The phrase "failure to communicate" became iconic in American English from the 1967 film "Cool Hand Luke," in which Paul Newman played a convict who refuses to listen or follow orders. The film raised questions about the multiple ways we understand “failure to communicate” and its consequences. Is it sometimes a decision to resist a presumption, a premise, an interpretation, an argument, a directive from authority? Is it at other times simply a mechanical failure? This course examines “failure to communicate” in a variety of cultural areas, among them literature, romance, politics, theater, law, science, war, and education. We’ll bring literary, philosophical, psychological and historical perspectives to these issues. Materials will include literary fiction (e.g., short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, Herman Melville, Toni Morrison), drama (e.g., Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), poetry (e.g., Robert Frost’s “Home Burial”) film (“Cool Hand Luke” among others) TV (e.g., an episode from “House”), and assorted nonfiction, journalism and scholarship. We’ll also experiment, trying some role-playing communication exercises with students: a couple breaking up, a U.S. general talking to a Russian general, a novelist trying to explain to an editor why some material shouldn’t be cut, a back-and-forth between a stopped driver and a police officer. Finally, we’ll have to ask whether failure to communicate is always a bad thing, and how to avoid its worst consequences.
Requirements: A 6-page midterm paper, a 15-page final paper, 10 short (up to two paragraphs) ungraded critical comments on assigned reading or viewing over the term, and active participation in class discussion.