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Professor Sophia A. McClennen

Dept. of Comparative Literature

Office:   448 Burrowes                                                            

Office Phone: 865-0032

E-mail: sam50@psu.edu

Office Hours: by appointment.

Homepage: http://www.personal.psu.edu/users/s/a/sam50/

Course TA:

Victoria Rodrguez

Email: vrr5010@psu.edu

Office Hours: by appt.



Fall 2011,  T, R 2:30-3:45, 110 Wartik Lab, 3 Credit Hours



Human Rights and World Literature









How do we make comprehensible stories out of incomprehensible atrocities?

And what are the ethical risks and obligations of doing so?

For many humanitarian and human rights workers [] storytelling is the very nature of their work.

--James Dawes

Course Description

Human rights refers to basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled, often held to include the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equality before the law. But these ideas have not always been a part of human thought and some scholars believe that without certain forms of literature todays understanding of human rights would not exist. Through comparative analysis of a variety of human rights storytelling genres that reflect a range of contexts, this course will suggest that it is impossible to understand human rights without also thinking about the stories that create and sustain their idea.

One main premise of this course is that the representation of human rights violations is always a vexed undertaking.  It is both urgent and necessary, while also incomplete and inadequate.  In order to explore this dilemma, this course focuses on the intersection between human rights advocacy and the various cultural forms that explicitly attempt to participate in human rights discourse.  We will study comic books, movies, photography, novels, testimonials, poetry, plays, etc. that reflect on the atrocities of slavery, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the dictatorship of Chile, South African apartheid, the Rwandan and Cambodian Genocides, and more. 

At the center of the course are questions about aesthetics and ethics. What are the risks and obligations of human rights storytelling and how are these linked to specific cultural forms and aesthetic practices?  This course examines a range of human rights stories through a balance of context and close reading, where stories are studied both for what they say and how they say it.   

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 fewer pages. 


1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Written By Himself

by Frederick Douglass : Yale University Press (2001) ISBN-10: 0300087012 [also available as an e-text]


2. Maus: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History/Here My Troubles Began/

by Art Spiegelman: Pantheon; Reprint edition (October 19, 1993) ISBN-10: 0679748407


3. Barefoot Gen, Vol. 1: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima by Keiji Nakazawa : Last Gasp (2004) ISBN-10: 0867196025


4. I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

by Rigoberta Menchu (Author), Elisabeth Burgos-Debray (Introduction),Publisher: Verso (1987)  ISBN-10: 0860917886


5. Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman (Author): Penguin (1994) ISBN-10: 0140246843


6. Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa by Antjie Krog: Three Rivers Press; Reprint edition (2000) ISBN-10: 0812931297


7. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini: Riverhead Trade (2005) ISBN-10: 1594481776


8. The Sirens of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra: Anchor; Reprint edition (2008) ISBN-10: 0307386163


9. Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak by Ariel Dorfman (Afterword), Marc Falkoff (Editor): University Of Iowa Press; 1 edition (2007) ISBN-10: 1587296063


10. The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman: Vintage; (2001) ISBN-10: 0375727191

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, 427 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 Preparation






Final Project


Final Exam



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

1. Participation and Preparation

This course will be taught in a combination of lecture and small group format.  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 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 during group work and during lecture in the following categories:

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


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


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 contact a classmate for help making 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. 

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.  


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. 

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 for help. 

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

      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.

      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.

      Try to answer the questions posted by your classmates.  

      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.  

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

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



3. Mid-term

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

4. Final Project

You will be given more detail about this in class. The Final Project asks you to select a human rights violation, identify a reason why its story needs to be told, select the best cultural form for that story, and assess the strengths and weaknesses of your proposed project with attention to the ethical risks and obligations of human rights storytelling.


5. Final Exam

You should expect short answer and essays on the test.  We will review for the exam and more detail will be provided in class.


*****Extra Credit:

In an effort to emphasize that learning takes place outside of the classroom and that university life depends on the active engagement of the entire community, we will offer students the chance to earn extra credit by attending university sponsored events that relate to the themes of the course.  All events sponsored by Comparative Literature and the Rock Ethics Institute are eligible as well as film screenings, art shows, lectures, and other events.  Check Angel for a posting of events to attend.  Students write a review of the event (250-500 words) that they attended and post it on Angel in the Extra Credit Discussion Board. Each review will earn the student 1 point to their overall course average.  Students can earn up to two extra credit points.


Email Policy:  While we are happy to answer your questions, given the size of the course, we need to try to watch the amount of time we spend on email.  Please observe these guidelines:

1) Do not email requesting information available on the syllabus or on Angel. Before asking for information make sure that we have not already provided an answer and also consult a classmate in case we discussed an issue in class and you missed it.

2) Emails about grades and absences should only be sent to Professor McClennen.

3) Do not email questions that will require more than 5 sentences to answer.  Make an appointment to visit during office hours in those cases.