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PWR 2IY: The Many Faces of Sherlock: Race, Gender, and Power in the Rhetoric of the Detective

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Catalog Number: PWR 2IY

Instructor: Irena Yamboliev

Units: 4

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP) 

Prerequisite: PWR 1, ESF, ITALIC 95W, or equivalent


Course Feature: WR-2 requirement

Sherlock Holmes has become the figure for a set of skills we admire: he notices clues others overlook, sees past psychological and physical trickery, and deduces a whole picture from mere unconnected parts. But Holmes’s power as an ideal investigator seems rhetorically inextricable from a particularly charismatic—and potentially limited—identity. He is, most of the time, a white, British man of a certain class, elegant, tasteful, not shy about putting himself above institutional rules we’re presumably all subject to. But how complete is this portrait of a virtuosic investigator?

In this class we’ll look at the ways detective fiction has expanded—with empowering results—to genders, ethnicities, and social backgrounds that mainstream representations of Holmes haven’t traditionally represented. We’ll consider, for example, the Botswanan women sleuths of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the hoodie-wearing, super strong Luke Cage, and Japanese manga’s Detective Conan. We’ll ask how movements such as Afrofuturism and Género Negro combine the detective and speculative traditions with social commentary. And, in your own research, you will be able to interrogate, for example, the ways detection works as a more general metaphor for all manner of exposing, bearing witness, and seeking justice, in fields as diverse as science and medicine (think of House M.D.), art collection, investigative journalism, and environmental and human rights activism.

Stories of detection easily adapt from text to other media. And the story of your own research will be no exception: in communicating your findings, you will consider how different modes—writing about your work and presenting it orally—give you varied opportunities to persuade.

Major Assignments

Research Proposal

(5 min live oral presentation; written text of 900-1200 words) You’ll outline a research question of your choice. You might, for example, ask how Raymond Chandler’s vision for hardboiled detective fiction gets taken up by Indian crime stories, question the gender politics of casting decisions in film adaptations, or examine the rhetoric of detection used to champion preventive medicine.

Written Research-Based Argument

(3000-3600 words; 10-12 pages) You’ll craft an original argument in response to your research question, drawing on a range of sources. You can take into account the ethnographic, economic, aesthetic, and historical dimensions that allow us to not only enjoy a good detective story but also translate it into meaning. For example, what does a disability studies perspective reveal about the way physical ability figures into our vision of the detective hero? In what ways can detective stories address failures in the law enforcement system? How do authors carve out a space for women’s detective fiction in countries where women’s roles in public life are constrained?

Delivery of Research

(10 minute live oral presentation with appropriate multimedia support) You’ll share the results of your own investigation via a short, engaging presentation that skillfully blends voice, text, and visuals.

Genre/Mode Assignment 

What genre or mode—dance? podcast? video animation? public service announcement? board game? —would serve you best in adapting the central findings from your Research-Based Argument for a different audience or venue? You will learn about a genre of your choice as you teach your classmates and me about your project.