28 August 2007

Want to read along AND comment?

Bird Loomis, long time friend and contributor to Reading, teaches political science at the University of Kansas. He wrote about a new course he's teaching this semester. He's looking for people to respond to some of his thoughts before and after he takes them to the classroom.

I'll offer this space as a place for Bird's reflections. And you can take whatever space you want to use in the comments section to add your own 2 cents' worth. Or you can e-mail Bird directly. His address is in the syllabus below (although I disguised it a bit to avoid the spamming trolls on the Internet).

Here's what Bird wrote and the course syllabus:

I'm teaching a course on Politics and Literature this fall -- something that I've wanted to do for some time, but hve been thwarted by various other duties. Now I'm doing it. I've attached a syllabus. What I'd like to do is this: produce a running set of commentaries and reviews as I go through the course (all informed by the syllabus, to begin with). I'm finding that this is a different kind of course than those I have historically taught, and I'm doing a fair amount of reflecting on what I'm doing. So -- would you/readers be interested? I'm not sure what I'd say, or how much, but my guess is that I'd post pretty frequently. And I'd obviously like to have some response, though who knows.


POLS 503 Literature and Politics

Burdett Loomis
515 Blake Hall
Area Code SevenEightFive-864-9033
bloomis AT ku DOT edu

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word. I don't know whether it's a new thing, but it's certainly a current thing, in that it doesn't seem to matter what facts are. It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the president because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?
Stephen Colbert

As a political scientist long fascinated by the actions and lives of politicians, I've always wanted to explore how fiction can add to our understanding of political life. Well, this is my initial plunge. I have used a bit of fiction in my Congress courses over the years, and probably will do the same in interest groups in the future. Scholars often infer or postulate motivations for politicians, yet it's tough to know what does move them toward action or belief. Novelists get around this problem by creating characters - by lying in essence to create the truth (or maybe a truth). To be sure, some politicians create their own novel-like narratives as justifications for public policy, but our focus here will be more on actual novelists than some presidents.

This course will approach the politics-literature connection through readings that emphasize American politics, broadly defined. We'll read a bunch of books, some short stories, and watch some films (and even a couple of television episodes). By the end, we should understand a bit more about politics and politicians, as well as appreciating how novelists choose the words for their narratives. We'll also read a play (The Best Man).

This is a political science, not a literature, course, but we'll focus on both the fiction and what political lessons we might learn. And since it's the maiden voyage for this course, it remains something of an experiment. If there are two major players in this course, they are Ward Just and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. The latter is the archetypal American political novel as it addresses the core idea of power (and its ability to corrupt); we'll also watch the 1950 Oscar-wining film (not the 2006 Sean Penn monstrosity). In many ways, ATKM stands at the heart of the course. More pervasive, however, will be the writings of Ward Just, a first-class contemporary novelist who often examines the inner workings of the political class, from legislators to journalists to Foreign Service officers. No one writing over the past fifty years has a better ear for the nuance of politics, and the considerable personal costs that public figures often choose to pay.

The class will depend greatly on active discussion; you will need to do the reading and keep up through out the course. High levels of participation are expected.

  • Ward Just, 21 Stories or The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert: 21 Stories and Novellas
  • Ward Just, A Dangerous Friend
  • Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men
  • Henry Adams, Democracy
  • Bud Norman, The Things That Are Caesar's
  • Billy Lee Brammer, The Gay Place
  • Gore Vidal, The Best Man
  • Jeffrey Frank, The Columnist


David Ashmore said...

"What always amazes me is man's unfailing capacity to believe what he prefers to be true, rather than what the evidence shows to be likely or possible." Can't remember where I heard this, but I was remined of it by the quote at the top. I'd be interested in this course for many reasons, but I think the main one would be finding out how people manage to delude themselves that much. At any rate, it seems very interesting.

loomism said...

After 3 weeks, so far so good. The students did a pretty good job with DEMOCRACY, which is in many ways a modern novel, although it was written in 1880 by Henry Adams (and published anonymously, shades of PRIMARY COLORS). The key question of power, gender (the role of a powerful woman in 1880?), and the realtions between means and ends remain highly relevant.

This week, we'll be watching THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (better than the novel, I think) and comparing it to DEMOCRACY. And we also start writing this week -- first assignment, to comment on the staying power of BRuce Springsteen's set of songs that make up "The Rising," his post-9/11 CD.

Ken Wedding said...

September 29:

Ok, now I' well into my maiden voyage in teaching "Literature and Politics" (but really American political fiction) to 40 or so juniors and seniors (mostly political science majors at the University of Kansas . See previous post for details.

After 6 weeks, some basic observations.

1. Things are generally going well; the readings -- Democracy by Henry Adams, several Ward Just short stories, The Columnist by Jerome Frank, along with the film "Thank You for Smoking" have provided good fodder for discussion and some decent lessons on US politics.

2. I need more English majors in the class. Folks who are used to some literary analysis would be helpful.

3. This course is as much about narrative in all forms as it is about fiction. As I get older, I keep coming back to narrative as central to understanding fiction and life.

4. Reading fiction for pleasure and reading to teach are very different tasks. Close reasing is more fun than I'd remembered.

5. This week we're doing Things that Are Caesar's, a little-known modern novel about Kansas politics. It's actually pretty good, and the author (Bud Norman) is coming up from Wichita to talk with me and my students. I love living in a smallish state, sometimes.

Onward and upward.