POL S 281 A: Literature and American Political Culture

Summer Term: 
Meeting Time: 
MW 9:40am - 11:50am
LOW 206
Joint Sections: 
ENGL 251 A
Emily Christensen

Syllabus Description:

POLS 281/ENGL 251

Literature & American Political Culture Syllabus


MW; 9:40-11:50am

THO 331


Instructor: Emily Christensen

Email: echrist2@uw.edu

Office: Gowen 24

Office Hours: MW 11:50-12:50 & By Appointment


Course Overview:

This course will explore the ways in which contemporary popular culture both resists and reinforces dominant and intersecting political discourses on race, gender, and class in the United States. Course readings and materials will focus on three politically salient issues: immigration, motherhood, and incarceration.  We will draw on perspectives from political theory (with an emphasis on feminist theory and critical race theory), the social sciences, popular and news media, and contemporary American literature (fiction and non-fiction).


Over the course of the quarter, we will consider the following questions: How are economic, racial and gender power arrangements in the U.S. framed within political and popular discourses? How do literary texts and popular culture perpetuate, or expose, unjust systems of power and privilege? What can we learn from fictional depictions of these social and political conditions?



Group Topic Presentation—Students will sign up to give an informal presentation on each topic we discuss in the course. The presentation will serve as an overview of the political salience of the topic: What are the current political debates or controversies? What are the dominant (or hegemonic) discourses surrounding this issue? How does the current news and popular media reflect or challenge these discourses? Provide examples of each to illustrate these discourses.


Reflection Paper & Critical Questions—Students will sign up to write one short reflection papers (2-3 pages; double-spaced) on one of the assigned readings. The paper should conclude with three critical questions that will serve as a springboard for a student-led class discussion.


The paper should address the following questions: How did the reading reflect or challenge the social and political discourses of the issue(s) it discusses? Given your social position, how did you encode and decode the particular reading? Did the reading complicate or challenge your understanding of the topic? Why or why not? How was the reading political, especially if it is a work of literature/popular culture?


In addition, it should include reference to one specific passage from the text to analyze that you find illuminating, powerful (or perhaps confusing).


Journals—Every week I will pose a question or two for the assigned readings.  Students will keep an ongoing journal and write one to two paragraphs for each questions and provide textual evidence (page #s) of passages that are illustrative. Students should bring these journals to class everyday; I will collect them at random to grade.


Final Paper—Students will write one analytic paper (5-6 pages) on one of the assigned books covering a dominant (hegemonic) discourse thematic to that particular text. Specific prompt and guidelines will be distributed.


Participation—This course will include some lecture, but it is largely discussion-based. Students should come to each class prepared to discuss the readings and pose critical questions. ALWAYS bring the assigned texts with you to class, as we will often be exercising “close reading” and will reference specific passages.



Group Topic Presentation 15%

Reflection Paper & Critical Questions 15%

Journals 15%

Final Paper 25%

Participation 30%


Required Texts:

In addition to the PDFs I will provide electronically on Canvas, students need to purchase or borrow the following books:

Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers (Penguin Random House, 2016)

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaids Tale (Anchor Books, 1998)

Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2018)


Note: Although not required, if possible, it is best to use the same edition of the text I noted so that we can more easily reference specific passages in class.


Course Schedule:

Week #1

Monday, June 24th

Introductions & Syllabus


Wednesday, June 26th

John Storey, Cultural Theory & Popular Culture: An Introduction—“What is popular culture?” (p. 1-13), “Hegemony” (p. 79-82) (16pp)


Week #2

Monday, July 1st

Read: Stuart Hall, Encoding & Decoding (13pp)

New York Times, “Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics?” (2pp)


Wednesday, July 3rd

Presentation #1: The American Dream & Immigration

Reading: Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers; Chapters 1-11 (p. 1-74; 74pp)


Week #3

Monday, July 8th

Read: Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers; Chapters 12-23 (p. 75-150; 75pp)

Nicholas DeGenova, “Detention, Deportation & Waiting”



Wednesday, July 10th

Read: Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers; Chapters 24-34 (p. 151-222; 72pp)

Watch: Fresh Off the Boat [in class] (Episodes TBD)


Week #4

Monday, July 15th—NO CLASS; reading still assigned

Read: Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers; Chapters 35-48 (p. 223-304; 82pp)


Wednesday, July 17th:

Read: Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers; Chapters 49-62 (p. 305-382; 78 pp)

Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands, La Frontera: La conciencia de la mestiza (9pp)


Week #5

Monday, July 22nd

Presentation #2: Equal Rights & Motherhood

Read: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaids Tale, Chapter I-IV (p. 1-66; 66pp)


Wednesday, July 24th

Read: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Chapter V-VII (p. 67-106; 50pp) & Jill Lepore, “To Have and to Hold: Reproduction, Marriage & the Constitution.” (pp 6)


Week #6

Monday, July 29th

Read: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Chapter VIII-X (p. 107-188; 82pp)

Watch: TBD [in class]

*Paper Prompt distributed in-class


Wednesday, July 31st

Read: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Chapter XI-XII (p. 189-256; 66pp) & Dorothy E. Roberts, Punishing Drug Addicts Who Have Babies (12pp)


Week #7

Monday, August 5th

Read: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Chapter XIII-Historical Notes (p. 257-311; 55pp)

Susan Bordo, “Are Mother’s Persons? Reproductive Rights and the Politics of Subject-ivity” (28pp)


Wednesday, August 7th

Presentation #3: Justice & Mass Incarceration

Read: Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (p. 1-60)


Week #8

Monday, August 12th

Read: Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (p. 61-120)

Michelle Alexander: “The New Jim Crow”


Wednesday, August 14th:

Read: Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (p.121-180)

Watch: Orange is the New Black (episodes TBD)



Week #9:

Monday, August 19th

Read: Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (p. 181-240) &

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”


Wednesday, August 21st

Read: Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (p. 241-300)


*Paper due Thursday, August 22nd at 5pm


Classroom Policies:


Email & Office Hours

Your learning and engagement with this course are important to me and I am always happy to field your questions, concerns, or comments in person or over email.  I will try my best to answer your emails in a timely manner, however, it is my policy that I will not respond to emails 24-hours prior to a paper due date so please make sure to plan ahead. Substantive questions about the course material are always better suited for in-person discussion.  Thus, I hope you take advantage of my office hours or schedule alternative meeting times if necessary.



All assignments will be grade on a 100 point scale and converted to a 4.0 scale at the end of the quarter using the grading conversion rubric that is uploaded to Canvas under course files.


Academic Integrity

Any material that you quote, paraphrase, summarize or draw ideas from requires proper citation. Cases of suspected cheating and plagiarism will be referred to the Arts and Sciences Committee on Academic Conduct and may result in a grade of 0.0 for the assignment in question. All papers will be turned in via Canvas and checked with Vericite, a plagiarism detection software. University policies and guidelines regarding cheating and plagiarism can be found at: https://depts.washington.edu/grading/pdf/AcademicResponsibility.pdf



For the benefit of our discussion and out of respect for others, please put phones away during class. Laptops are to be used solely for the purpose of note-taking and accessing the readings. If technology related distractions become a problem in class, I will ban laptops and students will be required to print out readings and take notes by hand.


Late Work

Papers submitted after the deadline will incur a penalty of 5% per day. Missed exams cannot be made up without verification of a personal/family emergency or medical condition.


Diversity Statement

The diversity of student backgrounds and perspectives in this course is an enormous benefit. Many discussion topics in this class may be controversial and elicit competing viewpoints and spirited debate is strongly encouraged in discussion. Disagreement can foster a deeper intellectual understanding as long as students maintain respect for perspectives that differ from their own.


Religious Holidays

If you wish to observe a religious holiday that is not recognized by the University calendar, please let me know in advance, so that I can accommodate your absence from class.



Your experience in class is important to me, and it is my goals to create an accessible and inclusive learning environment for all students. If you experience barriers due to a disability and need academic accommodations, please contact Disability Resources for Students, 448 Schmitz Hall, V: (206) 543-8924, TTY: (206) 543-8925, uwdss@u.washington.edu. If you have a letter from Disability Resources for Students documenting the need for academic accommodations, please present this letter to me and your TA at the beginning of the quarter so that accommodations can be discussed and arranged.

Catalog Description: 
Introduction to the methods and theories used in the analysis of American culture. Emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to American literature, including history, politics, anthropology, and mass media. Offered: jointly with ENGL 251.
Department Requirements: 
American Politics Field
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
March 29, 2020 - 9:05pm