Current Courses-Department of English - Carnegie Mellon University

Current Courses

Each student in the Literary and Cultural Studies concentration of the Master of Arts is required to take a minimum of 24 credit hours (72 units) of required and elective course work.

One of two core courses, Literary and Cultural Studies I or Literary and Cultural Studies II, is required. Also required are five additional courses which pose contemporary critical questions with regard to either historical or modern texts (for example, Postcolonial Critics and Early Modern Texts, Women in Media, The Emergence of Consumer Capitalism, Victorian Realism). One of the five required courses may be taken in the Rhetoric program or elsewhere in the college. Some of the Literary and Cultural Studies courses offered are described below:

Literary and Cultural Studies I

What exactly is cultural studies? Literary studies has been transformed over the past forty years, first by its adoption of "theory" and then by its shifting to "cultural studies." Cultural studies is a familiar term now, but it seems to mean many different things to different people. This course will look at the history of cultural studies and introduce you to its basic texts. It will begin with British cultural studies, which is often seen as the main root of our American version. It will also look at other influences, such as the Frankfurt School and structuralist theory, then turn to contemporary incarnations, especially pertaining to identity. It will conclude with policy and the effect of cultural studies in our world. [return to top]

Literary and Cultural Studies II

In recent decades, identity has become a keyword both in cultural studies and in the American public sphere. While identity politics has mainly been used as a term of abuse by Marxists and others on the traditional left, identity has also been used positively by those engaged in political struggles for the rights of African Americans, women, and gays and lesbians among others. There is also right-wing identity politics as represented by the racist Christian Identity movement. This course will argue that to understand the rise of identity as a central term in contemporary discourse one must look to the influence of psychoanalysis and to problems of self-identity and identification. To that end we will read Freud, Erik Erikson, Jessica Benjamin, and Lacan. We read some philosophical discussions, such as those by Hegel and Adorno. We will take up historical and analytic treatments by Lee Medovoi, Stuart Hall, and Judith Butler. We will read feminist, GLBT, nationalist, and ethnic defenses of identity politics, as well as Marxist critiques. We will also look at critiques emanating from elsewhere, such as those by Walter Benn Michaels and Jean-Francois Bayart among others. Since self-identity will be an important issue, we may read some memoirs, and autobiographies, and perhaps a bildungsroman or biography. [return to top]

19th Century British Literary and Cultural Studies: Electrifying the Victorians

From Shelley's Frankenstein to Darwin's Origin of Species and H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, nineteenth-century literary and scientific writers electrified their audiences with narratives of deep time, speculative futures, and powerful evolutionary logics. Print media intensified the impact of these visions then, as the digital media may be doing again today. This course uses traditional print scholarship along with new methods currently emerging in the "digital humanities" to grasp the nineteenth century’s matrix of literary, scientific, and visual culture in a range of fiction and nonfiction texts. Two papers and one visual presentation will be required. (No previous experience in "digital humanities," which is an introductory topic in this course, is necessary.) [return to top]


We will read most of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and his narrative poem Troilus and Criseyde (considered by some the first English novel). Our texts are in Middle English—Chaucer’s language is odd-looking, but easily mastered. Most class meetings will consist of discussions that examine these fictions in relation to the social conditions they imply and the tellers’ stakes in the telling.  While we are discussing the General Prologue, I will ask each of you to identify the pilgrim through whose eyes you will read each of the tales; in addition, of course, to seeing from your own 21st-century vantage point.  Sometimes "your" pilgrim's reactions will be specified in the dramatic frame begun in the General Prologue; sometimes you will have to speculate. In addition to the tales, prologues, and epilogues of the text, we will also be reading brief accounts of 14th-century institutions and traditions (chivalry, fabliaux, marriage, etc.). Required are near-perfect attendance, steady participation, and three papers. Graduate students will meet for an extra hour a week, read additional materials, and write longer papers. [return to top]

20th Century American Literary and Cultural Studies: Highbrow/Lowbrow

One of the great American tastemakers, Russell Lynes, once said that "the only thing that is more to be guarded against than bad taste is good taste."  In this course we will try to understand how taste hierarchies are established and protected by reading theories and secondary works of scholarship that explore the problems of taste, class, culture and hierarchy in the 20th century.  Theoretical readings will included selections from Gramsci's The Prison Notebooks, Adorno, and Bourdieu's Distinction. Secondary works will include Andrew Ross's No Respect, Joan Shelley Rubin's The Making of Middlebrow Culture, Weirdo Deluxe: The Wild World of Pop Surrealism & Lowbrow Art, and Shyon Baumann's Hollywood Highbrow: From Entertainment to Art[return to top]

Film and Media Studies: American Independent Cinema, 1980 – 2004

Beginning in 1980 with the surprising box-office success and return on investment of John Sayles's Return of the Secaucus Seven, independent filmmakers became increasingly important to the American film industry. Such films filled a niche left open when the studios largely abandoned small-scale comedies and dramas in favor of big-budget, special-effects heavy fantasy franchises such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Indiana Jones. Originally, independent films were defined as those made entirely without support from Hollywood studios, though the studios in some cases made distribution deals for such films after they were produced. The films were made with financing cobbled together by directors, sometimes with money they borrowed on their credit cards. Film festivals, especially Robert Redford's Sundance Festival, became prime markets for independent directors to sell their work to distributors. By early 1990s, however, a new branch of the industry began to emerge, represented most prominently by Miramax. Beginning as a distribution company that acquired films such as Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Video Tape (1989), Miramax became a small studio, producing some of the most successful films of the 1990s. In 1993, it became a subsidiary of Disney, and soon after most other major studios formed or acquired "independent" units. At this point, "independent" becomes something like a style, since most films described as independent had some kind of studio backing. Such films, however, were often regarded as among the best produced in America, and they were often well rewarded at Oscar time. In 2004, Disney fired Miramax founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and absorbed Miramax, ending its quasi-independent status. That date marks at least the beginning of the end of the independent era. "Independent" films no longer were a reliable source of income, and by 2009, almost all of the studio's "independent" units have been closed. In this course, we will investigate this history, and we will watch some of best independent films by directors such as Sayles, Soderbergh, Michael Moore, Spike Lee, Susan Seidelman, Julie Dash, Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Joel and Ethan Cohen, and Kevin Smith. We may also consider films by directors such as Robert Altman and Woody Allen, who established themselves before the independent era on the margins of Hollywood, and we will watch several big-budget studio blockbusters to provide context. [return to top]

20th Century American Literary and Cultural Studies: College Fiction and Films

College seems a space apart, before you enter the real world. Accordingly, we don’t think of fiction and film that depicts life in college as all that serious. However, there is a growing tradition of fiction of university life, whether of students or professors. In particular, a great many prominent contemporary writers have written novels set on campuses, and a number of major film directors have turned their lights on university life. In this course, we will survey the realm of college fiction and film, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Michael Chabon. We will try to put together its history, distinguish its major types, and diagnose its contemporary representations. We will also look at relevant historical, theoretical, and sociological works that bear on the university. There will be several short papers and one longer final paper. [return to top]