Location: 345/ 102
Hours: Tu; Th 8:30-10:00
Office Hours: Tu; Th 10:15 am-12:15am (or by appointment)
Phone: Local 2118
Office: 359/ 101

“Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it.” -Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act

This course examines the boundaries between literature and jazz music in relation to African American and African Canadian literature and social change. The three primary texts will be read through lenses of cultural theory, resistance, aesthetic practices (music), and (because two of the three texts are written by African Canadian authors) questions of Canadian identity and citizenship will be explored. Music provides one formal model of how we can approach the complex interweaving textures and soundings of the Black literary tradition. Aside from the reading of the texts, there will be a fair amount of direct listening in class of the musical material, which comprises key intertextual soundings in the texts themselves. In some ways these texts demand not only to be read but also heard. These texts are engaged with the communities from which they write and to whom they respond, and they are largely concerned with the task of changing society. Ultimately, this course will offer you innovative ways to reflect and engage with how we fundamentally approach and analyze literary works. Not only will you develop an awareness of the relationship between literature and criticism, you will also observe how broader struggles for social justice are integral to the discussed literature.


  • Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Vintage)
  • Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen)
  • George Elliott Clarke, Blue (Gaspereau Press)


Participation 5%
Close Reading (500 words) 10%
Open Book In-Class Essay on Invisible Man (approx. 750 words) 15%
Gustafson Write Up 5%
Creative Intervention (with 500 word write-up) 15%
Essay Workshop 5%
Research Essay (1500-1750 words) 25%
Final Exam 20%

Assignment Breakdown:

  1. Participation (5%) 

Since discussion is an important part of this class, active participation and critical thinking about the assigned reading is fundamental to the course. Careful and engaged reading will allow you to achieve success and will prepare you to pose questions, raise problems, and engage with your peers during class discussions. I am an ardent advocate for the dialogical process of pedagogy, and believe that my students should have an equal opportunity to express their opinions with their peers and instructors. 

  1. Close Reading (10%): Sept 17th

A close reading (explication) is a nuanced and thorough analysis of a literary text. A close reading functions to bring out the nature and interrelations of a text (such as allusion, diction, images, and sound) in order to illuminate a given passage or work. The act of close reading is an explication: explicate coming from the Latin explicare, meaning “to unfold, to fold out, or to make clear the meaning of.” Your task will be to provide a close reading of one of the following poems from George Elliott Clarke’s Blue: “Negation,” “Calculated Offensive,” or “Onerous Canon.” You will provide a close reading of the poem you choose. Given the short length of the assignment, I am looking for attentive readings of the selected poem.  Please do not use any secondary sources. To prepare we will do a reading (or two) of a poem from Blue with further instructions for this assignment in our 2nd meeting together. This assignment will encourage close listening and will teach you the valuable skills of deciphering diction and incorporating textual evidence, as you engage in the act of synthesis.

3. Open Book In-Class Essay (15%): Oct 22nd

There will be an in-class essay on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Details will be provided in class.

  1. Gustafson Write Up (5%): Oct 22nd (talk); Oct 27th (assignment due in Dropbox)

This assignment gives you a chance to hear a living and vibrant poet studied in class talk about his writing process and poetics. For this assignment you are to attend the Ralph Gustafson Distinguished Poetry Lecture on Oct 22nd at Vancouver Island University in a free event open to the public in Building 355, Room 203. The talk, given by George Elliott Clarke, who is one of Canada’s most prolific poets, begins at 7:00 pm so please ensure that you arrive early to get a spot.

After the talk you are to write a two paragraph précis of that talk and its themes. You can relate the talk and reading to discussions in class and you might also discuss the style of the reading as well. How did Clarke organize his material? What techniques did he use for gaining audience rapport, including imagery, verbal signposts, and appropriate non-verbal messages? Did the presenter respond to audience questions effectively? Were certain metaphors and literary techniques used? Were there aspects of the talk that could have been more successfully presented, and if so, why? Your completed assignment is due by 2 pm via Dropbox on Oct. 27th.

  1. Creative Intervention (15%): Due Nov 17th

“I sincerely believe that the best criticism is that kind which is amusing and poetic; not the cold mathematical kind… the best article on a painting could be a sonnet or an elegy” (Charles Baudelaire, “What is the use of Criticism?”).

Taking up the above Baudelaire epigraph, you are challenged to think about the material being discussed beyond the typical classroom setting and hermeneutic approach. Through a combination of analytical and creative pedagogies we can create new hybrid spaces that allow for alternative epistemologies and learning spaces. As Baudelaire states, the best way to critique a work might be a poem, or a painting; or perhaps, given the age we live in: a song, a DJ mix, a creative journal, a one act play, a photography project, a podcast, or a blog. There are any number of possible approaches to this assignment: your piece could be prose, drama, visual, musical, dance, culinary, photography, etc. You could riff off of an episode in one of the texts or you could work with one of the larger themes of the course. You could examine an issue of African Canadian literature or history even. This assignment asks you to think a little outside the box/book, and go into the world and listen. After that listening you are called to produce a “creative intervention.”

Through critical creative work and soundings—interventions—we can further develop and help to define interdisciplinary approaches among the bordering fields of literature, music, and theories of multiculturalism and citizenship investigated in this course. By “creative intervention” I mean: to intervene through creative means, using the word as the OED defines as “‘stepping in,’ or interfering in any affair, so as to affect its course or issue.” I am also using intervention as in to be “intermediate”: to be between things, as in this case between the creative and the analytical, the scholar and the citizen. The method of the assignment is itself an intervention against simply writing another paper. The intervention could also be a very real and tangible one. 

For instance, given that one of the lenses through which we are reading the writers of this course is their focus on social change, it might be appropriate to think of these creative interventions as having a public or community-facing dimension. Broadly, try to imagine how your creative intervention might move beyond the walls of academia and make an intervention in a broader community. Essentially, how might we take many of the tools we learn in academia (particularly in English Studies) to enact social change or challenge simple conceptions of the citizen? You may draw on local resources and social organizations, many of which are right here in Nanaimo, or you might simply relate to a larger web-community through a blog, a podcast, radio, or through some other media. It is not required for you to have a direct community-facing dimension to your project, you could simply write a poem, but I do want you to think and theorize about how the works studied in this classroom challenge us to move beyond a simple reading of them to some sort of enactment, however conceived.

You will be graded on the level of engagement you put into your creative endeavor. It is for the above reasons that you are required to write a one-page (around 400 words) discussion of why the intervention was conceived as it was. You will be graded on the level of engagement you put into your creative endeavor. You will present your work in a short 3-minute presentation the day the assignment is due. You will also be graded on your ability to critically explain the efficacy and process of your “intervention.” I am also open to the idea of you collaborating with another student, in which case the grade will be shared. More details as well as numerous examples of past assignments will follow in class. 60% of the mark will be for the creative piece and 40% of the mark will be for the analysis.

  1. Essay Workshop (5%): Due Nov 26th

In one paragraph you will provide your essay’s projected argument (with a thesis), as well as an outline that shows a critical engagement with both secondary criticism and the primary text(s) you have chosen. On a second page you will provide a works cited list of four to five sources that extend beyond the assigned readings for the course. You do not need to include any of these sources in your final essay, but they should clearly pertain to your argument and/or focus. You will take this outline to class for a workshop in which you will give and receive feedback and advice from fellow students. We will cover best practices in class leading up this assignment. An unmarked version of your essay’s argument (essentially a proposal) will be handed (or emailed) in to me at the beginning of class. More detailed instructions will be provided.

  1. Essay (25%): Due Dec 3rd

The Research Essay will be around 5 pages in length, not including a Works Cited list. You are required to actively engage with three secondary sources in the body of this research paper—course material does not count. Please note that although secondary research is a necessary component of this assignment, your own ideas and engagement with these resources, rather than your ability to perform and incorporate research, will be graded. More detailed instructions, as well as possible topics, will be provided. I will be grading this assignment based on well-formulated and focused arguments. You are encouraged to write an essay on a topic of your own choosing.

Final Exam (20%): TBA

Passage/ term synthesis (choose 2 of 3) and Comparative Essay.

Why literature matters.

Class Schedule:

Please note that this schedule is subject to change as the term progresses.

Sept 8
Class Introductions; Go over syllabus
Short Lecture: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Martin Luther King’s “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.”
Listening: Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”

Sept 10
How to do a close reading of a poem: Kanye West, “Blood on the Leaves” and “Strange Fruit”; George Elliott Clarke’s “Antiphony” and “Blank Sonnet” (online)
Reading: “Antiphony” (27)
Listenings: Audio Reading from Clarke’s Whylah Falls; Kanye West, “Blood on the Leaves” (lyrics), Nina Simone’s version, and Abel Meeropol, “Strange Fruit” (poem/article)

Sept 15
Background Readings: George Elliott Clarke, introduction to Odysseys Home (available on D2L); Introduction to the Tenth Anniversary of Whylah Falls (available on D2L); Blues and Bliss, “How I Became a Songwriter” (available on D2L)
Poems: “Africadian Petition” (22) “1933” (23), “Bio- Black Baptist/Bastard” (25)
Listenings: Portia White; Bob Dylan; protest songs

Additional, reviews by me:

review of George Elliott Clarke’s Directions HomeToronto Review of Books. Web.

A review of George Elliott Clarke’s Red. Bull Calf Review. (June 2012): Vol.2 N.1. Web.

Sept 17
Poems: “Calculated Offensive” (28), “Canto XXXIX” (30), “Tobago” (34), “Nu(is)ance” (42), “Onerous Canon” (71)
Listenings: Langhston Hughes, “The Weary Blues”; Clip from interview with Clarke, McLeod, and Watkins
Short Poetry Analysis due

*Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues

Sept 22            
Background Readings: Miles Davis’s Autobiography (very short excerpt on D2L); “Cool Politics: Styles of Honour in Malcolm X and Miles Davis” by George Elliott Clarke
Poems: “Miles Davis: An Autobiography” (75); “Secret History” (81)
Listening: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue

Sept 24
Background Reading: “How to Make Love to a Negro (short excerpt, “The Nigger Narcissus,” pages 7-12, online D2L)
Poems: Blue Elegies (I.i (111); II.i (126); III.i (137); III. Iv (141)); “À Dany Laferriè” (32); “Naima” (88); “Burning Poems” (160)
Listening: John Coltrane, “Naima” and “My Favorite Things”

Sept 29
Background Reading: Introduction to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; Ellison, “Living With Music” (online)
Reading: “Prologue”
Discussion: Close reading of first two paragraphs of the prologue to Invisible Man. A banned book, really? What does it mean to be invisible?
Listening: Louis Armstrong, “Black and Blue” + clip from Ken Burns’s Jazz

Oct 1              
Background Reading: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Signifying Monkey (online D2L)
Reading: Chapters 1-2
Listening: Booker T. Washington, “Cast Down Your Bucket”; “A Mighty Fortress is our God” and other examples of signifying

Oct 6
Reading: Up to page 150 (end of Chapter 6)
Listening: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

Oct 8
Reading: Up to page 250 (end of Chapter 11)
Writing: MLA/ Citations and review of Research Practices
Listening: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (sampled by…); Harlem Renaissance video

Oct 13
Reading: Up to page 408 (end of Chapter 18)
Listening: Bessie Smith, “Back Water Blues”

Oct 15
Reading: Up to page 512 (end of Chapter 23)
Listening: Jelly Roll Morton; Moore’s The Awful Truth

Oct 20
Reading: Finish Invisible Man

Oct 22
George Elliott Clarke class visit & Gustafson Lecture

Oct 27
In-Class Essay on Invisible Man
G.E.C Gustafson assignment due in Dropbox by 2pm

Oct 29
Background Reading: Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany (introduction, available online)
Reading: Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues (part I)
Listening: Armstrong’s “Heebie Jeebies” and Ken Burns Jazz

Nov 2nd: Last day for academic penalty-free withdrawal

Nov 3
Reading: Half-Blood Blues (part II, up to page 65)
Writing: Review of Creative Intervention
Listening: Interview, Esi Edugyan in Studio; Berlin Wall coverage; Edugyan reading.

Nov 5
Reading: Half-Blood Blues (Read to III.ii., pgs. 66-140)
Writing: Review of Research Papers (Topics assigned)
Listening: Oscar Peterson, “Hymn to Freedom”; King Oliver, “Riverside Blues”; Bessie Smith, “Empty Bed Blues”;  Jelly Roll Morton

Nov 10
Background Reading: Houston A. Baker Jr., Blues Ideology (intro, online at Google Books, here).
Reading: Half-Blood Blues (II.iii and part IV, pgs. 141-193)
Listening: Robert Johnson, “Crossroad Blues”

Nov 12
Reading: Half-Blood Blues (Read up to part V iii., pgs. 194-250)
Listening: Armstrong, “West End Blues

Nov 17
Creative Interventions Due with Presentations

Nov 19
Reading: Finish Half-Blood Blues

Nov 24
Reading: bell hooks, “What Happens When White People Change” (on D2L) and Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (online


Nov 26
Essay Workshop

Dec 1
Viewing: Spike Lee, Do The Right Thing (film)

Dec 3
Finish film and discuss; Exam Review
Final Paper Due