21L.000J | Fall 2010 | Undergraduate

Writing About Literature


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

Students, scholars, bloggers, reviewers, fans, and book-group members write about literature, but so do authors themselves. Through the ways they engage with their own texts and those of other artists, sampling, remixing, and rethinking texts and genres, writers reflect on and inspire questions about the creative process. We will examine Mary Shelley’s reshaping of Milton’s Paradise Lost, German fairy tales, tales of scientific discovery, and her husband’s poems to make Frankenstein (1818, 1831); Melville’s redesign of a travel narrative into a Gothic novella in Benito Cereno (1856); and Alison Bechdel’s rewriting of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) in her graphic novel Fun Home (2006). Showings of film versions of some of these works will allow us to project forward in the remixing process as well.

Course Requirements


Shelley, M. S. Frankenstein. New York, NY: Norton, 1995. ISBN: 9780393964585.

Melville, H. Benito Cereno. Boston, MA: Bedford/Saint Martin’s, 2006. ISBN: 9780312452421.

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. Boston, MA: Mariner’s Books, 2007. ISBN: 9780618871711.

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest, and Other Plays. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN: 9780199535972.


Students are expected to complete a minimum of 20 pages of writing, revise a written assignment based on feedback, and develop facility in oral presentations and discussions. The emphasis is on writing: the writing process, from pre-writing through drafting, revising, and editing; and the rhetorical dimensions of writing: the audience for whom one is writing, and the purpose for which one is writing—to argue, inform, persuade, explain, convince, and so on. Students also address major trouble-spots in grammar, mechanics, and style; effective paragraph construction; and proper use and citation of research materials and sources. In-class workshops offer peer feedback on writers’ work in progress, allowing students to develop a critical vocabulary and giving writers suggestions for revision. There is no final exam in this class.


Close reading essay (5 pp) 10%
Class presentation / handout 10%
Research essay (5 pp) 15%
Revision (5 pp) 15%
Character study essay (5 pp) 15%
Comparison essay (5 pp) 15%
Active participation 20%

Active Participation

Active participation, including thorough reading of assigned materials before class, attendance in class and meetings with writing advisor, and participation in discussions and workshops is highly encouraged and counts towards 15% of the overall grade.


  • Written work should be double-spaced, with standard margins and font sizes.
  • Attendance at film showings is required. Discussion will follow the showing.
  • Come to class. Attendance will be noted and constitutes part of the participation grade.
  • Participate in class. A central goal of the class is creating a vital space for learning within a participatory culture.

MIT Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else’s work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student’s own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available at the Writing and Communication Center and the MIT Web site on Plagiarism.


1 Introduction  
2 Shelley. Frankenstein, preface, preface to 1831 edition and volume I  
3 Shelley. Frankenstein, volume II  
4 Shelley. Frankenstein, volume III  
5 Writing workshop: Close reading. Choose a report topic.  
6 Library research workshop Essay 1 (Close reading of a passage in Frankenstein - 5 pp) due

Frankenstein Sources and contexts: Reports (5 minutes) on Prometheus Myth (Hesiod’s Theogony, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound), Scientists (Erasmus Darwin, Luigi Galvani, Humphrey Davy), and Explorers (James Cook)


Frankenstein Sources and contexts: Reports on Creature’s reading list (Plutarch’s Lives, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther)


Frankenstein Sources and contexts: Reports on Romantic Poets (Shelley, Byron, Coleridge) and the Sublime (Burke)


Frankenstein Sources and contexts: Philosophy (John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft)

Essay 2 (Research paper on the implications of a source or context for Frankenstein - 5 pp) due 1 day after LEC #10

Frankenstein Adaptations: Early Silent Film

Branagh, Kenneth. Frankenstein. 1994


Frankenstein Adaptations: Early Silent Film (cont.)

14 Revision workshop Essay/Revision (Analysis of Shelley’s use of a source in Frankenstein - 5 pp) due 2 days after LEC #14
16 Melville. Benito Cereno  
17 Melville. Benito Cereno and Amasa Delano  
18 Melville. Benito Cereno and Performance  
19 Writing workshop: Character study Essay 3 (Study of character and performance in Benito Cereno) due 5 days after LEC #19
21 Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest  

Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest (cont.)

Parker, Oliver. The Importance of Being Earnest. 2002

23 Bechdel. Fun Home  
24 Bechdel. Fun Home (cont.)  
25 Writing workshop: Comparison essay Essay 4 (Comparison of Wilde’s and Bechdel’s uses of a theme - 5 pp) due 2 days after LEC #25

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2010
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments