LITR 5737: Literary & Historical Utopias--Syllabus

UHCL, summer 2005, 1st 5-wks session, M, T, Th 3-6pm

Instructor: Craig White.      Phone: 281 283 3380.       Email:

Office Hours: Mondays & Thursdays, 12-1, 6-6:30, and by appointment

Course webpage:


Course texts

Thomas More, Utopia (1516)

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)

Ayn Rand, Anthem (1938)

Genesis & Revelation (BCE > 1st century AD/CE)

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993)

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1975)


Student Assignments

·        Midterm 16 June (in-class or email) (30-40%)

·        Presentations, web submissions, attendance, participation (20%)

·        Final exam 30 June (40-50%)


Objectives (mostly in the form of questions)

Basic to all objectives is the striking uniqueness of “utopia” as both a fictional and a historical or cultural concept, creating an unusual interdisciplinary subject.


Literary Objectives (1 & 2)

1. Genre:


1a. How to define the literary genre of “utopias?” What demarcations and difficulties repeatedly appear?


1b. What different genres contribute to, interface with, or branch from utopia? (Examples: the novel, Socratic dialogue, political or social tracts, travel literature, science fiction, fantasy, satire, dystopia, ecotopia, parallel worlds. What others?)


1c. Can utopias join science fiction, speculative fiction, and allied genres in constituting a “literature of ideas?”


2. Narrative:

2a. What problems of plot or narrative rise from a utopian vision that minimizes conflict and maximizes description or exposition of success and harmony? What genre variations derive from these problems with plot?


2b. How much does the “plotlessness” of utopian fiction correspond to or circumvent the problem of arriving at utopia?


2c. How does the introduction of “millennialism” (end-time or apocalyptic narrative) transform the plot of the utopian narrative?


3. Historical / Cultural Objectives

Objective 3: Given the fact that utopian communities always fail (usually sooner rather than later), what historical critique of utopias is possible beyond “They don’t work” or “It’s futile?” (For instance, the fact that utopias always fail depends on the prior fact that people continue to imagine or attempt utopias.)


3a. What relations develop between fictional and actual utopian communities? What has been the historical impact of utopian fictions?


3b. What is utopia’s relation to time? Does utopia stop time, as with the millennial rapture? Or may utopia evolve?


3c. What literary, cultural, and historical prototypes exist for utopia?


3c. Is the utopian impulse universal, or is it special to western civilization, esp. in its modern phase? Has the utopian impulse become extinct or evolved? Is utopia “progressive / liberal” or “reactionary / conservative?”


3d. What is the relation of Utopia to America? What problems does the USA’s cultural context present for discussing utopian issues? (Especially contexts of the Cold War, the collapse of Marxist-Stalinist Communism, the ascendance of religious and freemarket fundamentalism, and stress on the family?


3e. What social structures, units, or identities does utopia expose, extend, or frustrate? What changes in child-rearing, feeding, marriage, aging, etc. result? (Social units or structures: person-individual, gender, sex, family [nuclear or extended], community, village/town/city, class, ethnicity, farm, region, tribe, clan, union, nation, ecosystem, planet.)


Interdisciplinary Objectives (4)

4a. What is the status of utopian and / or millennial studies as an interdisciplinary subject of study? What strengths and weaknesses result from this status? (Comparable interdisciplinary subjects include women’s studies, gender studies, ethnic studies [e. g., African American studies], future studies, millennialism.)


4b. What is the status of “virtual utopia” in science fiction and technology? How has utopian speculation, communication, and organization adapted to the Web? How does the Web itself assume utopian or millennial attributes?


4c. How do literature and literacy appear in utopian or dystopian cultures?


4d. How may a seminar classroom serve as a microcosm, model, or alternative for American culture? How does use of web instruction alter social dynamics?


4e. Is “utopia” too simple and singular a word or concept for the variety of phenomena it describes?



Formal Historical Presentations

Each student will make one formal presentation with a summary for posting to the course webpage. This formal presentations will concern historical subjects relative to utopia, though some are as literary as historical.


The student must provide a “Presentation Summary” for posting to the course webpage. This posting may be submitted beforehand and used during the presentation, or it may be submitted later.


Requirements for presentation and posting:


·        Background information on subject


·        Highlights of learning


·        Bullet points are generally preferable for web presentations except when quoting


·        Welcome to link to other websites as convenient or appropriate, but not required


·        Summarize learning and apply to 1 or 2 course objectives (Reference to course objectives may come earlier in presentation)


·        Lead seminar discussion by asking 1-3 questions. Also invite questions. Your question may be in the form of a question you were unable to resolve in your research. Questions may also relate to course readings or other course objectives. What sorts of issues are raised by your presentation, within or beyond the course objectives?


Historical Subjects for Formal Presentations


Impact of Bellamy’s Looking Backward on contemporary Progressive social movements. Consult websites on Research page and Jay Martin, Harvests of Change: American Literature, 1865-1914 (1967)


Kibbutz movement in early Israel (and later developments)

Historical Subjects for Formal Presentations (continued)


Arts and Crafts Movement


Pre-Civil War utopian movements in USA (Brook Farm, Fruitlands, Oneida Community, Shakers)


Sixties utopian movements


Feminist Utopias


Communitarian Movement (Amitai Etzionai)


Virtual utopias in cyberpunk or other sf


Utopian movements of the Renaissance


Heaven as utopia (see Revelation, Gates Ajar, Jehovah’s Witness literature)


Mormons as utopian movement?


Twin Oaks (contemporary intentional community in Virginia)


Charles Fourier


Oneida Community




Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Progressive Movement


Informal Presentations


Web review:

·        Before class, student will “tour” assigned websites on course webpage’s “Research Links” page.

·        For presentation, student shows each relevant link (omitting 1 or 2 if convenient) and briefly mentions materials available on course webpage. Student may also include additional websites, but not required or expected.

·        Student intensively reviews organization, contents, and highlights of 1 or 2 selected websites.

·        Student summarizes learning from preparation and review of websites.

·        Refer to 1 or 2 objectives somewhere in presentation.

·        Student invites questions or comments from seminar.

“Discussion-Starter” for reading assignment

·        Identify idea, theme, problem, or issue in the reading assignment. Ideally, relate this idea to a course objective, but not required.

·        Direct class (page numbers) to one or two brief passages and read selections, briefly commenting on application to opening theme or idea.

·        (The order of the first two steps may be reversed.)

·        Ask a question to begin discussion. The question should follow from your reading, but it may also appeal more broadly to the challenges that the text may present to the class. It may also refer to other class readings.

·        Lead discussion.

·        No requirements for written summary or email / webpage posting.


Midterm & Final Exams


Midterm exam: (Thursday, 16 June)

Format: in-class or email

Time: In-class students take the exam during class time (3-6pm). Email students can spend 3 hours writing in or around class time. Email exams are due by 7pm, 16 June.

Length: You should write for at least two hours. Most good students use all three hours writing and reworking.

Assignment: Write either one long essay or two medium-length essays on the following topics.

·        Describe a working or provisional definition of utopia, exploring its literary and historical backgrounds, challenges, and purposes. Refer to three of our four texts (Utopia, Looking Backward, Herland, Anthem) and 1-2 presentations. You are welcome and encouraged to consider the difficulties of making such a definition.

·        Question and develop a course objective, part of one, or some combination. Refer to three of our four texts (Utopia, Looking Backward, Herland, Anthem) and 1-2 presentations.


Final exam: (Thursday, 30 June)

Format: in-class or email

Time: In-class students take the exam during class time (3-6pm). Email students can spend 3 hours writing in or around class time. Email exams are due by 7pm, 16 June.

Length: You should write for at least two hours. Most good students use all three hours writing and reworking.

Assignment: Write two essays on the following topics.

Topic 1.

Evaluate and revise a course objective (or part of one, or some combination), referring to 3-4 course texts across the semester, with at least two coming since the midterm. Refer to at least one class presentation. Welcome to refer briefly to texts and information beyond course.


Topic 2. Write on one of the following two topics, unless you feel ingenious and want to combine them into a single topic.

2a. Evaluate the injection of “millennialism” into the utopian narrative. How does millennialism change the concept or dynamics of utopia? What literary or cultural advantages or disadvantages accrue? Refer to Revelation, Parable of the Sower, a presentation, and perhaps to another text, as helpful.

2b. How much does Callenbach’s Ecotopia resemble and differ from previous utopian texts? How much is an ecotopian concept already built into previous utopian or dystopian fictions, or not? Refer primarily to Ecotopia but also to two other texts and a presentation.


Note on grading

·        Percentages associated with assignments are not construed mathematically but only as approximate relative weight. Only letter grades are given (also pluses and minuses).

·        Grades are based primarily on quality of writing (or, for presentations, general thematic composition), judged in comparison with other students’ work. Your writing will be criticized in the interest of helping you improve. Criticism does not distinguish organization and style from content.

·        Review of your submissions takes time-limits of the summer schedule and exam writing into account, especially the lack of opportunities for revision. Experience has shown, however, that people’s timed writing is usually not radically different from their revised writing as indications of talent, thought, and preparation. Perfect fairness and optimal individual opportunity are rarely available in this non-utopian world, but the course arranges for all students to perform and be judged under similar conditions and standards.


Reading Schedule

Tuesday, 31 May: introduction


Thursday, 2 June: Utopia

Discussion leaders for Book 1, pp. 1-27: Ausmus, Hairgrove, Kitch

Discussion leaders for Book 2, pp. 28-57: Mayo, Palmer, Robison

Discussion leaders for Book 2, pp. 57-85: Sisneros, Smith, Welborn

Web review: Thomas More sites on course webpage: Matt Mayo


Monday, 6 June: Looking Backward

Historical presentation: Bobby Ausmus, Mormons as utopian community?

Discussion-starter: Keri Welborn

Web review: Edward Bellamy sites on course webpage: Diane Palmer


Tuesday, 7 June: Looking Backward; Herland

Historical Presentation: Gloria Sisneros, choice from remaining list

Discussion-starter: Bryon Smith

Web review: Utopian Organizations on webpage: Devon Kitch


Thursday, 9 June: Herland

Historical presentation: Keri Welborn, Oneida Community

Discussion-starter: Devon Kitch

Web review: Charlotte Perkins Gilman sites on course webpage: Matt Mayo


Monday, 13 June: Anthem

Historical presentation: Diane Palmer, Kibbutz

Discussion-starter: Bobby Ausmus

Web review: Ayn Rand sites on course webpage: Gloria Sisneros


Tuesday, 14 June: Anthem

Discussion-starter: Dolores Hairgrove

Web review: Literary Collections or Courses: Daniel Robison


Thursday, 16 June: midterm


Monday, 20 June: Genesis & Revelation

Historical presentation: Daniel Robison, Heaven as utopia

Discussion-starter: Diane Palmer

Web review: Kibbutzim of Israel: Bryon Smith


Tuesday, 21 June: Parable of the Sower

Historical presentation: Bryon Smith, Mormons as utopia?

Discussion-starter: Gloria Sisneros

Web review: Octavia Butler sites on course webpage: Dolores Hairgrove


Thursday, 23 June: Parable of the Sower

Historical presentation: Dolores Hairgrove, choice from remaining list

Web review: Auroville: Bobby Ausmus

Visit from LITR M. A. candidate writing thesis on speculative fiction


Monday, 27 June: Ecotopia

Historical presentation: Matt Mayo, Twin Oaks

Discussion-starter: Daniel Robison

Web review: Ernest Callenbach sites on course webpage: Keri Welborn


Tuesday, 28 June: Ecotopia

Historical presentation: Devon Kitch, 60s Utopias

Discussion-starter: Matt Mayo

Web review: New Urbanism / Suburbs-Exurbs / Celebration: Daniel Robison


Thursday, 30 June: final exam