This week we celebrate Valentine's Day and St. Valentine whose feast day is February 14. While the exact origin of the holiday is debated, Valentine's Day is recognized as a day for love, devotion, and romance.

Everyone loves a good love story. And that is how the Love and Desire in Literature course (ENG 210) at Saint Leo University came to be. The university was looking for new general education programs as it was redesigning its core curricula to become what is now University Explorations. "These courses were supposed to offer students more than generic survey courses and allow them to fully experience Saint Leo's core values and liberal arts mission," said Dr. Allyson Marino, assistant professor of English.

"Faculty were encouraged to develop a curriculum that resonated with all of our students, from University Campus, to online students, to our centers," said Marino, who was teaching courses such as Academic Writing I and II and a survey in 20th century literature designed for non-English majors at the time. "I noticed that no matter the age group or background, the topics of love and relationships—from the romantic to family connections—came up over and over again."

At the same time, the Twilight young adult series was popular, for all ages. "While young women in my classes were citing the series as their favorite—I always ask students to share their favorite books or movies as an icebreaker at the start of the semester—academic conversations were quick to dismiss its importance," Marino said. "As an aside, I have noticed that whenever young women embrace something, it is quickly dismissed as unimportant and 'not serious.'

"When I started looking into the background of the series, though, I discovered that the classic love story Wuthering Heights is referenced in it—film and novel versions—as well as many other romantic tropes. So, I started to connect that back to my own academic research that has considered writing by women and relationships in literature. I asked, 'what happens if we look into some of the larger themes of literature about love? What themes do we notice?' And the answers that emerged seem to fit right into our larger mission at our university. One built on our shared humanity."

Marino developed the English course that now is part of The Creative Life cluster of University Explorations. Through various topics, University Explorations courses demonstrate the relevance of the liberal arts and sciences to today's world, cultivating students' critical thinking and decision making skills, effective communication, problem solving, analysis, and creativity. University Explorations curriculum consists of 42 credit hours comprised of 12 credits of foundational learning and 30 credits hours spread over five learning clusters representing the liberal arts and sciences.

"We start by looking at Greek mythology and philosophy and move into its interpretation in the Christian tradition, both of which influenced Shakespeare [Romeo and Juliet] and the Brontes [Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre] and even more contemporary literature from the best sellers that our students love [anything Nicholas Sparks!] to popular music," Marino said.

Saint Leo English instructor Marissa McLargin began teaching the Love and Desire in Literature course when Marino asked her to be a guest lecturer in her class following the publication of McLargin's article "Riddle Me This: What's the Meaning of a Kiss?" in REBUS, the College of Arts and Sciences' magazine. She references Shakespeare in the article, and she was thrilled when she was asked to join other faculty members in teaching the course.

As part of Saint Leo's University Explorations program, students from all disciplines and majors take the course. "While we do read and study various texts, the class isn't just exams and papers, exams and papers," McLargin said. "Students seem to find the class really fun. In my particular class, we start with C.S. Lewis' book The Four Loves and use this as our foundational text for the class."

The class favorite last fall term was Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, McLargin said.

The class tends to also have favorite assignments—students seem to enjoy the candid class discussions, she said. "They know from the start that love and desire are both mature topics, and they handle the class like the adults that they are," McLargin said. "They appreciate being able to express their own academic and personal opinions on the subject itself in addition to thinking critically about an assigned text."

Beyond the discussions, students like the assignments and projects that include "real-world" interests and their personal talents or skills. "For example, their first paper assignment—called 'What's Love Got to Do With It?'—requires them to analyze a famous pair and explain what kind of love is present in their relationship," McLargin said. "Students have chosen famous couples from history like Marc Antony and Cleopatra or Bonnie and Clyde, or current couples like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Other students have written about fictional pairings like Jim and Pam from The Office, Ross and Rachel from Friends, and Peeta and Katniss from The Hunger Games. Although students are required to use the assigned text from the syllabus as one of their sources, they love adding their background knowledge and personal interests to an academic paper."

Another assignment Saint Leo students enjoy is writing a love letter to someone or something in their life and reading it aloud to the class. "The class has to decide what kind of love is present and defend their choice with textual evidence—from the letter itself and from course materials," McLargin said. "The writer of the letter then explains why [or why not] the class guessed correctly."

Past letters have included letters to a pet, a parent, and a significant other.

Lastly, students get a kick out of writing advice to lovesick Romeo as well as creating their Shakespeare Remediation, in which they choose a scene from the play that highlights forbidden love and recreate this theme into a different medium, McLargin said.

"One student last term rapped his remediated scene; another created a PowerPoint comparing Romeo and Juliet to Tristan Thompson and Khloe Kardashian," McLargin said. "It was hilarious. Some students showcased their creativity with artwork, which they presented to the class and explained their critical analysis of the text at the same time."

Students praise the class. "The course content can sometimes be considered awkward, but it was presented and taught in a way that you came out learning a lot that you can apply—and analytical skills that you use in day to day life," said one student in a course evaluation.

Marino said the course resonates with students because "everyone experiences love on some level.

"We struggle with it, crave it, reject it, talk about it, make movies and music about it, write about it," she said. "Our traditional-aged 18- to 22-year-old students are completely immersed in it and our nontraditional students experience it within their families and in their personal histories. Love of a parent or child, love of a friend or a fellow soldier, love of God. Some aspect of it is universal and understanding that can make the world feel a little smaller and more connected."

On this Valentine's Day, Marino recommended some reading selections:

  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez — "This gorgeous book shows that love knows no age." 
  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell — A sweet, nerdy love story about two 16-year-old misfits, comic books, and '80s music.
  • All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps by Dave Isay— collection of extraordinary love stories from ordinary couples.
  • Poetry by Pablo Neruda.

The university catalog details the courses that make up University Explorations. For more information about Love and Desire in Literature, email or