Reading in Santa Barbara

“Reading in Santa Barbara: Past, Present, and Future,” English 197. Taught by Abigail Droge in the UC Santa Barbara English Department, Spring 2019, in affiliation with the WhatEvery1Says Project. Senior seminar capped at 15 students (mainly English majors), meeting twice a week for an hour and fifteen minutes each day, on a ten-week term schedule.

Course Description

How do we come to be studying literature in a UCSB classroom? What’s the difference between why we read at all and why we read in school? In this class, we will consider the historical interactions between reading communities, both inside and outside the university, in order to analyze present relationships between such communities and imagine future reconfigurations. As a class, we will undertake a sustained collaborative research project in Special Collections: a deep engagement with the archives of UCSB’s own academic history, examples of student writing through the decades, and records of surrounding literary communities and local institutions. In partnership with UCSB Reads (an annual one-book program on campus), the main goal of the course will be to curate a student-designed public humanities event (such as an exhibit, a talk, or a performance) around this year’s book, Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir The Best We Could Do. The final showcase will be informed by our archival research and should in some way model or foster the relationships that students want to see between reading communities of different demographics, backgrounds, and ages. In this way, students will be better able to reflect on what it means, has meant, and might mean to be a reader at UCSB.

Major Texts

Our texts are chosen purposefully to represent two one-book reading programs: UCSB Reads and Santa Barbara Reads.

  • Thi Bui. The Best We Could Do. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2018. (UCSB Reads Book, 2019)
  • Donna Wares, ed. My California: Journeys by Great Writers. Angel City Press, 2004. (Santa Barbara Reads Book, 2006)

Learning Goals

  • Reflect on your own educational experiences at UCSB.
  • Reach a greater understanding of the social power of literature to create a sense of place, initiate and strengthen communities, and also construct barriers between communities.
  • Reach a greater understanding of the historical and current relationships between institutions and reading communities in Santa Barbara, which can contribute to the ability to imagine future relationships.
  • Learn archival methods, event planning skills, and best practices for communicating with an audience in a public humanities setting.

Syllabus Design

Though this course is location-specific, its strategies and principles could be carried into any environment. A main goal for the course’s design was to prompt students to understand themselves as part of a larger literary landscape and to be metacognitive about the structures which govern such an environment. We spoke a lot about the different reading communities in which we did or did not participate, those that seemed disconnected to us (divided, for instance, by departmental, social, or institutional barriers), and those which we might want to see more integrated in the future. To help students gain a meta-awareness of their environment, we invited members of multiple reading communities to class, such as an editor of the campus literary magazine and a representative of the local public library. We undertook extensive archival work focused on the history of local reading communities, both in previous student generations at UCSB and in the greater California area. Finally, the class partnered with the university’s annual one-book program, UCSB Reads, to put on a public humanities event at the campus library and speak to audiences beyond our classroom.

Full syllabus available here:


  • Weekly Responses (minimum 300 words each)
    • Reflection 1 Reflect on your experience as a reader at UCSB. How would you position yourself within the larger literary landscapes of the University and of Santa Barbara? What communities do you feel connected to through reading? What communities do you not feel a part of? What have you learned through your reading here?
    • Reflection 2 Reflect on an archival object that we’ve seen in Special Collections. What observations could you make about it? What surprises or confuses you? What questions does the object raise for you and what further research might you undertake to begin answering them?
    • Reflection 3 Respond to The Best We Could Do. What relationship do you see between the narrative and the novel’s graphic form? What techniques does Bui use to tell her story? What questions might you ask her if you had the chance? What themes and characters do you find most compelling? What sense of community does the novel present?
    • Reflection 4 Put two of our critical texts in conversation with each other. What points of connection and what disagreements do you see between these two theorists? Which of their ideas do you find compelling? Would you offer any critiques or different perspectives?
    • Reflection 5 Respond to My California. What sense of community does this text create (structurally, financially, narratively, emotionally)? What perspectives does it provide on California? Do you resonate with the pieces in this text? What specific authors have you found compelling and why? Reflect on the narrative strategies that especially spoke to you. How do you imagine this text fitting into the mission of SB Reads?
    • Reflection 6 Reflect on the UCSB Reads class showcase. What went well? What could be improved next time? Provide feedback and suggestions about the UCSB Reads program in a way that could be presented to the Library, particularly from the angle of creating community through literature.
  • Midterm: An Archival Graphic Narrative The goal of this assignment is to tell a story about ourselves and the history of reading at UCSB in a form that builds from Bui’s graphic narrative. The first part of this assignment will be a visual memoir: with yourself as the protagonist, present your experience as a reader at UCSB with reference to at least three archival objects we have seen. What was meaningful about your interaction with the archive? How does the history of reading communities in Santa Barbara prompt you to reflect on your own education? How would you position your own experience as a reader in the context of the other readers we’ve seen this quarter? The presentation should be in the form of a two-page graphic novel spread, inspired by the themes and format of Bui’s text. In the second part of the assignment (500 words minimum), reflect on your strategy: how did Bui’s text influence you? What elements did you adapt for your own story and how does this process help you to think in a new way about The Best We Could Do?
  • Final: The Utopian University In 8-10 pages, reflect on the relationships that you see between reading communities in Santa Barbara, both historically and currently. Your analysis should bring together all of the elements that we’ve discussed this quarter: our primary texts, our archival experiences, our critical readings, and our class showcase through UCSB Reads. How do you think literature creates or breaks social bonds? How do you see this social power of literature manifested at UCSB and in the greater Santa Barbara area? 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? Finally, and most importantly, imagine and describe a utopia. What would be the ideal literary landscape of a city? How would institutions interact with each other? What would be the best way for literary study at a university to connect with other communities of readers (and what current gaps can we address)? How can books best create and foster social relationships?


Sample Student Work

[To come]