Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2020-2021 (archived)

Module ENGL43530: Modernism and Touch

Department: English Studies

ENGL43530: Modernism and Touch

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2020/21 Module Cap 20


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Excluded Combination of Modules

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  • Explore notions of touch drawn from a range of fields, including physiology, philosophy, film theory, art history, computing, and literary criticism.
  • Develop an effective language for the discussion of touch.
  • Investigate representations of tactile experience in a variety of texts of the early twentieth century, including those labelled ‘modernist.’
  • Situate those texts within a social, technological and scientific context which sees tactile experience transformed in the years c.1890-1940.
  • Consider the ways in which touch experiences, and the concept and sensation of one’s own skin, might affect one’s sense of selfhood/individuated identity.
  • Situate our own explorations within the contemporary fields of the medical humanities, and of sensory studies.
  • Develop confidence in close reading, in particular working on alertness to sensory experience within written work.
  • Work across forms of writing (novels, poetry, a film treatment, journalistic extracts, letters), identifying both common strategies and differing modes when these forms treat touch.
  • Pursue topics of personal intellectual interest, through contribution to and planning of seminar discussion, and through essay topic selection.


  • What does it mean to touch and be touched, to feel and be felt? With what organ, or set of faculties, do we achieve touch? Is it a physical or psychological experience? How might it shape our sense of self? This module seeks to explore these questions by looking at a range of literary texts from the period 1890-1945 – texts which demonstrate a fascination with tactile experience, over and above the simple description of the daily work of the human hands. Often including the work of Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Rebecca West and Virginia Woolf, the module places touch-focused novels, poems, stories and film treatments of the modernist years in their historical context. We’ll consider the ways that X-ray technology shifts our understanding of an impenetrable human skin containing a self; the experience of cinema spectatorship as a thrill to the skin as well as a visual feast; the re-working of Biblical instances of salving and transforming touch in early twentieth century writing; and Lawrence’s bold notion that the hand might have a mind of its own. Drawing on contemporary academic work in the medical humanities and in sensory studies, we’ll identify threads of attention to touch in modernist-era texts, and we’ll use these texts as a means of understanding the touch-transforming social and historical contexts out of which these writings emerge.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Philosophies of touch across a broad historical span, as they pertain to the period under discussion (c.1890-1940)
  • Related notions of the individuated self, particularly as they relate to the concept and experience of the human skin
  • Terminologies of touch, and the challenges that tactile experience presents to the writer
  • Social/historical change within the modernist years and its impact upon the human sensorium (looking in particular at technologies such as the X-ray, motorcar and cinema)
  • Literary traditions relating to touch and the tactile, including the reworking of Biblical tales, Victorian precursors, and horror stories of hands run amok, in the work of our modernist-era authors
  • Awareness of a broad range of touch-related texts, in various forms, from the period c. 1890-1940
Subject-specific Skills:
  • advanced critical skills in the close reading and analysis of literary texts;
  • an ability to demonstrate advanced knowledge of a chosen field of literary studies;
  • an ability to offer advanced analysis of formal and aesthetic dimensions of literature;
  • an ability to articulate and substantiate at a high level an imaginative response to literature;
  • an ability to demonstrate an advanced understanding of the cultural, intellectual, socio-political and linguistic contexts of literature;
  • an ability to articulate an advanced knowledge and understanding of conceptual or theoretical literary material;
  • an advanced command of a broad range of vocabulary and critical literary terminology.
Key Skills:
  • an advanced ability to analyse critically;
  • an advanced ability to acquire complex information of diverse kinds in structured and systematic ways;
  • an advanced ability to interpret complex information of diverse kinds through the distinctive skills derived from the subject;
  • expertise in conventions of scholarly presentation and bibliographical skills;
  • an independence of thought and judgement, and ability to assess acutely the critical ideas of others;
  • sophisticated skills in critical reasoning; an advanced ability to handle information and argument critically;
  • a competence in information-technology skills such as word-processing and electronic data access;
  • professional organisation and time-management skills.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Students are encouraged to develop advanced conceptual abilities and analytical skills as well as the ability to communicate an advanced knowledge and conceptual understanding within seminars; the capacity for advanced independent study is demonstrated through the completion of two assessed pieces of work.
  • Typically, directed learning may include assigning student(s) an issue, theme or topic that can be independently or collectively explored within a framework and/or with additional materials provided by the tutor. This may function as preparatory work for presenting their ideas or findings (sometimes electronically) to their peers and tutor in the context of a seminar.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 9 Fortnightly 2 hours 18
Independent student research (supervised by module convenor) 10
Preparation and Reading 272
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Summative essay 1 3000 words 40%
Summative essay 2 3000 words 60%

Formative Assessment:

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University