Course Syllabus: Undoing Adolescence (Adolescence in Literature)

Here’s my syllabus for Undoing Adolescence (Adolescence in Literature – ENGL 502), an upper-level course for advanced undergraduate students and graduate students focused on examining representations of growth, development, and adolescence in young adult texts and media (click here for link). It is currently being offered under the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. The course description is as follows:

Adolescence is a developmental period that is often approached as regulatory and assimilationist. In young adult novels, characters often struggle to leave behind childish dreams, behaviors, and attitudes in their quest to integrate into domains of adulthood that fetishize responsibility, productivity, and normativity. This course will problematize normative approaches to adolescence in two ways. During the first half of the course, we will examine realist novels that emphasize the emotional and political viability of adolescence—therefore troubling it as a developmental phase that should be temporary, escapable, and teleological. These texts will highlight the countercultural and queer potentiality of adolescence, especially through their celebration of notions such as malleability, fluidity, and rebellion against the status quo. During the second half of the course, we will examine speculative (sci-fi and fantasy) novels that pressure adolescence as a developmental category, in that they question who does or does not have the privilege to be an adolescent, and they dismantle normative approaches to growth and development.

When designing this course, I wanted to focus on more recent texts that explore some of the issues that contemporary teens and communities have been facing. I also wanted to include texts that addressed a wide-range of experiences and identities, in order to highlight how approaches to adolescence can be inflected and/or challenged by other domains of identity such as race, class, gender, and sexuality.

In addition to the goals stated on the syllabus, there are a couple of non-stated objectives that I have for this course. First and foremost, I want students to develop an appreciation for how much young adult literature has changed in recent years. Hopefully, they will notice that current young adult literature not only tackles issues that are more pressing and “controversial,” but it also a genre that is becoming more daring in terms of implementing postmodern and experimental literary techniques. I’m starting off the course with John Green’s Looking for Alaska, a text that includes many traditional and quintessential elements of young adult literature, so students can better appreciate what more recent literature is doing differently. After all, much has changed in the field since the publication of Green’s first novel. Additionally, I want students to develop some familiarity with theory and criticism that addresses matters of growth, adolescence, and queerness so they can better appreciate how young adult literature challenges normative approaches to adolescent development.

Some texts that I considered including in this course, but ultimately didn’t due to either time constraints or my focus on more contemporary texts include:

  • Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
  • Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap
  • John Corey Whaley’s Highly Illogical Behavior 
  • Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War
  • Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
  • Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion 
  • Neal Shusterman’s Unwind
  • Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street
  • Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun

As always, I appreciate any and all feedback! Have you taught a course focused on dismantling normative approaches to adolescence? What primary and secondary texts did you include in your course? What theme would you implement if you taught an upper-level course on young adult literature?

Just in case you missed the link above, you can access the syllabus for this course here.

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