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Dana Nelson teaches a graduate English class as students sit around a table in the department library

Ph.D. Degree Requirements

Requirements for the Ph.D. in English

The Ph.D. is designed to be completed by a full-time student in five years. All students complete 72 credit hours for the degree: 52 hours of coursework and 20 hours of dissertation research. Students who participate in the CMAP joint degree program will take extra and separate coursework relevant to the degree path. The Department of English does not accept transfer credit for course work completed prior to enrollment at Vanderbilt University.

Note: the department does not typically offer a terminal M.A. degree; doctoral students earn an M.A. en route to the Ph.D. All students must complete requirements for the M.A. by the fall semester of their second year. In cases where an exception is warranted, the Graduate Studies Committee may decide to admit a qualified candidate to the two-year M.A. This course of study requires a full course load (52 credit hours), a master’s thesis, and full external funding.

  • Students complete 12 hours (or three courses) per semester while in coursework.
  • All students are required to enroll in ENGL 8110 (Proseminar) during their first term and in ENGL 8120 (Pedagogy Seminar) in the spring term of their third year.
  • Students may take up to three courses outside of the English Department. Further outside coursework is allowed with Graduate Studies Committee approval.
  • Students are required to pass a foreign language translation exam before sitting for the Written Comprehensive Examination at the end of their fifth semester. Tests are offered in September and January of each year.
  • Students take their comprehensive examinations in their third year. They consist of a written exam, a dissertation prospectus, and an oral exam. Approval of the final dissertation proposal marks entrance to doctoral candidacy.
  • All fourth year students are required to participate in Project Publish.
  • Students are expected to earn a minimum grade of B in all courses.
  • Students are required to complete RCRG 6308 Responsible Conduct of Research in the Humanities during their first year of coursework.

The English Department expects a dissertation to demonstrate breadth of familiarity with the scholarship in the field; a well-defined and sharply focused approach to a problem in that field; a high level of effectiveness in scholarly discussion; and clear potential for the candidate’s independent research in the field after graduate school. The Department considers the dissertation to be a book-length thesis (200-300 pages) of original, independent scholarship that seeks to make a key contribution to the life of the scholarly community in our fields and in the world. The Department does not accept dissertations in Creative Writing.

The Dissertation Committee: The Graduate School requires each student to form a Dissertation Committee. For most students, the dissertation committee is the same as the committee they use for their exams (dissertation chair, two additional ENGL faculty, and an outside reader).

The Dissertation Defense: Students are required to sit for an in-person defense of their dissertation during the late spring term or early summer term of their fifth year. The in-person requirement will be waived by the Graduate Studies Committee only if attendance would create significant hardship for the student. The Department will not usually schedule a dissertation defense with less than a month notice.

Ph.D. Courses

2020-2021 Course Offerings

ENGL 8120 Pedagogy

Dana Nelson - Hybrid Attendance

TR 10:00 - 11:15 AM

This is a learning-intensive workshop where you will plan your fall 2020 1000-level “W” class.  We will emphasize a learning-centered, student-oriented approach to teaching, and a revision-based approach to writing instruction.  You will learn how to plan your class holistically, to backward design from clearly defined learning goals.  You will design assignments from assessment models that connect organically and transparently to your learning goals for the class.  You will get ideas for interacting with and managing classroom affect to produce better learning for your students.  You will learn, in tandem with your observation of another course, to design and run fruitful class discussions with your student’s learning outcomes in mind.  You will learn to evaluate and comment productively on student papers.  You will finish with a fully designed class, with plans for each day, with discussion plans, forward and backward quizzes, writing and recall exercises, and other classroom activities. [4]


ENGL 8138 Seminar in Critical Theory and Methodology: Literature in Dark Times

Allison Schachter - Online Synchronous

R 12:10 - 3:00 PM

What does it mean to create literature in dark times? How do we know when we are living in such times? What does living mean and for whom? These are pressing concerns for our own historical moment. In this class we will examine how  writers register the rise of authoritarian regimes, the varieties of  state violence, and the breakdown of everyday life that ensues. We will read theoretical works written during and in the aftermath of the rise of fascism and totalitarianism in the first half of the century, including works by Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Svetlana Alexievich. We’ll consider experimental attempts to document state violence and its effects on everyday life in works like Charlotte Beradt’s Third Reich of Dreams and Victor Klemperer’s  Language of the Third Reich. Finally, we’ll read  twentieth and twenty-first century novels and memoirs that aim to represent this violence. We’ll trace how writers such as Octavia Butler, Colson Whitehead, China Mieville, Adania Shibli, and Valeria Luiselli,  navigate the complex boundaries between aesthetics and politics; representation and documentation; and realism and experimental form. [4]


ENGL 8351 Studies in 20th & 21st Century American Literatures: 21st Century American Climate Fiction

Teresa Goddu - Online Synchronous

M 12:10 - 3:00 PM

Climate fiction is a rapidly emerging genre within contemporary literature that addresses urgent environmental, social, psychological, political, affective, and ethical issues stemming from climate change through an imaginative lens. Named as “cli-fi” by the blogger Dan Bloom in 2008 and transformed into a cultural buzzword by the popular press, climate fiction has become over the last decade a focus of literary production, readerly interest, scholarly criticism, and academic teaching.

This course surveys contemporary American fiction that addresses the climate crisis. We will address two large questions: 1) how the climate crisis is provoking a new literature genre and 2) how fiction in turn shapes understandings of and responses to this crisis. Hence, we will focus on questions of genre (how new genres coalesce, especially within new media environments), motifs and methods (both thematic and formal), and literature’s value to the climate conversation. In short: how is climate fiction defined? what does it say? and why does it matter? 

Texts may include: Ben Lerner, 10:04; Cormac McCarthy, The Road; Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles; Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation; Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones; Lauren Groff, Florida; and others, including short stories, films, and critical works. Students will participate in weekly short exercises as we build our own sense of the genre (book reviews, motif library, etc.) and write a final seminar paper. Students will also have the opportunity to choose our final readings for the course. [4]


ENGL 8370 Studies in 18th Century British Literature: Radical Feelings: 1750 - 1850

Scott Juengel - Online Synchronous

W 12:10 - 3:00 PM

“The passions are what we could call monarchical states of being,” writes Philip Fisher in The Vehement Passions (2002), “Impassioned states seem to drive out every other form of attention or state of being.”  This seminar might be characterized as a short history of strong feeling (before, during, and after the revolutionary decades).  By focusing on a period defined by what James Chandler calls “hot chronologies”—a historical sense of accelerating eventfulness and periodizing condensation—we will explore the connections between political sentiment and (in)operative feeling in an age of world historical upheaval.  Beginning in the mid eighteenth century with the cult of sensibility and its pedagogies of exquisite feeling, the syllabus will reconsider how the subsequent history of revolution, reaction, emancipation, and rights discourse produced new modes of thinking about impassioned states and mass affect.  What new subjectivities can be felt in times of social unrest and governmental suppression?  Which emotions bind one to social collectivities, and which compel withdrawal?  How are outsized passions—e.g. terror, rage, guilt, shame, ecstasy, enthusiasm—at odds with moral sentiment and bourgeois propriety, and how might they translate into political action?  While the seminar will be transatlantic in its geopolitical coordinates and thus quickened by revolutionary campaigns and freedom movements in the U.S., France, and Haiti, the bulk of the primary materials will be British and American.  Primary texts might include selections from Hume, Adam Smith, Sterne, Sancho, Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine, Blake, Godwin, Hays, Radcliffe, Sansay, Baillie, Sedgwick, Wedderburn and others, likely ending with Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. [4]


ENGL 8410 Studies in Romantic & Victorian Literature: Science and Science Fiction in Nineteenth-Century Literature

Jay Clayton - Online Synchronous

T 12:10 - 3:00 PM

This course focuses on British and transatlantic writing during two moments in which both genre distinctions and disciplinary boundaries between science and literature were being recast in decisive ways—one in the decades just prior to the Victorian age, when science and technology were very much a part of the larger culture, not a separate sphere reserved for specialists; the other at the fin de siècle, when “racial science,” eugenics, and imperialism were closely intertwined. In each period, we will read foundational works of scientific culture alongside British and American popular fiction, which powerfully shaped public attitudes toward science and society. We will also read some neo-Victorian fiction from the late-twentieth century to explore how alternative history can revise our understanding of the past.

The course begins by contrasting two iconic works of SF and realism published in the same year—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818)—then turns to the 1830s, the crucible in which scientific disciplines were being forged, to read fantastic exploration narratives: Poe’s “Ms. Found in a Bottle” (1833) and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), and Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle (1839).

We then fast-forward to the second half of the century when disciplinarity was more securely established and mass market fiction was similarly being cordoned off from serious literature, developments that I argue are closely related. Texts will be drawn from utopias such as Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890); SF and horror stories such as Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897); H. Ryder Haggard’s imperial romance, She (1887) and Pauline Hopkins’s inversion of colonial romance, Of One Blood (1903); two early examples of black science fiction, Martin Delany’s Blake; or The Huts of America (1859-62) and M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901); and early SF from India, Jagadish Chandra Bose’s “Runaway Cyclone” (1896) and Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein’s “Sultana’s Dream” (1905). Neo-Victorian fiction will include Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), stories by Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016)[4]


ENGL 8110 Proseminar

Candice Amich

R 12:00  – 3:00 PM

The proseminar provides an introduction to English graduate studies through attention to both
practical and theoretical issues. We will preview the arc of progress through the PhD program,
from the art of the seminar paper to developing a dissertation project. Special attention will be
paid to developing the writing skills necessary for professional success; we will draft and
exchange conference abstracts, conference papers, and book reviews. We will also examine
the stages through which an essay, that begins as a conference or seminar paper, may move
toward publication. Together we will read a host of theoretical and critical essays that cover
established and emerging approaches across historical periods, geographic areas, and


ENGL 8138 Critical Theory: Race and (Dis)Possession

Alex Dubilet & Ben Tran 

W 3:10 – 6:00 PM

How do we theorize the relation between race and the operations of possession and
dispossession in modernity? What is the role and significance of capitalism and modern regimes
of property to the processes of racialization? What theoretical tools are necessary for
understanding the nexus and legacy of possession and dispossession that emerge from the
discovery of the New World and subsequent settler colonialism? How do we think of possession
and dispossession in slavery and its afterlives? This graduate seminar will explore these and related
questions from multiple theoretical angles and through various historical and geographic sites. By
engaging with diverse scholarship across Marxism, critical theory, literary studies, black studies,
and settler colonial critique, this seminar will introduce students to some of the most significant
concepts of modern theoretical discourse, useful for research across different time periods,
genres, and subdisciplines.

Possible authors will include (in part, with the input of the participants): Karl Marx,
W.E.B. Dubois, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Sylvia Wynter, Cheryl Harris,
Moishe Postone, Patrick Wolfe, Silvia Federici, Saidiya Hartman, Glen Coulthard, Brenna
Bhandar, Frank B. Wilderson III, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. In exploring such topics as
primitive accumulation, the struggle for the commons, colonial modernity and decolonial
imaginaries, and the realities of and resistances to slavery and its afterlife, the seminar will explore
key theoretical perspectives in the critical humanities, unpack the concepts entailed by them, and
trace the requisite historical frameworks informing them. Throughout, we will ask after the
different ways race has been theorized in relation to and in ambit of liberal capitalist modernity.


ENGL 8351 Studies in 20th & 21st Century American Literatures: Diaspora, Poetics, and Empire

Anthony Reed

M 3:10 – 6:00 PM

Focusing on key texts of the twentieth century, and emphasizing the contemporary, this course will track black responses to empire, its dissolution, and the limits of sovereignty alongside shifting understandings of race. Abiding questions include the relationship of literature to its context, alongside the interrelated temporal contours of literary form and the rhetoric of progress in literary and theoretical texts.

We’ll consider Négritude, 20th century pan-Africanisms, and various configurations of black nationalism and internationalism. I’ll arrange it so that it provides good field coverage, and lets me get a rolling start to my next project.

WGS 8305 Sexual Politics: Theory & Practice

Kathryn Schwarz

R 3:30 - 6:30 PM

What is the relationship between theory and practice? This is not a new question; still, as I write a course description in the midst of a global pandemic, it strikes me with new force. We invest much time and energy in the paradigms that comprise a vocabulary of sexual politics: theories of gender and sexuality, of discipline and ideology, of taxonomy and intersectionality, of separatism, interdependence, coalition, and community, of vulnerability, relationality, oppression, and resistance. What exactly is the return on these investments? At what points do theory and practice meet, not only to enhance intellectual understanding, but also to create conditions for effective action? How might theoretical insights facilitate the pursuit of social justice? Throughout the semester, we will engage thinkers who interweave experience and abstraction: feminists of color; queer activists; radical separatists; advocates for interrelation and coalition; cultural theorists in the arenas of law, medicine, policy, and history; writers of manifestoes on a range of urgent issues. We will also bring our own insights and experiences into conversation with one another. And we will approach ‘theory’ not only on its terms but on ours, with a degree of enthusiasm, a measure of skepticism, and at least a flicker of hope.  


FREN 7060: Literary Theory

Paul Miller

W 3:10 - 5:30 PM

In this course we will study an eclectic group of texts that were all seminal contributions to a phenomenon in literary studies called literary theory or, more commonly, “theory.”   Many of the theoreticians who impacted literary studies in the United States were French (Derrida, Foucault, Blanchot, Lacan, Barthes, Bataille, Lyotard, Baudrillard, et. al.) but it is also important to take into account that these thinkers influenced and were themselves influenced by other theoretical and philosophical currents, such as the Frankfurt School and continental philosophy in general, not to mention even more recent trends such as postmodernity and post-colonial critiques.   All of this theoretical and self-reflective intellectual production has deeply impacted how we think about culture at large as well as the ways we conceive of canon formation, the value of the humanities and a humanistic curriculum in the modern university.   The humanities are perpetually “in crisis” but to what extent has theory itself also contributed to the particularly acute current crisis?

Rather than attempting an exhaustive overview or history of theory in general (an impossible undertaking) we will address a select few questions and approaches while leaving the possibility for the student to branch out in other areas not covered or only briefly touched upon (psychoanalysis or postmodernism for example) for the final research paper.  Students are encouraged to use the texts in the syllabus as a springboard for exploring other theoretical currents.

Another objective of the course is to familiarize students with current theoretical trends in major journals.   Part of the course requirements will be to familiarize yourself with these journals and to present and dialogue with an essay from one of them. 

General Course Information

See below for general information about Ph.D. courses, including timing for specific courses and common topics for seminars.

Students are required to take this course during their first term in the Ph.D. program.

Students are required to take this course during the spring term of their third year in the Ph.D. Program. Learning-intensive workshop where students design and plan the courses they will teach in subsequent semesters. Students will be introduced to a learning-centered, student-oriented approach to teaching, a revision-based approach to writing instruction, and a holistic strategy for course design.

May be repeated for credit more than once if there is no duplication in topic.

Topics include gender and sexuality studies, critical race studies, visuality and/or spectrality, postcolonial studies, disability studies, archival research and editorial practices, digital and public humanities, and environmental humanities. May be repeated for credit more than once if there is no duplication in topic.

Previous Topics:

  • F2012: Shakespeare & Theory (Lynn Enterline)
  • F2013: Things (Jonathan Lamb)
  • F2016: Narrative/Theory (Kathryn Schwarz)
  • S2018: Postcolonial Theory (Ben Tran)
  • S2019: Capitalism & Racialization (Alex Dubilet & Ben Tran)
  • F2020: Race and (Dis)Possession (Alex Dubilet & Ben Tran)
  • S2021: Literature in Dark Times (Allison Schachter)

May be repeated for credit more than once if there is no duplication in topic.

Topics include modernisms, African American, Asian American, Latino/a, and Caribbean American literatures. May be repeated for credit more than once if there is no duplication in topic.

Previous Topics:

  • F2017: Renaissance Lyric (Jessie Hock)
  • S2019: Subject to Sexuality in the Early Modern Period (Lynn Enterline)
  • F2019: Firing the Canon (Jessie Hock)

Topics include modernisms, African American, Asian American, Latino/a, and Caribbean American literatures. May be repeated for credit more than once if there is no duplication in topic.

Previous Topics:

  • F2010: James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, & Langston Hughes (Vera Kutzinski)
  • S2011: The Troika Plus One (Hortense Spillers)
  • S2012: Subjectivity & Suppression in African American and Caribbean Autobiography (Ifeoma Nwankwo)
  • F2013: American Classics & their Afterlives (Cecelia Tichi)
  • F2016: Performance & Precarity in the Neoliberal Americas (Candice Amich)
  • F2016: African American Poetry & Poetics, 1950s to the Present (Vera Kutzinski)
  • S2018: The Idea of Black Cultures (Hortense Spillers)
  • S2018: 20th Century American Political Fictions (Cecelia Tichi)
  • S2019: African American Poetry (Vera Kutzinski)
  • F2019: Narratives of Black Love & Kinship (Emily Lordi)
  • S2020: Diaspora, Poetics, & Empire (Anthony Reed)
  • S2021: 21st Century American Climate Fiction (Teresa Goddu)

May be repeated for credit more than once if there is no duplication in topic.

Previous Topics:

  • F2015: The Enlightenment & Its Literary Connections (Scott Juengel)
  • F2015: Fiction & Fictionality (Jonathan Lamb)
  • F2017: Experiments in Narrative in the Long 18th Century (Jonathan Lamb)
  • S2018: Performing Persons & Places in the Long 18th Century (Bridget Orr)
  • F2018: Satire, Roman, Novel 1600-1800 (Jonathan Lamb)
  • F2019: The Book of Worlds (Scott Juengel)
  • S2021: Radical Feelings 1750 - 1850 (Scott Juengel)

May be repeated for credit more than once if there is no duplication in topic.

Previous Topics:

  • S2014: Law, Narrative & Romantic Literature (Mark Schoenfield)
  • S2017: Race, Embodiment, and the Victorian Imagination (Rachel Teukolsky)
  • F2017: Science Fiction in 19th Century Literature (Jay Clayton)
  • F2018: Law, Theatricality & Romantic Literature (Mark Schoenfield)
  • S2020: New Approaches to 19th-Century Studies (Rachel Teukolsky)
  • S2021: Science and Science Fiction in 19th Century Literature (Jay Clayton)

Topics include British and Anglo-Irish modernisms, Black British writers.  May be repeated for credit more than once if there is no duplication in topic.

Previous Topics:

  • S2015: Framing Modernism in the 20th & 21st Centuries (Mark Wollaeger)

Topics include classical or ancient legacies; hemispheric American literatures, Caribbean literatures in different languages; translation studies; studies of literary genres and forms; global modernisms; transatlantic and transpacific studies.  May be repeated for credit more than once if there is no duplication in topic.

Previous Topics:

  • F2014: Caribbean Fiction & Poetry (Vera Kutzinski)
  • S2016: Secularism & Minority Culture (Allison Schachter)
  • S2016: Colonial Modernity (Ben Tran)
  • S2017: Countering Colorblindness Across the Disciplines (Marzia Milazzo)
  • F2017: Idioms of Servility (Colin Dayan)
  • F2018: Theories of the Vernacular (Akshya Saxena)

Topics in global colonial and global postcolonial Anglophone literatures, including Asian, African, and Caribbean writers; global modernisms. May be repeated for credit more than once if there is no duplication in topic.

Previous Topics:

  • S2013: Atlantic & Hemispheric Studies (Vera Kutzinski)

Topics include new models of science and the humanities; modes of reality and representation in the age of cyberculture; American literature and the cinema; early cinema (1893-1920). May be repeated for credit more than once if there is no duplication in topic.

Previous Topics:

  • F2011: The Distracted Subject of Cinema (Jennifer Fay)
  • S2015: Technoscience to Nanoculture (Jay Clayton)
  • S2015: Modes of Reality & Representation in the Age of Cyberculture (Helen Shin)
  • F2016: On Sincerity & the Media of Appearance (Jennifer Fay)
  • S2019: Media Studies (Helen Shin)
  • F2019: Archives & End Times (Jennifer Fay)

May be repeated for credit more than once if there is no duplication in topic.

Previous Topics:

  • S2012: Herman Melville (Colin Dayan)
  • S2014: Early African American Print Culture (Teresa Goddu)
  • F2014: The Long Poem (Colin Dayan)
  • F2018: Rituals of Belief & Practices of Law in the Americas (Colin Dayan)