ENGL 355
Attention and Distraction Spring 2025
Division I

Class Details

Reverie, absorption, immersion, daydreaming: this class will be about the history, cultural forms, and affects of attention and distraction. We’ll occupy ourselves with a range of literary and visual works to get at the varied histories and states of attention from the past two centuries. The nineteenth century will be the locus of our investigations, and the realist novel–whose attention to the unnoticed and ordinary is one of its distinctive features, and whose size can lend itself as much to skimming as to intensive reading–will be of particular interest to us. But we’ll also read around in detective fiction, poetry, experimental novels about what happens when nothing happens, art history, Erving Goffman’s sociology of everyday life, and theoretical works on perception, attention, and reading. Oscillating between the nineteenth century’s anxieties about attention and distraction and more contemporary texts, we will take the measure of the long arc of what Jonathan Crary calls a state of 24/7 attentiveness, an “unremitting glare of monotonous stimulation.” Among our questions: Why does being deeply absorbed in an artwork or activity often feel a lot like zoning out, a drift into a state of distraction? Do artworks encourage, or discourage, certain forms of attention? What conditions–cultural, political, philosophical–made attention into a subject of concern over the past 200 years? Do certain literary forms encourage, or discourage, particular forms of attentiveness? Alongside our reading, we’ll engage in a variety of attentional exercises, and keep an attention journal to register and reflect on our own states of distraction, absorption, reverie, drift, etc.
The Class: Format: seminar
Limit: 25
Expected: 20
Class#: 3636
Grading: yes pass/fail option, yes fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: 3 papers, an attention journal, regular contributions to glow, and class participation
Prerequisites: English 100 level or Gateway Course
Enrollment Preferences: Preference will be given to English majors.
Distributions: Division I
Attributes: ENGL Criticism Courses
ENGL Literary Histories B

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