Seminar in Narrative Studies

ENGL 531-001 / M 1800-2050 / HLG 321 / Schedule


Pr. John Laudun / HLG 356 / MW 12-1400 & by appt

Course Description

Stories feature prominently in our lives and in discourses about our lives. Children ask parents to tell them a story; we swap stories as adults in order to get to know each other; and, increasingly, doctors and lawyers describe the work they do in terms of stories. This seminar is designed to familiarize participants with the wide range of scholarship and science that treats stories. Our goal will be to refine our own working definition of narrative both to understand its nature but also, for those interested in creative projects, to refine our practice. It should be clear from this description that this seminar is open to a wide range of interests: creative, literary, folkloristic, rhetorical, and linguistic.

Course Objective

The objective of this seminar is to survey the breadth and depth of definitions of narrative both in scholarship and science but also in the larger world. A lot of fields use narrative either as an object of study or as part of their practice. Understanding the implications for both formal and working definitions, for sometimes the definitions are implicit in practice, is central to the work of the seminar. Given the variety of backgrounds of seminar participants, and the range of materials and experiences each will bring to the seminar, the principal goal of the seminar is for each participant to be able to frame their own ongoing projet within the larger context of narrative studies. That is, no one can know everything about a field as large and diverse as narrative studies, but you can create for yourself a map of reasonable fidelity such that should you encounter others interested in the study of narrative qua narrative, you can expect to move quickly from situating yourselves within the larger domain to a productive dialogue on those matters that interest you.

Course Texts

Two texts, one classical and one synthetic, are listed below, but I hope to conduct much of the course through PDFs that are generally available (e.g., PLoS ONE), are available through a university subscription (e.g., JSTOR), or that I make available through the Moodle site. (The usual caveats to using Moodle apply: connections can be flaky; don’t wait until the last minute to download an essay.)

Herman, David. 2009. Basic Elements of Narrative. Wiley-Blackwell.

Propp, Vladimir. 1968. Morphology of the Folktale. Tr. Laurence Scott. University of Texas Press.

In addition to these texts, we will be reading a great deal from materials drawn from sources like JSTOR and Project Muse as well as other materials found online – either posted to arXiv or to personal, professional, or institutional sites.

Course Requirements

The weighting of grades will be as follows: participation in the seminar, which includes short in-seminar presentations and activities, makes up one half of a participant’s evaluation. The seminar paper process makes up the other half. (I stress the importance of process.)


Seminar participants are expected to comport themselves as, well, as if they were in a seminar:

A seminar is, generally, a form of academic instruction, either at an academic institution or offered by a commercial or professional organization. It has the function of bringing together small groups for recurring meetings, focusing each time on some particular subject, in which everyone present is requested to participate actively. This is often accomplished through an ongoing Socratic dialogue with a seminar leader or instructor, or through a more formal presentation of research. The idea behind the seminar system is to familiarize students more extensively with the methodology of their chosen subject and also to allow them to interact with examples of the practical problems that always occur during research work. It is essentially a place where assigned readings are discussed, questions can be raised and debates can be conducted. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Participation includes a wide variety of forms: active listening, thoughtful speaking, short presentations, involvement in in-class and out-of-class individual and group assignments. Some of these may include, as seems fitting for a seminar led by a folklorist, the occasional exploration of the world beyond campus in the form of observations you make in places like book stores, coffee shops, and other places where people gather to talk or read/write. There is no set list of assignments in this regard: this is something that must arise out of a sense of the seminar as a particular historical group of individuals. (Again, you would expect no less from a folklorist.)

Seminar Paper

In addition to the assumed active participation, which includes a number of projects and/or assignments as well as active listening and talking, this seminar also requires the preparation of a seminar paper ( >= 5000 words). We will step through the writing process with a series of deadlines for a research proposal, an annotated bibliography, and a series of body paragraphs. The idea behind this particular arrangement is that any project, like an essay, but also known as a daunting task, can be broken into smaller steps. Each of these steps can have its own deadline, and each is something you have done before, though perhaps informally, but each of them makes it possible to eat the proverbial elephant, writing one bite at a time. In the academy, productivity is everything, and establishing the mechanics of productivity is helpful. The idea is also to make it possible to explore the viability of a project a little at a time, so that should something not pan out – you hit a brick wall or you lose interest – there is still time to change course and pursue something else. The schedule is designed to give participants a series of deadlines that makes it possible to test the viability of an idea and to have time to expand nascent ideas into something of consequence that we call the seminar paper and we often imagine as leading to an article. That is, all the written assignments in this seminar are designed to match conventional scholarly outputs. (See the project description below for more information.)

For most participants, writing a seminar paper in a course focused on intellectual history is fairly difficult: usually the moment of person synthesis, that ah-hah! moment, comes in the latter half of the term. That is not terrible timing for a seminar paper, but for attempting anything earlier, it does make things difficult. Based on past experience, I would like to propose that you begin with a research proposal with the following contents:

Single-spaced and citations in whatever formatting your prefer, but used consistently. (For the record, folklore studies uses Chicago B, which makes far more sense than MLA and has not changed in decades.)


If you must miss a class meeting, please make sure to contact someone from the course to verify what happened and where we are in the schedule. (If Teams is working, you may feel free to post there. Conversely, if you are checking Teams and you see someone has asked about something in class, please answer their question.)


Hold for now:

In addition to (or over and against) scholarly/scientific considerations of narrative, the seminar will develop its own corpus of texts which we will use as a place to apply theories and models, as a vehicle for furthering/deepening our discussion about various theories and models, and as a well from which we can draw our own ideas. For more on the corpus, see below.

Because time is not infinite, each of you is constrained by a limit of 10,000 words: this can be one text or several. A further constraint is that we will need to balance our text between those items that are obviously or conventionally narrative and those which test boundaries.

My somewhat informed guess is that many of you already have possible sources, which could range as wildly from the tried and true of Project Gutenberg or An Archive of Our Own to sites and sources which I cannot imagine. Just in case, here are some lists drawn from rambling around the “intarwebs” that might help you when you get stuck:


As participants in a seminar, each of you is more a part of overall work than in other courses. Consider yourself co-facilitators, or at least peers: we are here to develop our own thinking but to do so alongside others doing the same. Often, it’s somebody else’s moment of synthesis that prompts your own or directs you to a new, different line of questioning. The use of an application like Teams is meant to provide us a venue to continue conversations and to encourage everyone to think of this as “us” and not “me and the teacher.” (Plus, I don’t know about you, but my email inbox feels like a dumpster fire that I just can’t seem to put out, so staying out of it is good for everyone.)

Using a group chat application – okay, Teams is more than that – also means that if you miss something, you can poll the group to catch you up. Or to follow up on a reference someone made in a discussion but you didn’t quite catch. And I encourage you to make as many of these kinds of interactions “whole group” as you are comfortable doing. Almost always, someone else has the same question or confusion and you may be the person who gives voice to their concern. You too can be a discursive hero.