LITR 5737: Literary & Historical Utopias

UHCL, summer 2007, 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)

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1975)


Selections from Plato’s Republic,
other classic texts, and multicultural texts
including slave narratives and Indian speeches


Student Assignments

·        Midterm 18 June (in-class or email) (30-40%)

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

·        Final exam 2 July (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)

Objective 1. the Utopian Genre

1a. How to define the literary genre of “utopias?” What elements and difficulties repeatedly appear? What audiences are involved or excluded?


1b. What different genres contribute to, interface with, or branch from utopia? Examples: dystopia, ecotopia, Socratic dialogue, tract, propaganda, satire, science fiction, fantasy, novel / romance, adventure / travel narrative. Others?


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


1d. What other stylistic or affective elements recur? Examples: nostalgia, hope, alienation, displacement or transference, didacticism.


Objective 2. Utopian Narratives

2a. What kinds of stories rise from or fit with the attempt to describe an ideal or dystopian community?


2b. 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?


2c. What tensions rise between the author’s description of a social theory and the reader’s demand for a story?


2d. How essential is “millennialism” (apocalyptic or end-time narrative) to the utopian narrative?


Objective 3. Historical / Cultural Objectives

3a.To investigate historical, nonfiction attempts by “communes,” “intentional communities,” or even nations to put utopian ideals into practice. Admittedly, all utopian communities eventually fail (or at least submerge), but how to get beyond “They don’t work” as a discussion-stopper? (For instance, even if all utopias fail, that doesn’t stop people from imagining or attempting utopias.)


3b.Are utopian impulses limited to socialism and communism, or may freemarket capitalism also express itself in utopian terms and visions? Is utopia “progressive / liberal” or “reactionary / conservative?” What relations between “self and other” are modeled?


3c. What literary, cultural, and historical prototypes exist for utopia? Is the utopian impulse universal, or is it unique to western civilization, esp. in its modern phase?


3d. In postmodern history, is the utopian impulse extinct? Can utopian ideals survive the postmodern universal of irony?


3e. What relations are there between fictional and actual utopian communities? What has been the historical impact of utopian fictions?


3f. What social structures, units, or identities does utopia expose or frustrate? What changes result in child-rearing, feeding, marriage, aging, sexuality, etc.? (Social units or structures: person/individual/self, gender, sex, family [nuclear or extended], community, village/town/city, class, ethnicity, farm, region, tribe, clan, union, nation, ecosystem, planet.) How may utopian studies shift the usual American arguments over race, sex, faith, and gender to cultural and socio-economic class?


3g. What is utopia’s relation to time and history? Does a utopia stop time, as with the millennial rapture or an idea of perfection? Or can utopias change, evolve, and adapt to the changes of history?


3h. Since our major texts are all set in North America, 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?)


Interdisciplinary Objectives (4)

4a. What academic subjects or disciplines are involved with utopian studies? Examples: literature, history, sociology, economics, architecture, urban planning?


4b. How may utopian or millennial studies serve 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, whiteness studies], future studies, millennialism.)


4c. Is “utopia” too simple and singular a word or concept for the variety of phenomena it describes? Conversely, what does utopia reveal about an author’s or culture’s cosmology or worldview, as well as cosmogonies or origin / creation stories?


4d. How do literature and literacy appear in utopian or dystopian cultures? Include computer literacy: What is a “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?


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


Student Presentations / Class Leadership


Formal Historical Presentation

Each student will make one formal presentation with a summary for posting to the course webpage. This formal presentation will concern a historical subject 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 experience and application to 1 or 2 course objectives


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


·        Link to other websites as convenient or appropriate, but not required. If subject was covered in 2005, you should refer to it at least briefly and perhaps extensively.


·        Invite questions. Lead discussion by asking 1-3 questions relating to issues your research was unable to resolve. Questions may also relate to course readings. What issues concerning utopian studies are raised by your presentation, within or beyond the course texts and objectives?



Historical Subjects for Formal Presentations


You are welcome to propose your own topics, as long as they obviously fall within the range of the course and its objectives. Or you may focus on particular aspects of these topics.


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, briefly overview links and mention materials available.

·        Intensively review organization, contents, and highlights of 1 or 2 selected websites.

·        Summarize learning from review of websites.

·        Refer to 1 or 2 objectives somewhere in presentation.

·        Invite questions or comments from seminar.


“Discussion-Starter” for reading assignment

·        Identify idea, theme, problem, or issue in the reading assignment and relate to a course objective

·        Direct seminar to to one or two brief passages (page numbers) 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. You may also refer to other class readings.

·        Lead discussion.








midterm exam (Monday, 18 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 8pm, 18 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

Format: out-of-class; email submissions preferred, but paper submissions acceptable

Due by Tuesday, 3 June at noon, though earlier submissions may be accepted after final class meeting on 28 June.

No meeting on 2 July: Instructor will be in office; welcome to confer, phone, or email.

Length & time: Spend 3-4 hours writing. Keep a log of your time writing.

Content: Two essays selected from following three options—identify which questions you’re answering.


Essay Topic 1. Evaluate and revise a course objective (or part of one, or some combination). You are welcome to continue ideas you started with your midterm.

Required references: 

Refer to 3-4 course texts across the semester, with at least two coming since the midterm.

Refer to at least one class presentation.

Refer to one exam answer from the 2005 model assignments. (This essay assignment was Topic 1 in the 2005 final exam.)

Welcome to refer briefly to texts and information beyond course, but not required.


Essay 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, one or two other texts, and a presentation.

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.

Essay Topic 3

Evaluate the significance, worthiness, and range of utopian studies as a topic for literature courses at any educational level. What advantages and risks does the subject pose? What potential for motivating or alienating students? What are the positives and negatives of utopian studies in contrast to our educational and economic systems’ emphasis that “you have to do it for yourself?”



final grade report

I will turn in final grades to the registrar during the week following the final exam. Additionally, I will email each student a final grade report or tally. Though this message should be accurate, it is “unofficial”: none of its information is recorded or supported by the university registrar. The message will appear thus:


LITR 5737 2007 final grade report


Contact information


Midterm grade:

Overall grade for presentations, participation, attendance:

Final exam grade:

Course grade:


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, thematic cogency), 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 and intention.

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


Attendance policy: You are expected to attend every scheduled class meeting. You may take one free cut. More than one absence jeopardizes your status in the course. If you miss more than one class (especially early in the session), you are encouraged to drop.

Partial absences also count negatively.

Even with medical or other emergency excuses, an excessive number of absences (full or partial) results in a lower or failing grade.

            More than one absence affects final grades.  You are always welcome to discuss your standing in the course.

            Attendance is primarily taken by means of daily quizzes. If you miss the quiz, be sure the instructor is aware of your attendance.


Academic Honesty Policy: Please refer to the catalog for the Academic Honesty Policy (2006-2007 Catalog, pp. 78-81).  Plagiarism—that is, using research without citations or copying someone else’s work as your own—will result in a grade penalty or failure of the course. Refer to the UHCL catalogue for further details regarding expectations and potential penalties.


Disabilities: If you have a disability and need a special accommodation, consult first with the Health Center and then discuss the accommodation with me.


Incompletes: A grade of "I" is given only in cases of documented emergency late in the semester.  An Incomplete Grade Contract must be completed.


Make-up exam policy: Ask way in advance for times before the regular exam.  Professor has the right to refuse accommodations requested on short notice.


Late submissions: Any student who submits late materials is subject to lower grades, either in individual grades or course grades.


Reading, meeting, and presentation schedule

Tuesday, 29 May: introduction with visit from previous LITR 5737 student


Thursday, 31 May: Utopia

Discussion starter for Book 1, pp. 1-27; Book 2, pp. 28-57: Kristen Bird

Web review: Thomas More sites on course webpage: Amy Braselton


Monday, 4 June: conclude Utopia; begin Looking Backward (chapters 1-4; handout on historical impact)

Discussion-starter: Gordon Lewis

Historical presentation: Utopian movements of the Renaissance: Fran Baines


Tuesday, 5 June: Looking Backward (complete)

Discussion-starter: Donny L. Leveston

Historical Presentation: Liz Davis: Christianopolis


Thursday, 7 June: begin Herland (through chapter 6--through p. 72 in Pantheon edition)

Discussion-starter: Fran Baines

Historical presentation: Oneida community / corporation—Tish Wallace

Web review: Charlotte Perkins Gilman sites on course webpage: Yvonne Hopkins


Monday, 11 June: conclude Herland

Historical presentation: Jo Lynn Sallee: Twin Oaks

Discussion-starter: Brouke M. Rose-Carpenter

Web review: Ayn Rand sites on course webpage: Donny Wankan


Tuesday, 12 June: Anthem

Historical presentation: Brouke M. Rose-Carpenter (feminist utopias)

Discussion-starter: Tish Wallace


Thursday, 14 June: Anthem

Historical presentation: Amy Braselton: Islamic utopias or utopias gone too far

Roundtable discussion on midterms


Monday, 18 June: midterm


Tuesday, 19 June: selections from Genesis & Revelation; the Book of Acts; Plato’s Republic; American founding documents

Historical presentation: Heaven as utopia?—Cindy Goodson

Preview of Dr. King’s Dream Speech: Liz Davis

Historical presentation +- Web review: Kibbutzim of Israel: Gordon Lewis


Thursday, 21 June: alternative or multicultural utopias: selections from African American slave narratives; Dr. King’s Dream Speech; speech by Chief Seattle;

Historical presentation: Donny L. Leveston (open choice)

Discussion-starter: Carlos Castillo

Web review: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists: Carmen Ashby


Monday, 25 June: begin Ecotopia

Historical presentation: sixties utopian movements—Ruth Pilarte

Historical presentation +- web review: Auroville: Carlos Castillo


Tuesday, 26 June: Instructor leads with page samples from Toni Morrison’s Paradise (African American novel with utopian themes) and two virtual-reality novels with utopian themes (Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash [1992] and Dennis Danvers’s Circuit of Heaven [1998])

Historical presentation: virtual utopias or Rainbow Gatherings: Donny Wankan

Web review: Ernest Callenbach sites on course webpage: Ruth Pilarte


Thursday, 28 June: conclude Ecotopia

Discussion-starter: Cindy Goodson

Historical presentation: Amish community / lifestyle: Kristen Bird

Historical presentation: New Urbanism: Yvonne Hopkins


Monday, 2 July: final exam due by Tuesday, 3 July at noon.