Professor Sophia McClennen / Dept. of Comparative Literature , Penn State University, Mailbox: 311 Burrowes, Office:  435N Burrowes Office Phone: 865-0032 E-mail:, Office Hours:  M 1:30-2:30 and by appointment.

CMLIT 521:

Comparative Seminar in

Inter-American Literature


American Copula:

Sexual Reproduction and

Textual Production in the New World


Spring 2005

M 2:30-5:30, 306 Burrowes, 3 Credit Hours

Adrien Collaert II after Marten de Vos:

Personification of America. Europe. 1765-1775.


Course Description

This seminar analyzes how the nations of America share an ideological infrastructure that has been constructed by a number of fundamental copulas.  Equating sex and identity, copulas form the basis of American existence.  Well before the arrival of Columbus, language was being used in Europe to imagine and define the characteristics of the New World. These in vitro definitions invariably relied on a series of sexual/textual tropes, many of which are still commonplace today. This seminar studies how sex, gender, language and identity combined to form images of the New World.  We will then consider the gestation of those images in contemporary America. 


On this page:

Course Objectives


General Information

Course Requirements

Jump to:

Plan of Study



Statue of Freedom from the top of the US Capitol Building




"In 1855, the American sculptor Thomas Crawford, then living in Rome, was commissioned to design a statue of Lady Freedom which would go atop the U.S. Capitol, then being constructed.  Crawford proposed an “Armed Liberty” design, including a shield, a sword and stars around a liberty cap.  But a liberty cap was a symbol of freed slaves, and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the Mississippi man who later became President of the Confederacy, objected.  The liberty cap was replaced by a helmet with an eagle headdress.  The statue was mounted on the Capitol dome in 1863.  It's 19 feet, six inches tall and weighs about 15,000 pounds." (Source)



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. 

A Note on Original Language Texts: Please use original language texts if possible.  In papers it is recommended that you make every effort to cite the original language even if you are more comfortable with the translation.

  • Clorinda Matto de Turner, Aves sin nido AND/OR Clorinda Matto de Turner, Torn from the Nest
  • Doris Sommer, Foundational Fictions
  • William Wells Brown, Clotel, Or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (If you want to save money, there are numerous electronic copies available).
  • Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, Sab and Autobiography  AND/OR Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, Sab
  • Diamela Eltit, El cuarto mundo AND/OR Diamela Eltit, The Fourth World
  • Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star AND/OR Clarice Lispector, A hora da estrela
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Reinaldo Arenas, The Color of summer AND/OR Reinaldo Arenas, El color del verano / Publisher: TusQuets; (December 1, 1999) ISBN: 8483100827
  • Debra Castillo, Redreaming America / Publisher: State University of New York Press; (December 1, 2004)
  • Ariel Dorfman, The Nanny and the Iceberg  Seven Stories Press AND/OR Ariel Dorfman, La nana y el iceberg
  • Severo Sarduy, De donde son los cantantes AND/OR Severo Sarduy, From Cuba with a Song


General Grant with Lady Liberty

1864 Civil War Portrait

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.).  You should try to pick topics that will help you develop your thoughts for your final paper.

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. 


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?

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. Presentations

There will be short presentations throughout the term. In additions to presentations of the student's work there will be one on criticism and theory related to the course and one on an author.

6. Mid-term Paper

Short 15 page paper due before Spring Break.

7. Final Research paper

Research paper of 25-30 pages that compares two of the texts read for class.  In special circumstances (when it will greatly benefit the professional development of the student) exceptions can be made.

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Created and Maintained by Sophia A. McClennen

Copyright Sophia A. McClennen 2003-2004


Created on 8/5/2004

Last updated on 12/14/2004