English 3520

Contemporary Critical Approaches to Literature

African American Literary Theory

Utah Valley State College
Fall 2002
Section 601
MW 7:00-8:15 p.m., GT 511c


Instructor: Ryan Simmons
Office: ED 10L
Phone: 863-6290 (x6290)
E-mail: simmonry@uvsc.edu
Office hours: M/W 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., 4:00-5:00 p.m., or by appointment


Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 1952.

Jacobs, Harriet. [Linda Brent.] Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1861. New York: Signet, 2000.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Napier, Winston, ed. African American Literary Theory: A Reader. New York: New York UP, 2000.

Course Description

In this course, we will work toward a fuller awareness and understanding of main currents in contemporary literary theory by exploring a particular critical tradition in depth. Specifically, we will explore literary theory of and by African American writers and thinkers. The course readings are engaged with complex questions about identity, authority, political action, and the nature(s) of reading and writing. They are also diverse in the methodologies they employ and the conclusions at which they arrive. Thus, this course will explore Feminist, Marxist, Post-structuralist, Psychoanalytic, Reader-response, and other theoretical approaches. We will look for both coherence and heterogeneity as we read theoretical works by and about African American writers. The main literary readings for the course will be Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and Quentin Tarrantino's film Jackie Brown.

Course Requirements

Essays (40%): Two essays will each be worth 20% of your final grade. In each, you will examine a primary text relevant to the subject matter of this class (generally, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Invisible Man, though other ideas are welcome; please give me a heads-up beforehand if you wish to explore something different). You will need to articulate and support an original reading of the text (or, more specifically, some element of it) and explain how your reading intersects-and parts ways-with a recent critical article on that same text and a theoretical stance we have discussed. Each essay will be due in two parts (critical summary/response and analysis); details will be forthcoming.

Exams (30%): Two exams, a midterm and a final, will each be worth 15% of your final grade. Some ability to remember and use key concepts from the course will be helpful, but is secondary to your ability to reflect on critical questions and support your interpretation of texts and your own critical positioning.

Online Journal (15%): At least once a week, you are expected to contribute a journal response to readings we are about to discuss; these journal entries must be submitted online at a WebCT site that has been developed for our course. (Submitting your journal electronically requires you to have a UVSC network ID and access to the Internet, both of which are automatically available to you as an enrolled student. If you need help with this, let me know and I'll point you in the right direction.) I will provide instructions for accessing our WebCT site in class, and will also be available to guide you through the process individually if you'd like. Journal entries should be analytical in nature-raising questions, advancing theories, exploring implications, etc. Because all participants' entries will be visible online to everyone else in the class, the entries should also be dialogic-that is, you should read and, as appropriate, respond to each others' ideas, thoughts, and questions.

Participation (15%): This portion of your grade measures the contribution you've made to classroom discussions on a day-to-day basis. Quality counts as well as quantity. Keeping up with the reading assignments, being involved in classroom discussion, and respectfully engaging with others' points of view are factors that count in your favor. You will also be expected to discuss your research toward Essays 1 and 2 informally in class. Missing class repeatedly will seriously impair this portion of your grade; so can habitual tardiness.

Essay Policies

  1. Essays should be typed and double-spaced and include a title and page numbers. Essays are not graded on length, but rather on their ability to capture and persuade a reader. This ability arises from correctness of prose, and also from factors including clear expression, thoughtful organization, originality, completeness, and adequate support.

  2. In order to receive a passing grade, an essay must articulate and support an original analysis, moving well beyond summary of other writers' ideas and words.

  3. Material from outside sources must be cited completely and correctly using MLA style.

  4. I am always willing to read and critique work in progress, and to answer questions about your writing. When turning in an essay to be graded, you are expected to submit the best work you are capable of doing, given time constraints; thus, revisions will not be accepted after an essay has been graded.

  5. Late papers: You have three free "late days" upon entering the class. The two essays are due at the start of class on their respective due dates. Each class day an essay is turned in late counts as one late day used up. These days may be used up with one essay (turning it in three days late) or divided between both essays. No penalty is given for late essays turned in within these parameters, but once your late days are used up, no additional work will be accepted after its due date-late papers after that will receive no credit.

    The three late days are provided to allow for normal problems such as printer failure, forgotten notebooks, competing deadlines in other courses, etc. Once they are used up, no additional late days will be granted, regardless of the reason for being late, and any subsequent late papers will receive no credit.

Academic Honesty

Any course work that is found to violate UVSC's standards of academic honesty will be dealt with as laid out in the college's statement on "Student Rights and Responsibilities." Please read these standards, and the consequences for violating them, carefully, noting that the repercussions are always severe. In particular, be aware that plagiarism is a severe violation of both college policy and the policy of this course.

Plagiarism, or the use of others' words or ideas without proper attribution, is an impediment to your education and to the educational mission of Utah Valley State College. Under the policy of the English and Literature Department of UVSC, work that has been plagiarized must receive a failing grade. A distinction is made between unintentionally plagiarized work, which must be corrected in order to be considered for a passing grade, and intentional plagiarism, which will be forwarded to the Office of the Dean of Student Life as a disciplinary matter in accordance with UVSC's statement on Student Rights and Responsibilities. Please refer to http://www.uvsc.edu/engl/plag/plagiarism_policy.html to read the department's full statement on plagiarism, and speak to your instructor if you have any questions about avoiding plagiarism.

Disability Accommodation

If you have a disability that may influence your ability to meet the requirements of this course, please contact the UVSC Accessibility Service Department (Room BU145) as soon as possible. Any necessary accommodations, as arranged by the Accessibility Service Department, will be made.


W 8/21Introduction to course
M 8/26McKay, "Naming the Problem..." (handout); Harris, "Miss-Trained or Untrained?" (handout)
W 8/28Du Bois, "Criteria of Negro Art" (17-23); Schuyler, "The Negro-Art Hokum" (24-26); Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (27-30); Wright, "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (45-53)
W 9/4Joyce, "The Black Canon" (290-97); Gates, "What's Love Got to Do With It?" (298-312); Baker, "In Dubious Battle" (313-18); Joyce, "Who the Cap Fit" (319-30)
M 9/9Jones (Baraka), "Expressive Language" (62-65); Neal, "And Shine Swam On: An Afterword" (69-80)
W 9/11Gayle, "Cultural Strangulation" (92-96); Henderson, "Saturation: Progress Report on a Theory of Black Poetry" (102-12)
M 9/16Gates, "Introduction to The Signifying Monkey (339-47)
W 9/18Baker, "Belief, Theory, and Blues" (224-41)
M 9/23Morrison, Playing in the Dark, Preface and Chs. 1-2 (v-xiii, 1-59)
W 9/25Morrison, Playing in the Dark, Ch. 3 (61-91)
M 9/30Jacobs, Incidents, Author's Preface, 1861 Editor's Introduction, Chs. 1-12 (xvii-xx, 1-74)
W 10/2Jacobs, Incidents, Chs. 13-25 (74-148); Essay 1 beginning (critical summary/response) due
M 10/7Jacobs, Incidents, Chs. 26-41 plus Appendix (148-231)
W 10/9Midterm Exam
W 10/16Smith, "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism" (132-46); McDowell, "New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism"; Essay One due(167-78)
M 10/21Williams, "Some Implications of Womanist Theory" (218-23); Carby, "Woman's Era: Rethinking Black Feminist Theory" (242-56)
W 10/23Awkward, "A Black Man's Place in Black Feminist Criticism" (540-56)
M 10/28Ellison, Invisible Man, Prologue and Chs. 1-5 (3-135)
W 10/30Ellison, Invisible Man, Chs. 6-13 (136-295)
M 11/4Ellison, Invisible Man, Chs. 14-21 (296-461); Essay 2 beginning (critical summary/response) due
W 11/6Ellison, Invisible Man, Chs. 22-Epilogue (462-581)
M 11/11Film: View Jackie Brown prior to class
W 11/13Wager, Excerpt from Dames in the Driver's Seat (on reserve); hooks, Excerpt from Reel to Real (on reserve); Essay Two due
M 11/18Spillers, "All the Things You Could Be by Now..." (580-601); Tate, "Introduction: Race and Psychoanalysis" (on reserve)
W 11/20Nero, "Toward a Black Gay Aesthetic" (399-420); Ross, "Some Glances at the Black Fag" (498-522)
M 11/25Taylor, "Malcolm's Conk and Danto's Colors" (665-71)
M 12/2Christian, "The Race for Theory" (280-89)
W 12/4Concluding remarks
M 12/9FINAL EXAM, 7:00-8:15 p.m.
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