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Terrifying: Adolescence, Real and Imagined

ENGL 2385.401
also offered as: GSWS 2125
MW 12-1:29pm

Choose: what’s scarier, facing an angsty teenager or being one? Absolutely depends who you ask, right?


Bad choice. Those two words go with adolescence like, well, social media goes with real life. (Think about that statement for a moment.) The adolescent life, like the central path of almost any story, is about wanting something, probably desperately. It’s about the countless and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that get in the way. About the choices made from indoctrination, experience, or lessons learned. About happily-ever-after or exit-followed-by-a-bear. Penn’s own Dr. Frances Jensen, neurologist and expert on the adolescent brain, tells us our decision-making capability doesn’t go fully “online” until our mid-twenties. It’s no accident, then, that youth stands as metaphor for irresponsibility, recklessness, resistance. But then, what about Resistance? Influence? Necessary flux? It’s a metaphor for those, too. 

And that desire? In adolescence, it’s so very often about finding one’s Self, and that Self’s place in the world. Sometimes it’s all about choice. But what about when there’s no choice involved?

In this course, we will examine where adolescence and society cross, clash, mesh. Because the impact goes both ways. In a sense, we will stand on the median strip of a crazy road, looking in one direction at what teenagers do to society, and in the other, what society does to them. We will read and watch across era and genre, including works by such figures as Jane Austen and Maia Kobabe; Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Carmen Maria Machado. Jason Reynolds, Andrew Ahn, Taylor Swift, Mindy Kaling, Ocean Vuong. Penn’s own David Eng and Frances Jensen. We will explore media of the long adolescence through two-and-a-half centuries, primarily as it applies to gender and sexuality: prose narrative to graphic novel to television and more, with frequent forays into Instagram and TikTok. Requirements include two short response papers, a presentation on a course-related topic you seriously geek out over, a critical or creative final project, and regular participation in class discussions.  You don’t have to be an advanced literary or social science scholar to be part of this course. You just have to be open to exploring our subject and media through multiple lenses, reflecting on where adolescence meets choice and choice meets criticism. Ready for a term of high drama, passion, frenemies…who might literally be deadly? Yes or no; you choose.


English Major Requirements
  • Literature Seminar pre-1900 (AEB9)
  • Sector 5 19th Century (AE19)
  • Sector 6 20th & 21st Centuries (AE20)
English Concentration Attributes
  • 20th-21st Century Concentration (AE21)
  • Gender/Sexuality Concentration (AEGS)
College Attributes