LITR 5733: Seminar in American Culture   Fall, 1995-96, UHCL

"American Utopias, Dystopias, and Parallel Worlds" Bayou 1435

Instructor: Craig White

Office: 1529-4 Bayou E-mail:

Caveat: Data stated and contracts implied in this syllabus may change with minimal notice in fair hearings at class meetings.


Course Objectives:

1. To read classic and contemporary utopian fiction written in the United States of America; to mark sub-genres of "dystopia" and "parallel world"; to examine texts as products and representations of American culture and history.

2. To isolate literary features of utopian texts.

3. To observe manifestations of literature and literacy in utopian or dystopian cultures.

4. To defamiliarize and explore alternatives to continuing problems or ideas in American culture: equality; race, class, gender; individual, family, community, and nation; religion and state; science, technology, and violence; capitalism as consumerism and humane economies; overpopulation, economies of scale, and sustainable limits.

5. To develop the seminar as a microcosm of or alternative to American culture.



Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)

Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (1991)

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992)



Literature interprets and promotes signs and values of quality, leading people to speak and write in broadly constructive, non-reductive ways not limited to numbers.  Students earn grades by reading well, by discussing helpfully, and above all by writing essays that relate and interpret texts provocatively and intelligently.

Percentages in the following disposition indicate the assignments' approximate, relative weight, and are not to be construed mathematically:


Take-home midterm exam; 5-7 pages; due 25 September (30%)

Essay proposal (ungraded, hand in 30 October)

Final Essay; 12-15 pages; due 4 December (60%)

Class participation, presentation, and attendance (10%)


Only letter grades are given; pluses and minuses may appear on component and final grades.



Take-home midterm exam (due 25 September; length: 5-7 pages typed or printed-out, or equivalent length in hand-printing).  Write a unified, thesis-driven essay comparing and contrasting Looking Backward, Herland, and Blithedale Romance as utopian novels.  Construct your own thesis, but some possible considerations might include the following:

* How successfully do these texts (or their utopian communites) represent or promote alternative economies and lifestyles?

* What problems or themes of human or American life do these texts repeatedly deal with, and how successfully?  What elements of human life can or cannot be controlled?

* One example of a problem that all these novels deal with or represent is that of labor, especially its division according to class and gender, but you could also narrow your topic by focusing on other issues mentioned or implied in the course objectives.


Essay proposal (to be handed in 30 October): Length is half a page to a page, handwritten or typed.  This is your opportunity to start thinking, to explore an idea, and to get a response to your essay topic (see below).  You can change your topic at any time simply by handing in another proposal.

Indicate which text(s) you are considering as the basis for your paper.  What kind of overall point or thesis would you like to consider regarding these texts?  In concluding your proposal, ask a question or questions about the direction you're choosing.


Final Essay (due 4 December; no late submissions).  Length is approximately 12-15 pages typed or printed-out.  The subject is your choice, but please follow these guidelines.

Use at least two texts in your analysis; at least one text should be from the course; one text may receive primary attention, with the other(s) serving as background or comparison; you may combine two or more primary texts or a primary text with a critical text(s).

      The subject should relate to this course in such a way that a member of this class could appreciate the point that it's making; furthermore, make your topic and thesis matter to a person living and thinking at our moment in history--what problem or issue in literature or American culture do these texts and your essay present, and what can one learn by reading these texts in the way you suggest?

Regarding critical or secondary sources, I do not have any absolute requirements, but you should read background sources and critical articles on your subject.  Even if you do not use these articles directly in your essay, doing secondary reading tends to sharpen your critical vocabulary and raise your awareness of the issues involved.  At the least, bring in some factual or background material from a source outside the primary text.


Honor Code:  Plagiarism shouldn't be a problem; confer if you face doubts or questions.  I prefer to look at troubles in this area first as technical difficulties.  However, straight copying without proper introduction and documentation looks bad in all respects and may be severely downgraded, even to no credit.  Copying someone else's test leads to heavy losses of credit for the test and the course in general.  Refer to the UHCL catalogue for further details regarding expectations and potential penalties.


Warning about Standards: In reading and grading your writing, I cannot separate your ideas from their expression.  That is, your quality of thought is determined by the quality of your writing.  "It has to happen on the page."  Grades you receive and criticisms I make usually concern writing as much as content-- literary studies teach critical thinking skills as much or more than any particular content.  This can be intellectually liberating for you: your writing is read less for "the right answer" than for an intelligent interpretation of texts, issues, and contexts.

  Advice on writing:

* Feature your thesis--your overall, climactic point--strongly in your introduction and in your paragraphs' topic sentences, plus or minus summarizing sentences at ends of paragraphs.

* Draft more than you need, then condense and rewrite before printing out.  (The more you repeat this process, the more it helps.)

* Best advice for rewriting or revising: move your strongest material up to the tops of paragraphs or introductory materials.  As far as this proves sensible, this approach forces you to maintain a high level of quality as you develop, extend, or support these leading points.

* Next best advice in rewriting: unify your rhetoric, especially metaphors and other figures of speech.  Look for models of this in your critical reading.

* No or few long quotes.  Mix your and their language.  Quote the very best words and match them with yours.

* Consulting your primary text, ask yourself what you remember and why.  Read from scene to scene or page to page.  Compare scenes, pages, and language (shared and differing) from other texts, or from other voices within the text.

* Consulting secondary texts, look for conclusive material and useful figures of speech.

* Take chances! Follow your heart! Harken to your muse! Push your ideas as far as they'll go, then rest, return, and rethink--lift and carry.  Rewrite until your risks pay off or become safe.


Class participation

My leadership of the class usually mixes lecture and "Socratic" discussion; that is, the instructor offers readings and asks questions of the students.  Students' participation will be judged less on quantity than on appropriateness to the topic under discussion and the point being pursued.  In borderline grading situations, the quality of a student's classroom participation can raise or lower the final grade.


When called on to speak, try to make one point per turn.  Avoid having a list of remarks on several topics.  Too much at once tends to confuse the response of your classmates or instructor.  Emphasize the most important point you're making at that given moment.


Class presentations


For purposes of training students and varying class leadership, each student will prepare and give at least one 5-10 minute presentation.  Students have one of two options, which will be determined by student choice and scheduling demands.


Selection reader option:

      The student selects a passage (or two or three brief, related passages) from the assigned reading for the class meeting and relates it to one of the course objectives (or another significant point the course has developed).  In the presentation, which will take place in the first half of the class meeting, the student will identify the course objective that is under consideration, locate the passage for the rest of the class, read the passage aloud, then comment on it.  The student should conclude the formal presentation and commentary by summarizing the overall point her or his reading intended to make in relation to the objective and the text.

      The student may then invite further comments from other students or the instructor.


Outside reader:

   In this option, the student shares a reading (bring enough photocopies for the class) of an outside text or plays an electronic text from outside the course's readings and relates the text to one of the course objectives (or another significant point the course has developed).

examples: a page or two of a novel, speech, or document; a lyric poem; a tape or cd; a video--or combine these; or suggest alternatives.  Outside reader presentations will take place at the end of class (i. e., in the final ten minutes of each class meeting; in case of two presentations in one night, one will take place before the break).

      The format is much like that of the selection-reader presentation.  The student will hand out the photocopies or set up the electronic text, identify the course objective that is


Class participation and presentations (continued)

under consideration, read the passage aloud or play the electronic text, then comment on it.  The student should conclude the formal presentation and commentary by summarizing the overall point her or his reading intended to make in relation to the objective and the text.

      The student may then invite further comments from other students or the instructor.


Requirements for student presentation:


1. Limit five to ten minutes.  After ten minutes, the instructor will stand to signal that students may leave, though they may stay for informal discussion.

2. Your presentation should prominently feature an overall point relating to a course objective (or to some other point the course develops).  Announce this point (or objective) in your introductory remarks and repeat it in your closing remarks.

3. By the end of the class prior to your presentation, outside readers should confer with the instructor regarding your chosen objective text and medium (to provide necessary equipment and avoid overlap).

4. Selection readers should call the instructor by the afternoon of the class meeting to tell him what pages of the text s/he will be reading and what objective is under consideration.


Attendance policy: You are permitted one absence without remark or penalty.  On a second absence, your standing in the course and your grade begin slowly but definitely to deteriorate.  Repeated absences cause a significantly lower grade and even failure, even with medically excused absences.  You're always welcome to confer and ask help or discuss your standing in the course.


Reading and Presentation Schedule

21 August: introduction; Plato's Republic; Augustine's City of God; More's Utopia; Genesis; and others.

28 August: Looking Backward (complete)

selection reader: Peggy Chalastaras

outside reader: Carla Griffin


4 September: Labor Day


11 September: Herland (complete)

selection reader: Jenny Vassberg

outside reader: Kathy Crawford


18 September: Blithedale Romance (through ch. 18, p. 147; change, plus Emerson, "Historical Notes on New England, pp. 258-65)

selection reader: Prathima Maramraj

outside reader: Rick Faulkner

25 September: Blithedale Romance (complete); take-home midterm exam due


2 October: The Dispossessed (through ch. 7, p. 232)

selection reader: Rebecca Shaddix

outside reader: Margie Ward


9 October: The Dispossessed (complete); The Handmaid's Tale (through ch. 5, p. 98)

selection reader: Cathy Moore

outside reader: Larry Crouch


16 October: The Handmaid's Tale (complete)

selection reader: Karen Tatum

outside reader: Lillian Langston


23 October: Woman on the Edge of Time (through ch. 11, p. 237)

selection reader: Madeleine Pardo

outside reader: Joanie Glendenning


30 October: Woman on the Edge of Time (complete) (essay proposal due)

selection reader: Carol Juneau

outside reader: Kwang Yeon Cho (Joe)


6 November: Almanac of the Dead (through Part One, to page 253)

selection reader:  R. Annie Kirschke-Cole

outside reader: Amy Hopson


13 November: Almanac of the Dead (groups of students will be assigned Parts Two, Three, Four, and Five; all students read Part Six, pp. 707-763.


20 November: Snow Crash (through ch. 31, p. 241) (class meeting may be shared with FUTR 5131, "Introduction to Future Studies)

selection reader: Suzette Chapman

outside reader: Amy Slaney



27 November: Snow Crash (complete) (class meeting may be shared with FUTR 5131, "Introduction to Future Studies)

(Readers for this day may be shifted from 20 November, depending on scheduling.)


4 December: final essays due (Hand in with SASE with adequate postage if you want me to mail your essay and my remarks to you.)