Spring 1999

An Undergraduate Elective at Boston College

Prof. Christopher P. Wilson

Carney 435 ex. 2-3719 #1
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Office Hours:
Tuesday 11-11:45 and 2-3
Wednesday 1-2
Friday 11-12 and by appointment

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.

- W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

This course is meant to provide an introduction to the interdisciplinary study of American culture: to ways of integrating, exploring and thinking critically about American experience in the past through literature, political rhetoric, painting, photography and other media. Our main goal will be to introduce students to some of the most exciting and innovative cultural forms emerging at the turn of the 20th century: to social documentary photography; to African-American folktales and fiction; to experimental realism in the hands of Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, and others. As a perhaps unusual starting point for our investigations, we will begin by cultural and imaginative representations of the institution of segregation in the years following the Civil War. But as some measure of the course's broader scope, we'll actually be asking what significance a color line had for social experiences and forms of cultural expression not customarily associated with it: with, for instance, the experience of recent immigrants (who found themselves discriminated against by grandfather clauses at polling booths); for women, who had often already been restricted from public spaces; for the arts themselves, where emergent artists of African American or Asian American descent discovered boundaries on what they could write or express. "Color line" is thus meant as a cultural metaphor which refers not only to the reorganization of social space, but to its effects on drawing, figuring or representation in the arts. Writers and artists who will appear in this course include Charles Chesnutt; Booker T. Washington; Kate Chopin; Sui Sin Far; Jacob Riis; Lewis Hine; Winslow Homer; Mary Cassatt; Charlotte Perkins Gilman; W.E.B. DuBois; Jean Toomer; and others.

You do not have to be an American Studies minor to enroll in this course. And while not a required course within the American Studies minor, either, this course may serve as both a starting point, and an introduction to interdisciplinary methodology, for pursuing this and other minors. Since this is an introductory course, no seniors may enroll except with permission of the instructor.

The following course texts are required:

As an experiment, I have also placed on reserve a CD-Rom American history text entitled Who Built America. (The bookstore has also managed to get a few copies, though it's now out of print for a time.) Aside from finding this a very useful text for historical background, you will have the option of using this CD for occasional classroom assignments and exploration. If you think you need background in American history--and, in particular, if you are an American Studies minor--working with this CD is recommended You may also benefit considerably by working with the WWW site links listed later on this syllabus.

Except when I tell you otherwise, any edition of these texts that you buy (e.g. used) or borrow from a library is fine. But always bring your text to class on discussion days.

Course Requirements

  1. Very Regular Class Attendance and Participation , including three video viewings of classic films from this era;
  2. Participation in one Panel Discussion, Debate,or "Kick off" of class discussion (TBA);
  3. One very short Paper (2-3 pp.) which "tests out" your analytical skills, and which will be ungraded;
  4. One Short Paper (4-5 pp.) on an outside primary text (that is, something from this period, but not on the syllabus) (25%);
  5. One Longer Paper, partly involving research or work with a critical essay, which will be Interdisciplinary (6-8 pp.) --that is, combining materials from different disciplines (e.g. film and literature, architecture and social thought, fiction and sociology) (35%);
  6. Final Exam on Lectures, Discussions, and Course Readings at the Regularly Scheduled Time (40%).


I. SETTING THE COMPASS: Lines and Expositions
19 Opening Day

For discussion next time, please consult the handout and read
Kate Chopin's "The Dream of an Hour," in Silk Stockings
and Other Stories The first essay in the Course Reader is only recommended,
not required. It helps those who need it to get an overview of recent
historical writing on segregation. You might also look up the
topic in Who Built America or the World Wide Web, just to give you
a first attempt at exploring these resources.

21 Lecture/Discussion: Tracing the Lines / Images and Expositions
Discussion: Handout and Chopin Story

26 Lecture/Discussion: Winslow Homer and Reading Images.

For background, please read the selection (chapter 2) from
Robert Rydell, All the World's a Fairin the class reader.

  • Visit the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 on the Web
  • An Interactive Web Book of the Exposition In addition, please make time to view DW Griffith's classic film "Birth of a Nation", on Reserve, before our discussion
    on Feb. 2; we will also have a scheduled group viewing (see below).
    For the discussion during this class, please read the selections from
    Wood et. al.,Winslow Homer and the Image of Blacks (1885),
    in the course reader, and study the technique of the
    Prown essay on Homer, also in the reader. The Prown essay gives you
    a good sense, I think, of "how to read" visual images.

  • A Few Links to Winslow Homer sites:
    28 Discussion: Homer -2- GROUP VIEWING OF "BIRTH OF A NATION" O'NEILL 211 AT 7 PM
    2 Discussion: DW Griffith, Birth of a Nation (1919) 4: Brief Lecture/Discussion: Charles W. Chesnutt Stories. Please read "The Goopher'd Grapevine," "Po' Sandy," "Mars Jeems's Nightmare" from The Conjure Woman, plus
    the essay I hand out, "What is a White Man?"

    9: Discussion: Chesnutt 2

    II. New (White?) Women: Gender
    and Color

    11 Lecture/Discussion: Race, Domesticity, and Class

    For this discussion, please read the assigned section
    from Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

    16: Discussion: Kate Chopin Stories (read the entire
    set of stories in the Silk Stockings collection.
    18: Discussion: Chopin 2
    23 Discussion: Paintings of Mary Cassatt For this discussion, please read the assigned selections from Pollack, and the essay on Cassatt in the course Reader. 25 Discussion: Cassatt 2

    A Few Links to Mary Cassatt sites:


    III. New Migrants/ New Images
    9 Lecture/Discussion: Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine
    For this class please read the assigned sections of Riis's How the Other Half Lives: Chapters 1-6.

    O'NEILL 211 AT 7 PM MARCH 9

    A Few Links to sites related to Hine and Riis:
    11: Discussion: Riis and Hine (2) For this class, please read the essay
    by Maren Stange (on Riis) in the Course Reader, and chapters 9,13, and 17 in Riis.

    16: Discussion: Lewis Hine (3) Read the Trachtenberg essay in the Class Reader, from America and Lewis Hine, called "Ever the Human Document," (R)
    18: Discussion: Mary Antin, a Selection from The Promised
    Land, from the Heath Anthology 23: Discussion: Twain, Roughing It, selections which
    will be handed out; plus selections from Ronald Takaki,
    Strangers from a Different Shore
  • Link to Mark Twain Speech on the "Sandwich Islands"
  • Link to other Twain Materials on Hawaii
    25: Discussion: Takaki -2- plus the short story by Sui Sin Far,
    "In the Land of the Free"

    30: Discussion: Far 2 Please read the
    autobiographical essay by Sui Sin Far, "Leaves
    from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian"


    6 Discussion: Far 3 For this day, please read for discussion:
    "Mrs. Spring Fragrance" (the short story" and "The Inferior
    Woman." For purposes of the final exam, please also
    read: "The Americanizing of Pau Tsu," "The Smuggling
    of Tie Co," "A Chinese Boy-Girl," and "Pat and Pan"

    IV. MAKING AMERICANS: Gender, Race, Nation
    8 Lecture/ Discussion: Toomer, Cane 13 Discussion: Toomer 2 15 Discussion Toomer 3 GROUP VIEWING OF "THE JAZZ SINGER" O'NEILL 211 AT 7 PM APRIL 15 20 Discussion: Discussion: "The Jazz Singer" 22 Lecture/Discussion Cather, My Antonia Link to Boston College's AMICO WWW site for finding images in Art History 27 Discussion: Cather 2 29 Discussion Cather -3-

    Some Links to Handouts from this Course:
    Six Conventions You Should Know For College Writing The Correction Code Used on Your Papers How to "Read Back" into Literary Passages
    The Simplified MLA Citation System We're Using
    Ten Pet Peeves of Mine About Your Writing
    Other Useful Links in American Cultural Study
    Course Policies:

    1. Class attendance is required. You are allowed two cuts (hereby defined
    as an "unexcused absence") without penalty. Absence in excess of this
    two-cut maximum can lower your grade--and, in extreme cases, be grounds
    for failing the course altogether. If there is a good reason why you have had
    to miss a class, please don't hesitate to tell me. Bring a doctor's note for
    medical excuses.

    2. Class participation can account for about 25% of your grade. Generally,
    I try to use your class participation (including your work on panels or
    "kick-off" presentations) as a measure of how well you have read and
    understood the assignments. I use a sliding scale for class participation:
    the better you do, the larger part of grade will reflect your participation.

    The idea here is to encourage strong class participation, but not to
    penalize unduly those who are silent or feel uncomfortable speaking.
    If your participation reflects strong reading skills, consideration
    for others' viewpoints, and frequent contributions to the flow of
    discussion, your class "average" can be boosted considerably. It is
    the case that poor class participation can make your overall grade
    more dependent on the final exam.

    3.  	Please note that the final exam will include identifications from the readings covered 
    over the semester--identifications from some of the more "marginal" moments in the texts
    covered (that is, not necessarily material mentioned in class). The purpose of these identifications
    is to reward those class members who have read carefully and closely over the course of the semester.

    4. When you submit a paper, it should be neatly typed and double-spaced, as per the guidelines
    handed out at the start of the course. Word-processed papers are fine, as long as the print is not
    too "grainy" and the font is kept between 10 and 12. In addition, you are required to keep a "hard"
    copy of the paper you hand in. That way, if your paper is lost, you can simply re-submit your hard copy.

    5. Papers are due on the assigned dates. Generally, I allow 24 hours leeway without penalty; after
    that, you will be penalized about 1/3 grade for every part of 24 hours the paper is late. The idea of this
    "leeway" period is that you should never miss a class in order to type a paper; come to class, and turn the paper in later.

    6. In a class like this, it isn't uncommon for students to feel, alternately, "over their head,"
    unprepared--or, conversely, bored or unchallenged. The first remedy for any of these situations
    is to come to my office for a conference, and to come early in the semester. There are easy ways to
    invididualize class assignments, formats, and discussions to better suit your needs. If my office hours
    don't fit your schedule, just talk to me in class about setting up another time. Please note: my
    "voice mailbox" on my phone extension (552-3719) really operates more like a mailbox than a
    "phone machine"--that is, I will try to respond to calls when I come into my office hours.

    7. This course emphasizes improving your writing. To that end, I use a "correction guide"
    which will be handed out in class. It goes without saying I would also be happy to discuss your
    writing with you in conference.TAKE A LOOK AT THE Correction Code Used on Your Papers


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