Illness and Disability in American Culture - ENGL9000

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Module delivery information

This module is not currently running in 2024 to 2025.


This module explores representations of illness and disability in American literature and culture, with a particular emphasis on contemporary illness narratives. It encourages students to compare and contrast a range of different genres and media (fiction, life writing, drama, photography, film, popular culture, blogs) and to assess the extent to which they reshape fundamental American ideals and narratives such as the myths of individualism and of everlasting health and happiness. The module follows a thematic rather than chronological framework and is divided into three sections. The first section has a more historical flavour and considers the legacy of the nineteenth-century freak show, prosthetic bodies in post-war and contemporary American culture, and key moments in U.S. disability activism. The second section explores the relationship of illness to language and cultural narratives and, using as case studies cancer narratives and AIDS representations from the twentieth century, examines the aesthetics and politics of illness. It also focuses on the "medicalization" of emotions, statistical panic, and the fear of death as addressed in postmodern fiction and memoirs that consider illness in relation to age (adolescence) and the environment. The final section turns to the depiction of doctors and patients in literature and popular culture, cross-cultural perspectives on health and illness, and the rise of the medical humanities as an academic field.


Contact hours

Total Contact Hours: 22
Private Study Hours: 278
Total Study Hours: 300

Method of assessment

Assignment (5,000 words) – 100%

Indicative reading

Indicative reading list:

Alvord, Lori Arviso (1999) The Scalpel and the Silver Bear, (New York: Bantam)
DeLillo, Don (2016) White Noise (London: Penguin)
Kushner, Tony (2010) Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One and Two (London: Nick Hern)
Linton, Simi (2006) My Body Politic: A Memoir (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press)
Sontag, Susan (1991) Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (London: Penguin)
Wurtzel, Elizabeth (1994) Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin)
Module is also accompanied with COURSE READER

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

The intended subject specific learning outcomes.
On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

1 Demonstrate an understanding of the central role of disability and health/illness in literature with a focus on American literature/cultural production;
2 Compare and analyse representations of disability and illness in a broad range of genres/media including life writing, fiction, poetry, drama, film, photography, multimedia narrative, and popular culture;
3 Explore the ways in which meanings attached to bodies and health are connected to broader questions of American identity and culture and can be articulated within, and against, literary traditions such as American autobiography;
4 Synthesize material across periods and demonstrate an awareness of how these relate to preoccupations with health/illness in twentieth- and twentieth-first century American culture;
5 Demonstrate advanced skills in the interdisciplinary evaluation of materials in the areas of narrative theory, life writing, American studies, visual culture, disability studies, and medical humanities.

The intended generic learning outcomes.
On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

1 Demonstrate an ability to read and analyse texts critically and make comparisons across a range of literary forms and visual media;
2 Demonstrate critical and argumentative skills through short presentations and seminar discussion;
3 Demonstrate the ability to conduct interdisciplinary research by evaluating material from different sources;
4 Demonstrate the skills to carry out independent research during presentations and essays;
5 Demonstrate the ability to critically evaluate and creatively deploy key theoretical perspectives;
6 Demonstrate the ability to construct original, innovative and complex arguments both in class discussions and in writing.


  1. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  2. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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