Sophomore Seminars

The Taboo

ENGLISH 12Q

What makes you recoil in horror or uncomfortably squirm? Have you ever seen those reactions in others to something you have done or said? Those often physical repulsions to behaviors, beliefs, and language are trip wires to signal when we’ve encountered the taboo, the realm of the forbidden and profane. Taboos are the often implicit “rules,” boundaries, and expectations placed on us by the communities we live among. But, who decides something is taboo? How do we learn what is taboo? When should we adhere to taboos? And when should we transgress? What happens when the different communities we inhabit disagree about what is taboo?

In this seminar, we will explore and theorize “the taboo” and the consequences for transgressing taboos. On our quest, we will read broadly--from William Shakespeare’s drama Othello to Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” to Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime--to see how taboos around issues such as race, gender, and sexuality change and carry across different cultural, historical, geographical, and familial contexts. 

At the same time, because this course is being planned as a Write 2 IntroSem, we will also reflect on the taboos we may have internalized about what “good” writing and speaking are. Have you been told to never split infinitives, that you shouldn’t use contractions, or to avoid using first person? I hope together we can discern how communication-based taboos can potentially perpetuate the larger systemic taboos dramatized in the readings. How might we use writing and speaking to liberate us from the taboos of oppression and exclusion? 

Throughout the quarter, each student will develop a multimedia research portfolio composed of artifacts that interrogate a specific taboo chosen by the student and that prompt reflection about their experimentation with writing and oral communication genres and methods. 

Meet the Instructor(s)

Lauri Dietz

"I became an English major because I loved how through reading the stories of different people, geographies, and eras I could interrogate the assumptions and structures of the world I live in. Books, plays, poems, movies, and essays made visible the implicit logic and rules that structured my life and communities I inhabited and visited. Seeing that other ways of thinking, being, and doing were possible has been a key source of my courage to stand up for what I believe in and to fight for change where needed.

"My PhD is in English Renaissance literature, an era full of iconoclasts who shattered many existing taboos while also building their own as well. I have taken leaps of faith to explore new worlds since then. My first jump was into the world of writing studies and writing centers where I learned how transformative peer education can be and why writing truly is mightier than the sword. My most recent jump was coming to Stanford and overseeing the IntroSems program, including building IntroSems Plus, a research and mentoring program. If you are ready to take a leap into the unknown, to have the courage to size up different taboos to see if they should stay or go, and to take control of your writerly identity, then I hope you will join me in this seminar."