Student Work and Courses

I teach a range of courses in American Literature and Culture as well as first-year writing. Much of my teaching supports our Humanities Computing minor at CBU, as I work critical GIS into upper-division courses so students can produce spatial analysis of texts and contexts. Examples of digital student work and sample course descriptions and materials are included below.


The following map comes from ENG 341: Nineteenth Century American Novel (see assignment). To support our reading of two novels of early California, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta and The Squatter and the Don, students were required to create pins for significant historical and cultural sites necessary for developing historical and spatial readings of these novels.

Below are course descriptions and links to syllabi for courses I have taught at CBU.

ENG 341: Nineteenth-Century American Novel (syllabus) (schedule)

The 19th century in the United States was a time of mass transformation and political conflict: What was the meaning of the Republic? What would be the fate of native inhabitants of the land? What would the nation’s role in the hemisphere be? Would slavery be abolished, preserved, or tear apart the nation? What role would women, Native Americans, slaves, free blacks, and immigrants play in the nation? When some of these yet to be resolved conflicts broke the nation down into Civil War, it led to a new set of questions about justice, democracy, citizenship, economics, and government power. In the midst of such uncertainty and upheavals, American writers would make the novel the dominant national literary form and use the genre to participate in the ongoing debates about the US. As the nation expanded its imperial ambitions, the novel followed it outward and provided writers with space to look inward and consider the effects of territorial expansion, imperialism, gender discrimination, and racism. Much of our course will examine two key decades: the 1820s and 1850s. The 1820s witnessed an emerging popularity of novels in the US that examined the meanings of the early Republic, the role of women, the frontier, and the fate of Native Americans. By the 1850s, the novel would explode as a national genre, quickly leading to an American Literary Renaissance and the entrance of women, African Americans, and Native Americans into both the literary sphere and bringing the discussion of slavery and citizenship to the foreground. We end with one later novel from 1885 to explore these themes and conflicts into the postbellum period.

The course emphasizes a historical methodology in examining the novels alongside key juridical contexts. We will examine literary movements such as the historical novel, the romance, sentimentalism, and realism. This course aims to introduce you to key aspects of US literary history, the role of the novel, and critical approaches to 19th century American literature and culture.

ENG 468: The Black Atlantic and African Diaspora in Literature and Culture (syllabus) (schedule)

This course will examine the literature, culture, theory, geography, and history of the Black Atlantic and the African Diaspora. How are transnational culture and identity formed by the experience of the Black Atlantic? What are its legacies? We will travel to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands during spring break, a trip that provides us with the opportunity to study a specific representation of black diasporic culture, the legacies of slavery and colonialism, and the rewriting of the landscape for capitalism and tourism. This trip will allow you to explore the history and culture of the island, to analyze colonialism and neocolonialism, and to begin a GIS project on some aspect of Black Atlantic identity on the island. The first half of the semester will focus on the Black Atlantic Slave trade and history through the study of slave narratives by Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince and Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. During the trip, we will study Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, which examines the failures of government, the legacy of colonialism, and the effects of tourism on her home island of Antiqua. The second half of the semester will focus on the legacies of slavery and colonialism and the formation of identity through the study of diaspora in two 2016 novels, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Our journey into this literature will be supported by important theoretical and historical reading from scholars such as Paul Gilroy, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., William Andrews, Stephanie Smallwood, Saidiya Hartman, and Kim Butler. As with any introductory course on any topic as complex as the Black Atlantic, our course will venture between the Americas, the Caribbean, the west coast of Africa, and England, as we trace the routes and histories of the slave trade and diaspora; we will make broad sweeps and then focus in on specific moments and places with the help of our readings and trip.

Course projects will include a series of response papers that ask you to synthesize our secondary and literary readings, a group GIS map project, and an interdisciplinary final written project.

ENG 361: African American Literature (syllabus) (schedule)

The Race Line in the African American Novel (#CBUENG361)

Our study of African American literature will explore major novels from a 100-year period, moving from Charles Chesnutt’s Jim Crow-era The Marrow of Tradition (1901) to Percival Everett’s Erasure, a 2001 novel that questions the meaning of “African American” literature in the 21st century. Together, the novels we will study explore the meaning and perseverance of the race line in the United States, looking at structures and effects of racism. Contextually, the novels demand that we consider major social, cultural, political, and historical contexts, including, among others, Jim Crow racism, the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement, the Civil Rights movement, the New Jim Crow. Through reading major authors such as Chesnutt, Nella Larsen, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Everett, we will explore the artistic, social, and political roles of African American literature, especially the ways it questions and challenges racialized ideologies. W.E.B. DuBois’s work offers another foundation for our study; The Souls of Black Folk (1903) outlined the major artistic and social struggles faced by African American thinkers. DuBois’s work shaped critical race theory, making it foundational for how race is theorized and studied today.

                  Our exploration will be informed by Kenneth Warren’s 2012 What Was African American Literature? and other scholars’ responses to Warren. We will both attempt to understand Warren and, as scholars do, to challenge him. Does Warren’s argument that African-American Literature was limited to responses to Jim Crow hold up? Ultimately, we want to think about the following questions: what, in 2014, is African-American Literature? What should it be? What artistic and political work does it need to do? In your projects, you will be invited to explore the meaning of and need for African American literature today.

ENG 394: American Masculinities (#CBUENG394)  (syllabus)

CBU Honors Program Seminar

This course will examine the social production of gender roles and masculine identity in US culture. What is deemed to be masculine? What effects do expectations for masculinity have on men, women, and society? What happens to men who challenge gendered expectations or roles? In this course, we will explore narratives of masculinity in American literature, film, TV, and popular culture. In particular, we will look at important literature from the last 60 years by James Baldwin, John Updike, Tim O’Brien, Percival Everett, and Junot Díaz. By looking at these cultural artifacts, we will trace the cultural history of masculinity in the United States and consider consequences of and alternatives to dominant conceptions of masculinity (hegemonic masculinity and martial masculinity). Theoretical and historical texts will help us understand masculinity as a social construction. Readings and assignments will ask you to interrogate pervasive ideas about masculinity in American culture and to consider alternatives to and consequences of dominant modes of masculinity. We will make connections to contemporary contexts and discuss the ever present idea of a crisis in masculinity. We will discuss alternate masculinities to consider how race, class, and region compound with gender to shape cultural identity. Finally, we will work on close reading skills, reading texts (literary, audiovisual, and visual). To these ends, we will take an interdisciplinary approach to studying gender, race, sexuality, culture, and literature.

Note: This course is a CBU Honors Program course; therefore, all students enrolled in the course must be either members of the Honors Program or have the permission of both the instructor and the Director of the Honors Program.

ENG 453: American Literature Seminar: America’s Gilded Age(s) in Literature & Culture (syllabus) (schedule) (Spring 2020)

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today gave a name to the moment in US history during which, in their view, materialism, individualism, and corporatism and the corresponding greed and grift came to define public life. Their title referred to a thin layer of gold covering baser metal, a metaphor for a veneer covering the ills of society. As Alan Trachtenberg has demonstrated, the Gilded Age, a term used to describe the United States from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the 20th century, forced Americans to question the meaning and purpose of the nation. During this era, the power of money competed with the will of the people, and the wealth gap between the working and industrial classes widened. Citizens were reorganized both around and as capital. To respond to this crisis in the meaning of the nation, fiction writers turned to satire, realism, naturalism, regionalism, folklore, and science fiction to explore the changing landscape in the United States and the effects of a new economic reality on workers, families, immigrants, minorities, and women. This course will examine literature from this period to examine the cultural work of fiction to make sense of a changing society. This course will work through questions about the relationships between literature and economics, art and politics, and capitalism and democracy. We will read a range of late 19th and early 20th century American fiction by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Frank Norris, Charles Chesnutt, and Edith Wharton. We will consider northern, southern, and western US contexts. Finally, the course will jump forward a century and conclude with George Packer’s The Unwinding, 2013 recipient of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and Halle Butler’s The New Me, a 2019 novel. Packer’s nonfiction novel journeys through a cross-section of America through the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. Butler’s novel captures the class pressures and work identities of our own moment, one some critics are calling America’s second gilded age.

Our course will focus on key questions: How did writers make sense of the gilded age? What kind of moment is our current age? Have we entered a second gilded age in the United States, as some suggest? How do overlapping matrices of place, race, gender, and socioeconomics shape lives? Our approach will be largely guided by attention to history and new historicist methodologies.

ENG 465: American Literatures and Radical Democracies (syllabus) (schedule)

“Melville is the deep-sea diver of the American democratic tradition . . . Even as Moby-Dick is an indictment of American imperialism, it is also a call for multiracial solidarity” – Cornel West, Democracy Matters (87-89)

“Human beings are commodities. The natural world is a commodity that they exploit until exhaustion or collapse. And we see that with the smelting of the summer Arctic ice, 40 percent gone. What is the response of our corporate overlords? It’s to raid those waters for the last fish stocks, mineral, oil, natural gas. It makes Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick the most prescient book in American literature. It’s utterly suicidal. These are all Ahabs.” – Chris Hedges, on Democracy Now (September 11, 2012)

How did American writers think about U.S. politics in the nineteenth century? How did literature engage with ideological and social questions of the time period? What role does literature have in our continued discussions of political and social relations? ENG 465: American Literatures and Radical Democracies begins with these questions. We will look at American Literatures, in the plural, as we consider multiple genres—fictions, speeches, polemics—and various “Americans”—Anglo-American, African American, and Mexican American.

Our primary readings include Melville’s Moby-Dick, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Martin Delany’s Blake; or, The Huts of America, and Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don. We will examine how these authors and literary works engaged and challenged conceptions of American Democracy in their time and how they posited new, sometimes radical, models for democracy (beautiful democracies, ruthless democracies, or something else?). We will read these works alongside historical documents such as the Declaration of Sentiments from Seneca Falls, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Compromise of 1850, and Dred Scott Decision, to name a few). Moreover, we will examine the literature in relation to theories of democracy, cultural geography, and literary and cultural studies. Our goals will be twofold: first, we will attempt to situate the works in their 19th century social, political, and artistic contexts, and then we will to consider the legacies of these works in thinking about democracy and the U.S. through the 20th century and into the 21st. By looking at theory and criticism next to the literary works, students should get a sense of how these literary works are read and discussed in American Studies today.

ENG 331: American Literature to 1865 – updated for Fall 2017 (syllabus) (schedule)

This course aims to expose you to a broad range of American Literature, moving from imperial contact in the Caribbean in the late 1400s through the colonial and antebellum periods. Such a trajectory requires us to begin with two questions. Who counts as “American” and what constitutes “literature”? To these ends, we’ll read some traditional parts of the American Literary canon: Washington Irving’s short fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville’s short stories, and Walt Whitman’s poetry, to name just a few. We will read some genres you probably associate with literature, including novels, short stories, and poetry, but we will also consider an array of other types of writing: letters, diaries, sermons, political tracts, and autobiographies. As we read the latter, we will also consider the voices of peoples native to the Americas, the works of enslaved persons seeking to prove their shared humanity, and of women trying to increase their public roles in US life. We will move briskly from the pre-colonial period through the colonial and antebellum periods, cutting off at the Civil War. However, in this endeavor, we will take the time to examine some of the competing voices and emerging traditions in American Literature, to consider important moments in US history, to explore the politics and limitations of canon formation, to see how writers played a role in the formation of US culture, and to analyze how literature shaped and reacted to events such as religious awakenings, slavery, Indian Removal, imperial conquest, expansionism, and labor. I have designed this course with the goal of giving you exposure to many voices and genres that together constitute American Literature, which could also be the plural American Literatures.

We will engage in deeper conversations about the importance of studying American literature and the movement toward digital and public scholarship.

ENG 332: American Literature after 1865 (syllabus) (schedule)

This course surveys American Literature from the last century and a half, a period during which the United States experienced significant social, cultural, technological, and political changes. In the final decades of the 19th century, technological breakthroughs such as the railroad and telegraph connected regions and Americans in new ways and an increasingly industrial lifestyle changed how and where Americans lived. While the Gilded Age would bring great wealth, it would also expose the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest laborers as well as the social differences between cities and rural regions. As the 20th century approached, waves of immigration would challenge assumptions about who counted as American, as would the ongoing struggles for rights for African Americans, women, and immigrants that continued through the century. World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Cold War produced anxiety about the meaning of U.S. power. Together, the various texts (a mix of novels, short stories, poems, plays, and nonfiction) we will read demonstrate the racial, regional, ethnic, and gendered diversity of the American experience and the shifting literary marketplace. Individually, these texts reveal writers’ attempts to understand and shape culture. We will examine representative texts from major literary movements, including realism, naturalism regionalism, modernism, the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts, and postmodernism.

ENG 111: Composition I for Freshman Experience Living Learning Community (syllabus & schedule)

How do the places we come from shape us? How do we shape the places around us? In this course, we will consider the individual, cultural, and political implications of place. We will consider the ways in which places are naturally, socially, and politically created, and we will question our roles, as active citizens, in maintaining and improving spaces in ways that address varied stakeholders’ needs. When you graduate from Christian Brothers University, you will be asked to take the following Lasallian Graduation Pledge: “I pledge to explore and take into account the social justice and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organization for which I work. I will further the Lasallian tradition by continuing to learn and by serving others to build better communities and a better society.” At its core, the pledge asks you to place the common interest over the private, environment over profit, community over self, and justice over inequity. How do you build a better society? Where can this happen? By paying close attention to places and taking the time to notice and explore, you will think critically, reflect, and produce new meanings on matters of public significance. Developing your ideas into thoughtful and critical written projects will call on your analytical, structural, and creative abilities. You will write three major essays for this course: the first will analyze the significance of place in your life to date, the second will consider a contested space’s history and stakeholders, and, in the third, you will look to the future and imagine a better place—or ways to create an improved community in a specific place. Additionally, your fourth “project” will be a series of blog posts composed for our course blog.

                  This section of ENG 111 has been specially designed for the Freshman Experience LLC. The course will help you think about your role and responsibilities as a college student. Moreover, the course will provide you with opportunities to explore both CBU campus and, more generally, Memphis. Group excursions, activities, and programs will complement our study and give you expert perspectives and hands-on experiences. You are also encouraged to participate in September of Service and to tie those experiences into your writing for this course. Ideally, this section of ENG 111 and the Freshman Experience LLC will help you adapt to the college life and allow you to think about your future.

Above all else, English 111 is an intensive writing course. You will encounter techniques and strategies for composing, practice the writing process, and produce a significant amount of original writing, some informal and some formal. The writing you do in here will be based on your personal experiences and on critical inquiry. Your essay projects will ask you to explore and analyze multiple perspectives, to experiment with form, and to develop thoughtful ideas in clear prose. The writing you do here will here will prepare you for the academic research goals emphasized in ENG 112.

ENG 112: Composition II (syllabus & schedule)

How do we discover and curate information? How do we turn that information into persuasive writing that exhibits critical thinking and complex reasoning? More than ever, we have access to all sorts of ideas and facts, even through our phones, but we also realize how disinformation and misinformation can be disseminated as easily as accurate information. A college graduate in the 21st century needs to be information literate and able to gather large amounts of research and savvy enough to sort out good evidence from less valuable material. Numerous studies reveal that employers seek hires who excel in critical thinking as well as written and oral communication. In ENG 112, we will study the structures of argument and ways to evaluate sources. Once you have practiced reading critically and identifying fallacies and flaws in arguments, you will move on to writing your own inquiry-driven project, one that should be carefully researched, clearly argued, correctly documented, thoughtful, and reasonable. Our readings will help us consider the differences between public intellectual writing (journalism and nonfiction) and academic writing. Throughout the course, you will rehearse your ideas in various modes, including written, oral, and visual. You will encounter techniques and strategies for composing, practice the writing process, and produce a significant amount of original writing, some informal and some formal. Our focus on critical inquiry and academic writing styles should prepare you for the wide range of writing you will be asked to do in courses across the university and beyond.

                  To develop your abilities to curate information and create academic arguments, we will take up the crucial subject of place in this course. In examining place and community, you will join a range of local intellectuals thinking about the livability of Memphis, including those working with Greenprint, Grow Memphis, Midsouth Peace and Justice, Livable Memphis, and others. By engaging with issues that affect those around us, we will contribute to our Lasallian mission of bringing about better communities. Our readings will touch on a range of place-related themes, including the meaning of cities, new urbanism, public parks, urban history, sustainability and livability, and museum tourism. You might be inspired by these readings or you may have other place-related ideas and concerns, but you’ll be invited to select any place-related topic for your research (we’ll brainstorm the wide range of options you have).

ENG 211: Introduction to Literature – updated for Fall 2017 (syllabus & schedule)

Why do we read fiction? What is the role of fiction in today’s world? In this course, we will consider questions about identity, art, history, and politics as we explore notable fiction from the last two decades. The four book-length works we will study address the complex community and personal identity issues faced by racial, social, and ethnic minority groups in the United States. These works negotiate real histories and settings in inventive and challenging ways. Spread across the world from their home nations, Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters in The Interpreter of Maladies must continuously find the balance between their cultural heritages and the new social pressures they face in Western society. Junot Díaz’s characters, Oscar and his family, attempt to forge new American identities while still entangled in their Dominican pasts. In Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi traces the legacies and traumas of slavery and colonization across generations of family life, linking history to contemporary society and following the effects of colonialism and slavery through US society. Finally, Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose offers a meditation on loss, grief, and identity, following a narrator’s attempt to weave different parts of herself together into a coherent whole.

English 211 is designed to introduce you to the college-level study of literature, and we will read short stories and novels in relation to key literary terms and movements, historical contexts, cultural backdrops, and political underpinnings. Drawing on these course goals, the written projects will reinforce skills learned in ENG 111 and 112 and drive you to improve your critical and analytical abilities. We will focus on the development of a significant project about literature that draws on current methodologies.

Dr. Jeff Gross teaching ENG 111 in Living Learning Center classroom at Christian Brothers University (Fall 2013)
African American Literature texts for Fall 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s