Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2020-2021 (archived)

Module ENGL44830: The Ends of (Renaissance) Literature: From Power to Passion

Department: English Studies

ENGL44830: The Ends of (Renaissance) Literature: From Power to Passion

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Not available in 2020/21 Module Cap 20


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Excluded Combination of Modules

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  • To explore early modern authors understood the ‘ends’ (in the sense of purposes and uses) of reading and writing works of literature; to investigate how this understanding of the purposes of literature informed and shaped the formal, aesthetic, rhetorical, and generic qualities of their work.
  • To historicize the concepts of ‘literature’ and ‘literary studies’, tracing their Renaissance origins in related discourses and practices including rhetoric, philology, and scriptural hermeneutics; to explore the genealogical relation between Renaissance humanism and the modern humanities, and to connect Renaissance ideas about the uses of literature to twenty-first century debates regarding the value of the humanities.
  • To prompt critical reflection, guided by relevant philosophical and theoretical frameworks, on the notion that reading and writing literature are instrumental or purpose-driven activities. Key texts here will range from the classical (e.g. Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric) to the contemporary (e.g. Bourdieu on cultural capital; Alasdair MacIntyre’s essay on ‘The Ends of Life, the Ends of Philosophical Writing’ in The Tasks of Philosophy; Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities; Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature).
  • To consider (again guided by key critical readings) how ‘Literary Studies’ as a discipline has, from its earliest inception, been shaped by the exclusion of gendered, raced, and classed ‘others’, and on how it has been used as a tool to create and sustain structures of exclusion and oppression.


  • Why read, write, or study literature? And what is ‘literature’, anyway? Variations on these questions have been asked times throughout history, but they became particularly pressing in the Renaissance, when rapid and dramatic social, economic, religious, and political changes made defining the value of reading and writing literary works in the vernacular a matter of urgent concern. This module has two main foci. Firstly, it explores the Renaissance conception of literature as a means of intervening in the world and transforming the minds and lives of individual readers, connecting this tradition to the aesthetical, formal, and rhetorical features of specific works. Secondly, it investigates how Renaissance ideas about the value and uses of literature informed the development of ‘Literary Studies’ as a discipline in the late nineteenth, and across the course of the twentieth and twenty-first, centuries, and how debates about the uses (or conversely, uselessness) of the humanities today draw on or depart from Renaissance precedents. Each seminar will focus on a particular theme, juxtaposing works of Renaissance literature with modern critical and theoretical works. These may include, for example:
  • a seminar on ‘literature and/as political empowerment’, probing how Renaissance humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More, and Thomas Elyot presented rhetorical and literary-critical skills as a means of political enfranchisement, and juxtaposing selections from their work with Martha Nussbaum’s Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010) to interrogate the endurance – and the limitations – of this kind of argument;
  • a seminar on ‘reading and/as health’, exploring how authors including Thomas Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, presented reading and writing as a source of physical, mental and emotional healing, and investigating the therapeutic uses of reading in the twenty-first century (for example, the success of a program to provide books by prescription from the NHS);
  • a seminar on ‘poetry, pleasure, and seduction’, considering how rhetorical and literary skill has been framed or used (successfully or otherwise) as a means to further carnal ends, from Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella to Eve Sedgwick on the masturbatory quality of some literary forms;
  • a seminar on ‘literature, language, and exclusion’, considering how forms of literary skill and expertise can be used as tools of exclusion and domination, and taking Prospero and Miranda’s oppressive ‘education’ of Caliban in The Tempest as a starting point for contemplating the complicity of humanism and colonialism. A final seminar, ‘“Oh, reason not the need”: resisting ends’, will explore the history and plausibility of the idea that literature and the study of literature should be, precisely, purposeless.
  • A final seminar, ‘“Oh, reason not the need”: resisting ends’, will explore the history and plausibility of the idea that literature and the study of literature should be, precisely, purposeless.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • On completion of this module, students will possess:
  • Awareness of the historicity of ‘literature’ and ‘literary studies’, including the development of the canon, and the genealogical links between Renaissance humanism and the modern humanities;
  • Understanding of key works and concepts in the history of scholarship;
  • Awareness of how literary traditions and genres have been informed by, and reciprocally informed, literary-critical and philosophical ideas about the value and uses of literature.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Students studying this module will develop:
  • Advanced critical skills in the close reading and analysis of literary and historical texts;
  • 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 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:
  • Students studying this module will develop:
  • an advanced ability to analyze 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 organization and time-management skills.

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

  • Seminars encourage peer-group discussion, enable students to develop critical skills in the close reading and analysis of texts, and skills of effective communication and presentation; promote awareness of diversity of interpretation and methodology
  • Independent but directed reading in preparation for seminars provides opportunity for students to enrich subject-specific knowledge and enhances their ability to develop appropriate subject-specific skills.
  • 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 fornightly 2hours 18
Independent student research supervised by the Module Convenor 10
Preparation and Reading 272
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Assignment 1 3000 50%
Assignment 2 3000 50%

Formative Assessment:

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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