Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Magic Words, Magic Books, Magic Language

In my English department, graduate students who have completed at least two years of coursework are allowed to apply to design and teach their own 200 level course on any sort of literary topic they desire. A little over a year ago, after reading A Wizard of Earthsea, I got this idea for a possible course topic that got me really excited. When I finished up my coursework last spring, I was eligible to apply, so I wrote up a course proposal, submitted it, and got accepted to teach my own English 203 course this semester.

With my exams being scheduled for the first week of the semester, the timing for designing a completely new course from scratch was a little crazy, but everything else about teaching this new class has been AMAZING! As in, this is seriously so far the best teaching experience I've ever had in my life. Every single class session has just been incredibly interesting discussion about really fascinating topics, with students who are interesting and enthusiastic and willing to engage (not my usual experience with freshman writing classes). And I suspect that many of my readers here would be just as interested by the ideas and discussions we're having in my class, so a few months ago I decided I would post the syllabus here and invite you all to join in on my reading assignments (if you wish). Even if you don't join with the reading, I want a place to sort of organize and record my lecture notes and ideas that come out of class discussion, so every week or so (really probably every other week if I'm lucky), I'll try to post some of the more exciting ideas and questions to come out of our class. I'm hoping you, my dear readers, will enjoy this peek into my college classroom.

My original plan was to get these posts going from the beginning of the semester, but here we are four weeks in (I blame exams, then catching the flu). So I'll be trying to play a little catch up. But for now, here is the course description and reading syllabus using my actual course dates (the class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays). I've provided links where I can to texts.

Course Title: English 203: Magic Words, Magic Books, Magic Language

Course Description: This course will explore the relationship between magic and language. Magic (the power to exert one's will upon humans and nature outside of natural laws) has always had a deeply interconnected relationship with language. Witches recite incantations and cast "spells." Runes written over ancient tombs both warn of and enact curses. Spirits and daemons can be called if one knows their "true names." Magic books, spell books, and grimoires become objects of power simply by virtue of having magic words written in them.

But in reality, there is nothing inherently "magical" about language. Words, spoken or written, are truly nothing more than puffs of air or lines of ink on paper, and yet in our magic stories language consistently has the power not just to facilitate human social communication, but to command the very cosmos. Why do our stories give language the power to enact magic? This is the question we will seek to answer as we read various texts across time and genres. This class will be divided into three units, each focusing on a different aspect of this relationship. Unit 1 will explore the idea of magic names and spoken words. Unit 2 will look at the power of writing and symbols. And Unit 3 will explore magic books and grimoires.

Reading Assignment Schedule:

Unit 1: Magic Names and Spoken Words

T 1/21 - Course Introduction

Th 1/23 - Cratylus by Plato; A Course in General Linguistics "Part 1 General Principles: Chapter 1" by Ferdinand de Saussure

T 1/21 - How To Do Things With Words "Lecture 1" by J. L. Austin; Genesis Chapter 1 from the Bible

Th 1/30 - A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin Chapters 1-2

T 2/4 - A Wizard of Earthsea Chapters 3-5

Th 2/6 - A Wizard of Earthsea Chapter 6; Name Essay Assignment Sheet

T 2/11 - A Wizard of Earthsea Chapter 7-9

Th 2/13 - A Wizard of Earthsea Chapter 10

T 2/18 - Draft of Name Essay due; Peer Review

Th 2/20 - Final Drafts of Name Essay due; Unit 1 Reflection

Unit 2: Magic Writing and Symbols

T 2/25 - Gutenberg's Galaxy excerpt by Marshall McLuhan; Orality and Literacy excerpts by Walter Ong

Th 2/27 - "The Call of Cthulhu" by H.P. Lovecraft, first half; Short Paper Assignment Sheet

T 3/3 - "The Call of Cthulhu" second half

Th 3/5 - How to write a literary analysis

T 3/10 - Spring Break

Th 3/10 - Spring Break

T 3/17 - The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson, first half

Th 3/19 - The Emperor's Soul second half

T 3/24 - Draft of Short Paper due; Peer Review

Th 3/26 - Final Drafts of Short Paper due; Unit 2 Reflection

Unit 3; Magic Books

T 3/31 - Doctor Faustus Act 1 by Christopher Marlowe (A Text); Final Project Assignment Sheet

Th 4/2 - Doctor Faustus Act 2

T 4/7 - Doctor Faustus Act 3-4

Th 4/9 - Doctor Faustus Act 5

T 4/14 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapters 1-6 by J.K. Rowling

Th 4/16 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapters 7-8

T 4/21 - Conferences

Th 4/30 - Conferences

T 4/28 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapter 9-15

Th 4/30 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapters 16-18

T 5/5 - Presentations

Th 5/7 - Presentations

Okay, there it is! So, what do you think? Does this look like a fun class? I promise, even if you're not that into fantasy, if you like words and language, you will most likely be very interested in the discussions from this class. I'm really excited to share a bit more about this here!


  1. As I was reading the course introduction, I thought about the Creation story, and then there was Genesis in your readings! I'm sure you've had lots of great discussions!

    1. Yes, we read Genesis Ch. 1, and then in yesterday's class we looked at some Matthew 5 (because we were talking about oaths, brought in the "swear not at all" verses). I really wish I was teaching this course at BYU, because here I have to present the scriptures as a "theoretical" (even "magical") way of thinking about the power of language, but it's still interesting for discussion. And yes, we've had a ton of fascinating discussion.

  2. <3 <3 Let me sign up! Your students are so lucky!!

    1. Doing my best by sharing what I can here, to let you all in on the fun. But really, this class is the best! And my students are super awesome (I've got a bunch of role players, super classic nerd types, fantasy readers, basically the best kind of students).