 20 students. Usually, I have 20 students, evenly split between the two disciplines. School starts Tuesday, and so far I only have five students enrolled in the philosophy section while the English section is over-enrolled. Hopefully that will change a bit next week. I also have, as per usual, a couple of English master’s students sitting in or enrolled in a grad version. It’s always nice to have them.

I change things up a bit every year. Again, I’m using the textbook Ethics, Literature, Theory edited by Stephen K. George. I added The Parable of the Sadhu (link opens a PDF) for the first day, as an easy to read example of a kind of naive ethical criticism. The discussion last year about censoring Huckleberry Finn was so engaging and profitable, that I added Huckleberry Finn and two philosophical articles on that novel. I got rid of the Wilde, although I loved teaching it, because something had to go, and the Hesse basically does what I was using Wilde to do. I switched Sartre for Borges and back about 1035 times before finally settling on Sartre again. I added some readings on postmodern criticism. I also added the Angela Carter feminist fairy tale, and a reading by Jennifer Crusie on fairy tales and the romance novel. My hope is that the fairy tale and folk tale and their unique position in the history of ethical criticism serve as a kind of minor theme in the course.  I also added an article on Crusie from JPRS. I added the IEP entry on contemporary ethical criticism, because I basically cover all of that anyway, and I think it’s important for students to have a sense of the different live options on offer today.

The organization is artificial, but I tend to see that as a good thing. Everything really is related to everything else.

Of course, I am still tinkering. Some items will probably be moved and deleted as we embark on the journey. But I hope this “in flux” syllabus is interesting anyway! If you’re curious about any of these readings feel free to ask in the comments.

9/4       Introduction to Course

Parable of the Sadhu (handout)

I. How fiction and moral philosophy can enhance each other

9/6       Marianne Jennings, “The Absence of Stories: Filling the Void in Ethics” (George)

Nina Rosenstand, “Stories and Morals” (George)

9/11     Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

Wayne Booth, “Why Ethical Criticism Can Never Be Simple” (George)

9/13     Cunningham, “Reading For Life” (George)

Tobias Wolf, “The Chain,” “The Night In Question”

9/18     Jack Harrell, “What Violence in Literature Must Teach Us” (George)

Orson Scott Card, “The Problem of Evil in Fiction” (George)

“Sunshine,” Lynn Freed

Recommended: Guts, Chuck Palahniuk (FYI: extremely graphic and disturbing)

9/20     Marshall Gregory, “Ethical Criticism: What It Is and Why It Matters” (George)

“I Got Somebody in Staunton,” William Henry Lewis

II. Theories of art and ethical criticism

9/25     Plato, Republic (360 B.C.E.) (selections) (PDF)

9/27     John Gardner, “Premises on Art and Morality” (George)

Nussbaum, “The ‘Ancient Quarrel’: Literature and Moral Philosophy” (George)

10/2     Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (1896)  (excerpts)

Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) (first three chapters)

10/4     Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) (chapter four through end)

10/11   Susan L. Feagin, “Incompatible Interpretations of Art”

Recommended: “The Death of the Author: An Analytical Autopsy,” Peter Lamarque

10/16   Angela Carter, “The Tiger’s Bride”

Recommended: Margaret Atwood, “Happy Endings”

10/18   Class Cancelled: Professor at conference: start reading Huckleberry Finn!

IV.  Huckleberry Finn, moral motivation, and censorship

10/23   Huckleberry Finn [available online here: Huckleberry Finn]

10/25   Review Ch. 16 of Huckleberry Finn
Jonathan Bennett, “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn”

10/30   Alan Goldman, “Huckleberry Finn and Moral Motivation”

11/1     John H. Wallace, “The Case Against Huck Finn” (George)

Dudley Barlow, “Why We Still Need Huckleberry Finn” (George)

Toni Morrison, “Huckleberry Finn: An Amazing, Troubling Book” (George)

New Edition of Huck Finn Censors the N Word

V.  Philosophical fiction

11/6     Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy (1872) (selections)

Recommended: Beyond Good and Evil, Ch. IX What Is Noble?

11/8     Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf (1927)

11/13   (cont.)

11/15   Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

11/20   Sartre, No Exit

11/27   No Exit (cont)

VI.  Analytic ethical criticism: snapshot of the contemporary scene

11/29   Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ethical Criticism of Art

12/4     Richard A. Posner, “Against Ethical Criticism” (George)

Wayne C. Booth, “Who Is Responsible In Ethical Criticism?” (George)

VII. Gender, Genre, and Ethical Criticism

12/9     Bet Me, Jennifer Crusie (first half)
This is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella: Romance Novel as Feminist Fairy Tale, by Jennifer Crusie
12/11   Bet Me, Jennifer Crusie (second half)

Getting Laid, Getting Old, Getting Fed: The Cultural Resistance of Jennifer Crusie’s Romantic Heroines, Kyra Kramer

12/13   Joanne Hollows, “Reading Romantic Fiction”

4 responses

  1. I love that you post about your classes; I find it fascinating. When I taught fairytales (various traditional versions and contemporary re-tellings like Carter’s) I tried an exercise that I think I got from children’s lit scholar Perry Nodelman: get students to write a quick-and-dirty version of the story, or tell it to each other, based on memory. What are the key elements that must be included for it to be “Cinderella” or “Beauty and the Beast”? What’s the “moral” of the story? The results are interesting and often quite gendered, and it led to great discussion. It seems like it would be a good warm-up to discussing Carter or Crusie.


  2. @Katherine O’Flaherty: Hi Katherine. I change it regularly, but this year assignments include five short (2 page) response papers, two 5-7 page take home exams, and in class pop quizzes, as well as one class presentation.

    If the semester is a good one (i.e. if most have been engaged, keeping up with the readings, meeting learning objectives), I let students write the second exam on fiction of their choice, which really excites them and introduces me to some great new reads.



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