English 8001: Innovation: A Cultural History of the Contemporary Concept

This is the syllabus of a course I’m teaching this term at Wayne State.


English 8001: Innovation: A Cultural History of the Contemporary Concept

Tuesday 3:00-5:45, State Hall 303 (subject to change)

Professor John Patrick Leary

Email: jpleary@wayne.edu

Office: 5057 Woodward, #10201

Office Hours: Tuesdays 12-2, or by appointment. Office hours are designated times when I am available to meet with students one-on-one. These hours are for you to use as you wish, whether you want to discuss the readings or your own woek, wish to make some special request (like letters of recommendation), or just to chat informally.

“Innovation” is a word on nearly everybody’s lips: it is the rare term that finds favor in both university classrooms and corporate boardrooms, in all parts of the country, in opposing political parties, and in a variety of professions. Silicon Valley CEOs, academics, humanitarian organizations, and even Christian pastors all profess a passion for “innovation” and a desire to nurture it. Despite its modern vogue, however, it is a term with a long and surprising history.

Originating as a pejorative term for religious heresy in early modern Europe, “innovation” is increasingly synonymous with “creativity,” making it a focal point for the intersection of business and aesthetics. Despite its contemporary importance, however, its history is relatively unstudied. This class will start to fill in these gaps by asking the following questions: What is the history of this concept, and what is behind the dramatic shifts in its meaning? What links “innovation” and past mythologies of American capitalism?

We will explore “innovation” as one of what the literary scholar Raymond Williams calls “keywords”: “binding words,” elements of a living vocabulary that shape and reflect what a society holds in common. In this class, we will explore the historical meanings embedded in language we use everyday.

Required texts:

Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society

Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Caroline Kirkland, A New Home, Who’ll Follow?

Katherine Losse, The Boy Kings

 Optional, and preferably stolen: Hanley Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma


Research presentation: On February 2, each student should be prepared to present on an instance of “innovation” in a literary or newspaper database of your choosing. You should also turn in a brief (2-4 page) critical analysis of the text you choose.

In-class participation and the Keywords method: This is a small seminar, and for it to work everyone needs to be not only physically present, but intellectually present as well. So each day, I will go around and ask everyone to speak a bit on the relevance of a keyword, which you will choose at the beginning of the term, to the readings that day. You should use Williams’ Keywords to trace, throughout the class readings, a keyword cognate from Williams’ text. Since Williams does not mention “innovation” itself, we will pick keywords that are related to the concept and the readings: for example, “society,” “creativity,” “capitalism,” or “management.” Come prepared to use their chosen concept as a tool to understand the readings. You do not need to spectacularly and brilliantly synthesize everything, but rather use the keyword to ask specific questions about a particular text or broader questions about connections and contradictions between them. What questions does Williams help you ask? How does it help you work through the concepts in the readings? What kinds of questions do the readings ask that Williams does not? How, for example, does Williams’ analysis of “creativity” help us understand Benjamin Franklin’s autobiographical self-fashioning or Wendy Brown’s understanding of homo economicus?

Writing assignments:

The writing for this class will be relatively light, page-number-wise. However, this is because we will focus on intensive work in academic genres. One written assignment, due by April 19 (though you may submit it earlier if you like) will be a book review of one of the critics we are reading (i.e., Pope, Brown, North, Godin, Spence, Brouillette, Chandra), in the style of academic journals. (More on this).

Your final paper will be a conference paper (with an abstract and a list of three conferences you would like to submit it to) on anything relating to the course topic that fits your interests. Because you’re encouraged to submit the paper to an actual conference, it should be related to your own work.

Innovation, Creativity, Heresy, and Orthodoxy: Roots of the Concepts

January 12: Why creativity (and innovation) now?

Rob Pope, “Why Creativity Now?” from Creativity: History, Theory, Practice

Percy Shelley, “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni”

John 1:1-26, New International Bible

Evgeny Morozov, “Our Naïve Innovation Fetish,” The New Republic

John Patrick Leary, “Keywords for the Age of Austerity: Innovation,” from    theageofausterity.wordpress.com

January 19: Keywords

Raymond Williams, Keywords, introduction and selected entries

 January 26: Innovation as a theological category

Michael North, Novelty: A History of the New, introduction and Ch. 2

Benoit Godin, Innovation Contested: The Idea of Innovation Over the Centuries, Introduction and ch. 4

Francis Bacon, “Of Innovations”

Thomas Hobbes, De Cive (excerpts)

February 2: Student presentations

Using one of the full-text scholarly databases we discuss in class (Wright American fiction, Perseus Digital Library, Proquest Digital Library, one of the newspaper databases, etc.), in-class presentations on a pejorative and salutary appearance of “innovation.”

February 9: “Neoliberalism” as a historical and analytic category

Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, esp. chapters 1, 3, 4, 6.

Lester Spence, Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics, esp. the introduction and chapter 3

Yankee Ingenuity and Myths of Accumulation

February 16: Self-branding: An American tradition?

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Tom Peters, “The Brand Called You,” Fast Company, August / September, 1997 

February 23: Land speculation and American development

Caroline Kirkland, A New Home, Who’ll Follow?

Paul Gates, “The Role of the Land Speculator in Western Development”

March 1: The limits of ingenuity

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Optional: John Kasson, Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900, chap. 5, “Technology and Utopia”; Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, chap. 4

 Innovation and Technology

March 8: Nothing original, yet everything new: creative destruction in theory, practice, and aesthetics

Joseph Schumpeter, “The Theory of Creative Destruction” from Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy

Terry Smith, Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America, chapter 1

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” esp. chapter 1, “Bourgeois and Proletarians”

Poetry: Philip Levine, “What Work Is,” “Belle Isle, 1949” “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives,” “A New Day”; Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”; Gwendolyn Brooks, “kitchenette building”; Alissa Quart, “Solarised,” “Views,” “Driftwood”

March 15: No class (spring break)

March 22: Creativity and the office

Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End

Sarah Brouillette, “The Psychology of Creativity” from Literature and the Creative Economy

“Free Love Freeway,” The Office (UK)     

March 29: Disruptive innovation: some of the contemporary canon

Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma, esp. introduction, chap. 1, and chap. 10

Everett Rogers, Diffusions of Innovation, esp. chapter 4, “The Generation of Innovations”

Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine,” The New Yorker

Optional: Diana Strassman, “The Stories of Economics and the Power of the Storyteller,” History of Political Economy 25:1 and Christensen and Raynor, The Innovator’s Solution, chap. 1; Andrew A. King and Baljir Baatartogtokh, “How Useful Is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation?” MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2015

April 5: The Gender of Facebook

Katherine Losse, The Boy Kings

April 12: Management literature and postmodernism

Sarika Chandra, Dislocalism, introduction and chap. 1

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, part 1, “The Creative Age”

Selected managerial lit TBA

 April 19

Final paper workshops



1 thought on “English 8001: Innovation: A Cultural History of the Contemporary Concept”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s