First-Year Writing Workshop

*NOTE: All readings listed in the course descriptions below are subject to change.


FALL 2019


Mary Helen Kolisnyk

Women & Culture: Difference and Identity

People who love reading fiction and poetry, or who love the theater, often say that they do because it expands their emotional lives by allowing them to understand the experiences of others without needing actually to undergo those experiences. But when this happens, does it happen because these people are already predisposed to such different experiences, or can fiction provide us with true insights into others’ realities? And when it does provide insight, does it change anything in the world? How can fictional texts help us see the lives of others in new ways?

This course aims to build on your current writing and interpretative skills as we examine how writing changes minds. We will read literary texts that explore the power of beauty to prompt violence (Hawthorne, Balzac), and the conflicts that can arise when personal loyalty conflicts with the law (Morrison, Sophocles). We will also work with theories drawn from philosophy and anthropology (Butler, Behar) that will help guide our critical interpretations of these fictional texts.

Our writing and research assignments will all be designed to assist you in addressing problems of difference and identity that we uncover these readings, as we work together to prepare for the increasingly complex inquiries college will open up.



Cecelia Lie-Spahn

Women & Culture: Bodies and/as Texts

In this course, we’ll think of the human body as a text we can read — one that represents, responds to, and negotiates the relationships between identity and power. Tracing literary depictions of the body from ancient Rome, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, witnesses to los desaparecidos (“the disappeared”) in Latin America, and recent feminist sci-fi and speculative fiction, we will ask: What do these bodily archives make visible to us? How do literary texts both define and reimagine bodies in different ways? What do bodies tell us about histories of colonialism, knowledge production, resistance, and identity formation? Through our readings and class discussions, we will unpack how the body scripts and resists inscription, produces culture and yet is borne from it.

Readings are subject to change, but will likely include literature by Ovid, Octavia Butler, Isabel Allende, and Nella Larsen, as well as select texts from feminist, queer, postcolonial, and critical race studies. All required texts will be available in the Barnard/FLIP libraries and for purchase at Book Culture (not to exceed $30).

Note: Many of the readings for this class depict different forms of sexual and identity-based violence. I believe these texts are important for understanding the relationships between power, identity formation, and the body. We'll spend some time as a class at the beginning of the semester talking about how we can work through the discomfort this material can prompt.



Penelope Usher

Legacy of the Mediterranean: Women and Violence

This course will focus on female characters from the Mediterranean world and on their legacies. In texts both ancient and modern, we will examine women as agents and victims of various forms of psychic and physical violence. (These forms of violence include, among others, abandonment, manipulation, deception, sexual violence, murder, and suicide.) Our discussions will cover such topics as: the role of love and lust in violence by and against women; questions of bodily autonomy, consent, and power; patriarchal structures and gender roles; authorship and voice; and intersections between gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity.

We will also explore the concept of “legacy” in relation to violence and power. Following several female characters through various literary adaptations, we will consider the agency of women to write and re-write their own stories. We will examine the ways in which the legacies of these characters perpetuate violence against women, serving (as Atwood writes in her Penelopiad) as “sticks with which to beat other women.” We will also examine, conversely, the ways in which the legacies of these characters provide avenues for resistance, and for speaking out against violence and oppression.

Readings (subject to change) may include: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Heroides, Euripides’ Medea, Cherrie Moraga’s The Hungry Woman, Homer’s Odyssey, and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad.