Admission & Financial Aid

Admission & Financial Aid


Regulations & Requirements

Regulations & Requirements


Amherst College Courses

Amherst College Courses


First-Year Seminars

 During 2015-16, Faculty members in groups of one or more will teach 30 First-Year Seminars. Every first-year student must take one of these courses during the fall semester. They are open only to Amherst College first-year students.

101 Oceans of the Past

Participants in "Oceans of the Past" will explore global maritime history. We will investigate how mariners, pirates, smugglers, merchants, novelists, cartographers, hunters, policymakers, and scientists have understood the seas from ancient times to the present. We will also look at long-term environmental issues shaping our maritime futures. These include: climate change, fisheries management, and aquatic pollution. In addition to our classroom activities, we will use the collections at the Mead Art Museum and make a trip to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. Staff members from the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole and the Nantucket Historical Association will visit us during the semester.

Fall semester. Professor Melillo.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2024

102 Art in Place and the Place of the Arts

Art is the product of the imagination, but imagination is often the product of a place.  We will examine the process by which art can spring from and return to a place, whether geographically or abstractly located.  The course will survey the interaction of place and art from several perspectives: site-specific art, art in the community, art across borders and frontiers, art in the academy, art in the marketplace, and art and ecology.  Each perspective will be framed by examples of established work in music, dance, theater, and film that arise from or respond to place, both locally and globally.  We will also consider work created by artists in our region, and on our own campus by Five College faculty and students.  Finally, students will be given tools to work on a final creative project of their own, individual or collaborative, following the models and approaches to interaction with place that they have studied.

The primary texts for this seminar will be works of art in different disciplines:  dance, theater, music, literature, film and visual art supplemented by theoretical texts that provide useful context and ways to think about Art in Place/the Place of Art.  Weekly viewings of live and virtual works will be required as well as written responses and class discussions about the works of art.  Some of these viewings will involve field trips in the pioneer valley and nearby cities. An emphasis will be placed on students becoming familiar with the wealth of art practices, exhibitions and archives that are available to them as students at Amherst and in the Five Colleges. Additionally students will be encouraged to see and discuss connections between the arts and other disciplines within a liberal arts curriculum as well as their capabilities to build communities and collaborations.  In addition to critical writing and discussion students will create their own art projects in different media as a response to/inspired by some of the examples of work that we see during the semester, working independently and in collaborative groups.  The objective in these projects is not necessarily to become an expert in art making but to engage in art experimentation as a method of analysis and discovery and as a way to view the world.

Fall semester. Professors Sawyer and Woodson.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2023

103 The Great Schism through Eastern Eyes

How does one account for the Great Schism, the centuries-long estrangement between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian churches? How does a religion such as Christianity—whose texts and traditions speak so eloquently about unity—find itself so riven by division? We'll explore such questions in a broad array of primary documents authored between the first and twenty-first centuries by Greeks, Russians, Syrians, Egyptians, Georgians, Serbs, Ukrainians, and Poles. How did the Eastern church become isolated from the West, and why does this isolation persist?

We'll engage in close reading, critical interpretation, and vigorous discussion of theological treatises, biographies, diplomatic communiqués, fiction, scripture, journalistic accounts, commentaries, missives, and satire. We'll examine portrayals of "the other" in film, painting, and propaganda. We'll consider attempts by anthropologists, theologians, and historians to explain religious divisions. We'll grapple repeatedly with tensions between, on the one hand, Eastern Orthodoxy's conception of itself as an ecumenical and universal confession, and, on the other hand, its multiple manifestations in various regions and cultures. And as we critique arguments crafted by others through the centuries, we'll critique our own in structured debates and written essays. 

Fall semester.  Professor Geffert.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

105 Faraway Places

A faraway place. What does this conjure for you? This course takes as its object of inquiry the notion of a faraway place. Cutting across histories of scientific expeditions, colonialism, pilgrimage, migration, trade and tourism, we will begin to think about what it means to travel and how it has impacted identity, language, place, space and time. Questions we will ask include: What makes a place faraway? Is travel required? What kind? What is learned through contact? How have places and people been represented in faraway places? What is the relationship between visitor and visited? What is produced through contact and difference? Why do people travel? Can everyone travel? Who is mobile and who isn’t? What does it mean to be located?

This is a discussion-driven course and students should be prepared to be active participants in both class presentations and discussions. Readings will be drawn from a wide array of sources including research articles, novels, films, photographs, poems, and popular essays. This course is also writing attentive and will offer students a variety of opportunities to prepare, edit and improve their writing through reading reviews, reflection pieces and research analysis.

Fall semester. Visiting Professor A. Hall.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2024

106 Language Crossing and Living in Translation  

When did you start dreaming in a second language? Which translation of the Bible counts as the Word of God? Was Mary a virgin or a maiden? What happens to the immigrant children who need to the be interpreters in the life of their family? How much more tangled or how much more nimble is the wiring of the bilingual brain? What are we doing to our languages when we immerse in a new academic discipline? We will tackle these and other questions like these as we engage in the following units of study:  (1) Babel and language differentiation and diffusion.  (2) European translators from early modern humanism and the Reformation.  (3) Case studies:  Squanto, Malinche and the Navajo Code talkers.  (4) Language in contemporary empires and resistance, migrations and globalization.  (5) Language issues in gay and lesbian diasporas.  (6) Bi- or multi-lingual education.  (7) Literary practitioners of living in and out of translation:  Luis de León, Vladimir Nabokov, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

The seminar will work with the same texts, issues and exercise for about two-thirds of our time together. The other third we will concentrate on projects that emerge from the students’ own linguistic condition. Students will be required to delve into their own family archives looking for ancestors’ letters written in languages they cannot yet read. They will be encouraged to document/fictionalize the stakes of marrying into another language, or to study and report on the language crossings of their particular diaspora.

Despite the apparent advantage of having more than one language to engage in our work, this course has no prerequisites and its does not exclude monolinguals. When we talk about the cultural contributions, the headiness and the struggles of bi- or multi-lingual individuals, it will be invaluable to have interlocutors who think they live only in one language.

Fall semester.  Lecturer B. Sánchez-Eppler.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

107 Secrets and Lies

Politics seems almost unimaginable without secrecy and lying. From the noble lie of Plato's Republic to the controversy about former President Clinton's "lying" in the Monica Lewinsky case, from the use of secrecy in today's war against terrorism to the endless spinning of political campaigns, from President John Kennedy's behavior during the Cuban missile crisis to cover-ups concerning pedophile priests in the Catholic church, from Freud's efforts to decode the secrets beneath civilized life to contemporary exposés of the private lives of politicians, politics and deception seem to go hand-in-hand. This course investigates how the practices of politics are informed by the keeping and telling of secrets, and the telling and exposing of lies. We will address such questions as: When, if ever, is it right to lie or to breach confidences? When is it right to expose secrets and lies? Is it necessary to be prepared to lie in order to advance the cause of justice? Or, must we do justice justly? When is secrecy really necessary and when is it merely a pretext for Machiavellian manipulation? Are secrecy and deceit more prevalent in some kinds of political systems than in others? As we explore those questions we will discuss the place of candor and openness in politics and social life; the relationship between the claims of privacy (e.g., the closeting of sexual desire) and secrecy and deception in public arenas; conspiracy theories as they are applied to politics; and the importance of secrecy in the domains of national security and law enforcement. We will examine the treatment of secrecy and lying in political theory as well as their appearance in literature and popular culture, for example Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Primary Colors, Schindler's List and The Insider.

This is a discussion-based course. Students will be expected to be active participants in the seminar. During the course of the semester we will use our discussions to cultivate reasoning skills as well as student capacities to present arguments in a compelling manner. In addition, there will be frequent writing, and I will provide careful and extended responses to student writing. The course will provide an introduction to liberal studies by helping students learn how to read and comprehend complex texts, respond to them in sophisticated ways, and engage in critical reasoning about venerable and pressing ethical, social and political problems. 

Fall semester. Professor Sarat.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018, Fall 2019, Fall 2020, Fall 2021, Fall 2022, Fall 2023, Fall 2024

108 Evolution and Intellectual Revolution

The centerpiece of this course is Darwin and his book On the Origin of Species.  Like all revolutionary ideas, Darwin's theory did not appear out of nowhere and did not settle matters once and for all; therefore the course will explore the scientific context in which this work appeared and Darwin's own intellectual background.  We will read the great book itself to see what exactly Darwin had to say and how he went about saying it.  Pigeons will come up. Then extracts from the writings of Darwin's contemporaries will be used to look at the scientific, social, and theological responses to Darwin's theory.  Finally, we will consider a few of the major issues in evolution that still reverberate today.

The course on Darwin's theory will be taught as a seminar--we will all read something, then gather together and try to figure out what exactly it was that we read.  The reading itself will be challenging, sometimes because the ideas are subtle, sometimes because the sentences are long, sometimes both, and discussion will be necessary to figure out what happened in the readings.  There will be many writing assignments, most of them short.  A common assignment might be to summarize and explain an argument, or to imagine the response of one point of view to an argument from a different point of view.  We hope that you will come away from the course with a better understanding of evolutionary theory and its impact on the world, but also with an enhanced appreciation of vigorous reasoning and a better idea of how to fashion and support your own arguments.

Fall semester.  Professors Crowley, Miller and Servos.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

109 Mind and Brain

How could there be any difficulty understanding mind, when we seem to have easy and direct access to the workings of our own minds simply by paying attention to what we are experiencing at the moment?  By comparison, matter—including the matter our bodies are made of—seems foreign and remote.  Yet why, on thinking more about it, does mind seem so mysterious that the seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes could liken it to something "extremely rare and subtle like a wind, a flame, or an ether"?  Descartes believed that mind is puzzling because our apprehension of it is obscured and distorted by the body and the senses.  He argued that until we turn things around and analyze the mind with the penetrating clarity he thought possible, we will not be able to justify our claims to know anything.

These are intriguing ideas, especially since one aim of liberal education is to develop habits of mind such as a willingness to question one's own beliefs, to say clearly what we believe and why we believe it, and to ask ourselves whether we have a sound basis for our beliefs.  If Descartes is right, we cannot proceed far in liberal studies without inquiring into the nature of mind and determining its powers and limitations in connection with knowledge and reasonable belief.  We will ask whether Descartes' account of mind can survive what is known today about the unconscious, the influence of emotions and conditioning on belief and action, and the relation between brain function and mind.  How does Descartes' view of mind fare in explaining personal identity, free will, and differences between humans and computers or animals?

The goal of the course is not to uncover a completely satisfactory account of mind—none exists at present—but rather to organize puzzlement through the process of clarifying and examining basic beliefs and assumptions about the nature of mind.  This process involves self-scrutiny, as well as discussion and writing based on readings from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, plus occasional laboratory work.  The aim is to give opportunities to develop an inquiring mind capable of tolerating ambiguity rather than clinging to false certainties, yet also capable of having beliefs rather than retreating into total skepticism.  Three classroom hours per week.

Fall semester. Professor Emeritus S. George.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

110 Authority, Obedience and the Rule of Law

All political systems must operate according to the "rule of law" if they are to be deemed legitimate. This statement has assumed the quality of a truism:  we hear it repeated by the President of the United States, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the President of the International Criminal Court.  At the same time, though, that everyone seems to agree that the "rule of law" is a good thing, no one seems able to say for sure what the "rule of law" is.  What, then, do we mean by the "rule of law"? What does it mean to speak of government limited by law? What are these limits, where do they come from, and how are they enforced? What role does the "rule of law" play in legitimating structures of governance? Does the "rule of law" imply any particular relationship between legality and morality?  We will hazard answers to these questions through a close reading of works of theorists such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, H.L.A. Hart and Lon Fuller.  In addition, we will examine the arguments of the theorists as they help us think through pressing legal challenges of our age, such as defining the limits of executive power in the "war against terror."

Our seminar will be devoted to the close reading of a select number of texts.  We will analyze the structure, meaning and adequacy of the arguments contained in these works through vigorous discussion and frequent writing assignments.  Our aim is to gain a rich critical understanding of a concept that lies at the foundation of domestic and international socio-political systems, and to improve our abilities to discuss and write about complex ideas with sophistication, nuance and flair.

Fall semester. Professor Douglas.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

111 Violence and Politics

[ IL, G ] Violence lies at the very heart of both political institutions, such as the state, as well as the expression of political beliefs.  Focusing on domestic rather than international forms of conflict, this course will address questions of what violence is, how it is organized in society, and what it means to those who use it.  We will first identify ways to think about violence as a political activity--why do actors choose violent over non-violent means of resisting governments or expressing dissent?  Is violence ever rational?  What purposes does it serve?  How is violence different from other kinds of political interaction like arguing or debating?  Next we will think about how violence is organized--that is, how do political leaders, parties, police forces, and paramilitaries, for example, try to control and manage the use of force?  When do private individuals and groups choose to protect themselves and when do they turn to the state?  Building on the theoretical interventions of scholars such as Arendt, Weber, Sartre and others, we will use empirical studies of the political use of force from around the world to ask how violence shapes political phenomena such as elections, protest movements, taxation, and nationalism.

This seminar course is designed both to facilitate engaged classroom discussion as well as improve analytic skills. Throughout the course we will engage with the arguments and contentions of a number of key theoretical and empirical works, which will provide a foundation for critical reading and reflection through writing. The core assignment of the course is a 12-15 page paper, which we will break into a number of sub-assignments, allowing students to learn organizational skills involved in managing larger projects and providing feedback and opportunities for re-drafting.  

Fall semester.  Professor Obert.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023, Fall 2024

112 Growing Up in America

How do race, ethnicity, social class and gender shape the experience of growing up in America? We will begin by examining the life of a contemporary African-American male on his journey from the inner city to an Ivy League university. We then look back historically at some nineteenth-century lives--male and female, real and fictional--to understand how the transition from an agricultural to an urban industrial society has influenced the experience of coming of age.  The remainder of the course will center on coming of age in the twentieth century. Our focus will be on the formation of identity, relationship with parents, courtship, sexuality, and the importance of culture and community. In addition to historical, sociological and psychological texts, the class will include fiction by Horatio Alger, Ella Deloria, and James Baldwin.

The course introduces students to liberal studies through exposure to interdisciplinary readings and methods of inquiry from history, psychology, sociology and literature. We hope to advance students’ skills at reading critically, analyzing arguments, and articulating ideas orally and in their writing, skills that will be crucial for future coursework at the college. Preparation for each class involves students formulating questions on the reading assignment, and students are expected to be active participants in this entirely discussion-based course. We find that students readily connect to the material and learn from one another as they respond to the material in diverse ways. The writing assignments range in length from 2-6 pages and involve the analysis of individual texts and the connection between texts. Through paper assignments students will work on developing their own arguments, backing up their arguments with evidence, and revising their prose.

Fall semester. Professors Aries and Hart.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

113 Beethoven Hero

How did Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) become the universal composer, a quintessential figure who embodies the highest aspirations of humanity across boundaries of culture and history? How did he and his music become intertwined with the artistic and political idea of hero?  

We will consider these questions in a series of case studies, employing his music and life story to explore how Beethoven became a prism for refracting cultural meaning. Seminar members—whether familiar with music or undertaking its study for the first time—will develop the practice of active listening in combination with class discussion, frequent short writing projects, concert attendance, and conversations with visiting musicians.

Fall semester. Professor Kallick.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2022, Fall 2024

114 Reading Asian American

Who or what is Asian American? What meanings does that term have? How does it operate as a descriptor to define a range of people of heterogeneous histories and cultural backgrounds? How is it defined and manifested in the realms of art, law, education and politics? In this course, we will explore the evolution of terms to define peoples of Asian descent in America and the corresponding creation of this fluid panethnic label of identification. By examining discrete moments in American history when the meaning of Asian American was contested we will examine the construction and ongoing legacy of this American identity.

The course will be highly interdisciplinary and include readings in literature, history, and law and involve archival research on local Asian American history. Most course meetings will involve group discussion of course materials. Coursework will include essays, research assignments, and group presentations. Instruction in writing will also be a major focus of the course. 

Fall semester.  Professor Hayashi.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

115 Sporting Life

Most of us play sports, and many of us also follow the sporting accomplishments of others. Sport plays a significant role in education, in culture, and even in politics. It’s also a multi-billion dollar international business. Yet sport has received scant theoretical attention, especially within philosophy. Perhaps this is because sport is conceptually connected with play, and so seems unworthy of serious study. Yet sport raises many fascinating questions that touch on the human condition.

Can we even say what counts as a sport (hiking, cheer-leading, beer-pong)? How do rules figure in sports, in helping us distinguish, for example, between gamesmanship, cheating, and being a spoil-sport? Is sport a form of art? What do modern sporting institutions say about our society—about issues of race, class, nationality and gender, for example? Is sport a good thing, especially since it centrally involves competition, which can lead to alienation and violence? What exactly is wrong with doping and other enhancements in sports? And finally, what’s the proper role of sport in higher education—in particular, at Amherst College? Over the course of the semester, we will explore these and other questions about the nature of sport, and the role it plays in our own lives.

This is a discussion-based seminar. Close attention will be paid to student writing both in required papers and in informal assignments. The goal of the seminar is to sharpen our ability to think and write argumentatively, but also flexibly about the nature of sport in its many aspects. For this reason, we will investigate the way that sport is approached in texts of different types—philosophical, psychological, historical, sociological, scientific and literary.

Fall semester.  Professor Moore.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

116 Thought Experiments in Physics

As a boy, Einstein famously imagined chasing a light beam on its way to a mirror and wondered if he would see his reflection in such an event.  Later in life, he was struck by the conflict such a hypothetical experiment would create with other parts of experience and physical theory.  This reflection (or its absence!) eventually led him to the formulation of the special theory of relativity.  The kind of reasoning Einstein undertook as a boy goes by the name gedankenexperiment or thought-experiment.  In fact before Einstein, different kinds of thought-experiments had been used by Galileo and Newton among others in their path-breaking contributions to physics.  The common element in these works in the philosopher Martin Cohen's words "is the discovery of a way of seeing the world" rather than making an observation, measurement or even a realistic model of some physical system.  In this seminar we will read the accounts of thought experiments by Galileo, Newton and Einstein as a primary means of gaining some insights into aspects of space, time, motion, relativity, and gravity.  The discussion will be supplemented by more contemporary texts.  We will inquire into the peculiar status thought experimentrs have in producing knowledge or understanding.

This course does not require a background in science, but we will be reading sources that make use of some geometry and mathematical reasoning.  In addition, students will be assigned simple problem sets involving numerical and graphical work based on high school mathematics.  The aim of these exercises is to teach parts of fundamental physics that are accessible without a strong technical background, but with some attention to epistemological considerations; while some historical context will be essential, our main focus will not be on issues in history of science.  The course will require a fair amount of writing, including short papers on the strengths and limitations of the particular arguments advanced by our sources and a final paper on the philosophical questions raised by thought-experiments.  

Fall semester.  Professor Jagannathan.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023, Fall 2024

117 Performance

This course will explore the basic elements of performance as an art form, including the relationship between action and environment, time and space, and perception and memory on the stage.  Students will attend a broad range of performances, from traditional theater and opera to contemporary dance and installation work, and explore the nature of performance and the audience experience in regular descriptive and analytical writing.  Additional readings and other media will serve as a springboard for class discussion, and as potential starting points and/or narrative frameworks for the creation of designs or performance pieces, allowing students to develop ideas for a final project within established contexts.  Required field trips.

Fall semester. Professors Dougan and Bashford.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023, Fall 2024

118 Crossing

The lines of race and sex are enforced by parables of powerful figures who cross these boundaries to take on new identities, for good or ill. Those who artfully “pass” or transform themselves can corrupt and disrupt the social order or, alternatively, renew it. Some do both, like the foreign-born (he thinks) Oedipus, who wins a throne and a queen for courageously curing one plague, then brings another for committing incest and parricide. Tales of women warriors, race-émigrés, two-spirit people, and closeted geniuses celebrate human potential, if often tragically. But rarely distant are fears about contagion and “crimes against nature,” that entrench notions of racial purity, gender conformity, and sexual normality.  

We consider a range of novels, plays, films, and self-narratives that address the intersectionality of racial, gendered, and LGBT identities in Western culture.  We focus on three turning points: Athens in the fifth century BCE; the 1920s, including the Harlem Renaissance; and the growth of multicultural queer and trans cultures in recent decades.  Literary works include Sophocles, Oedipus the King; Euripides, Medea and The Bacchae; Plato, Symposium; Willa Cather, The Professor’s House; Nella Larsen, Passing; James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man; Virginia Woolf, Orlando; Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask; Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman; and David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly.  Films include Leontine Sagan, Mädchen in Uniform: Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning; and Kimberly Pierce, Boys Don’t Cry.

This seminar aims to develop skills of critical reading and analytical writing by active participation in class discussion, as informed by questions and comments submitted before class, and by consultation with the instructor in the writing of five essays of increasing complexity. To develop oral argumentation, discussion is regularly supplemented by group reports and debates.    

Fall semester.  Professor Griffiths.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

119 Happiness

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson breaks with John Locke's emphasis on "life, liberty and property" and instead asserts that the basic rights ("inalienable") of humans are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." In this bold move, Jefferson placed "happiness" at the core of the political and personal concern. We will examine in this seminar how we define, measure, and attempt to generate and maintain happiness. Our examination will serve as an introduction to the many methods of inquiry and articulation available at the College. We will read, discuss and write about written texts from philosophy, political science, history, literature, psychology and economics. We will watch, discuss and write about films from different eras that demonstrate examples of "happiness." In addition, we will undertake exercises that will allow students to become mindful of their own well-being and will allow them to have direct experiences of the issues we address. Classes will be held to generate conversations about the texts, films and exercises. There will be frequent, short writing assignments on the materials of the seminar and one relatively long final paper. Thus, students will gain practice in the articulation of their ideas and internal states through speaking, writing and self-awareness.

Fall semester.  Professor Barbezat.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

120 Pariscape: Imagining Paris in the Twentieth Century

Paris has been for centuries one of the exemplary sites of our urban sensibility, a city that has indelibly and controversially influenced the twentieth-century imagination.  Poets, novelists and essayists, painters, photographers and film-makers: all have made use of Paris and its cityscape to examine relationships among technology, literature, city planning, art, social organizations, politics and what we might call the urban imagination.  This course will study how these writers and visual artists have seen Paris, and how, through their representations, they created and challenged the “modernist” world view.

In order to discover elements of a common memory of Paris, we will study a group of writers (Baudelaire, Zola, Calvino, Stein, Hemingway and others), philosophers and social commentators (Simmel, Benjamin), filmmakers (Truffaut, Godart, Tati and others), photographers (Atget and Brassaï), and painters (Manet, Cézanne, Picasso, Delaunay, and others).  Finally, we will look at how such factors as tourism, print media, public works, immigration and suburban development affect a city’s simultaneous and frequently uncomfortable identity as both a geopolitical and an imaginative site.

This is a course where participation will be expected of each and every student. It will not be a lecture course. To do well, each student will be expected to be an active participant in each class meeting. Written work should reflect the quality of the seminar’s discussions. Logic in argument and rhetorical subtlety will be considered strengths. I will provide extensive comments on student papers, and will expect students to discuss those comments–-positive and negative-–with me in private meetings. Students will also work in teams on specific projects.

This course seeks to introduce students to the intellectual variety of the liberal arts, their content and methods. We will touch on such disciplines as literary analysis and close reading, translation, history, sociology, psychology, photographic and film analysis, art and architectural history, anthropology, gender and ethnic studies, sexuality, demographics, politics and the law.  Knowledge of French is not necessary.

We will always keep a sense of humor, perhaps take a field trip to New York, and not be patronizing to those who do not have the good fortune to be in this seminar.

Fall semester. Professor Rosbottom.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

121 The World, Performed

“Mere theater!” we might say dismissively of a political event.  “He just loves drama,” we might say about a friend behind his back.  “She’s such a diva!”  “He’s putting on a show!”  You get the idea.  Our language often implies that the world is a theatrical performance, and when it does we usually mean that it’s insubstantial or inflated or fake.

But seeing the world as performance can also be a powerful and empowering act.  In this course, we will chart the history of this Janus-faced concept in the West, from its ancient roots in the notion of the theatrum mundi  (the theater of the world) to the present-day understanding that gender, for instance, is “performed.”

We will attend performances and watch films; read dramatic, literary and theoretical texts on this theme; and discuss them together as a class.  You will also attend non-theatrical events in order to examine them "as performance."  In frequent writing assignments, you will learn how to bridge the gap between the Big Ideas of this course and particular texts or performances, but we will focus, not just on critical analysis, but also on the creative craft of essay-writing.  For instance, special attention will be paid to the way your writing might evoke a lost or absent performance for your reader.

Fall semester.  Professor Grobe.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

122 Representing Equality

This seminar is the third in a sequence that studies Amherst campus life, its history, privileges and problems, with the aim of creating productive discussions designed to make a friendlier and more integrated community.  In Representing Equality, students will engage with art work and texts that touch on a variety of aspects of inequality in our larger society, including educational disparities as well as racial, ethnic, gender, and economic inequality; for example, they will read  the work of Anna Deveare Smith that examines the ethnic rifts leading to violence. They will also explore techniques of productive dialogue across differences and acquire skills in interviewing and careful listening. These discussions and skills will help students to construct a class project that will explore social life on the Amherst campus and that will pick up on and broaden conversations started in this seminar in 2013 about creating a  safer and more cohesive environment--one that helps members to benefit from the extraordinary diversity among students and that links inequalities and stereotypes to sexual violence and other local and national problems. Students will conduct interviews with other students, faculty, and staff to deepen their understanding of campus life. They will collaborate  on photographic representations of campus issues and produce an end-of-semester public event to  summarize their findings and generate further dialogue.      

Class meets on Tuesday 11:30 a.m. - 12:50 p.m. and Friday 2:00 - 4:00 p.m. Fall semester. Visiting Artist-in-Residence Ewald and Professor Saxton.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

123 Drugs in History

This course examines the changing ways that human beings have used psychoactive drugs and societies have controlled that use. After examining drug use in historical and cross-cultural perspectives and studying the physiological and psychological effects of different drugs, we look at the ways in which contemporary societies both encourage and repress drug use. We address the drug war, the disease model of drug addiction, the proliferation of prescription drugs, the images of drug use in popular culture, America’s complicated history of alcohol control, and international drug trafficking and its implications for American foreign policy. Readings include Huxley’s Brave New World, Kramer’s Listening to Prozac and Reinarman and Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise; films include Drugstore Cowboy and Traffic. This course will be writing attentive.

Fall semester. Professors Couvares and Himmelstein.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

124 Vienna around 1900: Cradle of Modernity

This course explores the “joyful apocalypse” of fin-de-siècle Vienna, where brilliant artistic creativity emerged in a volatile multi-ethnic Empire teetering on the verge of collapse.   We shall examine how and why the city became the birthplace of many ideas on gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity that continue to be relevant today. We shall explore artistic experimentation in literature (Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Musil, Kraus), music (Mahler, Schönberg), and the visual arts (Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, O. Wagner, A. Loos).  We shall trace the various forces that sought to respond to a pervasive sense of crisis: the emergence of new, often irrational, forms of mass politics; the psychoanalysis of Freud; the skeptical philosophies of Ernst Mach and Ludwig Wittgenstein; the pacifism of Bertha von Suttner; and the emergence of modern Zionism (Theodor Herzl) in a context of a growing anti-Semitism that shaped Hitler’s irrational worldview.  And we shall discuss how fin-de-siècle Vienna became a breeding ground for many of the social, cultural, and political forces that characterize modernity to this day.  Weekly writing assignments of diverse kinds will be complemented by a focus on methods and techniques of inquiry.

Fall semester.  Professor Rogowski.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

125 Giving

The act of giving can appear deceptively straight forward and entirely altruistic.  But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us, “We wish to be self-sustained.  We do not quite forgive a giver.”  In this seminar we will examine the act of giving–giving between people, between institutions and people, and entirely between institutions–from an inter-disciplinary lens to reflect on what it means to give. We will intentionally reveal and challenge our initial assumptions about giving.  Using a variety of texts in class–religious, literary, first person accounts, and public policy, we will explore the diverse forms philanthropy has taken over time and across cultures–its philosophical underpinnings, its complex interrelationships with religious notions of charity and secular notions of democracy, and its often paradoxical effects on social relations and public policy.  Each student will be asked to spend at least 10 hours working with a local charity organization.

The work with a local charity will be undertaken with careful attention to the ethical questions that are raised by this work. We will also view it as one more text that is accessible to analysis and meaning making. The course will begin and end with the same assignment–a reflective essay in which each student develops his or her personal framework for giving. It is anticipated that the texts and class discussions will influence the evolution of this framework and, hence, the robustness of the final essay.  Along the way, class discussions, readings, and short papers will help students develop their skills as readers, writers and thinkers. 

Fall semester.  Lecturer Mead.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

126 Relativism and Toleration

Most of us agree that we should be tolerant of the beliefs and practices of others. Often the call for tolerance is grounded in some form of relativism—that is, in the thought that there simply isn’t an absolute or objective fact of the matter. After all, on what basis could we insist that others share our beliefs if those beliefs are subjective in some way, a function of our upbringing, our religion, our social norms, our culture, or our own peculiar tastes and concerns? But what reasons do we have to accept some such form of relativism? Can relativism really ground our commitment to tolerance? If not, then how else can we justify that commitment? We will explore these questions as they arise in a number of different philosophical and religious traditions. Readings will be drawn from both classical and contemporary sources and will include the work of anthropologists, literary and political theorists, philosophers, and theologians.

Most course meetings will involve a combination of interactive lecture and discussion. Our task will be to make sense of the ideas and arguments advanced in the texts we are reading and to determine whether those ideas and arguments are cogent. We will also work together to formulate compelling arguments of our own. Students are required to participate actively and intelligently in these class discussions, which will often take the form of a close reading and analysis of a passage from the assigned reading. I will encourage participation by randomly calling on students at various points during the semester to summarize and explain ideas and arguments from the reading. Note that in order to participate effectively in such discussions, students must read the assigned texts carefully and aggressively before coming to class.

Fall semester. Professor Shah.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

127 Genes, Genomes and Society

The sequencing of the human genome ranks as one of the most significant scientific achievements of the last century. How might we ensure that scientific progress is matched by society’s ability to use that knowledge for human betterment? While the scientific ramifications of the genomic revolution are just now being explored, major implications are already apparent in such diverse fields as philosophy, medicine and law. The course will begin with a primer on genetics and molecular biology but quickly move to consider some of the philosophical, ethical, and very practical societal concerns raised by recent genetic discoveries. We will consider such issues as the safety of recombinant DNA, the origin of humans and of human races (and are there such?), the use and potential misuse of DNA fingerprinting by governmental agencies, the complex interaction between one’s genes and one’s environment, the ability of parents to screen potential offspring for a range of diseases, the creation of genetically altered plants and animals, and human gene therapy.

In this discussion-based course, students will consider the “code of life” from molecular, evolutionary, philosophical, ethical, and legal perspectives. Students will be expected to engage the full range of thought–from the evaluation of primary-source scientific data to the consideration of their societal ramifications–that accompanies a major scientific revolution. Readings will be drawn from an array of sources including original-research articles, histories, popular-science works, and essays. Careful attention will be paid to the conveyance of ideas: frequent writing projects will be assigned, and students will discuss their work in formal presentations and the occasional debate.  All students should expect to contribute to the back-and-forth exchange of ideas in the classroom each day.

Fall semester. Professor Bishop.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023, Fall 2024

128 The Literature of Love

This course examines literary, artistic, religious, and philosophical explorations of romantic, erotic, and ethical varieties of love. It is centered on the literary, artistic, and intellectual traditions of premodern South Asia, but will offer occasional comparative forays into conceptions and schemas of love in western traditions. We will focus on India’s classical art and its literatures of epic stories, court poetry, erotics, and aesthetic theory to examine romantic love, and its religious literatures to explore ethical and religious love.

The objective of the course is to develop conceptual and aesthetic sophistication about love in many of its varieties:  ethical, religious, family, romantic, and erotic.  While we are focused on the rich literary, religious, and philosophical texts of classical India, we will also engage in comparative study with theorists of love from the western traditions. While we are cultivating our capacities to read texts in rich and complex ways, the course will also incorporate the study and critical appreciation of South Asian art, using the Mead Art Museum’s fine collection. The seminar sharpens students’ critical and argumentative tools, their abilities to read and analyze texts, and their capacities to express themselves in writing.

Fall semester.  Professor M. Heim.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

129 Africa: Power and Representation

The right to represent oneself has always been an important piece of symbolic capital and a source of power.  External representations of Africa have consistently distorted and misinterpreted the peoples and cultures of the continent.  Within Africa, this right--to produce and display particular images--has been inseparable from both secular and sacred power.  The discrepancy in interpretation of various images, whether these are in the form of visual objects or in the form of philosophies or concepts, has produced a misunderstanding of African institutions and art?  In addition, historically the right to represent and claim one's identity has become increasingly politicized.  Control over various representations and images of Africa and things African has become contested.  Using an interdisciplinary focus from the fields of art history, history and anthropology, this course will examine representations and interpretations of images of Africa both from within and from outside the continent.  Ultimately we will link these various forms of power and legitimacy to consider the complexity behind the development of an idea of Africa.

The assigned readings for this seminar draw on literature from a wide range of disciplines as well as on films and novels.  These assignments are designed to teach students the ways in which knowledge and understanding of seemingly disparate and unrelated fields of inquiry combine and are essential to our understanding of this large and diverse continent in the twenty-first century.  This includes both our understanding of larger philosophical questions such as the relationship between control over categories of meaning and representation of both groups and individuals in the calculus of power at various historical moments, and the realities of the historical forces, contingencies and contests that have led to the situations of African peoples and States in today's global politial economy.  Students will complete weekly reading and writing assignments ranging from learning African geography and a map quiz to filling out question sheets on assigned readings designed to teach them how to read for overall themes and questions rather than facts alone, to turning in questions on the readings and being responsible in small groups for leading class discussions.  Students are expected to participate actively in class discussion, and most assignments are designed to encourage lively discussion.

Fall semester.  Professor Goheen.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023, Fall 2024

130 Education: For Whom and What For?

Who should have access to education and to what sorts?   Should people shoulder the costs of their and their children’s education, or would a just society insure an equal opportunity to education for all members?  These issues, in turn, raise basic philosophical questions.  What is the nature of a just society? Are we entitled only to the results of our own labor (and luck) in a market economy? Or does a just society guarantee rights to certain goods to all citizens (or all members)? If the latter, which goods must a just society protect?  What role does education play in a good human life? Is its value mainly instrumental in giving one the skills and credentials that are desired in a market economy?  Does the optimal functioning of a democratic society depend on its citizens having a certain level of understanding of the way the world works?  Does it depend on its citizens having a certain moral character? Can character be taught? Should it be? These issues, in turn, raise questions about the relative weight and nature of various goods (e.g., life, liberty, and happiness) and questions about the justice of various distributions of these goods between different individuals.  Finally, our attempts to answer these questions will raise basic questions about the nature of rationality. Is it possible to reach rational decisions about ethical matters, or is ethics merely subjective?

This course is designed as a First-Year Seminar for transfer students. In addition to the philosophical content of this course, we will focus on the academic skills (e.g., critical reading, writing, discussion, public speaking) and institutional knowledge required for students to thrive academically at Amherst College. 

Fall semester.  Professor Gentzler and Senior Writing Assistant Sanchez.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023