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Junior Research Seminar: The World in the Microscope

ENGL 200.305
TR 3:30-5pm

William Heath, "Monster Soup..."


Where do we go when we look into a microscope? And what happens to us there? These questions shook British writers in the eighteenth century as they navigated the instrument’s strange sights. Advocates and critics debated how to use the microscope and what value its knowledge held, but they all agreed that the technology could change the world.


This course will analyze the microscope and its way of seeing in literary and scientific writing during the eighteenth century. We will chart how writers experimented with the microscope’s aesthetics to probe anxieties about modern science, sexuality, race, and empire. We will also treat the microscope as a visual medium. Using engravings, cinema, and digital technology, we will trace how the technology’s unique capacity for size-changing and virtualization demands viewers orient themselves across space and time. In short, this course will explore how the microscope has given us new methods to envision ourselves in (un)familiar environments.


Texts include Jonathan Swift’s satire, Gulliver’s Travels; Margaret Cavendish’s science fiction narrative, The Blazing World; Laurence Sterne’s novel, Tristram Shandy; Robert Hooke’s landmark scientific treatise, Micrographia; Richard Fleischer’s film, Fantastic Voyage; the YouTube series Journey to the Microcosmos; and a selection of microscope poems.


Assignments will include close readings and visual analysis, and we will visit the Kislak Center for Special Collections and the Electron Microscopy Resource Lab. The course culminates in a final research project which can take the form of a traditional paper (10-15p.), a creative writing piece (e.g. a podcast, an experimental work), or another format agreed upon by both student and instructor.

fulfills requirements