21L.488 | Spring 2018 | Undergraduate

Contemporary Literature: Street Haunting in the Global City


Course Meeting Times

Seminars: 2 sessions / week; 1.5 hours / session

Course Prerequisites


Course Description

Exploring a new city is a bit like opening a book for the first time. A new world opens up, and we must find ways to orient ourselves and make sense of it all. Similarly, retracing well-worn paths in a familiar city can be like re-reading the tattered pages of a favorite book: suddenly, the familiar becomes unfamiliar. In this class we will focus on the connections between urban exploration and reading, attending to such shared concerns as pacing, legibility, transgression, attention and distraction, tracing and retracing, and memory. This idea of re-reading cities will be both a theme centering our discussions and a guiding principle of the course design, as we continuously loop back, returning to haunt texts we left behind earlier in the semester.

We will walk alongside narrators and characters as they wander city streets leading through New York, Mumbai, London, Kingston, Brussels, Vancouver, Phnom Penh, Philadelphia, Lagos, and Los Angeles. We will focus on everyday explorations that open onto some of the most pressing issues in contemporary literature: terrorism and drone warfare, climate change and superstorms, national belonging in the face of shifting borders and global migration, and identities marked by legacies of slavery and colonization. We will also attend to the many ways in which contemporary city novels question the lines between local and global, home and exile.

Central Questions to Keep Track Of

  • In what ways do cities open themselves up to some inhabitants and not to others; where are the visible and invisible fault lines that divide, re-route, stall, or prevent access to certain individuals and groups?
  • What does it mean to be at home in a city versus a foreigner, and at what points do those lines blur? How do cities raise questions of belonging along different scales—from the neighborhood to the national to the transnational or global?
  • How do contemporary writers rework and poke holes in 19th century models of the flaneur (an urban stroller with the leisure and freedom to disappear into the crowd)?
  • How distinct are the lines between urban/environmental and the built environment versus natural environments? How does climate change challenge these divisions in the contemporary novel?
  • How many different uses and functions can you find for the city streets (i.e., transportation, site of public protests, etc.)?
  • What literary techniques and stylistic choices do different writers make to convey the mood, history, character, conflict, energy, and geography of a city?
  • What are the roles of different senses (vision, touch, sound, etc.)?
  • What does it mean to read or write a city? How might your answer change depending on whether the focus is on urban architecture, people, history, climate, design/planning, cultural production and institutions, political activity, lived everyday experience, etc.?


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozie. Americanah. Knopf, 2014. ISBN: 9780307455925.

Cole, Teju. Open City. Random House, 2012. ISBN: 9780812980097.

Lerner, Ben. 10:04. Picador, 2015. ISBN: 9781250081339.

McEwan, Ian. Saturday. Anchor, 2006. ISBN: 9780007218295.

Chaudhuri, Amit. Calcutta. Knopf, 2013. ISBN: 9780307270245.


Assignment Percentage
Analytical Papers 55%
Creative Street Haunting Assignment 20%
Attendance & Participation 15%
Re-Reading Assignments 10%

Analytical Papers: 55%

  • Analytical Paper #1 (4–5 pages) 25%
  • Analytical Paper #2 (5–6 pages) 30%

Analytical papers will be focused on close reading and the careful construction of argument. All papers are due at the start of class on the date listed on the syllabus. All papers must be submitted in two formats: printed hard copy submitted in class and e-mailed back-up copy. The hard copy you submit will be the one I read. The back-up is for emergency printing nightmares, and to keep on file.

Creative Street Haunting Assignment: 20%

You will have the opportunity to explore the city streets of Boston and/or Cambridge (or any city you spend time in), and to produce a final creative piece. Your piece might be fictional or nonfictional, written or another type of media (documentary, short film etc). You might explore a neighborhood you’ve never been to, notice architecture, explore the history of a street or site, talk to people and gather their stories, etc. Please note that if you choose to do a project that is not based in prose, you must also hand in a written explanation of the creative choices you made as they pertain to our course discussions and readings.

Attendance & Participation: 15%

Attendance is mandatory and this is a highly discussion-driven course. You will be allowed 1 freebie unexcused absence, no questions asked. Additional absences will adversely affect your grade by 1/3 (ie A becomes A-). One great way to ensure that you participate is to submit any observations, questions, or ideas you have to the course website forum prior to a given class meeting. This way I can be sure to get around to your topic of interest, and you will have a chance to think about something you’d like to say without being put on the spot. Remember: questions are just as valuable as statements, so don’t hesitate to post a series of questions you had while reading. While forum posting is optional and not necessary to achieve top marks for participation, regular submissions will be taken into account not only if the participation grade needs a boost, but also in the event of bumping up an overall grade teetering on the border at the semester’s end.

Re-Reading Assignments: 10%

At two points during the semester, we will slow down to catch our breaths, and you will be asked to re-read something from earlier in the semester. The goal is to notice details you might have missed the first time around, and to build in some freedom and room to reflect and contemplate without the pressure of ever-more assigned pages. This is also a golden opportunity to get a head start on potential paper topics and ideas, and to generate new questions. This is the kind of skill that will serve you well throughout the semester and in future classes, particularly when it comes to brainstorming for papers, and I want to provide the conditions that allow you to get the hang of it.

You will be a given a series of guiding questions and prompts, and asked to complete 2 tasks:

  1. Write up a response to your re-reading, approx. 2 pages long, which you will hand in.
  2. Choose 1 passage to print and bring to class for discussion.

These are casual, informal responses and unlike analytical papers, will not be as rigorously graded according to argument, grammar and prose quality, etc. The grade will simply reflect thoughtfulness and effort, and therefore this assignment can be a great place to boost your grade if you struggle with the technicalities of analytical writing.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2018
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments