Author Archive

Contemporary American Fiction

Fall 2011  Tuesday/Thursday 1:00-2:20   

Carmichael 203

Dr. Erin Templeton

Office: 305-K  Carmichael Hall

Office Hours: T/TH 2:30-3:50 & appt.

Telephone: 596-9099 (x9099 on campus)



 (Email is the best way to reach me)


Course Description:

This course is intended to familiarize students with a sample of contemporary American fiction written by authors since 1985.   Though an exhaustive study is not possible in a three-hour course, the texts for the course have been chosen with the goal of exposing students to a diverse set of works by an eclectic gathering of some of the most important and influential writers in Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century America.

There has been an assumption among readers to regard the literary work as an immaterial verbal construct.  We will challenge that assumption by exploring the connections between a text’s verbal content and its material properties as a material artifact.  What difference does it make whether a book is read in hardback or paperback, in paper or online?  In an illustrated edition or one without illustrations?  In color?  Black and white?  To explore these and other issues, we will be reading texts that challenge, subvert and sometimes reinscribe the conventions of the traditional novel.  This class begins with Don DeLillo’s White Noise, one of the signature texts of literary post-modernism in search of what precisely such texts do to readers’ expectations of a novel.  Along the way, we will read House of Leaves, a cult-classic whose dense narrative challenges many (if not all) of our basic assumptions about what a novel is and how it should work, and we will also participate in a unique pedagogical “experiment networking our reading of this novel with four other colleges and universities across the Atlantic Seabaord.  We will also read The Lovely Bones, an unusual narrative told to us from beyond the grave,  Beloved, a work which questions the relationship between historical fact and literary fiction; Jonathan Safran Foer’s post-9/11 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and finally, The Double Bind, a novel which contains characters from another novel and interrogates the relationship between literary texts and their creators.

Texts (Available at the Converse Bookstore)

Chris Bohjalian, The Double Bind, ISBN: 1400031664

Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves ISBN: 0375703764

Don DeLillo, White Noise, ISBN: 0140077022

Toni Morrison, Beloved, ISBN: 1400033411

Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, ISBN: 0618711651

Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones, ISBN: 0316168815



(1) This course contains with some of the signature works of 20th and 21stC American fiction.  Not all of them will appeal to your personal taste, but you should appreciate them even if you don’t like them.

(2) You should become familiar with some of the critical terms and categories frequently applied to these writers and their historical context.

(3) You should become sensitive to the limitations of these terms and categories.

(4) You should become a more careful reader and critical thinker.

(5) You should become more skilled at articulating your thoughts, ideas and arguments about all of the above both in class and in more formal written assignments.

(6) You should become familiar with the basic strategies and techniques of researching a literary text.



You are expected to have completed the assigned reading before coming to class.  The syllabus contains texts that are important to the development of fiction in American literary history over the last twenty-five years.  Please note that “important” and “easy” are not synonyms.  Many of the texts you will read for this class will challenge you.  You might even want to throw one or two of them out of the nearest window from time to time.  Please resist these urges.  All of this is to say that it is important that you give yourself time to do the reading for class because the pace for the semester is relentless, and time waits for no reader.  I hate spoilers myself so I will do my best not to discuss our texts ahead of the syllabus assignments, but if you fall behind, you should be aware that there are a few endings that will indeed be given away.

Attendance & Participation:

First, the administrative: to put it bluntly, attendance is important to your success in this course.  You cannot participate if you are not present.  More than two absences will affect the participation portion of your grade.  In a nutshell: Arrive on time.  Bring your text.  Stay Awake.  Participate enthusiastically.  Your commitment to keeping up with the readings, your active participation in our conversations, and your enthusiasm in class discussions can make the course a more interesting and exciting intellectual experience for all of us.  By active participation, please understand, I do not mean that you need to provide a profound, earth-shattering, groundbreaking, etc. interpretation of Danielewski, Morrison, or whomever is on the day’s agenda.  I expect you to ask questions when you have them and that you are willing to offer your thoughts on the reading.  Finally, please bear in mind that “participation” involves listening attentively to your classmates and responding thoughtfully to their ideas, as well as contributing to class discussions yourself.


There will be three papers for this class, and they are weighted so as to favor your development as a thinker and a writer over the course of the semester.  The first two papers will consist of an explication assignment, and the final paper is a longer (8-10p) essay that will require you to explore one of the issues that we have discussed over the semester in greater depth incorporating secondary sources.  I expect papers to be double-spaced in 12pt Times or Times Roman font.  All formatting should follow MLA Style.

Annotated Bibliography & Online Writing:

Students will contribute to a Zotero-based class annotated bibliography of secondary sources based on bibliographic research using the MLA database.  Appropriate sources include essays found in academic journals, chapters in books published by academic presses, and essays included in collections that study a particular author’s work or a specific title (these, too, are frequently published by academic presses).  If you have questions about whether or not a source is appropriate for this assignment, please consult me.  All bibliographies should be formatted according to MLA Style. In addition to our collaborative online bibliography project, we will be completing a few other electronic assignments and participating in a unique online community for our reading of House of Leaves. More information about these assignments will be forthcoming, but for now, know that contributions to this online forum will also be assessed as part of your grade for our class.



Towards the end of the semester, all students will submit a prospectus that proposes a thesis based on close reading of selected passages.  This is not a rough draft; it is careful conscientious preliminary work that anticipates the rough draft.  It provides a framework to help you begin to work out how a close reading of the text will support your thesis, and it provides us with an opportunity to discuss your ideas once you have worked through them in a preliminary way.  I will read and provide feedback on the prospectus, and you will be asked to resubmit it with your final paper.  While the prospectus is not graded independently, it is a required component of the final paper.  That means you must turn in a prospectus in order to submit the final paper. If you decide to change the topic of your essay after submitting the prospectus, you must clear the new topic with me before turning in the paper.


Midterm & Final Exams:

The examinations for this class will consist of objective questions, identifications, short answer essays, and explication.  More information will be distributed in due course.

Grade Breakdown:

The grading system in this class is designed to reward improvement over the semester: later work constitutes a larger proportion of the grade than early assignments. I grade on a +/- scale wherein the A range is 90-100; B is 80-89; .C is 70-79; D is 60-69, and below 60 is failing.  You must complete and submit all graded assignments in order to pass this class.  Assignments that are handed in late will be marked down 1 letter per 24 hrs. You may submit electronic versions of assignments to avoid a late penalty provided that you turn in the assignment the next time I see you.  For work to receive a grade, I must receive it in hard copy unless alternate arrangements are agreed upon by both student and professor in advance.

Participation                                          10%

Essay I                                                 10%

Mid-term exam                                     15%

Essay II                                                 15%

Prospectus & Essay III (8-10p)                20%

Annotated Bibliography & HOL work 10%

Final Exam                                            20%

Student Appointments:

You don’t need to make an appointment to talk with me during my posted office hours; just stop by with any questions you have about the class or the reading or to consult about various assignments.  If my posted hours conflict with your class schedule, please see me to arrange a mutually convenient time to meet.  Please note that email is the best way to contact me outside of office hours.  I will do my best to respond to all email with 24 hours. 

Honor Code & Intellectual Honesty:

All students are expected to adhere to the standards set forth by the Converse Honor Tradition, which is explained in the Student Handbook.  It should go without saying that any work you turn in for this class should be your own.  Plagiarism consists of using ideas from an outside source without acknowledging that you have done so, whether or not quote from the source directly.  Outside sources you must cite include the texts on the syllabus, internet sources, critical books and articles, the work of other students, and material you have produced for other classes.  In literary studies, most academics follow the MLA Style.  If this is unfamiliar to you, you may wish to consult The MLA Style Guide.  If you have any questions about what constitutes plagiarism, please ask.  Please remember to pledge all written work, and please note that the act of submitting an assignment electronically assumes that the assignment is in accord with the Honor Code.


The Writing Center

The College Writing Center, located in the Mickel Library, is available to help you with your writing whether you are struggling with your thesis statement, having difficulty organizing your thoughts and ideas, or find yourself troubled with specific grammatical or stylistic issues.  While the Center is not a proofreading or editing service, its consultants are willing to work with you to strengthen your work and improve your abilities.  The hours are M-F 9-12 a.m. and M-Th 1-5 p.m.


Students with documented disabilities who would like to request academic accommodations must contact Tania McDuffie Director of Accommodations and Tutoring Service at 577-2028 (extension 2028 on campus).  I regret that I cannot offer any accommodations unless they are properly documented by her office.

Email Policy

Converse has provided each of you with a account upon enrollment, and you should be accustomed to checking this account for all official communications from the college.  I expect that you will check your Converse email address at least once a day. I will use that address to send you any notices about the class or changes to the syllabus.

You can reasonably expect me to respond to student email between 9am and 7pm Monday through Friday. I do my best to respond to all students within 24 hrs, but please be aware that over the weekends and at certain times of the semester, it might take up to 48 hrs for you to receive a response. If you have not received a reply from me after 48hrs, please resend your message. Please also be aware that I do not open email attachments unless they are ones that I have solicited. I also will not open email with blank subject lines. Please be specific about the subject of the email in the mail subject heading and use proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Finally, if your question is not one that can be answered in a few sentences, please consider talking with me in person (unless it’s an emergency).


The failure of technology is not sufficient grounds for a deadline extension. Sadly, technological excuses (“my printer died,” etc.) cannot be accepted under any circumstances. Always back-up your work; I strongly recommend either investing in a thumb drive or signing up for an account with any number of free cloud-based data storage sites. I myself use Dropbox (, but other options include SpiderOak and Amazon’s cloud server. Also be sure to plan ahead so that you will have time to use the on-campus computers and printers if necessary.

In an ideal world, students would refrain from bringing their phones to class entirely, but in this one, I will settle for the silent setting.  If your phone rings during class, I will answer it for you.  Trust me when I tell you that this is not something that you want.  In addition, all phones must be stowed out of sight during all exams and quizzes.  Finally, if you cannot refrain from texting, facebooking, tweeting or otherwise using technology as a distraction during class, you will be asked to leave and be marked absent for the day.  You can also expect your participation grade to reflect your lack of attention.  The same policy applies to personal computers.  You may use a laptop, netbook, or tablet computer in class to take notes.  Any other use of a personal computer in class is inappropriate, and students will be asked to leave the classroom.



Please refrain from bringing food to class with you. I do not mind drinks (in fact, I will often have water or tea myself), but because there are students with severe food allergies at Converse, it is important to try and keep the classroom space uncontaminated.  Obviously, we cannot maintain classrooms as a sterile environment, but because even accidental contact can be life-threatening, I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.

Reading Schedule

(May be modified by Professor if necessary)

Please read through the assigned pages before class.


T: 30 August   Introduction to Course & Syllabus: Who are these writers, and why should we read them?

R: 1 Sept          White Noise (1-105)

T: 6 Sept          White Noise (105-163)

R: 8 Sept          White Noise (entire)     

T: 13 Sept        Lovely Bones (to 125)

R: 15 Sept        Lovely Bones (to 211)

T: 20 Sept        Lovely Bones (entire)

R: 22 Sept        Beloved (1-86); Paper 1 Due

T: 27 Sept        Beloved (87-173)

R: 29 Sept        Beloved (174-256)

T: 6 Oct          Beloved entire

R: 8 Oct          No Class

T: 11 Oct        Mid-Term Exam

R: 13 Oct        House of Leaves (Front cover-79)

T: 18 Oct        No Class—Fall Break

R: 20 Oct        House of Leaves (80-245)

T: 25 Oct        House of Leaves  (246-346)

R: 27 Oct        House of Leaves  (347-422)

T: 1 Nov          House of Leaves  (entire)

R: 3 Nov          Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (1-85); Paper 2 Due


T: 8 Nov          Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (86-173)

R: 10 Nov        Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (174-259)

T: 15 Nov        Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (entire)

R: 17 Nov        The Double Bind

T: 22 Nov        Final Paper Proposals Due

R: 24 Nov        No Class—Thanksgiving

T: 29 Nov        Double Bind

R: 3 Dec          Double Bind & Course Wrap-Up; Paper 3 Due

The Final Exam for this class is scheduled for Monday, December 5 from 12:00-3:00PM.


Open Professoriat: Public Intellectuals on the Social Web

In my contribution to the MLA Roundtable, which is titled, “Openness: Too much is Never Enough?  Or, at What Cost?”, I am interested in interrogating the term “Open Professoriat.”  I want to think about what the term might mean and what it might look like.  Like the term, “digital humanities,” which has been discussed much both at the conference and online, I think that the idea of an “open professorship” is one that we use and we think we understand, but which we haven’t stopped to define.  Of particular interest to me is “open” part of the equation.

One model for an Open Professoriat might be the Open Yale Courses, which are available to anyone with an internet connection.  Users can simply go to a website ( and watch video recordings of classes in such varied subjects as biomedical engineering and the contemporary American novel.  In this model, open equals open access.  My purpose here isn’t to knock Yale or these classes (or other institutions like MIT who have instituted similar models).  Indeed, I’ve read transcripts for several of the courses and learned a great deal from them.  But at the same time, this model of an open professoriat is a strictly passive one based not on collaboration but on consumption.  There is no more opportunity for the exchange of ideas than there is with the daily reruns of Law and Order.  I can (and often do) talk to Jack McCoy, but there is little chance of him answering me in my living room.  I do not think that his model of open access is what most of us would hold up as an ideal for an open professoriat simply because the openness only flows in one direction—outward.  It’s the difference between looking through a window and walking through a door.  To be sure, it is a step in the right direction and can work wonders in helping the rest of the world at large see what happens in a university classroom particularly in times like these when higher education in general, and the humanities in particular, are under fire.  Perhaps letting others in on what we trying to accomplish, both in terms of research and pedagogy is a good thing.

Other models of an “Open Professoriat,” both research and pedagogy, have been discussed not only here in our panel but in others throughout MLA.  One example would be the ProfHacker Session yesterday where Brian Croxall and George Williams talked about writing in their own names (rather than using a pseudonym) about the challenges and difficulties of the profession as well as about personal failures as learning opportunities. Another example would be Ryan Cordell sharing his work on Hawthorne and Kathy Harris discussing various different pedagogical tools and strategies.

It is perhaps rather obvious to say that social media plays an important role in an Open Professoriat because it can facilitate exchange and collaboration.  For me personally, it has been a lifeline to others working both within and outside my field.  Thanks to Twitter, I participated in a productive and supportive reading group this past summer with scholar across the eastern seaboard.  My students and I both benefitted from suggestions from Facebook friends when I posted a call for possible novels to include on a syllabus. These various kinds of media have provided channels of communication and created proximity where it did not exist previously.

But I want to return to the question of openness . . .  How open can something like Twitter be if it is filled with people who always already share (more or less) the same perspectives and ideas? Where does difference come from?

And how is that ideal of openness challenged and possibly even compromised by itself?  That is, how open can we be if our chair is following our Twitterstream or our dean is our Facebook friend?  Or if you are on the job market?  Or untenured?  Whether one protects their tweets, declines friend requests, or resorts to self-censorship, the end result is the same, openness might be a bit misleading.

But lest you think that my point here is to encourage folks to commit career suicide on this very stage of openness, it’s not.  Rather I want to suggest that while openness is something to be celebrated, it’s also something that we need to think carefully about, particularly as social media continues to proliferate amongst the academy and its members.  These tools certainly can broaden the audience for academic work, but perhaps less so than we might think.  If we are only share information amongst ourselves, we are missing out on valuable opportunities for collaboration and exchange.  In the end, I want to suggest that tools like Twitter and Facebook are vehicles for one kind of exchange among many.  These are valuable but not exclusive.  And on that note, I’ll close with a call for another different kind of interaction and that’s with you, our audience.

For the Inside Higher Education article about our panel, CLICK HERE.

You can find my fellow panelist Mark Sample’s paper, titled “Tactical Collaboration: or, Skilfull in both parts of War, Tactick and Stratagematick” HERE, and the Prezi presentation HERE.  Amanda French’s talk, titled “Your Twitter followers and Facebook friends won’t read your peer-reviewed article if they have to pay for it, and neither will strangers” can be found HERE.

[Creative Commons licensed image from Flickr user ghwpix]


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