English Department Unveils New Themed Courses to Spread Love of Literature

November 03, 2010

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Anne Bromley:

November 3, 2010 — It's no surprise that the faculty of the University of Virginia's English department is "pro-lit," meaning in favor of literature. This year, the department has begun a new section of introductory courses described as "pro-lit" to entice students to become avid readers of some of the best writers of all time.

The department, in the University's College of Arts & Sciences, wanted to offer elective courses to first- and second-year students that would expose them to the top-notch faculty and get them excited about great literature, whether or not they later decided to become English majors.

"Our criteria were a reputation for dynamic classroom teaching and appealing proposals," department chair Cynthia Wall said.

Professor Alison Booth is teaching the pilot course this fall with the theme of "Gothic," focusing on authors from the 18th and 19th centuries whose works have that characteristic eerie atmosphere in dark castles and involve horror, mystery and the supernatural.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Anne Bromley:

In the spring, Chip Tucker will teach "Money Talks, or When Literature Means Business," with readings that look at the relationship between money and desire and what a commercialized economy does to a culture, he said.

The University is a great place to teach Gothic literature, Booth said. "I designed the course to take advantage of U.Va.'s world-class collection of Gothic fiction and its associations with Edgar Allan Poe," she said.

When her students visited U.Va.'s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, they saw such works as a copy of the first Gothic novel, "The Castle of Otranto" by Horace Walpole, and the Gothic parody, "Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen, which are part of the Sadleir-Black collection, one of the world's best collections of Gothic fiction.

"The texts are mostly by famous authors, classics of Gothic, but that's not the aim of the course," Booth said. "What we want to whet is the general appetite for reading and writing about literature as a really challenging and profound enterprise of interest to all intelligent people."

The class also dipped into contemporary prose, reading stories by A.S. Byatt and Margaret Atwood, and has discussed why this popular genre has persisted and how it has evolved.

"Victorian fiction – 'Dracula' is an offshoot of Gothic – ghost stories from then 'til now, horror films, vampire stories in all media and our own customs of Halloween – all these things are indebted to the 18th-century Gothic," Booth said.

Several students say they're enjoying the course.

"While the works of classic Gothic authors like Poe, Mary Shelley and 'Monk' Lewis are, well, classics, I've personally enjoyed many of the 20th-century female writers, particularly A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood and Edith Wharton," first-year student Liam McCabe wrote in an e-mail. "They've got these absolutely fantastic short stories of psychological, domestic terror that are much more about connecting with the reader on a very personal level and much less about live burials and that sort of thing."

He and classmates Natasha Oladokun and Julia Zullo credit Booth's expertise, enthusiasm and encouragement with giving them a new appreciation for literature.

"It has taught me how to look closely at a work instead of a taking a cursory overview of the selection, while seeking the deeper meanings behind the plot, dialogue, settings and the characters themselves," Oladokun said.

"My perspective on good literature has been broadened, because initially I would never have thought Gothic literature could be so effective and timeless," Zullo said.

Tucker will also aim to broaden students' perspectives in "Money Talks," he said. He described it as "a reader-friendly course for students even if they weren't crazy about high school English and have no intention of majoring in literature."

"We'll be tracing the literary fortunes of money across the last half-millennium: how it's made, amassed and spent; how much and how little it can mean; its surprising proximity to that other system of symbolic exchange we call language," he wrote in the course description.

Making the class "reader-friendly" doesn't mean students can expect light reading, however. He'll include drama from William Shakespeare to David Mamet and fiction from Charles Dickens to Sinclair Lewis, plus some poetry. They'll also tackle "Anthony Trollope's blockbuster about Victorian financial meltdown," he wrote, "whose ominous title – 'The Way We Live Now' – declares what, at the bottom line, this course will be all about all along."

— By Anne Bromley