Sensibility and Its Discontents
ENGLISH 241.301: SENSIBILITY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
Professor: Michael Gamer
Office and Phone: 203 Bennett Hall, (215) 898-7346
Office Hours: Tuesday 12:15-2:30 p.m, Thursday by appointment.
WATU Tutor: Aselda
Aselda Thompson's Office, Phone, and Office Hours: TBA
TEXTS FOR COURSE:
Books: Available at Penn Book Center, 3726 Walnut Ave.,
Coursepack: Available at Wharton Reprographics, Basement of
Wharton School, Locust Walk.
More men and women blush, weep, gnash their teeth, or fling themselves
out of windows, against walls, or at the feet of parents in the literature
of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than perhaps any other,
and this course on its most fundamental level will explore why writers in
these decades were so obsessed with emotion and its explosive
significance. Put generally, we will explore what literary historians
traditionally have called the Age of Sensibility, a movement
(approximately 1740-1840) that dovetails with Romanticism and extends even
into early Victorian writing. Because it claimed to explain human
behavior, pleasure, and motivation, sensibility figured centrally in the
political, religious, philosophical, and psychological debates of these
years. We therefore will define sensibility out of its empiricist roots in
the Scottish Enlightenment and explore its popularization in Graveyard
Poetry and Sentimental Fiction, trace its evolution in Gothic and German
drama, and end with writing we usually associate with "Romanticism." Our
primary authors will be some familiar and others unfamiliar: Jane Austen,
Anna Letitia Barbauld, Joanna Baillie, Edmund Burke, Samuel Coleridge, The
Della Cruscan Poets, Thomas Gray, Elizabeth Inchbald, August von Kotzebue,
Henry Mackenzie, Hannah More, Friedrich Schiller, Adam Smith, Friedrich
Schiller, Charlotte Smith, Lawrence Sterne, Helen Maria Williams, and
William Wordsworth. There will be weekly responses, a short paper, a
presentation, a long paper, and a final exam.
This course does require you to have an electronic mail account and to
use the world wide web. I do this because I use electronic mail as my
chief way of making course announcements, sending out reminders, and
communicating with you. This course will have an electronic listserver
that will have all of the class members' names on it. If you send a
message to firstname.lastname@example.org,
your message will go to everyone in the class. This way, you will be able
to do many things:
- Conduct discussions outside of class
- Ask for information on what we did in class if you miss a meeting
- Test paper ideas out on each other
- Brainstorm regarding the final exam, etc.
Important Computer Addresses:
This class will conduct itself as a seminar--that is, as a
group of people sharing mutual interests who meet regularly to pursue
those interests. Our class, consequently, will be discussion-based and
largely egalitarian. This means that the class will only work if you come
prepared to talk, to listen, to question, and to argue with me and with
one another. I've set up the course so that you will have considerable
freedom to come into class with your own agendas and questions. Obviously,
with this freedom comes responsibility. On the one hand, as a class, we
must agree to honor each other's interests and intellectual tangents, and
respect what each other thinks is important; on the other hand, it is
every seminar member's responsibility to be succinct, and not to waste the
rest of the members' time by gassing on incoherently about a personal
hobby-horse. Most importantly, it means responding to one another
rather than talking at one another. If this all sounds a bit like a
marriage ceremony, that's not entirely accidental; we're going to have to
live with one another, for better or for worse, for 42 hours of class
time. So, if you are extremely shy to the point of being incapable of
participating in an open and thoughtful discussion, I don't think that
this is the class for you.
Format of Class Meetings:
Beginning on Sunday of week #3 (September 20) and extending through
Thanksgiving, each member of the class will submit a response to the
course listserver of 300-500 words. Between Sunday evening and Monday
morning, your assignment will be to print and read each other's responses
closely, AND to come in with at least two passages from the responses that
you want to read aloud to the class and discuss. Usually, we will begin
class by reading aloud excerpts from these responses, and from these put
together an agenda for that particular class. In general, you can expect
me to come in every class with 45 minutes of my own agenda planned; in
turn, I will expect you as a whole to bring in at least 30 minutes of
questions, observations, and discoveries about the reading.
- The one week you will not be doing a response will be the week you
are doing an oral presentation. These presentations will take place on the
Thursday of each week.
As this course is a small seminar, your presence matters. Since I know
that disasters happen unexpectedly during the semester, I allow you two
absences. Since there's no such thing in this class as an "excused"
absence, I don't want to know why you miss class; your two absences are
your business. Therefore, please do NOT explain to me why you miss
class unless it involves a major illness that you can document.
Missing more than two classes is equally your business, but it will
significantly lower your grade, since it will inhibit your ability to
contribute significantly to our discussions. You should count on 3-4
absences lowering your grade by 1/3 (B to B-, for example), 5-6 by 2/3 (B
to C+), 7-8 by one full grade (B to C), etc. More than 10 will constitute
failing the course.
Assignments and Graded Work for the Course
1) Weekly Responses (25% of the grade; approximately 300-500 words
each): Part of the weekly preparation for our meetings will be for you
to write a weekly response that you will send to
email@example.com. These responses will be due on Sunday, by
6 p.m., beginning on September 20 (week #3) and ending the week of
Thanksgiving. You should know that I will downgrade these if they arrive
late, since they constitute the single most important part of the course.
They will be the basis from which we begin our discussions, and will play
a key role in my sense of your involvment and performance in the course.
- Once you have written your response, you will then have
from Sunday night until Tuesday morning to print all of the responses and
read through them. Your job will be to select two passages from the
responses that you like immensely--or disagree with strongly--and be
prepared to read those passages aloud and explain why you want to discuss
them. Obviously, bring all of the responses for that week to class--and do
write your own questions all over them. You will also find, if you look on
your e-mail before you compose your response, that many times the
responses of your colleagues will prove to be as much a catalyst to your
own writing as the reading itself, and will often be a help to you in
writing your own papers (just remember to footnote your source). So, for
weeks 3-11 (until Thanksgiving), this will be our weekly schedule:
responses due by 6 p.m. on Sunday, reading and printing of responses done
by the time we meet as a class on Tuesday.
2) The Short Presentation: Once during the semester, I am going
to ask you to do a 7-10 minute presentation (if there are two of you do
not go over 15 mins; if there are three of you do not go over 20 mins.)
on how a given book we are reading was reviewed or received. I promise to
stop anyone who goes over their alloted time. These will occur beginning
in week #4 of the course, usually on a Thursday. If you have a response
due also that week, you're more than welcome to do it a week earlier or a
week later than usual.
3) Portfolio (65%% of grade): The portfolio is due in on
December 17 at 4 p.m. It will consist of a final version of
your short paper and your long papers, which I will have read in draft
during the semester.
- i) Short Paper (25% of grade, no more than 2000 words): I
would like you, at any point before fall break, to write me a 4-6 page
essay (less than 1500 words) that fulfills the following assignment: "At
some point during the semester, you will find that we as a group have
missed the boat in discussing a particular text. We either will have
ignored a vital aspect of that text or else misread it; either that or
else we simply will have failed to discuss the text from an important
perspective. Perhaps in class you will even have raised this key issue
only to find that, for some reason, the class ignores it for some other
issue. It is very likely that in illuminating one area of the text we will
make ourselves blind to other, equally interesting, areas of the same
text. Or possibly we will fail to discuss--or gloss over superficially--an
entire section or even an entire text (possible in the case of the shorter
ones). Write an essay that situates itself in relation to this class
discussion--one that aims to show the class another, better way of reading
this text. How does reading this particular text from your angle change
what that text means or can mean? For example, perhaps we have failed in
discussion to notice key political or homoerotic aspects of a novel or
essay; by exploring these aspects, how does this change what the text can
signify? How does it alter the meaning that we can make out of the text?
You may use responses and discussions from the class listserver as well as
class discussions for this assignment."
- This assignment is
designed to make you identify a discussion that is already--or has
already--taken place and to situate your own reading and argument in
relation to that discussion. The goal of your essay, then, should be to
intervene in our discussion--to describe that critical conversation, to
explain (in relation to it) what you want us to see, and then to show us
how to see it and argue why you want us to see it. Your Essay should at
least do the following:
- (1) Describe what particular class conversation to which you are
responding. You need especially to explain what blind spot or deficiency
in that critical conversation that you are seeking to address and
- (2) Analyze in detail the aspect of, approach to, or angle on, the
text that you are interested in, spending time demonstrating how it works
and what its larger function is within the text;
- (3) demonstrate how your analysis illuminates the text and forces us
to change our stance on the text or this issue; in other words, you will
need to spend your last several paragraphs explaining how your analysis
challenges the meanings that we produced in our class discussion, and even
transforms it. This means that you will need to justify the value of your
- Regarding (3), you may wish to think of the
assignment in this way: if you are going to force your readers to slog
through 1500 words of your analysis--not unlike climbing a steep
hill--there'd better be a pretty good view at the top of that hill. You
are addressing readers who have read your text and see it in a certain
way; your job is to show us another, equally interesting, way of seeing
the text. What does your analysis illuminate that we couldn't see before,
and why do you think that this is ultimately an interesting or valuable
thing to see?
- ii) Long Paper: (40% of grade): This essay should be at least
2500 words, and should not be padded. You should consider it to be just
like the articles that you read during the semester, and you should follow
the conventions of critical articles. It is probably best to conceptualize
this essay as a longer version of the short essay (see above), except that
you will be intervening in a current, real, existing discussion occurring
between literary critics in print out there. This means that the
aim of this essay is still to challenge and transform existing
interpretations of your text in question, but that those existing
interpretations will gathered from recent published literary criticism.
Therefore, you will need to acquaint yourself with the critical literature
out there that concerns itself with your texts or issues, and that you
should make yourself an expert in your texts' reception and production.
You should think of your audience, then, as no longer your classmates but
rather as the very critics out there whom you are reading, and who are
therefore interested in the same issues that you are.
Important: For both this assignment and the long essay (see
below), you'll find that the critical articles that we read during the
semester--and the ones you read on your own--will be helpful as models,
since critical essays usually go about their business in the same way that
I have outlined above for the short essay assignment. You may find it a
good exercise to read the critical articles for the course with an eye to
writing your own essays. What problem is a given critic re-examining? Why?
How is that critic intervening in an already-existing critical
conversation? How does that critic wish to transform that critical
conversation and/or the poem at hand? Therefore, I strongly suggest that
you find a critical writer whom you like and emulate that critic's way of
setting up (framing) a problem. This is very different from plagiarizing
someone's argument or content; instead, I mean that you should study a
writer or an article that you find both persuasive and beautifully
written, and try to understand how that writer structures arguments and
4) Conference: (10% of grade): At the end of the semester we
will hold a conference where we can share our work.
A Note on Late Work and Extensions: During the semester, I DO
NOT ACCEPT LATE DRAFTS. If you do not make the deadline for the short or
long essay, it does not directly affect your grade; you simply lose that
opportunity for me to read your work and provide you with feedback. I do
this because I do not want anything to do with the hassles of students
asking for extensions, bringing excuses, etc. I will only read each paper
you write once before the portfolio. However, I am happy to discuss work
in progress with you during my office hours or by appointment; and will be
very happy to talk with you about an essay that I've commented upon.
Sept 10: Introduction to the course. Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a
Part One: Sensibility in Theory and in Practice.
Sept 15: Read Adam Smith, A
Theory of Moral Sentiments and The
Wealth of Nations (selections).
Sept 17: Read John Aikin and Anna Letitia Aikin (later Barbauld), "On
the Pleasure Derived from Observing Objects of Distress" (1773); and Henry
Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling (first half).
Sept 22: Finish Mackenzie.
Sept. 24: Read Lawrence Sterne, A Sentimental
Journey (1st half).
Sept. 29: Finish Sterne.
Part Two: Problems of Excess.
Oct 1: Read Samuel
Johnson, Rambler #4 and #17. Read Richard Brinsley Sheridan The
School for Scandal
Oct 6: Finish Sheridan.
Oct 8: Read Hannah More,
"Sensibility"; and Helen
Maria Williams, "To Sensibility."
Oct 13: Read Charlotte
Smith, Elegiac Sonnets (selections, 1784). Read Stuart Curran,
"Introduction" to The Poems of Charlotte Smith (1993). Question:
For Smith, is the poet a mirror that reflects other people's
emotion?; is the poet an instrument like an Aeolian Harp, that makes music
when wind (or feeling) blows through its strings? What is the relation of
feeling to poetry in her volume? Presentation: Don Zimmerman on
Oct 15: Read Edmund Burke, A
Philosophical Inquiry into...the
Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Read David
Hume, "Of Tragedy" and Anna
Letitia Aikin (later Barbauld), "On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of
Fear" (1773). Question: I'd like you especially to focus on the
problem of "tragedy"--of why do people get pleasure from observing others
in pain--in these essays. Why does Hume simply avoid the notion that there
may be sadistic elements in human nature? Why is this so threatening to
him? Where do Barbauld and Burke stand on this issue?
Oct 20: Read Helen
Maria Williams, selections from Poems (1786). Read William
Wordsworth, "Sonnet on Seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams weep at a Tale of
Distress." Question: What is the function of
responding--the idea that poetry comes forth as a response to
outside stimuli--in these poems? Do they have a theory of inspiration?
Oct 22: Read Jerome McGann, "The Literal World of the English Della
Cruscans" (1996). Begin reading The British Album (1790).
Oct 27: Read Judith Pascoe, "'That fluttering, tinselled crew': Women
Poets and Della Cruscanism" (1997; from Romantic Theatricality).
Finish The British Album.
Part Three: German Sensibility and Its Importation into
Oct 29: Read Henry Mackenzie, "Account of the German Drama" (1788,
coursepack; from Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh II
(1790), ii:154-192). Begin Friedrich Schiller, The Robbers (trans.
by Tytler, 1792). Presentations: Jaime Tan and Emily Ryan on
Schiller's Reception in England.
Nov 3: Finish The Robbers.
Nov 5: Read Auguste von Kotzebue's Lovers' Vows (trans.
Elizabeth Inchbald 1798). Read selections from The Anti-Jacobin; or
Weekly Examiner (1797-8). Presentation: Josh Kronenberg and
Doug Roberts on Kotzebue or Lovers' Vows.
Nov 10: Finish Lovers' Vows. Read David Simpson, "The Myth of
French Excess" and "The Image of Germany" (coursepack; from
Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt against Theory).
Nov 12: Read Joanna Baillie, "Introductory Discourse" and the first
two acts of De Montfort (1798). Presentation: Lolly Axley
and Tracy Tripp on De Montfort.
Nov 17: Finish De Montfort (1798). Read Marlon Ross, "Joanna
Nov 19: Read Lord Byron, Manfred.
Presentation: Ann Gallagher on Byron.
Nov 24: Finish Manfred. Read Andrew Elfenbein, "Byron and the
Secret Self" (1995; from Byron and the Victorians).
Nov 26: Thanksgiving. Read as much of Mansfield
Park as you can.
December 3: This is the last day that you can hand in a draft of the
long essay. Presentations: Kassy Wirick and Yochi Dreazen on
Dec 1-Dec 10: Read Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814). On
December 1, we'll read Marilyn Butler's chapter on Mansfield Park
from Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975, in coursepack). On
December 3, we'll read Syndy McMillen Conger, "Reading Lovers'
Vows: Jane Austen's Reflections on English Sense and German
Sensibility," (in coursepack; from Studies in Philology 84:1
DECEMBER 11: END OF SEMESTER CONFERENCE
DECEMBER 17: PORTFOLIOS DUE AT 4 PM.