professor sophia a. mcclennen

Weekly Plan of Study   



Human Rights and Latin American Culture

Spring 2010

T 4:15-7:15

234 Burrowes


                                                                                         Photo Credit: Julio Donoso

Course Description


The practice of human rights storytelling in Latin America has a vast and varied history.  From Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, whose Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias chronicled the abuse of the native populations, to Bernal Castillo whose early “testimonial” attempted to challenge the account of the Mexican conquest offered by Hernán Cortés the history of writing about Latin America offers a lesson in the distinct ways that cultural forms have been used to call attention to atrocity, abuses of power, and the violations of rights.  Not only is the history of such writing in the region long, but it is also quite diverse. Practically every generic form and aesthetic strategy has been deployed at the service of finding the adequate means through which to mediate trauma, remember atrocity, and provoke activism. 

In order to investigate the connections between forms of storytelling and human rights, this course focuses on a series of texts from different genres and different contexts that represent human rights violations in Latin America.  In addition to understanding the history of human rights advocacy in the region and to appreciating the role that culture has played in those processes, the course will focus on a cluster of especially intense human rights issues: indigenous rights, dictatorial violence and military abuse, urban violence, and neoliberalism. Texts we will cover include work by Rigoberta Menchu, Ariel Dorfman, Alicia Partnoy (who will guest visit the seminar), Subcomandante Marcos and Paco Ignacio Taibo and films by Luis Puenzo, Hector Babenco, Fernando Meirelles and more.


Course Objectives:

·         Understand specific human rights crises in Latin American and the cultural responses to them.

·         Analyze the role of cultural forms (novels, testimonials, films, photos, etc.) in the human rights storytelling process.

·         Analyze the role that aesthetics plays in the ethics of cultural representation.

·         Understand the ethical and aesthetic complexities of human rights storytelling.

·         Develop and refine critical thinking, oral and written expression, and techniques of textual analysis.  


Required Books:

1. Ariel Dorfman. La muerte y la doncella

2. Isabel Allende. De Amor y de Sombra

3. Subcomandante Marcos, Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Muertos incómodos (Falta lo que Falta)

4. Edmundo Paz Soldán. El Delirio De Turing

5. Alicia Partnoy. La Escuelita

6. Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia

7. James Dawes. That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity

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 Homework




Presentations and short writing assignments


Mid-term Paper


Final Paper



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

This grade will be determined by how actively you engage and initiate in class discussion.  Viewing the films and doing the reading before class is essential.



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 me for help. 

Ø     You must post to the message boards at least 7 times.  You will usually be posting questions related to the readings before each class if we do not have another sort of assignment for the day.

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     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. Presentations and short writing assignments

All students will present at least once during the term.  In addition there will be at least two short writing assignments that will vary from close reading to critical reflection.  Students will also be asked to prepare questions on the films and readings prior to class.

4. Mid-term Paper


Short 7-8  page conference length paper.


5. Final Research paper

Research paper of 20 +/- pages on one or more of the texts read/viewed for class. In special circumstances (when it will greatly benefit the professional development of the student) exceptions can be made.