Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

City, Space, Literature


What is the history of cafe culture in Zagreb? How walkable is Bloomington? What’s the social significance of doormen in New York City? How do the airports in Accra, London, and Hanoi impact urban spatial morphology? And how do city details such as these facilitate or impede social relations?

This seminar presents a tour of various cities and perspectives through literature and film as a way of thinking about space, representation, cosmopolitanism, and the urban experience across time and geography. These ideas will be explored through films such as The Bourne Identity, Matrix Reloaded, and  Black Panther as well as in the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle, Walter Mosley, Virginia Woolf, Naguib Mahfouz, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, James Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, and various others.  

We will raise questions such as: How does 1940s and 1950s Los Angeles, and Watts specifically, shape Easy Rawlins' experiences as an African-American detective in Walter Moseley's detective novels and how does that compare to Sherlock Holmes' experiences of 1890s London? What does Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby  tell us about Jazz Age New York and how might we contrast this with Chinese migration to San Francisco and the West Coast during the same period? Why does Usain Bolt run differently than Jason Bourne in the Bourne films? In what ways does the practice of parkour tell us something about the design of cities as a series of impediments that need to be overcome?

We will explore cities and the films and novels that represent them as a way to illuminate the cities we are all familiar with, and in your own life experience. There will be a combination of in-class discussions and observational vignettes from Stanford, Palo Alto,  and San Francisco, as well as the discussion of spatial concepts such as chronotopes, heterotopias, and spatial traversal, among others. The written assignments for this seminar will be structured to give students incremental skills in critically describing the fictional places you are exposed to in literary texts and then apply them to an exploration of the cities that resonate with you. The final project asks you to align spatial concepts learned in class to an interdisciplinary project of your own choice that draws on your own personal experience of cities.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Ato Quayson

"I joined Stanford's Department of English in the fall of 2019. I did my Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge and had my first job as a Research Fellow at Wolfson College at Oxford University before returning to Cambridge to become a Reader in the Faculty of English, Director of the Centre for African Studies, and Fellow of Pembroke College. After a decade teaching at Cambridge, I left in 2005 for the University of Toronto where I became the inaugural Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, University Professor, and Professor in the Department of English. I moved to NYU in 2017 and am looking to settle finally at Stanford.

"I have published widely in areas as diverse as African literature, postcolonial studies, disability studies, diaspora and transnational studies, and urban studies, among others. Along with a long-standing interest in postcolonial literature, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I also have a strong interest in learning about cities. One book I wrote–Oxford Street, Accra–retells the history of the city in which I grew up from the perspective of a single street. The Oxford Street of the title acts as an urban key which, turned in different directions, gives access to the history of colonial and post-Independence urban planning, street life, the accretion of neighborhoods, the history of salsa in the city, and the facts of urban boredom, among other things. 

"In my down time, I enjoy dancing, traveling, and comparing places, but a new hobby I have picked up recently is studying about trees as a way of understanding built environments as well as nature. I recently started a YouTube channel called Critic.Reading.Writing in which I use literature to discuss various topics of interest. Here is a link to the introductory episode:"