Reading in Santa Barbara, Future: Building the Utopian University

by Abigail Droge
Published July 5, 2019

To close out the term for “Reading in Santa Barbara,” we mobilized our insights into past and present reading communities in order to consider possible futures. The final assignment, called “The Utopian University,” asked students to consider the ideal ways that literature could build social relationships on campus and beyond. I share the assignment sheet below.



The Utopian University

The goal of this assignment is to synthesize our conversations and to reflect on the current and historical relationships that you see between reading communities around us, as well as the relationships that you would like to see in the future. The paper should be 8-10 pages total (double spaced, 12-point Times New Roman font, with 1-inch margins). Your analysis should bring together the range of elements that we’ve discussed this quarter. You must include at least one specific reference (citing a specific object, idea, experience, passage, or image) from each of the following categories (but you may certainly include more!):

  • a primary text
  • an archival experience or object
  • a visitor
  • at least two critical readings
  • our class showcase through UCSB Reads

The paper should have two parts. You can choose how best to apportion them relative to each other. Please be prepared to share your ideas on the final day of class.

Part 1: Past and Present

Drawing from the materials we have covered this term, how do you think literature creates or breaks social bonds? How do you see the social power of literature manifested at UC Santa Barbara and in the greater Santa Barbara/California region? When does literature connect people? When does it isolate people? How do you see your experience as a reader in conversation with the history of other readers that we’ve seen this term – whether current or historical, on or off campus – through the archives, through presentations, or through our critical texts? Though we have concentrated on local communities, many of our critical texts have treated communities far flung in both time and place – I would encourage you to think about what bearing some of these critical ideas might have in our own backyard. You are also encouraged to think about how broadly we might define terms like “literature,” “reading,” or “community.”

Part 2: Future

Based on what you have described in Part 1, now your task is to imagine and describe a utopia. What would be the ideal literary landscape of a university? Of a city? How could we make cross-campus connections between disciplines? How should institutions interact with each other, both on campus and off? What would be the best way for literary study at a university to connect with other communities of readers? What current gaps can we address? How can books best create and foster social relationships? Your utopia may take the form of a traditional essay, following from Part 1, or you may experiment with creative writing to illustrate your ideal.

Specificity is key. The strongest papers will cite specific passages or images from our texts and archives and bring these into conversation with your own ideas. Be sure to include a Works Cited for any texts or archival materials that you reference. Again, you may build on ideas from previous assignments, but please do not copy large chunks of text verbatim.


Though this instantiation of “The Utopian University” focuses on Santa Barbara, it would be easy to imagine a version of the assignment adapted to any locality. The main goal of our “Past” and “Present” emphases this quarter has been to create a bird’s-eye-view of the social and institutional impacts of literature both on and off campus, a goal which could be similarly accomplished at other institutions through diving into your own college’s archives or inviting guests from other departments, from the campus library or local public library system, from student groups, or from community organizations. In addition, a series of critical texts has helped us to think through the social power of literature from a range of perspectives. Over the course of the quarter we’ve read excerpts from Love Among the Archives (Helena Michie and Robyn Warhol), Professing Literature (Gerald Graff), Cultural Capital (John Guillory), Distinction (Pierre Bourdieu), Imagined Communities (Benedict Anderson), Is There A Text in This Class? (Stanley Fish), People and Stories (Sarah Hirschman), The Woman Reader (Kate Flint), Paraliterary (Merve Emre), Reading the Romance (Janice Radway), Uses of Literacy (Richard Hoggart), Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem (Catherine Robson), and The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America (Michael Cohen). None of these texts has been location-specific for us; rather, they have allowed us to speak about our own observations in tandem with experiences from different continents and centuries.

By imagining our classroom as a hub or portal, through which students could be exposed to the myriad ways that people around them interact with literature, I hoped to create an opportunity to understand the connections made possible by reading, as well as the potential gaps between communities that might be bridged in the future. The key ingredient in this final assignment, therefore, was to spark a conversation about the relationship between a student’s own experience as a reader and the experiences of readers around them. Such a conversation, I hope, is both protean and portable, able to take on new dimensions in different environments.

In any context, however, establishing a dialogue about how best to create community through books (or music, or painting, or performance, or history, or science…the list of disciplinary building-blocks goes on) will always be a necessary precursor to pursing larger-scale actions and advocacy through public-facing projects. It would even be possible to imagine a thought-experiment version of the assignment above as a generative starting point for the humanities advocacy work that WhatEvery1Says plans to tackle in its next year. In short, how can we envision a utopian humanities?


This assignment was inspired in part by The Futures of Literary Knowledge project at UCSB, with thanks to Jess Wilton and Chris Newfield.

This post is part of a series about the ongoing UC Santa Barbara English course, “Reading in Santa Barbara: Past, Present, and Future.” For context, read more about the motivations and design process behind the course. 

The goal of the Curriculum Lab is to ensure a steady dialogue between research and teaching for the WhatEvery1Says project. For more information, see our webpage and this introductory blog post, and stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!