English course reorganized around social change

In my position at Ripon College, I teach courses with names like Major Author: Shakespeare andFoundations of English Literature — courses focused on the time-tested canon of early British literature. Yet, as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, I wrote a dissertation on the ways that some contemporary theater companies use Shakespeare’s plays to address issues of social injustice. I am intrigued by the ways in which literature is used to process traumatic experience, raise awareness of social injustice, foster empathy between disparate groups, and enact change.

These are ideas I have brought into my courses at Ripon before: in small ways, such as discussing the impact of casting along racial lines in Othello or Antony and Cleopatra, or through deeper explorations, such as my senior seminar course on trauma studies. Yet I felt there was still more I could be doing to help my students think about the important roles that literature, interpretation and writing have in social movements. So this spring, I have organized my ENG 110: Literature and Composition course around the theme of Literature and Social Change.

In this course, students will encounter a variety of texts, including a novel, non-fiction essays, memoirs, a documentary, drama and poetry, which focus on a variety of social issues. They will speak with individuals who do the activist work depicted in these texts, including a college professor who teaches at a correctional facility and author V. V. Ganeshananthan, whose novelLove Marriage raises awareness about the Sri Lankan Civil War and its intergenerational legacy. We will have conversations about how writers create empathy, the methods and ethics of persuasion, and the impact of social media on cultural change.

Early in the semester, each student will select a social cause he or she feels passionate about to focus on during the course. He or she will approach research on this issue through a variety of secondary sources: fictional depictions, non-fictional essays, interviews with those involved, and social media movements. At the end of the semester, each student will produce a polished piece of work that can be used to further his or her cause through print or social media outlets.

My goal in this course is to empower students to find their voice as writers and as citizens of our global community. Our college mission statement envisions Ripon as a place “of optimism and opportunity,” where “accessibility and possibility … will inspire (its students, faculty and staff) to imagine — and to do — great things.” I want to create a classroom and curriculum that encourages first-year students to see their place in this dynamic campus. I hope that students will gain a greater understanding of the ways that both literature and their own writing can contribute to meaningful and important change, both on our own campus and in our greater community.

By Assistant Professor of English Ann Pleiss Morris


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