Location: BLD 345, classroom 106
Class Hours: Tues. & Thurs. 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Office Hours: Mon. & Wed. 10:30 am-12:00 pm
(or by appointment)
Phone: Local 2118
Email: paul.watkins@viu.ca
Office: 345/ 222

“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 music in relation to literary criticism 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 Black British Columbian based 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)
  • Wayde Compton, Performance Bond (Arsenal Pulp)
  • Diana Hacker, Canadian Writer’s Reference (5th)

Secondary Articles:

  • Ralph Ellison, “Living With Music” (online)
  • Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Signifying Monkey (intro, online at VIU)
  • Houston A. Baker, Jr., Blues Ideology (intro, online at Google Books)
  • Two articles from Compton’s After Canaan (available online at VIU)


Participation 5%
In-Class Writing Prompts 10%
Short Close Reading (350 words) 5%
Open Book In-Class Essay on Invisible Man (approx. 750 words) 15%
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. In-Class Writing Prompts (10%): Due Periodically

There will be six in-class writing assignments, but only the top five marks will count. See the syllabus for when these writing assignments take place. We will spend around 10 minutes of a given class on these and they are intended as prompts to test students’ ability to critically engage with the text or texts assigned for that day (prompts for days on which secondary and primary materials are assigned will ask you to think about intersections between these texts). Each assignment is marked out of 10. Please note that your grade is based on quality rather than quantity. Please take time to formulate your ideas rather than writing for the sake of writing. All in-class writings are open book unless otherwise specified by the professor. 

  1. Close Reading (5%): Sept 11th

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.” On September 4th I will hand out two potential passages from Invisible Man with a critical insight taken from a secondary source. You will choose one and provide a very short 1-2 paragraph close reading of that given passage in relation to the critic’s comment. 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.

  1. Open Book In-Class Essay (15%): Due Sept 30th

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

  1. Creative Intervention (15%): Due Oct 30th

“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. For example, Wayde Compton’s notion of acoustic intervention through his DJ poetics imagines a democracy (as embodied in sound) that is most effective when it is most discordantly free. 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 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 6th

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 Nov 25th

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.

  1. Final Exam (20%): TBA 

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



 Sept 2 Introduction to Course: On lower frequencies

  • Discussion: On Sonic-Afro modernity. Close reading of first two paragraphs of the prologue to Invisible Man. A banned book, really? What does it mean to be invisible?
  • Class Introductions
  • Go over syllabusEllison
Sept 4
  1. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
  • Reading: Ralph Ellison, “Living with Music” (online); Prologue.
  • Writing: Writing Prompt #1. Summary of Prologue and development of summary; how to close read and incorporate textual evidence.
  • Listening: Louis Armstrong, “Black and Blue” + clip from Ken Burns’s Jazz
  • Reading: Henry Louis Gates, The Signifying Monkey (“Intro,” online at VIU). IM: Chapters 1-2
  • Writing: Writing Prompt #2
  • Listening: “A Mighty Fortress is our God” and examples of signifying; Booker T. Washington, “Cast Down Your Bucket.”

*John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things”

*Kid Koala, “Moon River”

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

Close Reading Due

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

  • Reading: Finish Invisible Man
  • Writing: Review of common writing errors, essay structure, the thesis statement, research methods. A recap of citation of sources, using the MLA and APA student essays in Hacker as models.
  • Lyrics
30 In-Class Essay on Invisible Man
 Oct 2
  1. Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues
  • Reading: Half-Blood Blues (part I) and Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany (introduction, available online)
  • Writing: Writing Prompt #3.
  • Listening: Armstrong’s “Heebie Jeebies”
  • Additional: Book Review.
  • Reading: Half-Blood Blues (part II, up to page 65)
  • Writing: Review of Creative Intervention
  • Listening: Interview, Esi Edugyan in Studio Q
  • Berlin Wall coverage.
  • Edugyan reading.
  • Reading: Half-Blood Blues (Read to ii., pgs. 66-140)
  • Writing: Words and Style. Review of Creative Interventions.
  • Listening: Oscar Peterson, “Hymn to Freedom”; King Oliver, “Riverside Blues”
  • Reading: Half-Blood Blues (iii and part IV, pgs. 141-193) and Houston A. Baker Jr.,Blues Ideology (intro, online at Google).
  • Writing: Possible Topics for Final
  • Listening: Robert Johnson, “Crossroad Blues”
  • Reading: Half-Blood Blues (Read up to part V iii., pgs. 194-250)
  • Listening: Armstrong, “West End Blues
  • Writing: Writing Prompt #4
  • Reading: Finish Half-Blood Blues
  • Writing: Using the library. Review of Essay Topics.
 Oct 23 III. Wayde Compton’s Performance Bond

  • Reading: Poems: “Declaration of the Halfrican Nation” and “Afro-Saxon.” Compton’s “Mixed Race, and Schizophonophilia” (online at VIU library).
  • Writing: Writing Prompt #5.
  • Listening: Grandmaster Flash, “The Message” and Kid Koala, “Moon River”

Friday October 27tht Last day for academic penalty–free withdrawal

  • Reading: To Poitier”; “The Essential Charley Pride”;
30 Creative Intervention Due with Short Presentations
Nov 4
  • Reading: “Illegalese: Floodgate Dub”; “JD” (online); “Performance Bond”
  • Listening: As Time Goes By” (Dooley Wilson)/ Dexter Gordon version.
6 Essay Workshop
  • Remembrance Day. No Classes.
  • Reading: “The Reinventing Wheel”
  • Listening: Compton’s “The Reinventing Wheel.”
  • Compton Reading, Halfrican.
  • Reading: Rune (“Forme and Chase”; “The New Station”; Ghetto Fabulous Ozymandias”)
  • Writing: Writing Prompt #6.
  • Listening: Student’s choice- send them in before class for final mix.
  • Richard Pryor video.
25 Research Paper Due. Movie Day (Do The Right Thing)
27 Final Mix and Exam Review


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