This Class is a Joke: Satire and Society
Seminar - UHON 301

Instructor(s): Richard Obenauf

Course Description

Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee are the latest in a long line of satirists who use humor to explain and critique their societies.  In this course, we will consider satire both as a literary mode and as a genre in which authors attempt to imitate and outdo their predecessors.  Because it is written to delight and outrage such a targeted audience, satire is especially reflective of the society for which it was originally written.   

While satirists generally write from a position of aggrievement, it takes considerable standing and safety to criticize the powerful by mocking them—particularly in societies without strong traditions of free speech—meaning that what satire survives by people with genuine grievances, including women and other minority voices, has often been so veiled as to be unrecognizable as satire, or too subtle to be accessible as such to later generations.  The reading list reflects this practical constraint on the available materials—while nevertheless presenting students with works by authors whose experiences were entirely unlike their own.  We will thus see how literary techniques and traditions that emerged in ancient Rome evolved to criticize church corruption at the end of the Middle Ages and spurred the Reformation, became a favorite genre of the Enlightenment, and has taken off with the rise of the internet. 

A good time will be had by all. 


As a low-pressure pretext for reading some of the “greatest hits” of the Western canon, you’ll get to read such touchstones as Thomas More’s Utopia, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Voltaire’s Candide.  We’ll compare the worlds of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984Other authors may include Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anita Loos, Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, Kingsley Amis, John Kennedy Toole, and Kurt Vonnegut, or others recommended by the class. 


Consistent attendance and active participation are expected.  Students will keep a reading journal, which will form the basis for a series of short reaction papers.  There will be one shorter analytical paper and a longer creative final project in which you will try your hand at writing satire of your own.  Depending on enrollment, each student may be expected either to lead class discussion for a day or to offer a series of three-minute “leads” to stimulate our discussion throughout the semester. 

About the Instructor(s): Richard Obenauf

Richard Obenauf earned his BA at the University of New Mexico and his MA and PhD in Medieval and Renaissance English Language and Literature at Loyola University Chicago.  A scholar of censorship, tolerance, and intolerance, he is interested in satire as a mode of criticism that uses biting humor to push back—sometimes dangerously—against expected norms and changing conventions.