21L.325 | Spring 2007 | Undergraduate

Small Wonders: Staying Alive


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session

Course Overview


This subject is doubly an experiment. My department has decided to test out such 6-unit subjects, in the hope of enlarging the scope of our offerings and reducing time/scheduling pressures on prospective students. Thus the entire format is still in process.

It is also a subject new to me, considerably enlarging the certainty of egregious errors on the syllabus. But the upside is that we are free to adjust things as we proceed - to tailor it to our tastes and needs.

Our intellectual goal will be to explore some “in-betweenish” prose fiction - stories, novellas, journalism, etc. Formal issues will concern us, as will thematic meditations on our running title: “Staying Alive.”

Attendance and active participation will be especially important, as will the frequent required postings on the class mailing list.


There will be two formal writing assignments - a modest essay assignment (see the study materials section for some advice about what, to me, constitutes the analysis of a literary text) due 1 day before Ses #13. And a longer essay, on Calvino or Levi, due 1 day after Ses #25, and supplemented by a brief in-class presentation of your major thesis.

Late Policy

Be aware that I am sometimes referred to as the Deadline Nazi. If, looking ahead, you see that one of the paper deadlines falls when you have five p-sets and a med-school interview and a family wedding already on your calendar, come see me soon and make an arrangement. If you just turn something in late, expect a major outbreak of Hildeballistic behavior.


For years, I struggled to come up with a satisfactory formula for the computation of term grades. Finally, I had to confront my own profound innumeracy, and my resistance to the idea that the grading of literary subjects could be boiled down to a system of numbers. So what occurs now is that I reflect on my records (both of graded work and of attendance) and on my personal impressions of your work. Rather than carrying a fixed weight, attendance enters in as a sort of counterbalance. If you had some troubles on written work but achieved an outstanding attendance record, that excellence will carry heavy weight. If you did well on the essays but were unusually derelict in making it to class, there will be a penalty.


Plagiarism—the 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 MIT Writing and Communication Center and MIT Academic Integrity.


The assigned readings and assignments will come from the following texts:

Charters, Anne. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. ISBN: 9780312397296. (Be careful: if you order on-line, we are using the full version, not the “concise” edition.)

James, Henry. Daisy Miller. Reissue ed. New York, NY: Penguin, 1987. ISBN: 9780140432626.

Levi, Primo. The Periodic Table. Reissue ed. New York, NY: Schocken, 1995. ISBN: 9780805210415.

Calvino, Italo. Cosmicomics. Orlando, FL: Harvest, 1976. ISBN: 9780156226004.

Faulkner, William. Three Famous Short Novels: Spotted Horses, Old Man, The Bear. New York, NY: Vintage, 1958. ISBN: 9780394701493.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2007
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples