Plotting Girls: Looking at Little Women
For 150 years, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been a touchstone for understanding American girlhood. This course explores key contexts, including Transcendentalism and the American Civil War; the novel’s transgressive themes of gender and domesticity; and its many adaptations to see how notions of girlhood have developed through time.
We will begin with a discussion of Little Women’s place in 19th-century American literature, exploring the novel’s relationship to popular genres including the sentimental novel and the domestic novel. We will also spend time understanding the historical development of childhood. Modern ideas about childhood (such as the child’s natural innocence and childhood as a time of play and discovery) were established in the 19th century; previously, given high rates of child mortality and the need for children to contribute to the family, children were rarely treated differently than adults. Little Women charts a moment of transition in the idea of what children are, and it particularly theorises the role of the girl in society.
We will then move forward to think about different themes present in the novel, including religion, war and authorship. We will situate the novel’s religious views within the Alcott family’s relationship with Transcendentalism and 19th-century religious revivalism. The novel can also be considered an immediate reaction to the American Civil War, in which Alcott served as a nurse. The war provides an important context for understanding the role of Mr March within his family and the shift in gender roles that took place across the 19th century. Finally, we will consider Jo, Amy and Alcott as woman artists seeking to find a place for themselves within an aesthetic world that devalued their work.
The course concludes with a broad look at Little Women’s popularity today, surveying its many film and television adaptations (including the most recent film by Greta Gerwig) and an Indian web series. These adaptations allow us to ask how Little Women continues to entertain, challenge and affect us today.
Declaring Independence: Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature
When the Brooklyn poet Walt Whitman proclaimed in 1855 that the “United States” were history’s “greatest poem” he made an important connection between national political culture and literary expression. In some ways this was no exaggeration. As a new experiment in politics and culture, the United States had to be literally written into existence. Beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s dramatic Declaration of Independence in 1776, followed by the drafting of the Constitution after the Revolutionary War with Britain, the project of shaping the new United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was essentially a literary one. In this module we will explore how American writers in this period tried in numerous, diverse ways to locate an original literary voice through which to express their newfound independence. At the same time, the module includes the work of writers who had legitimate grievances against the developing character of a new nation that still saw fit to cling to such “Old World” traditions as racialized slavery, class conflict and gender inequality.
“Everybody Hates a Tourist”: Americans in the World
This course asked students to participate in the academic conversation surrounding a variety of interrelated topics as they learned to build rhetorical stances, write assertively, support stances with research, and revise for clarity and style. When students first read academic discourse and attempt to write in the academic mode, they might feel like a stranger attempting to speak a foreign tongue. As we gained a vocabulary for understanding—and adding your voice to—conversations in academia, we also explored the topic of foreignness and travel more broadly. Building from shared readings of texts about travel and being out of place, this course explored the foreign, asking how Americans have made their presence known in the world, whether as aid workers, tourists, diplomats, soldiers, or ex-pats, among other roles.
Advanced Composition in the Humanities
This course was designed to build on the general writing skills and techniques students receive in 101 and other university courses, and to prepare them for completing advanced level writing, analysis, and research tailored to their major discipline and possible future workplace. Students practiced the various genres of writing they were likely to encounter. Throughout the semester, we also learned to recognize the way(s) that knowledge is constructed in academic disciplines (focusing on students’ own disciplines or career interests), adapt writing to common purposes and audience needs, conduct and synthesize research, use computer technologies as part of the academic research and writing process, and produce writing that employs the organizational techniques and genres typical in the student’s discipline. We also focused on the professionalism and professional writing forms and techniques that students will need throughout their careers.
Monumental America: Memory, Memorial, Nation
John Quincy Adams famously observed, “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.” Yet nearly 250 years after America’s founding, monuments and memorials surround us every day—but how often do we stop to consider their place in our culture? This seminar explored the relationship between nation and monument, asking: how do monuments unite and how do they divide while telling narratives of national union? Primary readings included Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Emma Lazarus, Tony Horowitz, and Elizabeth Bishop, with secondary readings by Pierre Nora, David Blight, Erika Doss, and Maya Lynn. [This course was developed in response to my dissertation research thanks to the Cornell English department’s Shin Fellowship for Excellence in Research and Pedagogy.]
American Voices: Plotting Girls
Good Girls. Bad Girls. Mean Girls. These familiar modern stereotypes gesture toward ways that the girl has been classified and characterized in American culture and literature. Focused on the nineteenth century, this course explored American texts about (and sometimes by) girls. Among the questions the course addressed were: From a narratological perspective, how are girls “plotted”? How have formulations of gender, race, and age changed throughout the history of America? How do girl writers challenge traditional claims of authorship and authority? Primary readings included Harriet Jacobs, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Edith Wharton, with secondary readings by Steven Mintz, Henry James, and Jamaica Kincaid.
Literature of the American South
William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” These words guided us as we studied over three hundred years of literature written in and about the Southern United States. Like the authors we read, we concentrated on issues of individual memory and collective history. Topics of discussion included childhood, class, family, race and slavery, death, discovery and exploration. We read a mix of poetry, short fiction, drama, anthropology, history and memoir. Authors included Thomas Jefferson, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, and Flannery O’Connor.
The Mystery in the Story
Beginning with Sherlock Holmes and C. Auguste Dupin and continuing with Sam Spade and beyond, this course asked students to team up with great detectives of the past to solve The Mystery of the Mystery. The questions we asked included: what are the fundamental elements (narrative-related, character-related, plot-related) of the mystery story? How has the mystery genre changed or evolved since its “golden age”? What are our expectations of the mystery genre and how do authors confirm and subvert them? Readings included traditional detective stories by Poe, Doyle, and Christie; psychological thrillers; hardboiled and noir fiction; and postmodern mysteries by Borges and Pynchon, in addition to films.
- Teacher of a 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards National Medalist
- Shin Fellowship for Excellence in Research in Pedagogy, English Department, Cornell University
- Invited speaker on pedagogy, Meeting for First-Year Instructors, English Department, Cornell University
- Peer Collaboration, Knight Institute, Cornell University
- TA Mentorship, Knight Institute, Cornell University