Undergrad Adventures: 20th Century American Literature

My three favorite texts from this class.
My three favorite texts from this class.

I graduated on Saturday (!) but I couldn’t forget to blog one last time about my undergrad adventures.  The last class to cover this quarter is my last upper-division English class, 20th Century American Literature. There were two main takeaways for me from this class.

The class text selection was one of the best I’ve ever had. 

In an English class, it’s pretty typical to have a reading list of five or six novels for the quarter. I rarely disliked the reading lists for my English classes, but this class had a particularly good one: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (An overlap with Black Lit in the U.S. [same professor]), Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel and Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. There were also a few essays from postmodern theorists, as well as required viewing of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. All of these texts made for some really great class discussions about biopower, precarity, total war and bare life, and affected me personally in two instances. I had read Ceremony for a prior class, but hadn’t ended up liking it that much. But looking at it through a different lens helped me parse out the implications of post-traumatic stress disorder and being part of a marginalized community, which made me appreciate it as a novel more. I will also never be able to watch a superhero movie / view Bruce Wayne in the same way, but I’m okay with it. And now it’s nearly impossible for me not to think in these terms. I’ve been making my way through Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and there were a few stories where I immediately thought about the concepts I learned about in this class. To me, that’s a sign that this was a great class.

Being an English major was the best decision I ever made.

We opened the class with a discussion about biopolitics and biopower, concepts that Michel Foucault pioneered in several of his works, including a series of university talks called Society Must Be Defended. I had already read two of his texts — The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge — so I had a slight idea of what I was getting myself into. We only read a section from the talks, but I want to add the entire text to my reading list. In an oversimplified nutshell, Foucault says the state controls the population through regulating our bodies in many ways, which obviously has many implications. Everything from sexual health to incarceration to even racism is wrapped up in these concepts. And once you understand what biopower is, you begin to understand just how significant the government’s biopolitical intentions are for you in your daily life. This is just one of several examples of concepts I learned about in this class that ended up changing the way I think about the world.

I was talking about this at graduation with my fellow graduates, but I think the best things about being an English major was how interdisciplinary it was and how I got to read books and talk about social issues / get new perspectives. I was encouraged and pushed to look deeper, think more critically and weigh in other possibilities. I don’t think I would have gained as much being a journalism student. You can teach yourself how to use Photoshop and read the AP stylebook cover to cover, but learning in a literature class — and the people you learn it from and the people you learn it with — is like nothing else. I will miss the classroom immensely.

Have thoughts on 20th century American literature? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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