Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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English 4400b/7400b: Readers, Researchers, and Books: Case Studies in Reception (Spring 2024)

Posted: Jan 02, 2024 15:01;
Last Modified: Feb 27, 2024 10:02


Warning: Some of the texts we will be covering in this course contain intentionally racist and/or sexist material. While we will endeavour throughout to read these works in a historically responsible fashion, students are likely to find at least some of the readings politically, morally, or socially discomforting.

About the course

Readers, Researchers, and Books: Case Studies in Reception examines how readers use external clues about a text’s origin, genre, and intellectual context to construct its meaning.


Times and location

Office and Office Hours

My office is room B810B. I am also often in the Humanities Innovation Lab. My telephone numbers, a map, and other contact information are available on my Contact page.

I am on campus most days, but my schedule varies greatly from week to week. Please use this booking page to set up an appointment with me.

Detailed description

This course will examine how readers use external clues about a text’s origin, genre, and intellectual context to construct its meaning. Book History, in other words, understood in its broadest sense as “the History of Authorship, Readership, and Publication.”

We will be conducting our examination by reading a number of works with controversial dissemination and reception histories   from Beowulf and Old Frisian Law (read in translation) to the Diary of Anne Frank (in translation), Lolita, Romance novels, and Pornography/Erotica (Please see the section on required reading below for a list of texts and a special warning about the potentially offensive content some of these works may contain).

By the end of this course students should have a historical awareness of of issues surrounding the transmission and reception of literary and other texts. Equipped with this knowledge, they should be able to take an intelligent and historically informed position in contemporary debates about the use and position of various kinds of artistic works in society   from the transmission of pornography and hate literature on the World Wide Web to the censorship of books and other material in our schools and libraries.

Required Texts (tentative)

Note: I am still working on some texts for the end of the course.

Warning: Some of the texts we will be covering in this course contain intentionally racist and/or sexist material. While we will endeavour throughout to read these works in a historically responsible fashion, students are likely to find at least some of the readings politically, morally, or socially discomforting.


In this course, I will use a combination of formative and summative assessment.

Formative assessment is graded pass/fail or Appropriate/Inappropriate/Fail with the criterion for “pass” being either a good-faith effort (pass-fail) or an appropriate good-faith effort (Appropriate/Inappropriate/Fail).

Summative assessment is graded in the normal university fashion (i.e. by percentage or letter grade depending on the nature of the work).

Badges are assigned for work that can be qualitatively graded (e.g. essays and presentations) and greatly exceeds minimum expectations.

Formative assessment 45%

Attendance and participation 15%
Weekly blogging (Jan 16-April 4) 15%
First essay (Feb 24) 15%

Summative assessment 45%

Research presentation (Jan 23-April 4) 15%
Final essay (April 4) 30%

Badges 10%

Great distinction 3%
Distinction 1.5%


Attendance and participation

In a seminar course like this, consistent and constructive participation is essential. I will be keeping track of attendance each week. Students who are present and participate in a way that suggests appropriate preparation will receive 2 points for each class; students who are present but do not appear to be prepared will receive 1 point. Students who are absent without an excuse will receive 0 for each missed class.

Appropriate preparation will be assessed by a variety of different means:

“Appropriate participation” also means participation that is respectful to others in the class. While I have rarely if ever had trouble with students engaging disrespectfully with their colleagues, I am emphasising it here because of the sensitive nature of some of the material we will be studying this semester.


Students will blog weekly in Moodle. Blogs should be arguably related to the content of the class most of the time. They should also be aware and respectful of others, given the nature of the material we will be covering in this class.

There is no required format or minimum length for these blog entries, provided a good-faith effort is being made. Grading is pass/fail. If problems arise, I will discuss the matter with the student. Only if the problem can not be resolved will unsuitable blogs be penalised.

First essay

Students will write a medium-length paper (10-12 pp/2500-2800 words) on a topic of interest to them that is connected in some way to the course material. The paper will be graded Appropriate/Inappropriate/Fail. A letter grade will be assigned for information purposes, but will not be reflected in the final grade.

Research Presentation

Students will give an oral presentation (15 minutes) on something to do with material in the course.


At the end of the year, students will submit a research essay of original research on a topic related to material and/or topics covered in the course.

General policies

The following policies will be followed in all my classes unless otherwise announced. You are expected to be familiar with these policies and any other documents cited here. Failure to conform to these policies may result in your grade being lowered.

Grade scale

The University of Lethbridge keeps track of student performance using a letter and grade point system (See section 4 of the University Calendar). Instructors assign students a letter grade at the end of each course (the University does not issue or keep track of mid-term grades). These letter grades are converted to a numerical value (a Grade Point) for assessing overall academic performance (a Grade Point Average or GPA). The University does not record percentage-type grades and does not have a fixed scale for conversion from percentage scores to letter grades and grade points. Each instructor is responsible for determining their own methodology for determining students’ final letter grade.

In my classes, I use the following letter-grade to percentage correspondences:

  Excellent Good Satisfactory Poor Minimal pass Failing
Letter A+ A A- B+ B B- C+ C C- D+ D F
Percent range 100-94 93-90 89-86 85-82 81-78 77-74 73-70 69-66 65-62 61-58 57-50 49-0
Conventional value 100 92 88 84 80 76 72 68 64 60 56 49-0
Grade point 4.0 3.7 3.3 3.0 2.7 2.3 2.0 1.7 1.3 1.0 0

How your grade is determined depends on the type of work being assessed. Tests of specific skills or knowledge (such as identification questions in literature classes, or fact-oriented tests in my grammar and language classes) are usually assigned a numeric score which is easily converted to a percentage. Essays, presentations, and other performance-oriented tests are usually graded by letter. I convert letter grades to percentages by taking the median value in each grade-range, and rounding up to the nearest whole percent. The only exceptions are A+ (which is converted to 100%), and F (which is converted to an arbitrary percentage between 0% and 49% based on my estimation of the work’s quality). These scores can be found in the convention | | |al value row of the above table.

In marking work I try to keep the University’s official description of these grades in mind (a description can be found in the University Calendar, Part IV.3.a). If you get an A it means your work is excellent; a B means your work is good; a C means it is satisfactory; a D that it is poor; and an F that it is failing to meet University-level standards.

Class schedule

The following schedule is intended to help you plan your work for the course. It is subject to change.

Week Date Unit Readings
1 Tues. 9/1 About the Course (Syllabus and concepts)  
2 Tues. 16/1 Introduction Concepts and methodologies; major secondary research; some examples Please read the Notes for discussion ; secondary sources: Foley 1988 and Bakhtin 1986. These will introduce you to the major concepts we will be pursuing. Our examples will be popular music as discussed by Adorno 1992 and the Old English Physiologus poem (translation Gordon 1959). Read O’Donnell 2001 for one reading of genre in this poem. Fitzpatrick 1933 has a translation of the Latin original from which the poet is working.
3 Tues. 23/1 The Archaeology of Genre: How do we know how to read old texts? Primary readings: Chaucer, The Squire’s Tale (if you need a translation, here’s one ); Milton, Il Penseroso ; Spenser, Faerie Queene, IV.ii and IV.iii . Secondary readings: McCall 1966 ; Root 1957/01 ; Stillwell 1948 . Please also see the Reading Notes
4 Tues. 30/1   Primary readings: Beowulf; other texts from the Beowulf Manuscript: Passion of St. Christopher ; Wonders of the East ; The letter of Alexander to Aristotle ; Judith
Secondary readings” Tolkien 1936 ; Sisam 1953 .
Please also see the Reading Notes
5 Tues. 6/2 The Politics of Genre
“What Anne Meant”: the transmission and reception of the Diary of Anne Frank
Primary Readings: Diary of Anne Frank ; O’Donnell 1988; Article: ‘I certainly have the subjects in my mind’:
The Diary of Anne Frank as Bildungsroman
Lecture: “What Anne Meant”; Please read also the “Reading Notes”
6 Tues. 13/2 The “Revisionist” Challenge to the Diary of Anne Frank Secondary Readings: Lipstadt 1993; Faurisson n.d.;
17/2-23/2 Reading Week (no class)
7 Tues. 27/2 Denialism and Conspiracy
8 Tues. 5/3 TBA
9 Tues. 12/3 TBA
10 Tues. 19/3 Classic Porn (?): Generic exhibitionism and generic modesty in the transmission of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure Primary Sources Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure ; Secondary Sources: Arcand 1993a; Arcand 1993b
11 Tues. 26/3 “Football and Fashion”: Why is there no “Oxford World Classic” category romance? Primary Sources: Category Romance (TBA); Secondary Sources: Douglas 1980; Radway 1984; Modleski 1984
12 Tues. 2/4 Presentations




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