Great American Short Stories: A Guide for Readers and Writers

Course No. 2323
Professor Jennifer Cognard-Black, Ph.D.
St. Mary’s College of Maryland
Share This Course
4.9 out of 5
15 Reviews
93% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 2323
Streaming Included Free

What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Understand how the technical aspects of writing work and how different authors use different techniques to create their own unique style.
  • numbers Get insight into modern forms such as microfiction and graphic storytelling.
  • numbers Compare and contrast numerous authors and individual stories to truly understand how they work.

Course Overview

Short stories offer readers the unique opportunity to experience a powerful piece of literature in a deceptively small package. The constraints of a few thousand words can give the best works an economy of storytelling that distills the power of the written word in astonishing ways. The brevity of short fiction belies its emotional and intellectual complexity.

While short stories exist in traditions all over the world, American short stories are a genre all their own. Emerging from the clash of cultures—and the collision of oral and print traditions—that began during the arrival of European settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries, the short works that emerged have served many functions. They have entertained, certainly, but they have also helped foster identity, shape morality, and build the foundations of the American mythos for nearly four centuries.

Whether you want to write short stories, simply want better insight as a reader, or even if you are looking for a new lens through which to view American history, the 24 rich and informative lectures of Great American Short Stories: A Guide for Writers and Readers will show you the ins and outs of this infinitely adaptable—and intrinsically American—literary form. Professor Jennifer Cognard-Black of St. Mary’s College of Maryland guides you through the technical aspects of the short story, while also digging deep into the history of the form in the United States. Along the way, you will discover why the short story became so deeply connected to American identity and how it continues to evolve alongside the nation itself.

American Mythos

Literary traditions have helped shape American identity from the very beginning. When the United States established its independence from Britain, one of the earliest concerns of the new nation was creating a literature of its own, one free from the powerful influence of Europe. Writers tried their hand at many forms, but only one emerged as a patently American genre: the short story. Much like the nation itself, the American short story has continually changed and evolved to reflect the ideas, conflicts, and demographics of each era.

After a brief introduction to the short story as a literary form, Professor Cognard-Black leads you through the evolution of the short story, beginning with the influence of the oral tradition in the earliest days of the American colonies, proceeding to the initial story experiments after the Revolutionary War, and then traversing the many changes in style and taste that have defined and redefined the genre with every new generation of Americans. Some of the prominent literary periods and styles you will tour include:

  • Sentimental fiction. The early- to mid-19th century saw the rise of fiction that intentionally stirred emotion to sway readers’ hearts and minds, utilizing sentiment as an effective tool in shaping the way Americans thought about slavery, temperance, class relations, social justice, and more. This period was also defined by the rising power of female writers.
  • Realism. The school that would eventually be called realism held sway from the end of the Civil War and into World War I. Closely tied to the growth of print journalism across the nation, realism was a “boys’ club” that resisted the activism of sentimental storytelling in favor of immediacy—even banality—to pursue truth that some writers saw as more democratic than earlier styles.
  • Modernism. In the wake of World War I, many Americans were disillusioned about the state of the modern world. In response, this new school of writers turned away from realism, leaning in to an intentionally fragmented and artificial style that some considered more “literary” than realism, but that also managed to capture the rapidly changing, disorienting atmosphere of the early 20th century.

These and other phases of literary production in America are reflective of the social and political climate of their time and place. As you progress from traditional stories into more experimental styles and genres, you will see how each generation tests the limits of the short story form. And, with guidance from Professor Cognard-Black, you will see how each of these loosely defined periods can give readers a unique view into the American character through fiction.

Form and Function

Storytelling has a direct influence on the brain, triggering the release of the feel-good chemical oxytocin. This chemical reaction means good stories affect us profoundly, giving stories immense power to influence how we see the world and the people in it. But this impact can only be maintained if readers truly believe in what they’re experiencing, which is why the best short story writers manage to disappear from their work. Essentially, every aspect of a story must be tightly controlled and deeply considered, yet the author’s fingerprints should be completely absent from the page. This invisibility on the part of the writer is accomplished through the many choices made when crafting a story.

Even the most fantastic elements of a story need to feel true to life in order for readers to find a connection. So how do you use fiction to create a world that is believable—one that feels true but is also more interesting than the mundane realities of everyday life? And how do you make a short story feel like it contains an entire world over the course of just a few pages? The answer lies in how writers use the tools of the trade to create work that feels effortless, but actually requires a great deal of thought and planning. Some of the technical aspects to consider include:

  • Setting/donnée. The world in which the story takes place has to be immersive and believable. The donnée (“that which is given”) is not just the scenery, but the very fabric of the story; it is intrinsic to the characters themselves and their point of view.
  • Character. Fictional characters must be both vital and true. In other words, you must not just show how your characters function in a given story but also find a way to reveal who they are when no one else is looking.
  • Dialogue. Believable dialogue in fiction works differently than speech in the real world. Writers must tread a fine line between what is concise and engaging and what reads as true to life.
  • Point of view. Who is telling the story? Is it told from the interior perspective of a single narrator? Does it step back and look at the larger picture? Point of view directly affects how readers engage with a story and where their sympathies lie.
  • Style. Though difficult to define, style is at the core of what it means to be a storyteller. Essentially, it is the culmination of all the many aspects that define the craft and how each writer puts them to use in unique ways.

As you will see throughout the lectures, these and other tools can be taught, but to truly understand them, you have to put them into practice. As Professor Cognard-Black says, “The only way to know the nuts and bolts, as well as the power, of American short stories is to read them; the only way to craft a story worth telling is to write them.”

Style and Substance

Over the course of these lectures, you will be introduced to a range of writers who have shaped the American short story around the country and across generations. Beginning with the early sketches of Washington Irving, you will progress through the centuries to engage with work from writers of different styles, eras, origins, and levels of fame, including:

  • Writers who use genre fiction to tell stories about the real world, like Edgar Allan Poe, Louisa May Alcott, and Ursula K. Le Guin;
  • Authors who specialize in realist and naturalist stories, such as Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, and Edith Wharton, as well as more experimental authors like Jean Toomer and Donald Barthelme;
  • Writers who have shaped the very fabric of literature in America, such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner; and
  • Contemporary short story writers that engage with the many complicated facets of the American experience, including Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Annie Proulx.

These authors and many, many more offer you an introduction to a wide range of small stories with big impact. And you will explore not just their stories, but also the larger movements and cultural influences that shaped their work and that have helped to make American short stories an ongoing, interconnected—and increasingly democratic—narrative of the American experience.

The “great American novel” is often the lofty goal of writers who want to achieve literary immortality. But from the opening sentence to the lingering denouement, American short stories can both capture the world as it is and help envision what could be. Each is unique, and yet each is a part of a larger chronicle: the story of America.

Hide Full Description
24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Come In Here: How Stories Draw Us In
    Begin your exploration of American short stories with a look at one of the form's most important features: the opening sentence. Learn the four P's (people, place, perspective, and problem) and how they can help build a strong opening to a story. Then listen to multiple examples of first sentences and their various strengths and weaknesses. x
  • 2
    Discovering the American Short Story
    What defines a short story? And what makes American short stories unique? Take a look at some features and definitions that help explain the form and its boundaries, while also learning how the form has changed over time. You'll also get a partial reading list that will allow you to explore some of the greatest authors of different styles and eras. x
  • 3
    The Storytelling Instinct in America
    Storytelling can help us find meaning in chaos, foster empathy, and share lessons and values across generations. Look back into the past and see how oral and print cultures came in contact with each other in the Americas, creating a hybrid form of storytelling that continues into the present day. x
  • 4
    Storytelling and American Mythos
    After the Revolutionary War, American authors sought to forge their own national literary traditions. Examine the emergence of the short story as a patently American genre, beginning with the sketches" of writers like Washington Irving. Along the way, you will see how writers have shaped the American mythos-the stories that tell us who we are." x
  • 5
    Sentimental Fiction and Social Reform
    Can stories change the way we look at the world? In the mid-19th century, many Americans believed you could use fiction to shape public opinion and morality. Look at the tradition of sentimental fiction and the writers that mastered the tools of emotion and empathy, focusing especially on the ways women contributed to the field. x
  • 6
    The Rise of Realism in American Fiction
    Realism dominated American short fiction from the end of the Civil War until the outbreak of World War I. See how four decades of social upheaval and the rise of print journalism motivated the rise of the boys' club" of realist writers, in opposition to the more feminine-influenced sentimental fiction of earlier decades." x
  • 7
    American Modernists
    The rise of modernism in the early 20th century was a self-conscious reaction to realism. Reflecting the rapid changes of the time, modernist short stories have an intentionally fragmented, staged feeling that many writers felt made the work more literary." Examine the work of modernist writers like William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Toomer." x
  • 8
    Contemporary American Storytelling
    Ernest Hemingway remains the single most influential short story writer of the 20th century. Disillusioned by World War I and heavily influenced by the objectivity of journalism, Hemingway changed the American short story-and possibly the American identity. Consider how this one writer revolutionized short fiction and influenced countless other authors. x
  • 9
    Setting or Donnee in American Short Fiction
    Shift from the history of American short fiction to the technical aspects of the form with a look at how writers build verisimilitude into their story worlds. Professor Cognard-Black guides you through several stories with different settings-or, more specifically, donnees-and shows how the writers convey time and place as well as mood, atmosphere, symbolism, and more. x
  • 10
    The Use of Detail in American Short Fiction
    What is the difference between fact and truth, and why does this distinction matter in fiction? Discover how writers use certain details to inform readers about the inner life of the characters and look closely at why the facts in a short story are never random. Works by Toni Morrison, James Thurber, and Lee K. Abbott demonstrate different levels of detail. x
  • 11
    Character: Who You Are in the Dark
    Creating characters that feel true to life means going below the surface and revealing their inner dimensions. Using the FAT principle of fiction (Feelings, Actions, and Thoughts) and looking at three major errors in fiction writing, compare and contrast flat, stock characters with the deeper characters that stick with readers long after the story has ended. x
  • 12
    American Dialogue and Interior Monologue
    Crafting good dialogue means listening to how real people talk, but also understanding that speech in a story is fundamentally different from the real thing. Using exercises from both real life and fiction, learn how purposeful dialogue can be crafted. Then, look at how internal monologue works and how it serves to reveal character in important ways. x
  • 13
    Standing Apart: The Third Person
    See why the point of view of a story is one of the most important choices a writer can make. Different perspectives create different reactions in the reader, and the third person has three distinct variations that allow writers to determine the level of objectivity and distance a story needs to create the best effect. Consider several examples and how they work. x
  • 14
    Standing Close: The First and Second Person
    There is power and there is peril in the first- and second-person perspectives. Both create close relationships with the story and both promote immediacy and empathy. However, they also have dangers that can derail a story if not handled properly. Explore both the first- and second-person perspectives and their effect on readers. x
  • 15
    Plot: What Characters Do Next
    Instead of looking at plot as a clearly defined journey from point A to point B, here you will see why plot should be dictated by characters and their choices. Understand how good short stories strike a balance between structure and (seeming) randomness to capture something that feels meaningful and true to life. x
  • 16
    Imagery in American Short Fiction
    Vivid imagery is crucial to good storytelling. Professor Cognard-Black takes you through several examples to see how sensory and figurative language can help create an immersive experience. Along the way, you will get useful introductions to tools like personification, allusion, symbolism, metaphor, and other literary devices through writers like Flannery O'Connor. x
  • 17
    Style in Traditional American Short Stories
    Compare and contrast two iconoclastic American writers, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, to see how style encompasses every aspect of an author's writing, from word choice and sentence length to syntax and punctuation. You'll also receive a list of writing handbooks that can help you explore style. x
  • 18
    Experimental American Short Stories
    How is writing fiction like making a quilt? Turn your attention to the innovative short fiction that emerged in the turbulent years after World War II to find the answer. Look at the deconstructionist approach to short stories, focusing particularly on metafiction, and then explore the use of voice to create both intimacy and scope simultaneously. x
  • 19
    Genre Short Fiction in America
    Though genre fiction has a reputation for being frivolous or commercial, it has been an important part of America's literary tradition since the 19th century. Focusing on the big three" genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, you will see how genre fiction has grappled with the same issues and concerns as literary fiction, simply through different means." x
  • 20
    Graphic Short Fiction in America
    Short stories in the 21st century have broken out of traditional constraints of size and form to include more experimental modes, as you will explore here with graphic short fiction. Discover how visual storytelling works in short fiction and why the images and words must work together in ways that go beyond mere illustration. x
  • 21
    Postmodern Short Fiction in America
    While the postmodern era is hard to define, the features of postmodern fiction are rooted in artifice and hyperawareness. Consider how the meta-experience" of postmodernism is created by going against the traditional ideas of immersion and author invisibility, and investigate how different authors accomplish this tricky balancing act." x
  • 22
    American Microfictions
    While the accepted length of a short story has always been somewhat vague, here you will see what kinds of storytelling feats can be accomplished with a drastically limited word count. Dive into microfictions written by Professor Cognard-Black and her writing students to see how even the briefest pieces can contain entire narrative worlds. x
  • 23
    Short Story Endings
    How can writers create endings that are both authentic to life and satisfying to readers? Reflect on endings from various short stories and see how they have changed over time. Also consider the ways writers create a sense of closure in fiction that never really happens in everyday life, yet feels authentic to human experience. x
  • 24
    A Hundred False Starts
    Even the greatest writers experience failure; the key is to fail creatively. Professor Cognard-Black closes the course with a look at the nature of publishing in today's market, as well as how false starts and unfinished work can be a crucial part of the process of successful, fulfilling writing. As the careers of writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others demonstrate, the most important skill a writer-or a reader-can have is perseverance. x

Lecture Titles

Clone Content from Your Professor tab

What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Instant Video Includes:
  • Ability to download 24 video lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
Instant Audio Includes:
  • Ability to download 24 audio lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 193-page digital course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 193-page digital course guidebook
  • Exercises
  • Story excerpts
  • Portraits & illustrations

Enjoy This Course On-the-Go with Our Mobile Apps!*

  • App store App store iPhone + iPad
  • Google Play Google Play Android Devices
  • Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Tablet + Firephone
*Courses can be streamed from anywhere you have an internet connection. Standard carrier data rates may apply in areas that do not have wifi connections pursuant to your carrier contract.

Your professor

Jennifer Cognard-Black

About Your Professor

Jennifer Cognard-Black, Ph.D.
St. Mary’s College of Maryland
Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black is Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a public liberal arts college. She graduated summa cum laude from Nebraska Wesleyan University with a dual degree in Music and English. She studied under Jane Smiley for her M.A. in Fiction and Essay Writing at Iowa State University and received her Ph.D. in 19th-Century British and American Literature from The Ohio State University....
Learn More About This Professor
Also By This Professor


Great American Short Stories: A Guide for Readers and Writers is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 14.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Course This is how all courses should be like: thorough, passionate, detailed, complete, easy to listen to, joyful and logical. I absolutely loved it. ps-why does The Great Courses insist on giving a nickname when leaving a feedback here? Why can't I use my own name?
Date published: 2020-06-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I'd follow this teacher anywhere; She's that good. Please, please, please, if you can get Ms. Cognard-Black to present another course, do.
Date published: 2020-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from EXCELLENT PRESENTATION The professor’s delivery is lucid. She has total command of the subject. I enjoyed her interpretation of the stories.
Date published: 2020-01-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Program Learning a lot about American Short stories. Instructor is easy to listen to and makes it interesting.
Date published: 2020-01-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Expectations and More I ventured into this course by taking a free viewing of the first lecture and becoming engaged in the presentation of the professor and her language style that I found appealing. It also helped as a motivation as I purchased The American Short Story (collection) and the World of the Short Story, a 20th Century Collection, both books for my reading as part of my personal library. I don't read much fiction, a shortcoming I suppose, but short stories can be an awakening of the power and beauty of literature (as the professor suggests) that enriches our understanding of the human condition or experience. (Please don't roll your eyes). I am in for a treat as I read through my books of short stories having an appreciation and knowledge of America's unique short story legacy gained, as I expect and anticipate, from this course. It is fun to be back in a college course with a great engaging professor. Highly recommended. And as an aside, I don't plan to write short stories, but that also is an interesting part of this course. Another aside, she related how Ernest Hemingway met is a bar with other writers and bet them that he could write a short story in six words. He wrote the words and won the bet. Sorry. I won't spoil it for you.
Date published: 2019-12-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great features, well produced Gives new insight into the process of writing a short story.
Date published: 2019-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Intellectually engaging with great context Presenter was clear , providing overview of varies periods, asking provocative questions that helped you meet the pieces on their own terms, but also let you apply it to currenttimes. This inspired me to re-read the more classic pieces and try some contemporary short pieces!
Date published: 2019-11-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course This is an outstanding course. It shows variety in the examples the professor uses to illustrate the American short stories. These twenty-four lessons show abundant detail and present extensive information. In her approach Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black is personable, knowledgeable, and comprehensive. Importantly, as the professor points out, the short story is distinctly American, formed out of American culture and experience. Because of this course, I have thought about how and why we Americans are short-story tellers.
Date published: 2019-10-16
  • y_2020, m_12, d_4, h_16
  • bvseo_bulk, prod_bvrr, vn_bulk_3.0.12
  • cp_1, bvpage1
  • co_hasreviews, tv_0, tr_14
  • loc_en_US, sid_2323, prod, sort_[SortEntry(order=SUBMISSION_TIME, direction=DESCENDING)]
  • clientName_teachco
  • bvseo_sdk, p_sdk, 3.2.0
  • CLOUD, getContent, 125.82ms

Questions & Answers

Customers Who Bought This Course Also Bought