Welcome First Year Student

Welcome to Comparative Literature (COLT)!

Comparative Literature is a challenging interdisciplinary program that gathers the best faculty from across campus in promoting the study of literatures in different languages as well as the relationship between literature and other spheres of human activity. It also embraces broader inquiry into the relationship between literature and other disciplines and practices, such as the visual and performing arts, philosophy, history, the social sciences, religion, sciences and mathematics. The program provides students with ample opportunity to study literature and culture from a wide array of critical perspectives. Among these are rhetoric and poetics, translation and reception, film theory and media studies, colonial and postcolonial studies, theories of ethnic and national identities, gender and queer theory, and psychoanalysis.

Comparative Literature majors are expected to develop competence in at least one language other than their native language, and to work with original texts in more than one language. Students devise and pursue a rigorous program of study tailored to their particular interests and intellectual strengths in close consultation with one or more faculty mentors.

The following courses are recommended for first-year students:

F=Fall, S= Spring, W=Winter

  • 1. Read the World (F)
  • 07.15. Order and Chaos: Carnivals and Wild Celebrations (W)
  • 07.xx. Letters to Email: Epistolary Fictions (S)
  • 10.07: Characters on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (F)
  • 10.01: Strange Natives, Strange Women: The Uninvited Others of European Literature (W)
  • 19.01: Translation: Theory and Practice (W)
  • 35.01/ARAB 62.02: The Arabian Nights East and West (W)
  • 35.02: The Novel: Memory, Desire (S)
  • 39.02: Literary Fairy Tales (F)
  • 40.01/ENG 54.15: History of the Book (F)
  • 42.05: Cultures of Surveillance (S)
  • 49.06:  Multilingualism and Its Others (F)
  • 51.01/ AAAS 51/ ENGL 53.16: Masterpieces of Literatures from Africa (S)
  • 52.02/FS 42/LACS 30.06: New Latin American Cinema (S)
  • 62.03: Zombies, Cyborgs, and Clones in Dystopian Fiction and Film (F) 
  • 70.03/JWST 26: European Jewish Intellectuals (W)


1. Read the World

Do you know how to read? Faces. Words. Pictures. Bodies. Games. Books. People. What are you really doing when you read the world? This course teaches comparative methods designed to confront the (mis) understandings and (mis) translations that constitute reading across the world’s languages, locations, cultures, historical periods, and expressive forms. Classwork consists of hands-on exercises that engage ancient and modern myths and materials drawn from various media: text, movies, video games, anime, and digital arts. Washburn. Dist: LIT or INT; WCult: CI. (25 spots open for First Year Students)

07.xx. Letters to Email: Epistolary Fictions

This course will trace the importance of letters and other types of messages in fiction and film. Since the ancient Greeks, authors have structured narratives around the exchange of letters. Letters have enabled authors to speak of love and intimacy, and have allowed readers to feel that they are privy to intimate scenes between people. This form of literature has entered a new stage, as email has largely replaced letters as a form of communication. This course will allow us to investigate the close relationship between letters and literature—the philosopher Jacques Derrida has called letters “literature itself”—and this will eventually lead us to a consideration of broader topics. What has been the effect of the recent changes in communication technologies? Have we lost something in the transition from letters to emails and texts? And are emails and texts of any literary value at all? Readings might include Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther; Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons (novel and film)Montesquieu’s Persian Letters; Walker’s The Color Purple; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; and Ariel Levy’s A Guide for the Perplexed.

07.15. Order and Chaos: Carnivals and Wild Celebrations

Festivities are an ever-present element in literature across the world, from antiquity through the present day. In this course will begin with an exploration of Brazil’s carnival from historical, anthropological, and literary perspectives before delving into a broad range of works featuring other grand parties. We will consider the theme of carnivals and celebrations both from a broad prospective (how, for instance, has letting loose provided a means both to challenge and reinforce the existing social order?) and explore how it has been put to use by writers and other artists (for example, why are fictional celebrations so often linked with terror and tragedy?). Besides studying thematic representations of parties we will also examine theories of the “carnivalesque” in literature. Distributives:  LIT.

10.01: Strange Natives, Strange Women: The Uninvited Others of European Literature

How have Europeans colonizers represented differences between themselves and the peoples they have conquered?  How do perceived or imagined differences of ethnicity or gender arise from and help constitute the colonizers' own sense of cultural and national identity?  We will explore these questions in literature and travel writings by authors such as: Bâ, Babel, Césaire, Conrad, Equiano, Euripides, Friel, Rhys, Rider Haggard, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy. Dist:LIT; WCult:W

10.07 Characters on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

The figure of characters in crisis has been the foundation of literary plots since Antiquity.  This course examines cinematic, literary, and philosophical representations of people coming undone while working their ways through crises that threaten their lives.   Why has this problem always been so prevalent in narratives of all kinds?  Works by Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Nabokov, the Coen brothers, Wallace, Almodóvar, Borges, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Chopin, Hitchcock, and others. Dist:  LIT; WCult: W

19.01 Translation:  Theory and Practice

Translation is both a basic and highly complicated aspect of our engagement with literature. We often take it for granted; yet the idea of meanings "lost in translation" is commonplace. In this course we work intensively on the craft of translation while exploring its practical, cultural and philosophical implications through readings in theoretical and literary texts. All students will complete a variety of translation exercises, and a substantial final project, in their chosen language. Distributive: LIT or INT; W.

35.01 The Arabian Nights East and West

An introduction to Arabo-Islamic culture through its most accessible and popular exponent, One Thousand and One Nights. The course will take this masterpiece of world literature as the focal point for a multidisciplinary literary study. It will cover the genesis of the text from Indian and Mediterranean antecedents, its Arabic recensions, its reception in the West, and its influence on European literature. The course will be taught in English in its entirety. No prerequisites. Distributives: INT or LIT/NW.

35.02 The Novel:  Memory, Desire, and Narrative Time.

Does its resistance to generic classification distinguish the novel as a genre? We will address this question by reading five works—excerpts fromThe Tale of Genji (Murasaki Shikibu), Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky), Swann’s Way (Marcel Proust), The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Wang Anyi), and Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)—through the lens of various critical theories that attempt to identify rhetorical elements and themes common to the form. Distributives: INT or LIT

39.02 The Literary Fairy Tale

This course surveys the development of the fairy tale in Europe and North America, from the first collections in early modern France and Italy (Basile, Perrault) through the Brothers Grimm to the extraordinary regeneration of fairy- tale subjects and motifs in the 20th and 21st centuries (Disney, Sexton, Carter). We will discuss the role of this marvelous genre in interrogating reality and engaging in the “civilizing process,” and put our encounters to dynamic use by writing and performing tales. Distributives: LIT; WCult: W

40.01 History of the Book

This course examines the book as a material and cultural object. We’ll consider various practical and theoretical models for understanding the book form and investigating the materials, technologies, institutions, and practices of its production, dissemination, and reception. We’ll focus primarily on the printed book in Western Europe and North America, but we’ll also discuss the emergence of the codex (book), medieval manuscript books, twentieth and twenty-first century artist’s books and the challenges posed by digitality to the book form. The readings for the course will be balanced by frequent use of exemplars drawn from Rauner Library and practical experience setting type in the Book Arts workshop. Distributive: LIT; WCult: W

42.05: Cultures of Surveillance

Who’s watching whom, and why does it matter?  A number of 21st century popular film trilogies highlight cultures of surveillance within the context of globalization. Is there a relationship between plots based on global surveillance techniques and the fact that these plots are so successfully developed through film per se? What is the implied role of the viewer in such films? In what way does trilogy as a form of fragmented storytelling contribute to our understanding of surveillance across borders? Who identifies with whom in these tripartite visual narratives of globalization? What is the relationship among intertwined plotlines, global/international intrigue, geo-political borders, the role of the hero, and the role of viewers?

49.06 Multilingualism and its Others

“Multilingualism” and “monolingualism” are notions that appear clear-cut, uncontested, and normative. But are they? In this course, we will examine the rise (and fall) of multilingualism and its others—especially monolingualism—to sharpen our understanding of these terms’ use and implications. Where and when did they emerge historically? Whom do they benefit or harm socially? What do they mean theoretically? What challenges to they pose to writing, translation, the global traffic of texts, and language-learning advocacy? Readings will draw on several disciplines, with research projects reflecting each student’s investment in the topic. Distributives:  SOC 

51.01. Masterpieces of Literatures from Africa

This course is designed to provide students with a specific and global view of the diversity of literatures from the African continent. We will read texts written in English or translated from French, Portuguese, Arabic and African languages. Through novels, short stories, poetry, and drama, we will explore such topics as the colonial encounter, the conflict between tradition and modernity, the negotiation of African identities, post-independence disillusion, gender issues, apartheid and post-apartheid. In discussing this variety of literatures from a comparative context, we will assess the similarities and the differences apparent in the cultures and historical contexts from which they emerge. Readings from Chinua Achebe, Naguib Mahfouz, Calixthe Beyala, Camara Laye, and Luandino Vieira. Distributives LIT or INT; WCult: NW.

52.02/FS 42/LACS 30.06: New Latin American Cinema

With the emergence of filmmakers such as Alejandro Iñárritu (Mexico), Lucrecia Martel (Argentina), and José Padilha (Brazil), the last decade has seen a creative boom in Latin American cinema that includes art house cinema, blockbusters, documentary, and experimental film. Beginning with a quick overview of key forerunners, this course will focus on the major directors, genres and aesthetic trends that characterize the new Latin American cinema. We will also pay attention to the role film festivals-such as the Havana Film Festival, BAFICI in Buenos Aires, and the Berlin Film Festival-have played in promoting Latin American films. Distributives: INT

62.03: Zombies, Cyborgs, and Clones in Dystopian Fiction and Film

From the zombie apocalypse to fears of killer robots and technology run amok, current popular culture is fascinated by end-of-the-world nightmare scenarios. Classic dystopian novels like Orwell’s 1984 and Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here have recently topped bestseller lists, while shows like The Walking Dead dominate the television ratings. Why are we obsessed with apocalyptic and dystopian scenarios?  How might this obsession be related to politics, technology, and the media we both use and consume? Dist:INT or ART; WCult:W

70.03 European Jewish Intellectuals

The course will examine the role of the Jewish intellectual in twentieth central Europe. We shall focus on several paradigmatic figures (Arendt, Benjamin, Adorno, Levinas, Derrida) who confront the redefinition of politics and civil society in modern times. Some attempt to deal with these changes through a critical reflection on the concepts of democracy and ethics and on how justice can be practiced either within or outside of the geographical and spiritual boundaries of the modern nation state. We shall examine how Jewish self­consciousness and a deep attachment to biblical tradition enables these intellectuals to reconcile ethical imperative with political realities. Particular attention will be paid to topics such as the challenges of Eurocentric Christian humanism and universalism to Jewish assimilation; the promises of totalitarianism, Marxism and messianism; the politics of biblical exegesis; history and Jewish mysticism; Zionism, anti-Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Distributive: LIT; WCult: W