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Durham University

Postgraduate Module Handbook 2021/2022

Archive Module Description

This page is for the academic year 2021-22. The current handbook year is 2022-23

Department: English Studies

ENGL45230: Narrative and Thresholds of Consciousness

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2021/22


  • Students must hold a good BA degree in English or a related subject to be eligible for entry onto the MA programmes in the Department of English Studies


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • This module aims to investigate liminal cognition (including, for example, dreaming, mindwandering, meditative states, felt presences, hypnagogic experience, hallucinations) through the reading of (mostly, though not exclusively) narrative fiction by nineteenth-century, modernist and contemporary writers.
  • Students will engage with models and theories in the cognitive sciences and narrative theory, and evaluate how literary texts contribute to, and possibly challenge, research into liminal cognition.
  • The module examines narrative representations of liminal cognition in relation to the shaping effects of literary form, genre, tradition and historical contexts.
  • The module will introduce students to the exciting interdisciplinary fields of cognitive literary studies and the medical humanities, and shows how fiction contributes to our understanding of inner experience.


  • This module investigates liminal cognition and thresholds of consciousness in and through modern narrative literature by a diverse range of authors. Reading itself can be a threshold experience (whereby we relax our consciousness, transform our self, cross liminal borders of reality), while fictional narratives and life-writing find ways of addressing experiences of liminal cognition (e.g. hypnagogic and meditative states, dream experiences, felt presences, amnesia, mindwandering, intrusive memories, near-death experiences, imaginary companions, multisensory hallucinations). Consciousness is not a monolith: it comes in degrees of awareness, agency and control. When we fall asleep, are tired or in grief, dream or meditate, wander in thoughts or get immersed in a novel, we enter a liminal zone of consciousness and cognition, where we lose some aspect of our self and witness or engage with spontaneous, intrusive, imagistic, phantasmal presences, thoughts and perceptions. Liminal cognition has only recently started to be explored by contemporary cognitive science, whereas it has been widely explored by novelists and writers of short fiction and memoirs. By critically exploring a diverse range of writing from the nineteenth century to the present, we will assess how literature can enrich, challenge and correct cognitive scientific models of liminality. Texts studied on the module may change from year to year, but they may include works (or extracts of works) by such writers as de Quincey, Poe, Dickens, George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hardy, Woolf, Isherwood, Beckett, Joyce, Philip Roth, Ali Smith, Richard Flanagan, Hilary Mantel).

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Knowledge of a wide range of modern literary narrative that affords perspectives on liminal cognition, including comparisons between writing before and after 1900.
  • Advanced understanding of the potential of literary form to describe and evaluate human minds and consciousness, especially threshold experiences.
  • Interdisciplinary knowledge drawn from narrative theory, historical and literary contexts, and the contemporary cognitive sciences, which can be used to frame critical approaches to liminal cognition in modern fiction.
  • Understanding of relevant debates in cognitive literary studies and the medical humanities.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Students studying this module will develop:
  • Advanced critical skills in the close reading and analysis of literary and historical texts;
  • An ability to offer advanced analysis of formal and aesthetic dimensions of literature;
  • An ability to articulate and substantiate at a high level an imaginative response to literature;
  • An ability to demonstrate an advanced understanding of the cultural, intellectual, socio-political contexts of literature;
  • An ability to articulate an advanced knowledge and understanding of conceptual or theoretical literary material;
  • An advanced command of a broad range of vocabulary and critical literary terminology.
Key Skills:
  • Students studying this module will develop:
  • an advanced ability to analyse critically;
  • an advanced ability to acquire complex information of diverse kinds in structured and systematic ways;
  • an advanced ability to interpret complex information of diverse kinds through the distinctive skills derived from the subject;
  • expertise in conventions of scholarly presentation and bibliographical skills;
  • an independence of thought and judgement, and ability to assess acutely the critical ideas of others;
  • sophisticated skills in critical reasoning;
  • an advanced ability to handle information and argument critically;
  • a competence in information-technology skills such as word-processing and electronic data access;
  • professional organisation and time-management skills.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Students are encouraged to develop advanced conceptual abilities and analytical skills as well as the ability to communicate an advanced knowledge and conceptual understanding within seminars; the capacity for advanced independent study is demonstrated through the completion of two assessed pieces of work.
  • Typically, directed learning may include assigning student(s) an issue, theme or topic that can be independently or collectively explored within a framework and/or with additional materials provided by the tutor. This may function as preparatory work for presenting their ideas or findings (sometimes electronically) to their peers and tutor in the context of a seminar.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 9 fortnightly 2hrs 18
Independent student research supervised by the Module Convenor 10
Preparation and Reading 272
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 1 3000 words 40%
Essay 2 3000 words 60%

Formative Assessment:

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University