Foundations of American Literature I

Jul 2017

I took Foundations of American Literature with Andrew Delbanco (his last year teaching the course); Nick was my TA. Based on section, the other reviews of him seem harsh, although I don't know what his UW class is like. For American lit, Nick led discussions with a real interest in hearing what students had to say, and his comments on papers were extensive. His specialty is Melville, which was apparent during our classes on Moby Dick. By and large, class discussion was lively, if relatively unstructured, with students having some say on its direction. Essays were open-ended, so long as we found some "tension" in the text, something we could "contest." In other words, we were supposed to make an argument about the text, not simply observe or summarize. If you can figure out how to do that, you'll do well enough on his papers.

Aug 2013

I took this class in fall 2012 but haven't had a chance to add my two cents about the class until now. Delbanco is a pretty great lecturer with a great handle on the material and very interesting points. My only complaints are that (1) he doesn't follow the syllabus really -- by the end of the semester we were pretty behind on what we were reading for lecture, so sometimes lecture/discussion plans didn't match up exactly and some things we had to speed through and (2) I took the class in NoCo 501. Anyone who's ever taken a class there knows that it's almost impossible to stay awake every class. There's something about that classroom (the desks? the stuffiness? the heat?) that makes learning so much harder in there. I took another class there in the spring and it was the same deal. Avoid that room if you can!! The reading list is great, I think the course title is pretty accurate. There's a lot of variety, from Puritan sermons to Emily Dickinson to Moby Dick/Melville's short stories. I really enjoyed the later works especially (Melville is great and there's a lot to think about there, plus Delbanco is an expert). I'll agree with the reviewer that you get what you put into it -- you don't have to do all the reading (I didn't, but wish I had had the time to) or attend lecture (no attendance). You do have to sign up for a discussion section (attendance mandatory). I guess maybe I should have tried to get it with Delbanco but you just sign up for a time slot and I got Zach (Roberts). He was incredible -- a pretty laidback guy, very approachable, very knowledgeable, clearly invested in the class and the texts. I'm really glad I was in his section and I felt like I got a lot out of the 50 minute discussions because he was open to people's ideas and also tried to get our input on what we wanted to talk about. A decent grader and he left very insightful comments on papers. He was pretty flexible with paper topics -- there's one provided in the class syllabus for each paper but he let us explore whatever we were interested in in the text, and also he understood if we were a little behind on reading. I've heard that the other TAs were pretty good too, but obviously I'm biased toward thinking Zach was the best. All in all, I really enjoyed the class. The discussion section definitely made it for me -- I don't think I'd have liked the class half as much without it (or understood the text half as well).

Apr 2011

Delbanco is an amazing teacher with a great mind and a dry wit. He expresses the points and insights you should be getting from the readings clearly and with a passion that is contagious. His class is very much a 'get out of it what you put into it' one, as there are relatively few graded works and no midterm. That makes it approachable for majors and non-majors alike. Unfortunately, you must sign up for the discussion session in class, so you may not actually get him for the weekly session (which is where attendance is really taken). Even if you sign up on SSOL the sessions are redone the first week.

Sep 2009

Notice a pattern in CULPA reviews: the more admired the professor is by the world, the more likely a certain kind of intimidated student scents his being "full of himself". Gee, that's funny. Delbanco hasn't bothered to update his American Studies bio in 3 years. It lacks all his latest honors and publications. Among countless honors one notices: "In 2001, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and named by Time Magazine as "America's Best Social Critic." If he was in rock he'd be Billy Joe Armstrong. If he lacked self esteem he'd be nuts. If being around a star intimidates you, why did you come to Columbia? Go to CCNY, and save your parents' money. If you think anybody slightly more dignified than Carter at the Grammies is "pompous" or "Ivy" then leave the Ivy. Those sincerely interested in Delbanco's goals as teacher should read the deservedly famous NY Review of Books article: Written when English depts were drowning in decon, it says, "full-scale revival will come only when English professors recommit themselves to slaking the human craving for contact with works of art that somehow register one's own longings and yet exceed what one has been able to articulate by and for oneself. This is among the indispensable experiences of the fulfilled life, and the English department will survive—if on a smaller scale than before—only if it continues to coax and prod students toward it." If you want that kind of professor, here he is.

May 2007

Amazing! I loved this professor.She can convert whatver dumb comments you make into insightful observations on the fly.She helps you analyze books on your own.You will be amazed by her indepth lectures.

Dec 2006

Great, great class. Try to get Delbanco's section; I did not, and should have, although my TA was excellent. Delbanco is one of the best professors as a person at Columbia. He's a very straight shooter who does not deal in bullshit whatsoever. He challenges people to not be lazy thinkers, and challenges assumptions without being intimidating. The class is very good. A few of the early texts are somewhat dry but you can get a lot out of them if you do the readings, weekly assignments, and the lecture. A lot of the stuff later on is really fun. Lectures are easy to listen to and always valuable. Class deals with literature (including early sermons and pamphlets) in the context of its time and in later contexts; a lot is about how the text has been reinterpret and recontextualized, by critics, the public, and other authors. It is like Lit Hum in some ways but much more interesting, and challenging. Criticism: Delbanco gets a little bit too into close-reading Melville to the point where he doesn't get into as much background as with other authors and even devotes a lecture to a book you don't read in class (Moby Dick) but Melville is what he really lvoes so at least the lectures are passionate. There's a lot of reasons that people wouldn't want to take the class, but most of those reasons have to do with the person in question being a tool, so you should probably take this class if you're not a tool.

May 2005

This is a high school class with a high school reading list and a high school professor. Remember reading the Scarlet Letter in 9th grade? Don't expect this time around to be much more enlightening. Remember reading Billy Budd and Bartleby in 10th grade? The lectures now aren't much different. Thoreau, Dickinson, the list goes on, and all he really talks about is the theme of "individualism," which you can get just from reading the texts. Delbanco spends the first class on each book dancing around the issues, kind of talking about the writer, kind of talking about whatever he wants to talk about on that given day. Then when he actually gets to the book, he talks a little bit about plot, a little bit about the characters, and then he tells some cute personal anecdotes; however he never gets into anything interesting. He does place the works historically (especially the early Puritan stuff) which makes them more bearable, but that's about the extent of it. Don't get me wrong, he's a really sweet guy and I want to be his friend or something, but if you want to look at these texts on any level deeper than the obvious christ imagery and the "individualism" theme, don't take this class. Oh yeah, and he dedicates 2 entire class periods to lecturing on Moby Dick, even though its not on the reading list and is never assigned (not even parts of it). If you want a really enlightening professor, look into Bruce Robbins.

Aug 2004

Professor Delbanco is an incredible and dynamic speaker. Much of the class is historically-based, and Delbanco takes great care in drawing the class into the time period during which each text was written and explains the progression of literature from the Puritans to novelists of the 19th Century (particuluarly Melville, Delbanco's love). Some of the reading can be a bit dry, but Delbanco's lectures and the mandatory discussion sections led by TAs make them worthwhile--Delbanco shows that there is always something valuable in even the driest texts, if not in the writing itself, in the history behind it.

Jun 2004

Though I felt Roosevelt to be a kind, good-natured person, I disagree with the other reviews. I felt that his discussions were limited and that he lacked the ability to really delve into the literature. His knowledge of history on subjects such as transcedentalism was extensive, but during our discussions on the works themselves, he would agree with everything the students said and provide no specific, definite literary insight for himself. We never really tapped into the importance of these great American writings as works of literature. Also, his grading (especially on the midterm) seemed to be a bit arbitrary. I would not say avoid Roosevelt; however, I would not seek him out either.

May 2004

Nancy Sweet, though at first seems to truly be from her namesake, is a grade nazi. She was the only woman TA for professor Delbanco, and it seemed as though she has something to prove for suffrage. She lowballed every student she graded, giving them the most base grade she could. It does not matter how hard you work in the class, the only thing that matters to her is that you write like a professional writer. If it is anything less, expect a B tops. The class is amazing, however, so if you are considering taking it, TAKE IT!! Professor Delbanco is the most prolific speaker and when he reads texts, he can make you shiver. Just make sure that you don't have Nancy Sweet as your TA

Dec 2001

Take any course this man teaches. His analysis of texts is unparallelled. The syllabus has changed somewhat since last year; we did read the Scarlet Letter this year, though we didn't read Moby Dick, and we didn't have to read all 500 pages of Uncle Tom's Cabin, thank god (just excerpts). The Puritan stuff was sort of dry, but Delbanco's ability to relate them to everything else in the course and in contemporary life was really impressive; by the end of the semester I had totally bought his thesis that the Puritans had and continue to have a big effect on American culture. Every one of Delbanco's lectures was spectacular. Bravo.

Apr 2001

Professor Delbanco is hands down the most inspirational professor I've had here. During the course of your education at Columbia, it won't be a hard feat to come across a great professor, but to come across an inspirational one, now that's rare. Professor Delbanco's lectures were intelligent, thought-provoking, coherent, and raised a number of tough questions which had no easy answers and definitely left you thinking well after class was over. The Puritan material at the beginning of the semester was a little slow, but the later material was really enjoyable. Yeah, there was a great deal of reading and yeah, the mandatory discussion sections were boring and yeah, I was disappointed he didn't grade student work (TAs got that fun job), but overall, I had an excellent experience and recommend this class and Professor Delbanco with the utmost enthusiasm.

Apr 2001

If you are looking for an illuminating literary experience, take Prof. Delbanco's Foundations of American Literature I.