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GE 13186 – Fall 2010
University Seminar:
Fictions of the Known World
Professor Tobias Boes
TR 3:30-4:45, DeBartolo Hall 330
Office Hours: W 10:30-12:00, Th 2-3

In this course, we will investigate the relationship between literature and the known world in a series of texts drawn primarily from the epic tradition.  “Known world,” in this context, refers to the part of the world that is (at least theoretically) available for first-hand investigation and exploration; that which can be experienced via the senses and recalled via memory.

The main goal of our class is to rethink some of the ways in which most of you have probably been taught to think about texts in high school.  Consciously or not, most high school students learn to scan fictional narratives for symbols, metaphors, or allegories – for clues, in other words, that a text means something other or deeper than it would appear on first sight.  For instance, Animal Farm is an allegory about communism, while To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t merely a story about a girl growing up in the South, but also a commentary on racism and intolerance in American society.

These reading strategies aren’t wrong, but they create two dangers.  The first is that they steer attention away from the pleasures of the text itself to some abstract “meaning”: once we have discovered what a text is really about, we can move on.  The second is that they create an unhealthy division between “high” and “low” texts: those which are supposedly trying to teach us something, and those (like Harry Potter or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) which we merely read for fun.

In this course, we will instead ask how literary texts from a number of different historical periods and a variety of cultures depict the known world around them.  What kind of assumptions do they take for granted about how the world works?  How do they fill this world with wonder and compel us to turn pages?  What would it mean to stray beyond the limits of the known world, and what does it mean to return home once you’ve taken such a journey?  As we will discover, the true significance of a text can often lie on the surface.  It expresses itself in the way in which we rediscover the known world – and hopefully also our own place within it.

Assigned texts (available at University Bookstore):

  • Homer, The Odyssey (trans. Robert Fitzgerald – Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Marco Polo, The Travels (trans. Ronald Latham – Penguin)
  • Various, Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives (ed. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola – Penguin)
  • Bharati Mukherjee, The Holder of the World (Ballantine)
  • Edgar Reitz, Heimat (a television mini-series, available on DVD at the Hesburgh audio-visual reserves desk.  No purchase necessary, although you can buy it on Amazon if you really want to)

Copies of all of these books are also available on 24 hour reserve at the Hesburgh library.  In addition to the assigned texts, we will sometimes read short articles that I will make available via the electronic reserve system (see below for information on how to access these).

Class Structure and Requirements

“Fictions of the Known World” is a University Seminar, meaning that it is only open to Notre Dame students during their first year of studies.  All University Seminars are writing-intensive classes that simultaneously aim to introduce you to the basic principles of an academic discipline – in our case literary study (the class consequently also fulfills the university literature requirement).

At the center of the requirements list stand two academic essays, each of which you will write in both a rough draft and a final version.  As the semester progresses, you will learn how to construct and support an argument that is suitable for an academic paper, and you will be expected to follow these standards in your own writing.  The second paper will also require you to do independent research using the resources offered by Hesburgh Library.

Academic essays, however, are only one way to engage with literary texts, and a rather limited one at that.  You are also expected to make contributions to our class blog (, where we will work collectively to refine our understanding of what we have read.  In addition to writing one independently authored blog post, you will also discuss the posts of your fellow students.

Finally, since one theme of this course will be the relationship between literary texts and other ways of charting the “known world,” you will work collaboratively to create an interactive map and reading guide to one of the works we are studying, Marco Polo’s Travels.

You should also never forget that “Fictions of the Known World,” in addition to being writing intensive, is also a seminar.  This means that the success of our course lives and dies from the contributions that each and every one of you makes to our class discussion.  Attendance and oral participation are an important part of your grade.  We will combine plenary discussions with small group and partner activities, and I hope you will continue your conversation on the course blog.

Learning Goals:

Like all University Seminars, ours has two sets of intertwined learning goals.  On the one hand, this course will introduce you to the basics of college-level analytical writing.  To this end, you will learn how to:

  • craft thesis statements that are at once appropriate, specific, and interesting
  • find and organize evidence to support these statements
  • create suitable introductions and conclusions for your papers
  • use peer-reviewed outside resources to support your claims, and
  • make use of proper editing and revising techniques to improve your essays from one draft to the next

At the same time, this course also serves as an introduction to the techniques of advanced textual analysis, and the papers that you will be writing will be literary in nature.  This means you will learn how to:

  • formulate and test objective hypotheses about works of imaginative fiction
  • perform close readings to gather textual evidence
  • contextualize and historicize your readings
  • look for (and hopefully come to appreciate!) aesthetic complexity


Your final grade will be calculated by considering the following components:

  • Regular attendance and active participation (includes contribution to blog comments) (15%)
  • One independently authored blog post, 700-800 words in length (10%)
  • Homework assignments and participation in peer review project (10%)
  • Participation in a collaborative online project relating to Marco Polo’s Travels, including a final evaluative paper of 2-3 pages (15%)
  • One 4-5 page essay, to be submitted in both rough draft and final version (20%)
  • Final 5-7 page essay, to be submitted in both rough draft and final version (25%)
  • Short quiz on the final class day, testing your understanding of Edgar Reitz’s Heimat series (5%)

Due dates for the papers are indicated on the class schedule.  Paper grades will decrease by one step for each day that they late.

You are allowed up to two unexcused absences.  After that, your final grade for the course will decrease by one step for each absence (i.e. from an A to an A-, etc.).  Please be aware that in accordance with Notre Dame policy, a note from the Health Center doesn’t necessarily excuse an absence.

Plagiarism and Academic Honesty:

The Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures takes the University Academic Code of Honor very seriously.  It is expected that all of the written work that you submit, as well as the ideas expressed therein, are your own.  Over the course of the semester, we will conduct several workshops on proper research and writing procedures and we will pay special attention to issues of plagiarism and intellectual property rights.  You may also find information on Notre Dame’s honor code at the following web site:

On various occasions over the course of the semester, you will engage in collaborative projects.  All partners in such projects are expected to do roughly equal amounts of work.  Adding your name to an assignment to which you did not substantively contribute is a form of plagiarism.

Evidence of intentional plagiarism will result in the appropriate punishment, up to and including course failure.

Notes on Audio-Visual and Electronic Materials:

This course has a supporting blog, accessible at  This is where you should go for news, resources, copies of handouts, changes to the syllabus and the like.

You will also need access to a copy of Google Earth, which you can download for free at  The computers in the Notre Dame computing clusters should also come with it preinstalled.  I will conduct a brief tutorial on how to use this software in class, but if you are not yet familiar with its advanced functions, you may want to acquaint yourself over the first half of the semester.  The program is very intuitive, and you can find training videos on the Google Earth homepage.

I will sometimes assign additional articles that you can then download from the Notre Dame electronic reserve system and print at your convenience.  The address for this is (you can find a hyperlink on the blog).

Finally, one of our “texts” is actually a TV mini-series, Edgar Reitz’s Heimat.  Regular screenings of the individual episodes will be scheduled as the course progresses, but if you can’t make them, you always have the option of watching them at your leisure in the audio-visual center on the second floor of Hesburgh Library.

Additional Resources

You should be aware that Notre Dame has set up numerous resources that can help you succeed in your academic life in general, and in this writing-intensive Seminar in particular.  A full list can be found on the course blog.

However, I would especially like to draw your attention to the University Writing Center ( located in 203 Coleman Morse.  Their website has a number of links that you may find interesting, and they also offer personal appointments.  If you would like some help using Hesburgh Library, drop-in tutoring is available Sun-Thurs from 7-10 pm next to the First Floor Information Desk.