Throughout most of Book X of the Republic," says Thomas Ferraro, associate professor of English, the character "Glaucon 'Yes mans' Socrates--except once, where he gets to say, 'So someone like you would think.' I'm delighted to see him totally calling out Socrates for not being involved in Socratic dialogue because he always asks leading questions." Although Plato's masterpiece is not assigned reading, its spirit of irony and doubt is what drives Ferraro's "Art of Suspicion" course. Students are encouraged to construct an intellectual persona by constantly challenging both the texts and Ferraro himself.
Ferraro says he has designed his class to come off as "something in between a religious liturgy and a Springsteen concert." Students will need this paradoxical mindset in a course that examines some of the most challenging shorter works in American literature. Authors range from Herman Melville to Ron Hansen. Students immerse themselves in books that not only adhere to what academe regards as "classic" but also appeal to an intellectually adventurous, modern readership. These are "very cool, very smart texts, and I think they reinstate the pleasure, the mystical, the aesthetic, the erotic in the business of paranoid suspicion itself," Ferraro says.
One of the goals of the course is to awaken students to the dialogue between text and reader. This awakening does not lead simply to understanding, but rather calls upon the student constantly to question the text. "I want to get readers from the point where they're not sure about what they've read to discovering that not being sure is what is being done unto them, that they are being as much read by the text, as they are reading the text," he says.
This entails not only discovering new works, but also re-examining American classics. For example, Ferraro plans to teach The Great Gatsby, a mainstay on high-school syllabi and AP tests. While other college professors may see Gatsby as an exhausted resource, Ferraro sees an opportunity to show students the infinite ways to read a text. "The students have to know that Gatsby is not only a spectacular voyeuristic text, but also an exhibitionist one. It turns out that it is as much Nick Carraway's narrative as it is Jay Gatsby's. He is as much looking for the gossip as he is receiving it."
In "The Art of Suspicion," students learn to become discerning writers, as well as sharp readers. "These kinds of works tend to be large enough to entertain and sustain and require contradiction, but also tight enough so that they really teach writing as well," Ferraro says. And while there are no formal academic prerequisites to enrolling in the course, Ferraro lists three requirements that do well to demonstrate the nature of the course: "curiosity, passion, and Èlan."
Willa Cather, A Lost Lady
Thomas Ferraro is an associate professor of English. This is the first time he has taught "The Art of Suspicion" to undergraduates. He is the author of Ethnic Passages: Literary Immigrants in Twentieth-Century America, the editor of Catholic Lives, Contemporary America, and a contributor to The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. His latest book, Feeling Italian: Tthe Art of Ethnicity in America, was published in April.