Senior English at Another Course to College, with Mr. Comeau

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Unit 5: Ancient Rome - Virgil's Aeneid

Readings: The Aeneid, by Virgil

Primary Assessment: Participation in class discussion.

Unit Goals, Key Questions, & Topics for Class Discussion

Activities in addition to class discussion / primary writing assignment

History of Ideas


Empire and the Other: What story is the Roman Empire telling about itself, through its mythical founder Aeneas and his company of Trojans? What qualities are present in their characters, and how do they connect to the business of Empire? How do the portraits of the enemies and obstacles to the journey of the founding of Rome paint in negative space what it means to be a Roman, and what it means to be Rome's "other"? Today, when the U.S. has often been compared to the dying Roman Empire, what does its story teach us, and can we use what we learn to avoid Rome's fallen fate?

The Roman Nation: What are the overt and covert aims of this story in terms of the identity of the Roman people, and their political past, present, and future? What role does narrative play in the formation of identity, here, and in our lives? What role does sport play, today, and in Book V?

Gender and Power: How is gender mapped out in the text, in men and women, gods and goddesses, and in masculine Rome vs. feminized Carthage, in the male Occident and female Orient?

The Gods Above: What is the nature of divinity in the text, and how does it compare to other religions whose texts we've read? How do humans interact with the gods? What do you make of the ritual sacrifices made to win their favor? What is the nature of fate here, compared to earlier texts, and contrasted to modern notions of destiny? Compare and contrast what you know about Christianity with this religious system in the Aeneid -- and remember that Christianity will replace pagan religion in Rome within 300 years of Virgil's writings.

The World Below: How do we account for the evolution of ideas about death, as literature moves from portraits of a "neutral death" to one of punishment and reward? What do we make of the similarities and differences between this Roman afterlife and Christian and Islamic visions to come? What are the political, economic and philosophical roots in the changes?

Our Place in Between: Analyze and evaluate the text's portrait of the human condition in this life. Compare and contrast the way the Romans see themselves, and how we think of fate and freedom, the self, the good, our suffering, the purpose of it all, and the hope of knowing and steering our mysterious fates in an inscrutable universe.

Poetic form: What stories does the style tell in this artful translation of Virgil? How does the way the story's told speak to the questions outlined above?

Video: The Western Tradition, with Prof. Eugene Weber --  The Rise of Rome

Video: The Western Tradition, with Prof. Eugene Weber --  The Roman Empire

Slide show: My trip to Rome -- ancient ruins and early churches -- tracing the transfer of architectural language from Pagan temples and Imperial power centers, to Christian Basilicas.



Examine the architecture of ancient Rome, and preview its reconfiguration in the buildings of the Roman Catholic Church. What do the changes and continuities say about the transformations of power from an earthly empire to the most powerful Christian church?


Trace the changes in the vision of the afterlife, from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, then here, to Rome. Note the move from "neutral death" to judgment and reward. Watch for precursors of individual salvation from death and damnation.


The Secondary Epic: Compare and contrast the purposes and projects of this self-consciously constructed "secondary epic," with the primary epic we read in Gilgamesh, and you might have read in the Iliad and Odyssey.



Unit 6: Medieval Arabia

Readings: Selections from The Arabian Nights.

Primary Assessment: Participation in class discussion, and preparation for your college essay.


Unit Goals, Key Questions,

& Topics for Class Discussion

Activities in addition to class discussion / primary writing assignment

History of Ideas


Bring your understanding from our earlier studies of the Qur'an to analyze and evaluate the Arabian Nights. Where do you see standard Qur'anic values in these stories, and where do you see the text expressing difference? How does the text line up with your expectations around Muslim culture, and where does it depart? How does this medieval text from Arabia depart from Western stereotypes, as in Disney's Aladdin? How can this seminal text from Muslim culture help break-up stereotypes, and expand your vision of the Muslim world?

How do you understand the role of fate in Islamic culture? How is it portrayed in the Qur'an, and in the Arabian Nights? What theodicy is offered for the unavoidable suffering in our lives? What teleology is woven from the texts, shaping grand designs in the human condition?

Consider the text's insights into imperial power. What light does it shed on life in Islamic empires? How is it pluralistic, offering peaceful co-existence with various peoples? How are they hegemonic, threatening difference with domination? How does race play out in the discourse of plurality and power?

What do you make of the role of magic spells and fantastic creatures in the Arabian Nights? How might they work as metaphors for moral instruction, as symbols of psychological forces, of pre-modern understanding of the world, or as sophisticated insights into human nature?

Apply feminist and Marxist lenses to our readings, and weigh the results. How is gender treated in the text? Work toward complex understandings of the image of the faithful woman, and the unfaithful wife. How does sex work as a marker within the Nights? What meanings does it register, and how do those meanings shift? How does the text re-enforce negative images of women? How does it subvert them? What do you make of the violence in the text, and its role is gender relations? What about class? How are social hierarchies impressed, and played with?

What do we learn about storytelling from the Arabian Nights? How does it save Shahrazad's life, and transform the murderous king? What is the function of all the reflexivity, and the mise en abyme, of the stories within stories within stories? What can you transfer from Shaharazad, the masterful storyteller, into your own story in your college essay?


Discussion: Analyze sample college essays to make inferences about what a good essay looks like, and does not look like. Find a path to telling your own story for college applications.



The emergence of Islam after the fall of the Roman Empire.


Encoding of immutable laws in religious thought


God as "ultimate concern" whose demands come before even family


A God that is both moral and transcendent to human understanding of morality






Unit 7: High Medieval / Early Renaissance Italy: Dante's Inferno

Readings: Inferno

Primary Assessment: 1,500 word paper on this topic:

Modernize Hell to reflect your analysis and evaluation of Dante's Inferno, explaining the differences and similarities between your and Dante's vision of flourishing as a human being, and the progressive steps away from that vision.

Two options:

1)  Modernize Hell to reflect your analysis and evaluation of Dante's Inferno, explaining the differences and similarities between your and Dante's vision of flourishing as a human being, and the progressive steps away from that vision. Write a creative piece in which you walk Dante through your own allegorical Hell, during which Dante presents sophisticated arguments from his viewpoint, which you address. Must have a complex and creative thesis, body, and conclusion -- just like Dante. You should include at least 5 direct quotes from the Inferno.

2)  Analyze and evaluate the developing portrait of the afterlife, from our reading in ancient literature, to Dante's Inferno in the medieval period. You should address Dante at length, with at least 5 direct quotes from the Inferno, in addition to your selections from earlier works.


Unit Goals, Key Questions,

& Topics for Class Discussion

Activities in addition to class discussion / primary writing assignment

History of Ideas


Approach the Inferno as a work of literature, as an allegory of life in this world, analyzing and evaluating Dante's model for flourishing as a human being, and the progressive steps away from that model, downward into "Hell."

How does the text reflect and depart from the letter and the spirit of the early Christian text we read, the Gospel according to Matthew? How has Greek philosophy mixed with Christianity here in the late Medieval period? How has Dante (and Christianity) worked to refigure the contest between poetic inspiration and human reason?

How does Dante's portrayal of Hell work to reflect medieval modes of political power, and medieval notions of identity?

Analyze and evaluate the nature of transgression in Dante, its categories and hierarchies, its expression of "High Medieval" Christianity, of moral code, of social norms, of historical contexts, of human prejudice.

How does "sin" disrupt in the transgressor the right relationship with self, and with the other?

Analyze and evaluate Dante's vision of the human condition, our fallen nature, our heights and depths, our hope for redemption.

What is the utility of, and limits to, human reason?

What is meaning, the metaphor, of grace?

Analyze and evaluate the style and structure of the Inferno, with emphasis on its reflection of Medieval cosmology, as well as the dawn of Renaissance humanism.

Work toward a close reading of the architecture, sights, sounds, and smells of Dante's Hell.

Video: The Western Tradition -- Medieval Life / Cities & Cathedrals

Physical analogy: Spinning a student stuck in Dante's carnal hurricane

Physical analogy: Steps away from the sun, to illustrate Dante's vision of departure from the right life, into sin

Slide show: art inspired by the Inferno over the centuries


Importance of literature in the vernacular. Union of earthly and divine love. Early signs of humanism.


Medieval model of royal super-power in a weak state, punishing the body of the challenger of that power: where the crime is recreated in the torture, where the omnipotence of the power is re-established in the same moment that the "truth" of the crime is "published" in the body of the criminal (Foucault)


Medieval individual is more anonymous, and in many ways more autonomous, than moderns. Modern self is constructed, in part, through interventions of diffuse power structures that were absent before early modern era (Foucault, others)


Recasting Aristotelian ethics in Christian mode, as in Aquinas, to form a fusion of Greek rationalism and the belief in Divine Revelation from the ancient Hebrews


Medieval vision of Greek philosophy's orderly and elegant universe, where everything is categorized (Aristotle) and everything made to plan


Unit 8a: High Renaissance Spain: Don Quixote

Readings: Don Quixote, Chp 1 -- 22

Primary Assessment: Timed, in-class test, modeled on AP exam.

Do a close reading of a given passage from the text, working to connect the local form and themes of the novel with the meaning of this book as a Renaissance work.


Unit Goals, Key Questions,

& Topics for Class Discussion

Activities in addition to class discussion / primary writing assignment

History of Ideas


How do the figures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza reveal insights into the sea changes in literature and life during the Renaissance? Compare their characters to those in Dante, the Abrahamic religions, Plato, and creation stories. What has changed in the way people are portrayed, the world experienced, and the self constructed?

What do these characters, and their adventures, say about the tensions between fantasy and realism, idealism and pragmatism, concrete and constructed truth? Why do these tensions arise forcefully here, in the Renaissance? Where do you place yourself within this modern debate over the real?

How is reality presented in this novel, and played with? What are we to make of the narrator's ironic preoccupation with authenticity? What does this novel do to traditional sources of "truth," such as the Catholic Church, scholarly texts, romances, history, and even the eye's plain vision.

What is the meaning of the purported aim of the novel, "an invective against books of chivalry"? How does the novel transcend its alleged aim? What do the tensions between medieval and modern modes say about each period?

What does this story have to say about itself, and about storytelling in general? What are the meanings of its metanarration, to this novel, and for modern storytelling?

Analyze and evaluate the tensions around class and gender in the text, and connect them to the dynamics of the emerging modern world.

Practice skills for in-class short essay writing, in preparation for a double test at the end of this unit, and on upcoming Mid-Year exam.

Physical analogy: changing clothes, changing personae, masks ... do some wardrobe changing, and analyze student "costumes"

Video: The Western Tradition -- Middle Ages / Renaissance

Brief reading: "Fable about Man"

Rise of middle class in Renaissance, leading to political, personal and epistemological revolutions


Early fragmentation of reality, a theme to emerge with growing strength in the 20th century


Reformation and Counter-Reformation -- critiquing Catholicism, here, from inside


Heavy metanarrative -- where the text is preoccupied with its own construction, and the nature of narratives broadly. Link with epistemological revolution.


Realism -- born along with the novel here. How does the historical context of the Renaissance help to account for the birth of the realistic novel?


Compare this High Renaissance text to the medieval romances it spoofs. What are the political and personal aims of Cervantes' irreverent reaction to medieval reverence?



Unit 8b: High Renaissance England: Hamlet

Readings: Hamlet, and brief selections of criticism

Primary Assessment: 1500 word paper on one of the following topics, your choice. To earn the higher marks, you must integrate analysis of the text's form into your analysis of content -- in other words, the way the words work, in style and structure, as connected to what they are about.  That's true for all of the papers you'll write for me from now on.

Analyze and evaluate...

1)       ... Hamlet's very modern quest for authenticity, a search inward, into the interior of the self, set in opposition to a corrupt external world. Include in your argument the way Hamlet sets about his quest in language -- in the text's form.

2)       ... Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia, and the gender and romantic tensions the two embody.

3)       ... the tensions between the medieval and modern modes in the play -- notions of justice, knowledge, truth, authority, identity.

4)       ... the false society in the play, within which Hamlet struggles for integrity and legitimacy.

5)        ... Hamlet's preoccupation with death, his evolving relationship with his own end, and the play's contrast with works we read earlier in the year that deal with "that undiscovered country."

6)       ... the play's treatment of fate, of flaw, and the possibility of redemption in the face of tragedy.

7)       ... the contrast between the active and the contemplative man.

8)       ... a topic that you propose, we discuss, and I approve.


Unit Goals, Key Questions,

& Topics for Class Discussion

Activities in addition to class discussion / primary writing assignment

History of Ideas


Explore, analyze and evaluate the following topics on what Harold Bloom called "the most important work in the English language, perhaps in any language."

The Renaissance, early Modernity, and one of their supreme expressions - Hamlet

Hamlet's commentary on the human condition in the modern era, compared to literature that came before, with special attention to the portrait of the self, its growing interior, its increasing inwardness. Contrast this inwardness with the externally directed selves of myth and epic and Abrahamic religions, and the prototypical inwardness of Platonic philosophy, and Dante's Christianity. How does Hamlet represent something radically different? How does the historical context of the Renaissance help us to understand this change?

Explore the construction of that inwardness in the language of the text, through close readings

Consider the hero's struggle for authenticity of self, for personal freedom, for "personality as a mode of freedom"

Analyze and evaluate the text's women, who seem to have freedom to choose two identities: virgin, or whore

Read brief pieces of criticism on the play, from multiple perspectives

Watch brief selections from the Olivier film version, doing a close reading of its visual text

Read dramatically from the play, hamming it up, chewing the scenery, out-Heroding Herod

Physical analogy: demonstrate the dawn of modern interiority, in contrast to the externally directed mode that went before

Brief reading: Critics on Hamlet

Video: sel. from Olivier's Hamlet


Augmenting interiority of modern self. Here, a radical inwardness ending in a pure nihilism that reaches the essence of the modern condition, and a nobility in its purity (Bloom)


Personal freedom found in spite of tragic fatalism, through this inward turn


Radical skepticism ... of religious tradition, social arrangements, political motives, family roles, romantic attachments, and of truth itself


Heavy metanarrative ... play within the play, and the world and self as text





Unit 9: European Enlightenment

Readings: Selections from Voltaire, Rousseau, Bentham, Equiano, Wollstonecraft, Swift, and Burke

Primary Assessment:     Midyear. 2 hours exam, topics and format to be announced.

                                            Also, 1750 word paper analyzing and evaluating one or more Enlightenment text.


Midyear Essay: 2 hours exam, topics and format to be announced.



Unit Goals, Key Questions,

& Topics for Class Discussion

Activities in addition to class discussion / primary writing assignment

History of Ideas


Trace the breaks in tradition that the Enlightenment represents, in how we see ourselves, the state, the divine, and the relationships between them. Note the revival and championing of rationalism, in the spirit of ancient Greek philosophy.

Analyze and evaluate the philosophical underpinnings of the Enlightenment, such as natural rights, civilization grown out of the state of nature, society as a social contract with rules and obligations that go both ways between subject and ruler, and the maturation of society v religious superstition, intolerance, and the tyranny of kings.

Do close readings of Voltaire's ironic style, surface pessimism, and careful optimism. How does his comic form work as politics, philosophy, and novel? Compare to Swift's "modest proposal."

Utopia: What is the "best of all possible worlds," in Voltaire, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham, Equiano, Wollstonecraft? What do you make of utopian visions and their utilitarian detractors, then, and today?

What are the dynamics of natural rights in these texts? What is a right, and what is not? How does one come to possess, and forfeit, these rights? What are the implications? Trace the tensions in these readings between state power and individual rights.

Is society a "social contract," where individuals forfeit some freedoms to secure the greater benefits of an orderly society? What are the dynamics of that contract, and what are the implications?

How does each text construct and expand the "Enlightened" self, in contrast with the "savage" other? Analyze and evaluate the portraits of civilization and barbarism. To what extent are the constructions in these texts reflections of early imperialism, and are they still active in our culture?

Analyze and evaluate the emergence of utilitarianism, and the strong state's more "humane" and diffuse exercising of power over the individual, in Bentham's plan for prisons and schools. Contrast to the prior model of the weak state with occasional but fierce power, as observed by Foucault.

Physical analogy: Simulate Bentham's Panopticon using a 360 degree web cam to monitor class, then discuss.

Brief reading: Leibnitz v. Voltaire

Picture of Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels; seventeenth century Irish Literature


Development of liberal democracy, natural rights, social contract theory, utilitarianism


Watch for shift from pre-modern irregularity of "super power" monarch to modern reformer spirit, with a more diffuse, regular and "measured" intervention of state in lives of the people ... "not to punish less, but to punish better; to punish with an attenuated severity perhaps, but in order to punish with more universality and necessity; to insert the power to punish more deeply into the social body" (Foucault)


Transition from weak state that relies on physical terror to strong state that intervenes for mental discipline (Ignatieff)


Faith in reason and science overtakes Christianity's belief in divine revelation in the Hebrew tradition, esp. in the intellectual elite (Kramer)


While constructing theory of the free and rational self with inalienable rights, contradictory theory and behavior against "savage" other -- a fatal flaw of Enlightenment project?

Mania for categorizing in new sciences leads unwittingly to rigid, artificial and stagnant human condition, where human freedom, creativity and caprice are replaced with time tables and taxonomies of the good (Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Foucault)



Unit 10: Modern Economics: Adam Smith v. Karl Marx

Readings: Selections from The Wealth of Nations, Marx for Beginners by Ruis, and The Communist Manifesto by Marx & Engels

Primary Assessment: Participation in class discussion.


Unit Goals, Key Questions,

& Topics for Class Discussion

Activities in addition to class discussion / primary writing assignment

History of Ideas


Explore the tensions between these seemingly polar systems of economic philosophy, and these key questions:

What is wealth? What creates value? How does a nation prosper?

How do Smith and Marx participate in or resist the Enlightenment project, as illustrated in our prior readings? What views do they share, and where do they depart? Consider their takes on industrialization, religion, wealth, justice, monopoly, "primitive" societies, and state power.

What happens to modern man, to his psyche, to his struggle for authenticity, to his notions of the self, in the face of modern economic conditions?

What happens to peoples inside, and outside, of these "modern" systems?

Who owns the fruits of labor? What are the implications to your answers?

What does a close reading of the texts reveal about the rhetorical structures of their arguments, their constructions of the human situation, their attitudes and emotional appeals, their assumptions about money, labor, life, and the good?

What are the necessary expenses of the state? How should it be involved in economics? In the general welfare? In wealth's distribution?

What are the tensions between Left and Right wing political economics? Where do you stand now? Is a resolution of these tensions possible? What would that resolution look like? What might an understanding of the political economy look like outside of the binaries of "left" and "right"?

Where do we want liberty? Where do we want equality? Can we have both? What are the right dynamics?

What do these questions mean in the face of contemporary "globalization"? What's happening today, to the jobs you hope to hold in the near future? What does the global market mean for the wealth of nations, and for workers? How might Smith and Marx weigh-in? And you?

Physical analogy: Hold class discussion in an assembly line, with one student starting discussion, the next adding to the point, the third contradicting the point, the fourth starting a new topic. Work as quick as you can, for more "product." Afterward, discuss. During Marx readings, announce near end of class that the discussion points will be redistributed among all workers, so everyone gets the average points of the whole class, except for those I designate to be the supporters of Marx, who get extra points. Discuss.

Video: Life & Debt, on Jamaica and the World Bank

Video: The Western Tradition -- Enlightened Despots / Modern Philosophers


Enlightenment utilitarianism applied to the economy in systematic way, writing the book on modern capitalism. What happens between liberal idealism and utilitarian pragmatism?


Stage set for radical increases in efficiency and productivity, through the division of labor, which begins to change the dynamic between country and city, labor of capital, production and consumption, scarcity and plenty, and the very way humans relate to objects and work


Resistance to these changes in Marx, through a critique on the effects of mass production on the worker, and the injustice of his lot after the industrial revolution


Losses and gains in shift from mode of agrarian peasantry and independent craftsmen, to that of industrial proletariat.

Changing notion of self, brought through mass production and consumption. Dawn of "consumer society." What happens to identity as a worker, as a consumer, as a capitalist, as a communist?




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