Great Books: Defining the Human

Syllabus as of 1/10/2020. Syllabus may change throughout the semester; changes will be listed here.

Dr. Andrew Strombeck

Course Location/Instructor information

  • MWF 11:15 am – 12:10 pm
  • Oelman 135
  • Office hours WF 10-11 and by appointment on MWF 48 hours in advance.
  • email: (best way to contact me; you may get replies from

As part of Wright State University’s General Education program, this course seeks to

  • Sharpen critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills as a basis for lifelong learning
  • Cultivate an awareness of the moral and ethical insight needed for participation in the human community
  • Increase knowledge and understanding of the past, of the world in which we live, and of how both past and present have an impact on the future

More simply, in this course we will seek to sharpen our ability to be thoughtful, critical participants in conversations about literature. At its best, literature both confirms and challenges our assumptions about our lives, other people (including those with backgrounds different than our own), power, the natural world, and so on. I firmly believe that such critical conversations about literature teach us to think critically in other areas of life, from family, to politics, to employment, to other fields of study.

In this version of the course, we’ll focus especially on stories that concern the boundary between the human and non-human, asking questions such as the following: What is the line between human and machine? What is the line between human and monster? Who counts as human? Are some people more human than others? Under what circumstances does an individual become “inhuman”? What behaviors define the human? How are decisions about who counts as human made, and who gets to make these decisions? What do conversations about the human have to do with race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, or other forms of identity?

If, at first, these questions seem to have no “practical” connection to your professional goals, keep in mind that much of today’s workplace involves what is sometimes called knowledge work. For knowledge workers (those involved with distributing, processing, and producing information), evaluating, processing, and posing critical questions forms an integral part of their jobs, as does expressing oneself in a thoughtful, intelligent way. So even if no one will hire you to write essays about The Tempest, the skills you’ll work on here are ones you’ll hopefully use throughout your professional and personal life.

After completing this course, students will

  • Have some sense of what questions have been raised about the category "human"
  • Have a sense of how literary works have responded to these questions
  • Have improved their skills in writing about literature
  • Have some understanding of the authors and texts under study


  • Work on your writing.
  • Do some critical thinking.
  • Make something useful.
  • Read some literature


Available at bookstore:

  • Sophocles, Antigone (please buy assigned edition)
  • William Shakespeare, The Tempest (please buy assigned edition)
  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (please buy assigned edition)
  • Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood
  • Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Other readings are available as PDFs and linked below.


On the day material is assigned, you are responsible for bringing material to class in a usable form. Print is ideal, because you can write on the material, flip through it, point out passages to other students, and otherwise refer to it. It’s also acceptable to have material available on tablet or laptop. But please don’t rely on a smartphone to read this material. As an instructor, I find it distracting when students are looking at their phones, and I can’t tell if you’re looking at the material, texting, or looking at social media.


This course meets three times a week, approximately 30 times across the term. Excessive absences will affect your grade. Please do not ask me to go over the material you missed; review missed material with a classmate.

In terms of all other class behavior (leaving the classroom, using electronic devices, and so on), I simply encourage you to be courteous toward everyone else here, including me. You’ll get more out of the course if you give it your full attention, and everyone here expects fifty minutes of focus on course material. If you’re not being courteous, I reserve the right to speak to you either during or after class and/or ask you to leave.

If you know, for whatever reason, that you’ll be unable to avoid leaving the classroom, using electronic devices in class, or so on, I do ask that you sit in the back or otherwise minimize your distraction to me and other students.

If you have a child or other family member that you care for, please feel free to bring these people to class at any time. I understand that students balance multiple responsibilities, and I encourage you to work with me on balancing your responsibilities here and elsewhere.


Details on each of these appear below.

  • Class participation 10%
  • Reading Assessments 15%
  • In-class responses 20%
  • Portfolio of revised responses. 20% (Final portfolio grade assigned at the end of the course.)
  • Commonplace book 20%
  • Defining the Human presentations 15%


I expect you to read and think about the material before you come to class. In addition to attendance, your class participation grade measures both quantity and quality of contributions. You’ll get the most credit for class participation if you point out passages or draw connections between one work we’ve studied and another.

Also: I call on students during class, but only after I’ve given you a chance to write down your thoughts. Usually this works out fine—I’m calling on you because you have something smart to say, but you might not say it if I don’t ask you directly. If, for whatever reason, you are uncomfortable talking in class, please let me know, and we can work out another arrangement for your participation.


Five times throughout the semester, you will complete a reading assessment consisting of the following:

  • 4-5 informational questions (designed to demonstrate that you have completed the day’s reading)
  • A short response to a passage from the day’s reading (designed to demonstrate that you are engaged with the course and work themes).


You will complete five of these throughout the semester. They will consist of you answering four questions in class.

If you miss class on the day one of these is assigned, you can come to my office and make it up, but only once. If you miss class on the day one of these is assigned a second time, you will receive a zero for that day’s response. You can think of these as something like mini-midterms.


I will comment on your responses and return them to you. At the end of the course, you will choose one questions from each response, revise and expand this questions to 250 words of writing each, and submit these as part of a portfolio. (total of 1250 words)

Revising can include:

  • Fixing places that I marked as unclear in my comments.
  • Adding related examples from the text.
  • Expanding your ideas.

Revised responses will be evaluated using the same rubric as for the responses.


Throughout the semester, in response to your reading, I will ask you to keep a commonplace book. Commonplace books are a collection of quotations, images, observations, and other information on a common theme. See for more about commonplace books and for examples of commonplace books old and new.

You can use any medium that supports text and images for your commonplace book.

Examples might include:

  • A notebook.
  • A web site (your own, created through WordPress, whatever works for you).
  • A Word document, PDF, a Google doc, or other desktop medium.

Each week, you will fill pages with the following:

  • One substantial quotation copied from the week’s reading.
  • One substantial paragraph of informal writing in response to the week’s reading.
  • An example from a television show, video game, novel, poem, short story, news story, or other text that engages some problem of the human.
  • Images, charts, other thoughts, other quotations–the rest is up to you.

You should date and title your entries. I will check your commonplace books 1) on days when we do in-class responses 2) at the end of the semester.

Commonplace books will be graded for

  1. Completion
  2. Creativity/innovation

Commonplace will not be graded for writing. This assignment is intended to get you doing informal writing throughout the semester.

In order to receive a B for this assignment, you’ll need to have one substantial entry (as defined above) for every week of the semester, beginning with week 2 and ending with week 14. You need to have a total of 13 substantial entries. From there, your grade can only go up; commonplace books that receive a grade of A are creative works of art and thinking that show concerted and consistent effort.


At the end of the semester, I will ask you to work in groups to develop some kind of project that uses four of the course texts to answer some question about the human. You will present these informally in class on the last two days of class session. These can be a slide presentation, a game, a short play (ok, a dialog staged among group members)–it’s up to you. Presentations should end by posing one or two questions that are designed to spark class discussion.

I will assign you to groups sometime during the first half of the semester. Once groups are formed, I will ask for regular updates on the project throughout the semester.

I’m aware that group work poses challenges, and I know from my kids that you’ve been doing these since elementary school. But the truth is, much workplace deliverables are produced collaboratively, and I think it’s good to get you used to producing collaborative work. You need to figure out how to contribute, communicate, and otherwise work as a group. Part of your grade will come from your group members.

Presentations will be evaluated according to:

  • The effort you put into the project.
  • The degree to which your project engages course themes.
  • Your engagement with each of your four chosen texts.
  • The degree to which the presentation feels rehearsed and polished.
  • The thoughtfulness of your discussion questions.
  • The creativity of your project.


Monday, January 13


Wednesday, January 15

Read: "Greek Tragedy: An Overview" (67-71); Sophocles, Antigone 13-30

Look up any words you don’t understand in the glossary.

Reading questions for 13-30

  • What has happened before the play began?
  • How would you characterize Antigone’s viewpoint in her initial conversation with Ismene?
  • How would you describe Ismene’s viewpoint?
  • What decree has Creon issued? Do you think this decree is justified?

Slides Antigone Day 1 (may contain material not covered in class)

Friday, January 17

Sophocles, Antigone 30-50

  • Who is Haemon? Why does his opinion matter?
  • At this point in the play, who do you agree with, Antigone or Creon? Why?
  • Why do you think Creon issued his decree in the first place?

Slides Antigone Day 2 (may include material not covered in class)

Monday, January 20

Martin Luther King Day

Wednesday, January 22

Sophocles, Antigone 50-end

  • What does Tiresias tell Creon?
  • Why does he tell him this? What do you think of Antigone’s action? Why does she let herself be buried alive?

Friday, January 24

Sophocles, Antigone continued

Monday, January 27

Sophocles, Antigone continued

Response #1 in-class Link to grading rubric for responses.

Wednesday, January 29

William Shakespeare, The Tempest Act I

  • How would you describe the relationship between Prospero and Ariel?
  • How would you describe the relationship between Prospero and Caliban?

Friday, January 31

William Shakespeare, The Tempest Act II

Monday, February 3

William Shakespeare, The Tempest continued

Wednesday, February 5

William Shakespeare, The Tempest Act III

Friday, February 7

William Shakespeare, The Tempest Act IV

Monday, February 10 William Shakespeare, The Tempest Act V

Wednesday, February 12

Response #2 in-class Link to grading rubric for responses.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein introduction (no reading assigned)

Friday, February 14

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein Preface, letters, chapters I-V

Class held online

Details TBA

Monday, February 17 Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Chapters VI-end of Volume I

Class held online

Details TBA

Wednesday, February 19

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein Volume II, Chapters I-VI

Friday, February 21

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein Volume II, Chapters VII-end

Monday, February 24

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein continued

Wednesday, February 26 Mary Shelley, Frankenstein continued Response #3 in-class Link to grading rubric for responses. Paolo Bacigalupi “The Fluted Girl”

Friday, February 28

Paolo Bacigalupi “The Fluted Girl”

Monday, March 2 – Friday, March 6

Spring Break

Monday, March 9

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood Chapters 1-15

Wednesday, March 11

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood Chapters 16-28

Friday, March 13

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood continued

Monday, March 16

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood Chapters 29-42

Wednesday, March 18

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood "The Feast of Serpent Wisdom"-Chapter 48

Friday, March 20

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood continued

Monday, March 23

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood "Pollination day"-Chapter 60

Wednesday, March 25

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood Chapter 61-end

Friday, March 27

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood continued

Response #4 in-class Link to grading rubric for responses.

Monday, March 30

Richard Wright, "The Man Who Lived Underground"

Wednesday, April 1

Richard Wright, "The Man Who Lived Underground"

Friday, April 3

Richard Wright, "The Man Who Lived Underground"

Monday, April 6

Colson Whitehead, Zone One Friday

Wednesday, April 8

Colson Whitehead, Zone One continued

Friday, April 10

Colson Whitehead, Zone One Saturday

Monday, April 13

Colson Whitehead, Zone One continued

Wednesday, April 15

Colson Whitehead, Zone One Sunday

Friday, April 17

Colson Whitehead, Zone One continued

Response #5 in-class Link to grading rubric for responses.

Monday, April 20

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, “Friday Black,” “How to Sell a Jacket as Told by Iceking”

Wednesday, April 22

Defining the Human presentations

Friday, April 22

Defining the Human presentations II