During 2017-18, Faculty members in groups of one or more will teach 34 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.
The Value of Nature
Our impact on the environment has been large, and in recent decades the pace of change has clearly accelerated, with the effects of climate change now being experienced around the world. Many species face extinction, forests are disappearing, and toxic wastes and emissions accumulate. The prospect of a general environmental calamity seems all too real.
This sense of crisis has spurred intense and wide-ranging debate over what our proper relationship to nature should be. This debate will be the focus of the seminar. Among the questions we shall explore will be: What obligations, if any, do we have to non-human animals, to living organisms like trees, to ecosystems as a whole, and to future generations of humans? Do animals have rights we ought to respect? Is nature intrinsically valuable or merely a bundle of utilities for our benefit? Is there even a stable notion of “what is natural” that can be deployed in a workable environmental ethic? We will investigate these and related questions with readings from diverse literature.
This is a discussion-based seminar, with close attention to writing. The seminar’s goal is to sharpen the ability to critically think and write argumentatively, but also flexibly, about nature and our attitudes towards it.
Fall semester. Senior Lecturer Levin.
Angels and Demons on the Opera Stage
In Madwoman in the Attic Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argued that women are regularly depicted in literature either as pure angels or dangerous madwomen. Angels or demons, victims or perpetrators, women are routinely destroyed on the opera stage. The angelic Gilda sacrifices herself to save her seducer, Madame Butterfly stabs herself in desperation, Salome is slaughtered after she kisses the severed head of John the Baptist, Carmen is brutally murdered by her vengeful lover, and Lulu is finished off by Jack the Ripper, leaving her final scream to reverberate in our ears after the opera is over. In opera only a few women are allowed to survive with dignity the onslaught of male desire. With its misogynistic plots, opera is the perfect place to start reading music from a feminist perspective. Along with seminal texts by feminist music critics such as Catherine Clément, Susan McClary, and Carolyn Abbate, we will read the music of women in famous operas (among them Lucia di Lammermoor, Bluebeard’s Castle, Carmen, Salome, Madame Butterfly), finishing the course with an opera by a contemporary woman composer, Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin.
Fall semester. Professor Moricz.Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2023
From the early nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, Russia served as the world's greatest incubator of revolutionary thought. Philosophers, politicians, clerics, literary figures, and activists of every stripe asked in publication after publication and debate after debate, "What is to be done?” How do we fix a country beset by innumerable and seemingly intractable problems? Do we look to the West for answers, or do we look within? Should we face our travails by affirming traditional values, or should we reexamine those values? Must we reform existing institutions, or must we scrap the entire system altogether and start anew?
In this course we will read proposals by those advocating this latter option—outright revolution—and the responses of those horrified by such thinking. All these proposals and counterproposals tackle fundamental questions still relevant in our era: Does history follow rules? Can individuals change the course of history? Is government a tool for good or evil? Does religion function as a reactionary or a progressive force? Can we identify and embrace universal values, or do values rightly differ among regions? Does ideology flow from economics, or do economics develop according to ideology?
We will read arguments by Bakunin, Berkman, Chernyshevsky, Dostoevsky, Herzen, Lenin, Plekhanov, Pobedonostsev, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Zaulich, and others—published in philosophical essays, novels, political treatises, journal articles, and pamphlets. And as we read these thinkers arguing with each other, we will debate their questions ourselves.
Fall semester. Professor Geffert.Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
“Exile” is both a person who is forced to leave his or her native country and a state of exclusion; both an individual and an experience. This class attempts to understand the exile experience through the work of artists, writers and thinkers from Spain and Latin America who were forced from their homelands. We will trace the reasons, confusions and consequences that the experience of exile produces by examining the lives and works of artists such as Cristina Peri Rossi, Jorge Semprún, Julio Cortázar, Reinaldo Arenas, Rigoberta Menchú, and Pablo Picasso, among other examples, as they enter into states of exile and self-consciously examine their own limbo between two countries. Many of these individuals and works of art left Spain or countries in Latin America because of their political opposition to the ruling regime; we will delve into the historical, political and cultural backgrounds that resulted in their exile. In addition, we will linger over the larger questions exile raises: Is there a difference between immigration and exile? Can the exile ever return home? Are the children of exiles also exiles?
As an interdisciplinary approach to the topic of exile, this course will expose the student to a variety of fields of inquiry central to the liberal arts, including literary, film, historical, political, and cultural studies. The class focuses on Spain and Latin America, and some texts will be available in both English and Spanish; however, knowledge of Spanish is not required. This course will be discussion based, meaning that students will be expected to come to class having read and studied the reading for the day prepared to share reactions, questions, and doubts about the assigned texts and films as well as to listen and respond thoughtfully to their classmates’ contributions: active participation is crucial. We will work on critical reading and interpretation, analytical writing and the thoughtful oral articulation of ideas as necessary skills to a student’s success at Amherst College. Special attention will be given to writing: students will compose frequent short response papers, longer essays focusing on diverse approaches to academic writing, and will participate in writing workshops and peer review sessions in class.
Fall semester. Professor Brenneis.Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
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. Materials 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.Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
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
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 and President Trump’s alleged assault on truth, 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? Can democracy survive in a “post-truth” era? 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
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. Professor Miller.Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
Asia in the European Mind: Modern European Discourse on History and Identity
In post-Enlightenment Europe, intellectuals frequently drew on images of Asia to illustrate what it meant to be modern, enlightened, and historically progressive. Why and how might we be complicit in this mode of thinking even today? Through close readings of key figures in the intellectual tradition of modern Europe, including Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), Karl Marx (1818-1883), and Max Weber (1864-1920), this seminar will explore the epistemological and ideological function of historicism and the inescapable tension between visions of universal progress and resistance in the name of particular identities. We will end the seminar with more contemporary thinkers to weigh the abiding influence of Hegel, Marx, and Weber.
The seminar will focus on the related skills of close reading, engaged discussion, and critical writing. Reading prompts and short exercises will ask you to practice the reading skills required for active class discussion and effective writing. Two class meetings per week.
Fall semester. Professor Maxey.
Christianity and Evolution
The recent and ongoing controversies over "Intelligent Design" and the teaching of evolution represent the tip of a large and rather interesting iceberg. Christian opposition to evolution is not new, but neither does it represent the universal report of the tradition. In fact, prior to the early twentieth-century emergence of the fundamentalist movement in the United States, attempts to reconcile Christianity and an evolutionary understanding of human beings were prominent among Christian intellectuals. This course will explore the pre-history and history of the relationship between Christianity and theories of evolution. Over the course of the semester we will explore the classical "design argument" for the existence of God, as articulated by William Paley in the early nineteenth century, attempting to understand both the content of the argument and its religious importance; pre-Darwinian attempts to construct a developmental and yet Christianity-friendly understanding of the world; Darwin’s theory of evolution and its initially positive reception in Christian circles; the Scopes Trial of 1925 and its historical context; and texts drawn from proponents and opponents of the contemporary Intelligent Design movement. Finally, we will turn briefly to recent attempts to explain religion itself using evolutionary theories.
This course will focus on developing a number of competencies central to liberal studies: understanding the positions articulated in texts and the chains of reasoning advanced in their support; engaging, with charity, the thought of others whose fundamental convictions differ significantly from one’s own; constructive dialogue across the same sort of differences; and expository writing. Classroom time will be spent primarily in discussion of the assigned texts and the issues they raise, with a minimal amount of lecturing by the instructor. Writing assignments will be relatively frequent and relatively short, and will receive substantial commentary from the instructor. Students will also be required to make short (ca. 10-minute) presentations to the class on material drawn from the assigned texts.
Fall semester. Professor A. Dole.Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
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.Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
We are surrounded by things that mean something–-the objects we place by our bedsides, the pictures we tack on our walls, the books and DVDs we set on our shelves, even the foods we keep in our cupboards. To the unwitting passerby, these things might mean differently or they might appear to mean nothing at all. But in fact we know that, in the space of a house or a dorm room, a subculture, or a nation, things matter. Objects tell stories; images reveal histories; favorite television shows represent tastes; movies incite emotions. Through readings in literature, poetry, autobiography, and philosophy and through screenings of films and television, this seminar will explore the meaning of things in our everyday lives. How do things matter? What do they mean? And how do we describe the ineffable quality of stuff?
This course will encourage attentive reading and viewing practices, so that our discussion-based meetings will allow us to dwell on the details of what we see. Students will compose frequent short writing assignments, trying out a range of approaches, including the autobiographical, interpretive, historical, and essayistic. And we will learn how to write about a variety of “objects”: knick-knacks, consumer products, food, photographs, films, poetry, and novels.
Fall semester. Professor Hastie.Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
In the last century, genocide has occurred all too often. The Holocaust is the most famous case, but it was not the first, nor has it been the last. Indeed, in the past 25 years, genocide has occurred in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sudan. But just what is genocide? Why do states engage in mass murder? How do they mobilize citizens to become perpetrators? What happens to societies in the aftermath of genocide? Was the Holocaust unique, or can we make important comparisons to other instances of genocide? And finally, what are the politics surrounding the term “genocide”? We will examine these and other questions through the in-depth study of three particular cases of genocide: the Nazi murder of Jews during World War II, Pol Pot’s massacre of Cambodians in the 1970s, and the 1994 killings in Rwanda.
Fall semester. Professors Boucher, Redding, and Trask.Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2022, Fall 2023
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 experiments 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
Goya and His World
We will luxuriate in Goya’s magisterial works, from his rococo Tapestry Cartoons to his harrowing Pinturas negras. We will avail ourselves of the treasures at the Mead Museum--a complete set of the Caprichos, the Disasters of War, the Tauromaquia and the Disparates. We will study Goyas at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts--including many rare works on ivory, and the most important cache of his works on paper outside of the Prado. To understand Goya’s apparently inscrutable images and his obsession with evil, we will pore over his letters, study his themes such as witchcraft and bullfighting, immerse ourselves in his fraught historical moment, and revel in his culture at large--from music to dance to literature--all inflected with a fragile Enlightenment, all still in the Inquisition’s grasp. There will be one required field trip, on a Friday.
Reading knowledge of Spanish would be helpful, but is not necessary. Fall semester. Professor Staller.Other years: Offered in Fall 2023
Justice in Question
What is justice? How might we recognize it? Is justice fairness? Is it giving to each what is owed? Maybe justice is helping our friends? Or maybe justice is merely the advantage of the stronger? Justice can be difficult to name, especially because we might confuse justice for all and justice for some. And yet, however difficult it is to point to, justice is absolutely essential to our social and political lives. This course aims to investigate justice, putting the very idea of justice in question. What is a theory of justice? What might we want justice to be? How could we achieve such justice? This course will consider these questions, reflecting on ancient and more modern answers to these fundamental puzzles. As a means to approach these questions, we will engage Plato’s Republic as the central text for our course. Plato’s theorizing of justice, and especially the problem of power and justice together in politics, offers an amazing opportunity for us to question normative structures. Additional readings will include more recent political and philosophic reflections on the meaning and significance of justice. Examining a variety of theories of justice in this way should help to problematize our thinking on justice, as well as reveal its necessity for contemporary life.
This seminar is designed to introduce students to liberal studies through close textual analysis, frequent writing, and shared discussion. Throughout the semester, students will have the opportunity to develop habits of critical reading and reflection, writing frequent response papers that directly engage philosophic texts. In addition, students will have several longer assignments which will encourage critical analysis and self-evaluation through re-drafting and re-writing. The aim of the course is to further develop students’ capacities to consider complex theoretical phenomena, individually through written work and collectively through engaged discussion, and all with the intent to develop sophisticated and persuasive arguments.
Fall semester. Professor Poe.Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
New Women in America
This course will examine the emergence of the “New Woman” as a category of social theory, political action, and literary representation at the turning of the twentieth century. Early readings will trace the origins of the New Woman as a response to nineteenth-century notions of “True Womanhood.” Discussions will situate literary representations of women in larger cultural events taking place during the Progressive Era–debates over suffrage as well as their relationship to issues of citizenship, immigration, Jim Crow segregation, urbanization, and nativism. The course will focus on texts written by a diverse group of women that present multiple and, at times, conflicting images of the New Woman. Close attention will be paid to the manner in which these women writers constructed their fictions, particularly to issues of language, style, and form. Readings will include texts by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Pauline Hopkins, Anzia Yezierska, and Sui Sin Far.
Fall semester. Lecturer Bergoffen.Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
The dangerous characters who “pass” among us, shift categories, or transition have long left their mark on storytelling, scripture, and law. The lines of racial purity, gender conformity, and sexual normality are enforced by parables of powerful figures who cross boundaries to assume new identities, for good or ill. Seen variously as outlaws or pioneers, they disrupt the social order or, alternatively, renew it. Some do both. Tales of women warriors, race-émigrés, two-spirit people, and closeted geniuses celebrate human potential, if often tragically. What is “liberation” for some amounts to “crimes against nature” for others.
We consider a range of novels, plays, films, and self-narratives that address the intersectionality of racial, gendered, and LGBTI identities in Western culture. We focus on three turning points: Athens in the fifth century BCE; the 1920s, including the Harlem Renaissance; and the recent growth of multicultural queer and trans culture. Literary works include Sophocles, Oedipus the King; Euripides, The Bacchae; Plato, Symposium; 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; David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly, and Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain.” Of self-narratives, we read Alison Bechdel, Fun Home, and selections from Jonathan Ames (ed.), Sexual Metamorphosis. Films include Leontine Sagan, Mädchen in Uniform; Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning; Kimberly Peirce, Boys Don’t Cry; and Barry Jenkins, Moonlight.
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
Romanticism and the Enlightenment
The late eighteenth century is often characterized as the Age of Enlightenment, a time when educated men and women were confident that human reason was sufficient to understand the laws of nature, to improve society’s institutions, and to produce works of the imagination surpassing those of previous generations (and rivaling those of classical antiquity). The early nineteenth century brought a distrust of rationality (the Head) and an affirmation of the importance of human emotion (the Heart). “Romanticism and the Enlightenment” will test these broad generalizations by reading, looking at, and listening to some representative verbal, visual, and musical texts. Among the texts are paired and opposed works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, J. W. von Goethe, Voltaire, Thomas Gray, John Keats, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Jacques Louis David, and Caspar David Friedrich. In dealing with these and other diverse texts, no special skills are required.
The course is a series of discussions in which everyone is expected to participate (although it is understood that some students will probably speak more often than others). The assumption of the course is that the ability to express yourself by speaking is almost as important as the ability to express yourself by writing. It is also assumed that for all of us, including the faculty, there is room for improvement. There will be three or four short papers (approximately four pages each) and a longer paper that will serve as a take-home final exam. The discussions and the papers will ask students to engage intellectually and emotionally with the assigned texts.
Fall semester. Professor Brandes.
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
We all like a good story. But why? And what is a good story? Neurobiologists have documented the chemical changes that occur in our brains when we listen to a well told story. Hannah Arendt argues that who we are is best determined by the stories others tell about us, not the stories we tell about ourselves. TED talks have over-determined that all ideas worth sharing must be explained in 18 minutes, no more or less, with compelling graphics, of course. Stories are a feature of cultures around the world, and elements of both universality and diversity can be found in storytelling norms. The explosion of oral history work has done much to add the stories of “regular” people to historical narratives about events deemed worth remembering. It is possible that a story well told can compel listeners to behave more altruistically.
In this course we will think about stories, write stories, tell stories and listen to stories. We will acknowledge the comfort that cherished stories provide and de-familiarize those stories at the same time. We will read across a wide range of disciplinary perspectives on storytelling, including biology, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and cultural studies, acknowledging our limits as readers when we lack substantial disciplinary foundations but also embracing the ways we can be thoughtful about ideas that are partially beyond our reach. We will expand our thoughts about what a story is and use the lens of story to examine things we would never have imagined were stories. In this course students will develop their skills as a reader and a writer and a speaker, but also, of course, as a listener.
Fall semester. Lecturer Mead.Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
Pariscape: Imagining Paris in the Twentieth Century
For centuries, Paris has been an exemplary site of our urban sensibility, a city that has indelibly and controversially influenced the world’s imagination since early modern times. 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 idea of the modern city.
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, Godard, 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. 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 perhaps take a field trip to New York.
Fall semester. Professor Rosbottom.Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
Art, Politics and Protest: Image and Text in Our Time
This seminar will look at the varied ways artists use image and text to find their voice, engage in political discourse or dissent, and attempt to move others to action. Much of the course work will be focused on students learning to use these tools themselves to make art that expresses a voice uniquely their own; concepts and theories will be discussed, demonstrated and applied through a series of visual problems. Students will study the works of artists from 1938 to the present, specifically those who use these tools to question ideas and norms that include race, gender, class, political unrest and globalism. We will look critically at the ways in which the collision of carefully crafted images and text can create something new and powerful. This work will be complemented with lectures and discussions with visiting artists, collectives and critics. No prior art experience is necessary for this course.
Fall semester. Professor Kimball.Other years: Offered in Fall 2023
Reading, Writing, and Teaching
This course considers from many perspectives what it means to read and write and learn and teach both for ourselves and for others. As part of the work of this course, in addition to the usual class hours, students will serve as weekly tutors and classroom assistants in adult basic education centers in nearby towns. Thus this course consciously engages with the obstacles to and the power of education through course readings, through self-reflexive writing about our own varied educational experiences, and through weekly work in the community. Although this course presses participants to reflect a great deal about teaching, this course does not teach how to teach. Instead it offers an exploration of the contexts and processes of education, and of the politics and desires that suffuse learning. Course readings range across literary genres including essays, poems, autobiographies, and novels in which education and teaching figure centrally, as well as readings in ethnography, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. The writing assignments cross many genres as well.
Fall semester. Professor K. Sánchez-Eppler.Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
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
Geology of the American West: Critical Landscapes in Earth Science and in American Cultural Debate
Iconic and yet dramatically diverse landscapes characterize the American West, including snow-capped mountain ranges, deep canyons, monuments of stone, geyser fields, and vast lava-capped plateaus, in marked contrast to the more subdued lands east of the high plains. Can a geologic history of the continent be constructed from the evidence in these lands? If so, how might awareness of that history influence the nation of people who live there? By engaging with the rocks and landscapes of the West, late nineteenth century geological and topographic expeditions produced transformational insights about a range of earth processes and the time scales on which such processes operate. Their reports sketched out a backstory of our continent as a dynamic, sometimes violent, and sometimes quiescent land with a deep history. Expedition reports, in turn, influenced contemporary American views of Americanness.
This seminar will introduce the geology of notable western landscapes, focusing our attention on the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Rocky Mountains, and the Columbia Plateau. We will investigate the geology of these parklands in concert with the writings of those nineteenth century surveyors, explorers, and scientists whose accounts introduced the west to the American populace: John Wesley Powell, Nathaniel P. Langford, John C. Fremont, and Clarence King. We will also join the debate surrounding some unresolved problems in western geology by critically assessing cutting-edge data and interpretations.
We will, indeed, cover principles of geology in this course, so no prior study of geology is necessary. Through in-class discussion and frequent reading and writing assignments, students will experience the scientific method of constructing understanding from analysis of observations; develop habits of reading thoughtfully; experiment with formulating and substantiating a position based on critical assessment of a variety of inputs; and practice expressing understanding or uncertainty, and agreement or disagreement in concise and clear writing and through lucid dialog.
Fall semester. Professor Harms.Other years: Offered in Fall 2023
The assertion of group identities, based on language, region, religion, race, gender, sexuality, and class, among other variables, has increasingly animated politics cross-nationally. However, the extent to which identities become politicized varies enormously across time and place. We will explore what it means to describe an identity as political. This exercise entails assessing the conditions under which states, civil societies, and political societies recognize certain identities while ignoring or repressing others. In other words, it entails analyzing the ways in which political processes make and remake identities. What do groups gain and lose from identity-based movements? And what are the broader implications of identity-based movements for democratic politics?
Fall semester. Professor Basu.Other years: Offered in Fall 2023
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 continue to be 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 Ratner.Other years: Offered in Fall 2023
[PT] This course explores a series of ideas from the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries that have substantially changed the way people think about humanity in the Western world. Each idea is closely associated with an author. While from year to year the ideas change, for 2016 we read and wrote about, Karl Marx and Frederic Engels' The Communist Manifesto, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, Sigmund Freud’s The Ego and the Id, selections from Franz Kafka's The Complete Stories, Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Students are required to purchase a copy of Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.
This course emphasizes the development of several skills, including close reading, interpretation, and expository writing. Students are required to pose critical questions concerning the readings posted to the course blog on the night prior to each meeting. Each week students are required to write a brief essay in response to a prompt provided by me commenting on a passage in the week’s reading. These essays are evaluated for grammar, style, logical coherence, and clarity.
Fall semester. Professor Dumm.2023-24: Not offered
A History of the Native Book: Uncovering Indigenous Intellectual Trade-routes
“A History of the Native Book” takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying Native American and Indigenous peoples’ histories, cultures, literatures, and political movements by exposing students to several critical fields of inquiry. These include: Native American History, Public History, American History, Book History, and Literary Studies. Students immerse themselves in published materials written by Native American authors from the seventeenth century to the present by doing archival research in the Kim-Wait/Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection (or KWE for short). In addition, we read secondary sources by Native Studies scholars to add context to our reading of KWE texts. Working in small groups and individually, students practice and hone both research and writing skills. As a class, students collaborate on a Digital Humanities project to produce new understandings about the significance of Native authorship, publishing, and writing in regards to settler-colonialism. This final project takes the form of digital exhibition that will be accessible to the public. As a First-Year Seminar, students practice writing and reading skills and are introduced to research methods that will be essential in their future studies at Amherst.
Fall semester. Professor Vigil.Other years: Offered in Fall 2023
War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy insisted that War and Peace was not a novel, all appearances to the contrary. As we carefully read his subversive masterpiece, we will consider the ways in which the book attempts to revolutionize what literature can do, by posing radical questions about freedom, violence, the relationship between the life of the mind and everyday experience, the value of culture, the possibility of change, and the search for an authentic self. This course takes Tolstoy’s text as a departure point for exploring the possibilities of interpretation as an intellectual practice: the fictions of history and the truth of fiction; the challenges of writing about emotions, events, and texts; and the attempts to adapt something as complex and unorthodox as this book to stage and film, including a recent BBC re-make and the Broadway “electropop opera” that we will plan to attend as a class.
Fall semester. Professor Wolfson.
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023
The Art of Noticing
Based on the premise that noticing is a necessary skill for all disciplines and modes of inquiry--requiring curiosity, discipline, and ongoing practice--this seminar is designed to strengthen our ability to pay attention with more depth, engagement and precision using all of our senses. The course will focus on the arts (literary, visual and performing) as a means to sharpen our noticing skills. Most art comes from observation, paying close attention to one’s surroundings and interactions and developing ways to bring what one notices into meaningful expressions. Through exercises and improvisations, we will increase our ability to notice new things in ourselves and in our environments, discerning details about things that we often take for granted or that we miss entirely. We will also notice what is not in the room, what is missing in different places. Drawing on our observational practice we will experiment with different media--writing, video/photography, performance--to communicate what we have noticed.
Students will work in a studio environment as well as in various locations on and off campus, during class time and during pre-arranged field trips, developing the skills of observation until the art of noticing is an enhancement of their daily life, as well as a source for intellectual inquiry and creative expression.
Fall semester. Professor Woodson.2023-24: Not offered
Brain Sciences of the Future
Can neuroscientists tell if you are lying? Is it possible to take a pill that will make you smarter? Or change your memory of the past? Can we implant technology into our brains to enhance cognition the same way glasses enhance our vision? Will machines ever develop human-like intelligence, thus enabling them to take over the world? These questions may seem more like science fiction than science, but current research in neuroscience suggests that the answers to these questions may not lie very far from our grasp. This course will survey the current state of the neuropsychological research with an eye towards predicting how future technologies might be applied to everyday life. We will consider not only what is possible, but the ethics of scientific exploration, as well.
Fall semester. Professor Cohen.2023-24: Not offered
Food and Eating Disorders
Food shapes our lives in many ways that extend far beyond mere ingestive acts. Through a broad survey of basic and clinical research literature, we will explore how foods and food issues imbue our bodies, minds, and relationships. We will consider biological and psychological perspectives on various aspects of eating, such as metabolism, neural mechanisms of hunger and satiety, metabolic disorders, dieting, pica, failure to thrive, starvation, taste preference and aversion, obesity, anxiety and depression relief, food taboos, bulimia, and the anorexia. Strong emphasis will be placed on biological mechanisms and controlled laboratory research with both human and animal subjects.
Fall semester. Professor Baird.Other years: Offered in Fall 2023
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 Associate Sanchez.2023-24: Not offered