Professor Sophia McClennen / Dept. of Comparative Literature , Penn State University, Mailbox: 311 Burrowes, Office:  435N Burrowes Office Phone: 865-0032 E-mail:, Office Hours:  T 8:30-9:30 and R 12:45-1:30 and by appointment.

CMLIT 005H: Literature of the Americas

Fall 2004

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Section 001: T, R 9:45-11, 270 Willard, 3 Credit Hours

Satisfies General Education - Humanities (GH)

Satisfies Intercultural and International Competence (DF)

Course Description

CMLIT 005 provides textual analysis of a number of works spanning several centuries of American Cultures. Each of our readings attempts to define “American” cultural identity during a period of social conflict and crisis.  How is this cultural identity created?  Who is included? Who is excluded?  Is identity formed by being an exemplary individual or by belonging to a group?  In many ways the identity of the New World has always reflected a tension between the individual and the community.  How has American cultural history been narrated as a personal experience? How has it been narrated as the creation of a community? In order to explore these and other issues, and to develop a more comprehensive sense of American identities, the readings for this course include historical accounts, letters, essays, testimonials, slave narratives, memoirs and novels ranging in historical context from pre-Colombian to contemporary times. This course compares a variety of texts from South, Central and North America (including the Caribbean) and considers the ways that literature has shaped, reflected and challenged images of American cultural identity. 

One main theme we will consider is the tension between the personal and the collective in narratives about "American" identity. The problem of American identity is related to a number of other key literary themes common to literature of the Americas. These are the quest for identity, the quest for home, the depiction of life as solitary, and the American bildungsroman. Using comparative methods, we will seek to identify and analyze these literary motifs, paying special attention to the ways these themes interact within the same text and how they vary across texts.  We will also consider how these tropes relate to our current notions about American literature and cultural identity.  

Course Objectives

Students enrolled in this course should expect to develop the following skills:



A note on on-line readings: Many of our readings are available on-line.  This saves us money!  You need to access the texts well in advance in case there are problems with the website.  Also printing all of the sites can be very wasteful. It is often best to copy the text into a word document and convert it to a small font without the graphics.  This will allow you to print less pages. 

A note on on-line readings: Many of our readings are available on-line.  This saves us money!  You need to access the texts well in advance in case there are problems with the website.  Also printing all of the sites can be very wasteful. It is often best to copy the text into a word document and convert it to a small font without the graphics.  This will allow you to print fewer pages. 


De Jesus, Carolina Maria. Bitita's Diary.

Dorfman, Ariel. Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey.

Marmon Silko, Leslie. Ceremony.

We will be reading selections from the following two anthologies.  You can purchase the entire text or make copies for the selections from the reserve copy.

González Echevarría, Roberto. The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories. New York: Oxford, 1997.

Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature Volume 2.

Original Language Texts:

Students who can read translated texts in their original language are highly encouraged to use the originals.  I will often indicate the original language for essays and shorter readings through our course website.  Of the required texts to purchase three are available in Spanish and can be purchased through or another on-line bookstore. Here is the publication information:

Dorfman, Ariel. Rumbo al sur, deseando el norte. Seven Stories Press; ISBN: 1583220798; (June 9, 2001).

Many of the short texts we are reading throughout the term are available in Spanish or Portuguese.  Let me know if you would like access to the original.


Optional Secondary Sources:

The following texts are suggested sources for critical papers.

Fitz, Earl E. Rediscovering the New World: Inter-American Literature in a Comparative Context.  University of Iowa Press; ISBN: 087745311X; 1st Ed. edition (April 1991).

Pérez Firmat, Gustavo, ed. Do the Americas Have a Common Literature?
Duke Univ Pr (Txt); ISBN: 0822310724; (November 1990).

Sommer, Doris. Proceed With Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas. Harvard Univ Pr; ISBN: 0674536606; (August 1999).  

General Information:

Academic dishonesty: Students are expected to uphold the University's standards of academic integrity. Academic dishonesty will be dealt with according to University policies.

Registration Policy: During the drop/add period at the beginning of the semester, the department of Comparative Literature encourages students to visit this and other courses in order to make informed decisions about which courses to take. After the first week, however, only students registered in the course may remain; no student may late-add (or restore a dropped registration) after the third week of the semester without petitioning the department on a form available in the office, 311 Burrowes.

University Access Statement: The Pennsylvania State University encourages qualified students with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities.  If you anticipate needing any kind of accommodations in this course or have any questions about physical access, please tell the instructor as soon as possible. 

Course Requirements

Grade Breakdown:

Participation and Homework


ANGEL/Critical Responses


Close Readings









Grading Scale:

  • 100-93= A
  • 92-90= A-
  • 89-88= B+
  • 87-83= B
  • 82-80= B-
  • 79-78= C+
  • 77-70= C
  • 69-60= D
  • 59-0= F

Course components

1. Participation and Homework

This is a discussion and writing- intensive course and lectures will be used minimally.  The success of this format depends on how well-prepared each student is BEFORE coming to class.  Effective participation requires that students arrive to class on time and ready to engage in advanced conversation about the materials for that day. Students will be given a chance to discuss and defend their opinions in class as well as learn to be tolerant of differing opinions. Moreover, students are encouraged to examine their convictions and interpretations not only by writing but also in the process of classroom discussion. Class will often be divided into smaller discussion groups in order to discuss topics in greater detail. Your class participation grade is based on observations of student performance in the following categories:

ü     Attendance- Student regularly attends class without late arrivals or early departures.

ü     Preparation- Student completes homework assignments and studies course materials thoroughly BEFORE coming to class.  Student completes all assignments before coming to class.

ü     Class Interaction and Citizenship- Student is attentive and cooperative with the rest of the class; actively participates in class and collaborates with classmates in paired or group activities, and contributes to class discussion.

Class Participation Grading Scale:


Student is well prepared and enthusiastically participates in all class activities; is very considerate and cooperative with the rest of the class; asks questions and responds to questions; demonstrates knowledge of course materials; consistently practices critical thinking; actively helps to create a vibrant learning community.


Student is generally prepared and willing to participate in class activities; is relatively cooperative with the rest of the class; asks questions and responds to questions most of the time; makes an inconsistent effort to refer to readings and course topics; generally practices critical thinking; helps to create a vibrant learning community.


Student is often unprepared and reluctantly or sporadically participates in class activities; often does not ask questions or respond to questions; rarely makes an effort to demonstrate knowledge of course materials; rarely practices critical thinking; does not show much interest in creating a vibrant learning community.


Student is generally unprepared, unwilling to participate in class activities and unable to answer questions; does not formulate questions or responses; demonstrates little understanding of course materials; does not practice critical thinking; distracts from the creation of a vibrant learning community.


Student is absent (physically or mentally), unprepared, inattentive, uncooperative or disruptive in class.

A note on attendance: Your attendance is absolutely essential for the success of this course.  Not only do you miss the class activities of the day, but we miss your contributions.  Even though it is important for you to be in class, life will occasionally interrupt your ability to join us. For example, you may have a required university activity, you may be sick or you may have a family obligation.  When you cannot be in class it is important for you to notify me so that I can help you to make up missed work.  Also, when possible, please bring verification of your absence (a note from your coach or doctor for instance).  Each student may miss class twice with no penalty to their participation grade. If you miss class more than twice for reasons beyond your control please see me and I may arrange to make the extra absences excused as well. 

POP QUIZZES: We may occasionally have a pop quiz to determine how carefully students have read assignments.  These will be short and simple. 

Homework: In addition to reading for class you will often be given questions to consider before coming to class.  You should make notes and write brief answers to these questions before arriving.  I will occasionally collect your answers. Even when these are not collected your preparation of the homework will be obvious by your class participation.



Participation is not limited to in-class discussion -- we will also be discussing issues on our MESSAGE BOARDS available on ANGEL. The MESSAGE BOARDS are set up to encourage discussion and debate of topics covered in class as well as other issues that you think are relevant. Each student is expected to log in and write a message at least 7 times over the course of the semester. You do NOT need to write something every week, but you should read the postings before class. You DO need to post to the Forum on 7 different topics. 

ANGELwill also be used to post critical responses.  This will allow you to comment constructively on your peer's work.  For more on ANGEL and posting written work see below under Critical Response papers.

NOTE: For students who are less comfortable speaking in class, sustained participation on the MESSAGE BOARDS can help balance hesitancy in classroom participation. 

The MESSAGE BOARDS have topics listed that are in synch with our course. Please check the message boards before each class for discussion questions, topics to consider, and to respond to issues. You can also use the message boards to post questions or information. If you have questions about how to use ANGEL ask me for help. 

Ø     You must post to the message boards at least 7 times not counting required posts, such as your introduction, papers or other assignments.

Ø     You must post to the message boards on a regular basis.  Posting seven times at the end of the semester will not receive full credit.

Ø     While you are welcome to post brief questions and answers, the postings for your grade must be a substantial communication, i.e., approximately 5 complex sentences.

Ø     Try to answer the questions posted by your classmates.  

Ø     You should try to post questions so that I can answer them for the benefit of all students.  It is generally better to post a question to the message boards than to me on e-mail, since if you have a question chances are your class mates are curious about the same thing.  Then, when I answer, all will see my response.  

Ø     Post useful web resources and explain why they helped you.  You can also post any tips on using websites.

Ø     You need to check ANGEL before each class, because I will often post important class info there.



3. Critical Responses

Twice during the term you need to post a longer, more elaborate critique related to the texts we are reading and the issues the class is raising.  These critical responses should be between 1-3 pages in length and should represent your most sophisticated and engaged critical writing.

There are no official due dates for these responses—but there is a final date. This means that you can post them at any point up to the final date. (Check the plan of study for final dates.).

Contents of Critical Response/Position Papers:

These brief “papers” (1-3 pages) allow you to develop your critical thinking skills vis-à-vis course materials. Your papers should not be summaries of readings.  Rather, your papers should be critical responses to the reading. At times you may choose to focus on only one element of material covered by developing your own critical response, but reference to all materials should be attempted as often as possible. These papers are opportunities for you to critically examine the issues we are covering. To this end, you may make references to works previously studied in the course, or to other texts you have read in other courses, which you feel intersect critically with the material we are covering.

This course centers on texts that attempt to define “American” cultural identity during a period of social conflict and crisis.  As you read consider these questions: How is this cultural identity created?  Who is included? Who is excluded?  Is identity formed by being an exemplary individual or by belonging to a group?  In many ways the identity of the New World has always reflected a tension between the individual and the community.  How has American cultural history been narrated as a personal experience? How has it been narrated as the creation of a community? You should also consider how each text relates to central themes and motifs common in literature of the Americas. Most importantly, consider the text in a comparative context.

If you are having trouble being inspired, use these questions to orient your "Response" to the reading:
General Questions for Fictional Accounts:
  • How does this text represent American identity?
  • What are the principal aesthetic elements in the text? 
  • How does the form (aesthetics) link to the content?
  • Why do you think this text was created? 
  • Who is the intended audience? What response does the text seek from its audience?
  • Does the text make value judgments?  If so what are they and on what moral system are they based?
  • Does the text represent a community?  Describe its social roles and their attributes. 
  • What does the text say about the complexity of American identity?  What is the role of the individual in the text?  Is it central or peripheral?  Why?  How does the individual relate to his or her community?
  • How is history represented? How is American history represented?
  • How does the text compare with others that we have read or that you have read prior to this class?  What might account for differences and similarities?
  • Does the text describe the role of literature or written accounts in the creation of American identity?  If so, what is that role? 
  • Can you identify any central motifs or symbols in the text?  How do these function?
  • Analyze the narrative voice.  Is it first person?  How does the narrative establish its credibility? Does the narrative attempt to affect the reader emotionally or does it encourage the reader to be objective and distant? What are the effects of these strategies?
  • Of course remember to consider the basic elements of the literary work: narrative technique, characterization (development of characters), speech and dialogue, use of language, plot development, use of time, use of space and settings, symbols and imagery, tone, irony, themes. 


To refresh your memory of basic literary terms visit these sites: 


General Questions for Analyzing Critical Essays:
  • What is the main focus of the reading?
  • What is the major assumption of the essay?
  • What are its primary devices of style and structure?
  • What is the major conclusion of this essay?
  • What are the other central points made by the essay?
  • What, in your opinion, is its major accomplishment or strength?
  • What, in your opinion, is its greatest limitation?
  • How could this theory influence our understanding of literature of the Americas?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • When was the text published?  And what was its historical context? (This information may not always be readily available.  Do not spend a lot of time tracking it down, but remember that the context does have an impact on the text.)
  • What theoretical concepts form the basis for this essay?
  • Would you use this essay in your research?  Why?



To hone your skills of textual analysis visit these sites:


Also consult these websites on how to read primary and secondary sources:


4. Close Readings

The ability to analyze a brief passage in detail is a crucial skill for all students of literature. We will do two close readings in order to help you improve your skills. These will be done in class.

I have created a close reading guide to help you. Make sure to visit the page before these assignments.  You may bring a copy of the guide with you to consult.


5. Presentation

In small groups, students will present on one of the primary texts that we are reading for this course.  You should cover background on the author and their works, detailed analysis of a few passages or other elements of the text, major themes and issues and questions for the class to consider about the work.  It is important that presentations involve the active participation of the class. The presentation should cover approximately half of the class period.  Each group will be given a peer evaluation form that assesses how well the group worked together.  Your grade will be based on the way that you worked within your group and individually.


6. Mid-term

Mid way through the course we will have a mid-term.  You should expect short answer, close reading and essays on the test.  We will review for the mid-term and more detail will be provided in class.


7. Final

Instead of a final exam their will be a final research paper that compares two readings from the semester.  You will be given more details on this paper in class.


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Created and Maintained by Sophia A. McClennen

Copyright Sophia A. McClennen 2003-2004


Created on 8/5/2003

Last updated on 08/17/2004