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Texture, Text, Touching, Feeling: HIV/AIDS Culture

Envisioned as Adaptable to WGS 365 (Lesbian/Gay/Queer Studies), WGS 385 (Special Topics), or another upper level undergraduate course


Course Description:

“She thought that some of the people wouldn’t want me blowing on the cake.”

- “Deb,” Photographed by Billy Howard


In this course, we will read texts produced in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic alongside viewings of other forms of visual rhetoric and media, centrally including the NAMES Project AIDS memorial quilt and the photographs of Billy Howard, recently featured in an exhibit at Emory University (see example above). We will analyze textual and visual rhetoric as well as the nature of “texture” in text and “text” in texture. This course will ask students to engage with a range of literary and other artistic responses to the HIV/ AIDS pandemic, explore and think critically about persistent HIV related stigma, participate in HIV/AIDS discourse and activism, understand the ongoing AIDS crisis and practices of memory, and develop arguments about “AIDS culture” via textual groundings in feminist, affect, and queer theories.


General Course Description:


Examining lesbian/gay/queer histories and cultures through the study of literature, film, archival sources, oral histories, and contemporary scholarship. Considers identity, representation, gender, race, class, community development, and political movements.

Course Goals and Outcomes:


You will:

  • Read a variety of texts pertaining to literature of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, developing skills in close reading, annotation, and synthesis.

  • Engage in a semester-long writing process, developing skills in summary, argument, comparison, research, citation, editing, and remixing.

  • Posit arguments for the textures of/in HIV/AIDS texts through engaging in collaborative class discussions and entering existing scholarly and popular conversations.

  • Develop skills in methods of presentation and leading classroom discussion.

  • Develop skills in digital humanities work, including digital archives and tools like Photoshop.

  • Think expansively about medical humanities and the rhetoric of illness as they specifically impact constructions of non-normative identities.


Course texts/readings to be selected from the following lists:

(to purchase, rent, or borrow. I recommend websites such as for used texts. I also recommend local new and used bookstores.)


Fiction, Drama, Graphic Novel:

  • Hervé Guibert, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1991 translation)

  • Allan Gurganus, Plays Well with Others (1996)

  • Michael Cunningham, The Hours (1998)

  • Tony Kushner, Angels in America (1993) or Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart (1985)

  • Andrew Holleran, select essays and The Beauty of Men (1996)

  • John Hersey, “Get Up, Sweet Slug-a-bed,” from Key West Tales (1993)

  • Tim Murphy, Christodora (2016),

  • The Hulk (1991) selection, character Jim Wilson


Nonfiction and Criticism:


Poetry Anthologies:

  • Poets for Life: Seventy-Six Poets Respond to AIDS, Michael Klein, editor (1989)

  • Things Shaped In Passing: More “Poets for Life” Writing from the AIDS Epidemic, Michael Klein and Richard McCann, editors (1997)


Viewings Throughout Semester:


  • Billy Howard, Photographs

  • Félix González-Torres, Last Light Installation

  • Common Tales: Stories from the Quilt (1990) and Paris is Burning (1990)

  • Philadelphia (1993)

  • RENT (2005)

  • We Were Here (2010)

  • How to Survive a Plague (2012)

  • Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (2016)

  • 120 Beats Per Minute (2017)


Assignment Overview:


Weekly Reading Journals and Discussion Introduction (10%)


Class Visit and Panel Presentations: The Names Project (15%)


Each student will either visit the physical Names Project, housed in a building in downtown Atlanta, visit another similar physical site in the community, or access the NAMES digital archive, select quilt panels or art objects that interest you, craft a descriptive essay, and present your findings to the class.


Volunteer Work with World AIDS Day (December 1) on Campus (5%)


ACT-UP, the AIDS activist organization, had a powerful message, “Silence = Death.” As such, we will “act up,” becoming amateur activists and volunteering our class time to assist with World AIDS day on campus. Your participation is required, but the nature of your participation will vary depending on comfort and accessibility. Some of us will engage in public readings of poems we have read in class. Others may assist in the laying of quilts on the quad or more behind-the-scenes work. You will then reflect on this experience in a brief (1-2 page) essay.


Digital Quilt-Making and Personal Narratives (10%)


In this technological assignment, we will utilize Adobe Photoshop, Tableau Public, and other digital tools in crafting fictional, digital quilts or “collages” of our own lives. As our viewings of the quilt will illustrate, each panel represents the important memories of a life. Some panels were crafted by the dying themselves, while others represent the memories loved-ones have of those they’ve lost to HIV/AIDS. Like your brief reflection on the volunteer experience, this assignment will ask you to reflect on your own past and knowledge. What types of memories have shaped your lives up to this point? What would a quilt of your life look like? Would you shape a quilt panel around a similar loss? Or would you craft it with different textures and layers of meaning?


“Touching-Feeling,” Texture-Text Papers (3 at 10% each)


During the semester, you will be required to write 3 argumentative essays of 4-5 pages in length. 1) At least one of these essays will require you to engage with one or more of the literary texts of the class. For this essay, you will produce a literary close reading of one or more of our course poems/novels/dramas that addresses both the form and content of the poem/novels/dramas as well as their rhetorical purpose and appeal. 2) At least one of these essays will require you to similarly engage with one of the course’s visual texts in either the form of a course film or another visual response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic (such as the AIDS Quilt or another visual arts exhibit). 3) For the final Textual-Text Paper, you will be given the opportunity to examine an HIV/AIDS text of your own choice. Making this choice will require you to engage critically with the question of “what is a text” and to be prepared to justify your choice of text. For this assignment, you may choose from a literary, filmic, artistic, musical, or other type of text that responds to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  


Final Synthesis Paper (30%)


Weaving all of the readings from the semester together, you will create a course “quilt” through writing a textual narrative of 7-8 pages.  This essay will require you to not only engage with the responses of individual artists, poets, and other writers but also to consider the artistic response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic as a kind of artistic genre.  In weaving together your own work this semester as well as the works of various artists, you will reflect on the history of the HIV/AIDS crisis and the art it produces as well as your own history and development in the course.


Course Policies:


  1. LATE WORK AND REVISION: All late work must be pre-approved by the instructor except in extenuating circumstances, i.e. a medical emergency.  Extensions will not be granted the day an assignment is due.  All late work is due the next class meeting after the original date posted in the syllabus unless otherwise stipulated by the instructor.  Late work will be deducted a letter grade for every day it is late unless otherwise specified by the instructor.  Unapproved late work will not be accepted.  However, during the semester, you are allowed to revise one assignment, with no guarantee for a higher grade, per the instructor’s approval. The lectures, class discussions, group work, or other daily class work or homework exercises cannot be reconstructed for a student who has been absent; therefore, daily work missed due to tardiness or absence (for any reason) cannot be made up.  Students may arrange to turn in major-grade work in advance or online only if allowed by your instructor.

  2. RESPECT: All students are expected to be respectful of others and their opinions and to act with decorum.  

  3. ATTENDANCE: Students are expected to attend class with thoughtful classroom participation. Please schedule appointments with the instructor(s) if you are concerned about your participation role.

  4. TARDINESS: Students are expected to come to class prepared with tasks completed, texts, homework, and pen in hand, ready to go on time and awake. If you arrive to class after roll has been taken (and I strongly advise you do not), it is your responsibility to approach the instructor and make your presence known.  Otherwise, you may automatically be counted absent.  If your presence is noted after arriving late, points will be deducted from your class participation grade. Such late arrivals disrupt class and prevent both the late student and his/her classmates from benefiting from the entire lecture/discussion.

  5. ELECTRONIC DEVICES: I strongly discourage the use of cellphones, even for texting, during class time.  If you are experiencing a special circumstance, the birth of your child, etc., that requires that you leave your phone on during class, please inform a teaching assistant or me before class begins.


Policy on Academic Misconduct

Emory University and the English Department take plagiarism cases and all academic misconduct very seriously.  The full Emory College Honor Code statement can be read here:



Writing Center

The Emory Writing Center is located in Callaway Center North 212.  The Writing Center provides a broad range of services related to writing, including thinking through writing assignments during the planning phase and advising regarding many aspects of writing, including brainstorming, organization, thesis, style, wording and revision.  The Center can also help you in your digital and multimodal texts.  The Writing Center is a wonderful resource for students, and I encourage you to take advantage of it.


Office of Disability Services

Emory University complies with the regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and offers accommodations to students with disabilities. If you are in need of a classroom accommodation, please make an appointment with me to discuss this as soon as possible. All information will be held in the strictest confidence.  Appropriate documentation from the Office of Disability Services is necessary for all accommodations.  You may contact ODS via telephone at (404-727-6016).


Emory Counseling Center

Free and confidential counseling services are available at the Emory Counseling Center.

(404) 727-7450,


Course Calendar and Tentative Reading Schedule:


*Note: all non-required texts/ readings will be available online.

*Note: Syllabus subject to change at instructor’s discretion, especially during the first weeks of the semester.


Week 1:


Th 08/27: Course Introduction / Michael Moon, “Memorial Rags.” Sedgwick, from Touching Feeling.


Week 2:


Tu 9/1: Sedgwick, from Tendencies. To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life

Th 9/3: To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life


Week 3:


Tu 9/8: To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life

Th 9/10: Common Tales: Stories from the Quilt


Week 4:


Tu 9/15: Common Tales: Stories from the Quilt

Th 9/17: Crimp, from Melancholia and Moralism. Angels in America.

Paper 1 Due.


Week 5:


Tu 9/22: Angels in America

Th 9/24: Angels in America


Week 6:


Tu 9/29: Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?”; Plays Well with Others

Th 10/1: Plays Well with Others


Week 7:


Tu 10/6: Plays Well with Others

Th 10/8: Poems. Paper 2 Due.


Week 8:


Tu 10/13: No Class. Fall Break.

Th 10/15: Poems. Cathy Cohen, from The Boundaries of Blackness.


Week 9:


Tu 10/20: The Hours 

Th 10/22: The Hours


Week 10:


Tu 10/27: The Hours

Th 10/29: Before Night Falls


Week 11:


Tu 11/3:  Before Night Falls

Th 11/5: “Mona”


Week 12:


Tu 11/10: Poems

Th 11/12: Poems. Paper 3 Due.


Week 13:


Tu 11/17: Workshop Day: Digital Quilt-making.

Th 11/19: How To Survive a Plague


Week 14:


Tu 11/24: How to Survive a Plague, “The Sin Stigma and Gay/ AIDS Volunteerism,” Philip M. Kayal. (From Bearing Witness, Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the Politics of AIDS)



Week 15:

Tu 12/1: World AIDS Day volunteer work.

Th 12/3: Begin Presentations.


            Week 16:


Tu 12/8: LAST DAY of CLASS. Finish Presentations.


Exam Period (12/9-/12/19): Final Papers are due no later than December 14, noon.

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