Reading The World (RTW): Identities Syllabus

Engl 155 Reading The World (RTW): Identities
Home and Belonging

Dr. Bruce Mills
Office: 208 Humphrey House
Office Hours (in-person or virtual):
1:15-2:15 M, 3-4 TTh, and by appointment

Reading The World (RTW): Identities
Home and Belonging

In How Our Lives Become Stories, Paul John Eakin calls out the fact that autobiographical acts are the unending process of making a self. “Self and self-experience,” he asserts, “are not given, monolithic, and invariant, but dynamic, changing, and plural.” For writers, then, individual and collective identity is not a given, a set of memories to be recorded, but experiences to be shaped into a story. Though negotiating cultural scripts regarding the self, the communal, and the nonhuman, the act of life writing can be read as a naming of the self as well as a re-imagining of place, home, and belonging.

During the term, we will consider the themes of home and belonging as one way to center our reflections on literary self-construction. Doing so will open up a range of questions. What stories do the authors tell about home and belonging? For those immigrating to a new place, for instance, how might their stories reflect efforts to navigate a past home with a present one, perhaps forming a kind of “in-between” perspective and a hybrid sense of self? For some, how might home speak of a collective character, one rooted in a shared land and a history of human and nonhuman presence upon it? And there are other questions. In what ways might stories address not belonging, i.e., the dislocations (outward and inward) that come of striving to understand multiple identities (racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, neurodiverse, and/or disabled)? And, in trying to write this life, what if you can find no literary models for your experience? Finally, as embodied selves, memoir may encompass efforts to narrate a sense of self, home, and belonging amid disability (physical and cognitive). How might physical spaces (or assumptions regarding mind and mental health) impact the potential to find a home, be at home, and thus feel a sense of belonging?

While these questions call us to use the tools of literary analysis, they remind us of another truth of self-naming: authorship is also a political act. It is representation and argument. It is an invitation to imagine new possibilities. We might call this authorship, then, the politics of home space. Writers shape who they are amid difference—in how they understand self, community, history, and of the relationship between the human and nonhuman world of which they are a part (and not apart from). As readers, how might we leave the course with tools to create a more expansive sense of home and belonging?

Texts (In order of Discussion)

Bich Minh Nguyen, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner (2007)

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1955)

Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces (1985)

N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969)

J. Drew Lanham, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (2016)

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006)

Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House (2019)

About Us: Essays from the Disability Series of the New York Times, ed. Peter Catapano and  Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2019)

Goals (RTW)

In the English Department, the 100-level “Reading the World” courses introduce students to the study of literature. They aim to improve the following skills central to the English major and to a liberal education:

  • Critical reading: the ability to read for pattern, connections, structure, subtext, theme, image, metaphor.
  • Critical discussion: the ability to take part in a thoughtful, provocative discussion of a text through pertinent questions/comments and thus help enlarge a collective understanding.
  • Critical writing: the ability to construct an argument with a thesis, to build that argument from textual evidence, and to write clearly and persuasively.
  • Critical thinking:  the ability to apply these skills to the world itself, approaching it as a text (hence “Reading the World”) open to interpretation by the informed “reader”; the habit of exploring links between text and context—that is, between course material and the historical, social, political, cultural, and material worlds that produced it.

Learning outcomes (Identities)

This particular course has important goals of its own.  The class aims to:

  • Learn to read life writing as more than an unmediated retelling of remembered experiences,
  • Explore the concepts of home and belonging in relation to memoir,
  • Consider how notions of self are shaped within historical and cultural contexts, 
  • Examine how life writing may reinforce and/or contest dominant cultural stories, and
  • Explore a range of life narratives through the lens of our own mediated identities.

Course Work and Grading

45Focus Papers
(3 @ 15 pts each)
These papers will call for an analysis of specific patterns in one of the assigned texts. Papers should be 3-4 pages in length. Due dates: by midnight on Monday, September 26 (third week); Friday, October 14 (fifth week); and Monday, October 31 (eighth week).
20Final EssayThis essay will ask you to consider a theme or concept in relation to two books (or essays from different authors). Due by midnight on Friday, November 18 (tenth week).
25Moodle ForumsDuring the term, you will need to respond to weekly forum prompts. These writings will set up and inform discussion when we meet in class. After week 5, I will offer feedback and a midterm grade (5 forum posts=A, 4 = B, 3 = C, 2 = D). At the end of the term, I will offer a final score based on number and quality of posts: 9-10 = A/A- (22.5-25 pts), 7-8 = B+/B/B- (20-22.75 pts), 5-6 = C+/C/C- (17.5-19.75), 3-4 = D (16.25), below 3 = F.
10ParticipationAt the end of the quarter, I will also assess your contributions to small and large group discussion.
Letter GradeNumerical Grade
C-70-72.75 and so forth

I reserve the right to raise grades one third for any combination of the following: consistently constructive participation, consistently high level of preparation, and constructive leadership in group activities. 


Participation and Attendance

Though I will offer lecture material, this is primarily a discussion class. Your willingness to speak up, listen closely to each other, provide thoughtful responses, and raise constructive questions fosters the type of learning community that is ideal for this course. This is a way of saying that we jointly create a knowledge from shared readings and experiences. If you are going to be absent and know ahead of time (athletics, religious observance, etc.), please let me know in advance. If you begin to consistently miss class and/or arrive late, I will contact you (through email) to check in to see how you are doing. While I will reach out and seek ways to provide support, it is important to understand that, at a certain point, excessive absences (five or more) will jeopardize your ability to pass this class.

Moodle Forums

In addition to your contribution to small and large group discussion, your participation in Moodle forums will further represent an engagement with the readings and each other. In short, these responses will generate a deeper (and shared) knowledge. Keep in mind that for these reflections to help you prepare for (and set up) our discussions they need to be submitted on time, i.e., before not after the class session when we will be considering the reading. 


Unless I have revised due dates during the term or you have been in touch to request an extension, written work should be turned in electronically (email attachment) by midnight (EST) on the dates assigned. You may request an extension as long as you do so two days in advance of the deadline. Note: Though I set up these guidelines, I still wish to offer some flexibility when specific circumstances warrant more adjustment to due dates. So, if you face unexpected (and unsettling) obstacles to meeting deadlines, please let me know, and we will work out another turn-in schedule. (You need not disclose private/confidential information.) Like you, by the way, I will be dealing with a range of personal and academic commitments, so please avoid ghosting me (J). All work must be completed to pass the class.


If you need to use a laptop or smart phone to access class readings and/or to take notes, let me know at the beginning of the course (and/or class). Otherwise, all computers and phones should be left in your backpack. So, though it may be difficult, our classroom space will be a “no phone zone”–unless you use a smart phone to access assigned readings or have other family or medical reasons to have it with you.

Academic Dishonesty

This course operates under the College Honor System. That means: we treat each other with respect, we nurture independent thought, we take responsibility for personal behavior, and we accept environmental responsibility. Academic honesty is a critical part of the Honor System. When you borrow an idea, you should acknowledge the source in a note, or, depending on the needs of the essay and research, put the exact words of the source in quotation marks and also provide an endnote. If you are ever in doubt about what to do, please talk with me. For more information, see K’s policy. Improper use of another source (or plagiarism) may result in failure for the particular assignment or, if especially egregious, failure for the course. More than one instance of plagiarism may also result in suspension from the College. I will notify the Office of Student Development concerning instances of plagiarism. For a useful source, see the Purdue OWL plagiarism overview.


If you are a student with a disability who seeks accommodation or other assistance in this course, please let me know as soon as possible. I am committed to making every effort to providing reasonable accommodations. If you want to discuss your overall needs for accommodation at the College and receive formal accommodations, please direct questions to Dana Jansma, Senior Associate Dean of Students, at (269) 337-7209 or through email at For more information, see K’s disability services. This website also contains resources for assistive technologies and neurodivergent students. 

Learning Commons

Center, and Center for New Media Design are on the first floor of Upjohn Library. Our English as a Second Language and Learning Specialist support programs are located there as well. The Math-Physics Center is in Olds Upton Hall. I encourage you to use their resources and peer consultants. The Peer Writing Consultants in the Writing Center, for instance, can provide another audience with whom you can think through your choices in relation to an assignment. You can find more information about each of these centers at the Learning Commons site.

Humanities Integrated Locational Learning (HILL) Grant

In January, Kalamazoo College received a three-year Mellon grant. (For information about the grant, see the HILL project announcement.) Entitled Humanities Integrated Locational Learning (HILL), this initiative examines how many problems of our time—such as climate change, global migrations, and mass incarceration—can be analyzed through the lens of location and dislocation. To develop a deeper knowledge of these disruptions (physical, psychological, social, linguistic, and more) with the aim of generating the potential for change, HILL supports the formation of class clusters linked to specific places within and beyond Kalamazoo

Our class is part of the Kalamazoo cluster that explores dimensions of home and belonging. In the spirit of the grant, courses partner with Kalamazoo community organizations/members and with each other. The collaboration includes SEMN 132 – Radical Belonging, SEMN 163 – About Us: Disability Stories/ Disability Rights, SEMN 182 – Wheels of Change, CES 240 (Critical Ethnic Studies) – Language: The Colonial and Imperial Difference, and SEMN 495 – Finding a Home in the World. Instructors for each course will communicate how and when they will collaborate throughout the term.

When considering the effects of location and dislocation, we understand that these concepts impact students who, for any number of reasons, may feel displaced or out of place on a college campus. The project, then, seeks to construct a sense of home on and off campus. By erasing the distinction between the classroom and “real world,” we seek to embrace how ways of learning within the humanities can facilitate a space to think about and create collective futures. 

Reading Schedule

You should read the selections and be prepared to discuss them on the assigned dates.  If you have missed a class, it is your responsibility to contact a classmate or me to see if you need to pick up any handouts.


Week 1: Introductions



Discussion: Home and Belonging


Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability” (View prior to class)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story” (View prior to class)


Bich Minh Nguyen, “Pringles,” Stealing Buddha’s Dinner (1-15)

James Baldwin, “Autobiographical Notes,” Notes of a Native Son (3-9)

N. Scott Momaday, “Preface” (ix-x) and “Prologue” (1-2)

In America: Family, Heritage, and History

Week 2: Bich Minh Nguyen, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner


Chaps. 2-7 (17-93)


Chaps. 8-13 (95-196)


Chaps. 14-Author’s Note (197-256)

Week 3: James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Assignment Due)

Week 3 Items Due

Focus Paper 1 Due 9/26 by Midnight


From Part I

“Everyone’s Protest Novel” (13-23)

“Many Thousand Gone” (25-45)


From Part II

“Notes of a Native Son” (87-115)


From Part III

“Equal in Paris” (141-161)

“Stranger in the Village” (163-179)

On Home Land

Week 4: Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces and…


Preface-“Other Lives” (ix-48)


“About Men”-“Just Married” (49-90)


“Rules of the Game: Rodeo”-“A Storm, the Cornfield, and Elk” (91-131)

N. Scott Momaday, “Introduction,” The Way to Rainy Mountain (3-11)

Week 5: N. Scott Momaday, The Way to rainy Mountain (Assignment Due)

Week 5 Items Due

Focus Paper 2 Due 10/14 by Midnight


“The Setting Out,” “The Going On” (3-63)


“The Closing In-Epilogue” (65-89)



Week 6: J. Drew Lanham, The Home Place


“Me: An Introduction” and Section One “Flock” (3-96)


Section Two: “Fledgling” (97-132)


Section Three: “Flight” (133-212)

On Writing toward a New Home

Week 7: Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (Assignment Due)

Week 7 Items Due

Revision of Focus Paper 1 or 2 Due 10/28 (Optional)


Chaps. 1-3 (3-86)


Chaps. 4-5 (87-150)


Chaps. 6-7 (151-232)

Week 8 Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House (Assignment Due)

Week 8 Items Due

Focus Paper 3 Due 10/31 by Midnight


Dream House as Overture” – “Dream House as Appetite” (3-81)


Dream House as Inner Sanctum” – “Dream House as Mystical Pregnancy” (82-161)


Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure®” – ““Dream House as Epilogue” (162-242)

On Body, Mind, and Belonging

Week 9: About US: Essays from the Disability Series of the New York Times


Andrew Solomon, “Foreword” (ix-xvii)

Peter Catapano, “Preface” (xix-xxii)

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Introduction” (xxiii-xxxiii) and “Becoming Disabled” (3-8)


Jonathan Mooney, “You Are Special! Now Stop Being Different” (31-34)

John Altman, “I Don’t Want to Be ‘Inspiring’” (45-49)

Rachel Kolb, “The Deaf Body in a Public Space” (About Us 46-49)

Brad Snyder, “How to Really See a Blind Person” (64-67)

Cyndi Jones, “What It Means to Be Healed” (76-78)


Film Discussion: Crip Camp

Week 10: About US: Essays from the Disability Series of the New York Times (Assignment Due)

Week 10 Items Due

Final Essay Due 11/18 by Midnight




Abby Wilkerson, “Should I Tell Students I Have Depression?” (113-117)

Emily Rapp Black, “My Paralympics Blues” (172-175)

Elizabeth Jameson and Catherine Monahon, “Intimacy Without Touch” (206-11)

Alice Sheppard, “I Dance Because I Can” (266-270)



Course Evaluations