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Signature Courses

Exploring the Human Need for Stories

Once Upon Time 360x240There was no library and no bookstore in the rural Kentucky town where Barry Qualls spent his early childhood. It was through his parents, who regularly read to their children, that Qualls would develop a lifelong attachment to literature.

“We were very lucky,” Qualls said recently. “Appalachia is very poor and very isolated. To be read to was to enter another world.”

An English professor since 1971, and one of Rutgers most respected faculty members, Qualls’ understanding of storytelling as a universal human need is the inspiration behind a new School of Arts and Sciences Signature Course, “Once Upon a Time.”

The fall 2014 class will examine stories ranging from Bible narratives and the Greek epics to detective fiction by Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe to Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel "Fun Home." The ultimate aim is to consider why we need stories in our lives and how we tell them. In the interview below, Qualls discusses the course as well as his own early encounters with literature.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this course?

A: I’ve heard it said that the need to tell stories and the need to hear stories are what separates the human from all else.
All my life I’ve been interested in storytelling, and the line between storytelling and history. So I began thinking of doing a course that asks that key question: why do we tell stories?

Q: What were the stories you connected with as a kid?

A: Certainly my father read us Oliver Twist. And there was a book my mother had, A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton-Porter. I never heard my mother talk much about books, but even when she died, she still owned that book. It’s about a girl seeking an education, and the power of imagination. That book has mattered to me all my life.

Q: The reading list for the course is quite eclectic and even includes a graphic novel. How did you go about deciding what to include?

BarryQualls396X265A:I wanted all kinds of stories: Those written down as history, like the Hebrew narratives of the Bible; stories that work as myths, like the Greek epics. Then there’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and A Christmas Carol that are clearly meant to intervene in the social and political situations of their time. I put the Poe and the Sherlock Holmes in there because detective stories do something; they solve something. I want us to see how those stories are structured.

Q: How much of the selections reflect your own scholarship?

A: It’s not a course that comes directly out of what I teach, which is 19th century British literature. But everything that I’ve taught through the years has worked around books that seek to do more than simply be verbal exercises. The Victorians always believed that there was a world outside the text in which the text intervened in some way.

Q: What do you hope students will gain from this course?

A: What I’d hope to see happen is we get people talking about what stories they like to tell, and how they respond to stories that cross large paths and spaces, like the ones we will be looking at. Ultimately, I want students to think about what they read, why they read, and what they look for when they read. This is not a course that’s going to be just about what one professor wants.


Learn more about the new Signature Course Once Upon A Time.