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Amherst College Courses

Amherst College Courses

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First-Year Seminars

Faculty members, in groups of one or more, teach 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 Progress?

Is the world a better place today than it was fifty years ago?  Will it be better yet in another fifty years?  We cannot answer such questions without asking what we mean by "better," that is, what counts as progress.  The question of what progress is cannot be answered simply: the term has been used in different ways at differemt times and has also been the subject of much critical examination.  We will explore the meaning of progress by engaging with a variety of thought-provoking and influential works. 

Fall semester. Professors Douglas, George, Schmalzbauer, and Shah.

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

102 1968: Shut It Down

This course will cover the various social movements that affected Black life in the United States by studying one of the most explosive years in the twentieth century.  Students will investigate elements of the rich protest and resistance tradition of the Black community while also exploring the methods used to make advancements in the way of education, politics, culture, workforce, and housing access. 

Fall semester. Prof. Bradley.

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

103 Listening to and Writing About "Classical Music"

This course will focus on learning to understand the conventions and subtleties of a variety of forms of Western concert music often referred to as “classical music.” The primary texts for the course will be musical works from the genres of symphony, opera, oratorio, chamber music, concerto, songs, and character piece, which we will listen to on recordings and in concerts on the Amherst campus as well as (conditions permitting) in New York and/or Boston. Supplementing listening with historical and contemporary readings, we will build an historical understanding of musical style and a vocabulary with which to write about it. In addition to studying works by white male composers (e.g. Wolfgang Mozart, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Igor Stravinsky) who have long been canonized, we will also study important contributions to the tradition by women and people of color who have often been excluded from the canon (e.g.Marion Anderson, Florence Price, William Grant Still, Mary D. Watkins, and Olly Wilson). No knowledge of musical notation required.

Fall Semester. Professors Schneider 

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

104 Books on the Brain

The Male Brain, The Female Brain, The Mommy Brain, The Sexual Brain, The Teenage Brain, The Hungry Brain, Your Brain on Porn: an increasing number of scientists are publishing books for the general reader on recent advances in neuroscience and how we can apply these scientific findings to our daily lives. This course will provide an introduction to the workings of the brain and will examine how these books interpret scientific data and package results for the general public. We will seek out the original sources upon which the authors base their claims and consider the extent to which the research is being represented accurately to the public.

Fall semester: Professor Turgeon.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

105 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.

Limited to 18 students. Fall semester. Professor K. Sanchez-Eppler.

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 and President Trump’s alleged assault on truth, from the use of secrecy in the war against terrorism to the endless spinning of political campaigns, from controversies about "fake news" to efforts to hide and excuse police miscoduct, 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, Fall 2024

108 The Crowd

From the Black Lives Matter uprising and democracy movement in Hong Kong to farmer’s protests in India and the 2021 Capitol Hill riots, we see crowds of people whose number, force, and relative anonymity make them a political power to reckon with. In this course we consider the crowd as an agent of politics. When does a group of people become a crowd? When is it called a mob? Who becomes a part of it and who’s afraid of it? Why is the crowd simultaneously celebrated and vilified? What does this ambivalence reveal about the nature of mass democracies globally? During the semester, we will first address these concerns around the crowd in scholarly work and eventually move on to ethnographic considerations of actual crowds that occupy our streets and our screens on a daily basis. The crowd, we will see, is a permanent fixture against which the words and actions of the people are defined. Yet, as an embodiment of popular political will and a figure of lawlessness and disorder, the crowd is here to stay. Together, we will aim to understand the role and the ruse of the crowd in the life of modern democracy.

Fall semester.  Professor Chowdhury.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

109 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. Two class meetings per week.

Fall semester. Professor Couvares.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

110 Encounters with Nature

What is our place in nature? How do we feel about natural spaces we encountered growing upand how do we view the environment of Amherst College and its setting in New England? How did people in the past think about nature and how did they change their environments as a consequence? Did different races experience and alter nature in different ways? How have the ideas and experiences of the past affected us today? And how do we imagine the future of the natural world? Has the current pandemic permanently changed how we think about nature?

This course will explore how our ideas of nature have changed over time. We will give particular attention to the ways we have recreated particular kinds of natural spaces and how we have depicted nature in images. We begin with walks in the nearby wildlife sanctuary, discussions of our past encounters with nature, a study of the Amherst Campus, and, while the weather is still warm, a hike or two. During these excursions we will discuss what we see, take visual notes on the landscape through drawing (no expertise necessary), and discuss and write about how our experience with the land might differ from how people experienced it in the past. We then will explore New England further, discuss ideas about wilderness in the United States, and look closely at American landscape painting. Where do our deeply held assumptions come from? To find out, we will look at poetry, philosophy, Western painting traditions, and scientific illustration. We also will think about why people collect and draw natural specimens, and how they mapped their environments from the Renaissance through the Aztec empire to the current day.

The course will provide an introduction to liberal studies by helping students learn how to read and comprehend complex texts and images, respond to them in sophisticated ways, and engage in critical reasoning. We expect students to be active participants in class discussions. Students will write brief abstracts every week about the readings and every other week or so perform close readings of texts, art, maps, and even gardens and landscapes.

Fall semester. Professor Courtright. 

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

111 Investigating Objects

Our lives are filled with objects. What are our relationships to them, and what is their significance in our culture? In this discussion-based course we will be exploring what objects are, how we define and value them, and what their existence is apart from us. Reading texts from a variety of disciplines including philosophy, literature, art history, and anthropology, we will be investigating a range of perspectives on objects and their significance. In addition to reading about them, we will examine actual objects. Discussions and writing assignments will develop approaches to enrich and inform these encounters through research, visual examination and critical analysis. 

This course will also involve making things. Through a series of studio projects (drawing and sculpture) we will explore how things are made and gain a richer understanding of their physical, visual and tactile qualities. Writing assignments in connection with these projects will help to foster an appreciation of the connections between the visual and the verbal. Some of the objects we will be investigating are: vessels, electronic devices, books, furniture, miniatures, musical instruments and modern sculpture.

No studio art experience is necessary.

Fall Semester. Visiting Lecturer Douglas Culhane.

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

112 Violence and Politics

Violence lies both at the very heart of 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.  

Limited to 16 Students. Fall semester. Professor Obert.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

113 Democratic Backsliding

The world seems to be experiencing a democratic recession. Since the 2000s, many established democracies are undergoing erosion in their democratic institutions, even transitioning to autocracies. Fewer autocracies and semi-authoritarian regimes are transitioning to democracy. And existing autocracies are becoming more autocratic and acquiring new survival tools. During the Cold War, most threats to existing democracies came from the military or non-state actors: insurgents or extremist movements. In this era of democratic backsliding, most serious threats to democratic rule stem from the very winners of democracy—incumbent presidents who came to office by winning elections. In addition, this backsliding is occurring in richer countries, in defiance of theories that used to predict that democratic backsliding was improbable in the wealthiest nations. This course tries to understand the extent of this democratic erosion worldwide—its dimensions, causes, and possible ways to address it. Readings will draw from theoretical, comparative, historical, and case-based works. Students will also work on independent research projects and class presentations. This course is not intended as a critique of any particular politician or political party. We will however evaluate claims, possibly familiar to you, that certain politicians, parties and institutions may be causing democratic backsliding, in the United States and abroad. The main learning goal is to understand those claims and evaluate their validity. 

Limited to 16 students. Fall semester. Professor Corrales.

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

114 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. Two class meetings per week.

Limited to 15 students. Fall semester. Professor Melillo.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

115 Goya and His World

We will luxuriate in Goya’s magisterial works, from his rococo Tapestry Cartoons to his harrowing Pinturas negras. We will study treasures at the Mead Museum—a complete set of the Caprichos, the Disasters of War, the Tauromaquia and the Disparates. 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.

In addition to vibrant discussions, there will be weekly written assignments to deepen students' understanding of the material, as well as to develop the beauty of their writing, the acuity of their sight, their synthetic and analytical powers. There will be frequent one-on-one meetings with me, and constantly changing mini-groups, as we learn and explore together.

Reading knowledge of Spanish would be helpful, but is not necessary. Fall semester. Professor Staller.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

116 The Anatomy of Pictures

This course is about the centrality of images produced by mechanical means in the rituals, practices, and representations of everyday life—what we now understand as visual culture. With a focus on the last 50 years, we will explore why it is important to understand the image as utterly diverse in its functions. We will dissect examples from contemporary photography, new media, screen culture, and cultural theory that critically challenge visual culture. Our conversations will cover topics from new models of spectatorship and how to become visually literate to controversies surrounding trigger warnings and the risk of “remaining forever trapped inside the image” (cf. Jacques Rancière’s “The Intolerable Image”). Readings will include the voices of artists, critics, historians, cultural theorists, and philosophers such as Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Richard Dyer, Jessica Evans, Michel Foucault, Anne Friedberg, Stuart Hall, bell hooks, Kobena Mercer, Adrian Piper, Claudia Rankine, and Hito Steyerl.

Limited to 16 students. Fall semester. Visiting Lecturer Falk.

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

117 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. Senior Lecturer Bergoffen.

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

118 Atomic Bomb Literature

On August 6, 1945, in the waning days of WWII, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, laying waste to the city and killing some 80,000 people, a death toll that would exceed 100,000 from subsequent injuries and radiation poisoning. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki a few days later, on August 9, killing between 45,000 and 75,000 people from the blast and subsequent injuries and radiation poisoning. This course will investigate the literary responses to these calamities. Such works are referred to collectively in Japanese as genbaku bungaku, or Atomic Bomb Literature. The course concentrates on the writings of actual survivors of the two blasts and writers—often natives of the two cities who did not experience the destruction—who seek to place the bombings within various social and historical contexts, including Japan's own wartime aggression. As the only country in history to have been attacked with nuclear weapons, this is a genre of literature unique to Japan, but we will also have occasion to compare Japanese atomic bomb literature to related works around the world.

This is a discussion-based course designed to develop student competency in critical thinking and argumentation. Assignments include oral presentations, short informal assignments, and formal essays of varying lengths. Emphasis is placed on crafting thesis/support essays.

Fall semester. Professor Van Compernolle.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

119 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

120 Telling Stories

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

122 Ecomedia

This course introduces students to a branch of media studies that has been dubbed “ecomedia studies,” which examines the relationship between media forms and the environment. Throughout the semester, we will read select contributions to this field that help to establish its guiding questions, concepts, and debates. We will also analyze a range of media forms discussed by ecomedia scholars, attending to individual media objects such as photographs, films, pop songs, and NFTs, as well as more general media technologies like video streaming platforms and digital mapping systems. While we will sample broadly from the body of discourse that comprises ecomedia studies, our discussions will center on media’s role in the ongoing global environmental crisis, and the ways in which analyses of media forms might elucidate debates on such issues as climate change, sustainability, and environmental justice.

Fall semester. Professor Guilford.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

123 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 2022, Fall 2023

124 Amherst Poets

From Emily Dickinson to Robert Frost to Sonia Sánchez, Amherst is famous for its poets. More than twenty well-known poets have written, lived, studied and taught in the area surrounding Amherst College. This introductory course is designed to welcome students who have not previously taken a college-level English course into the literary environment of Amherst, as well as into the literary community of poetry readers more broadly, by studying five or six Amherst poets very closely. Our main focus will be on the close-reading skills needed to engage with poetry of all kinds, and on the skills needed to write a college-level essay about literature. We will engage in frequent essay-writing workshops together, and there will be a chance to meet and engage with contemporary Amherst Poets on Zoom.

Fall semester. Professor Worsley.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

125 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 Bishop.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

126 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 a scenario.  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, a form of argument that is very old and is practiced in many disciplines, goes by the name gedankenexperiment or thought-experiment.  In fact before and after Einstein, different kinds of thought-experiments had been used by Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Schroedinger and others in their path-breaking contributions to physics. In this seminar we will read accounts of the thought experiments that some of these authors employed to acquire insights into or advocate viewpoints about space, time, motion, and gravity.  In their papers, the students will be asked to consider critically the strengths and weaknesses of each reading and pay close attention to the rhetorical techniques used by each author to persuade their readers. The discussion will be supplemented by more contemporary texts.  We will inquire into the peculiar status thought experiments have in producing scientific 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 to the frequent expository writing exercises, discussion and assignments will cover the necessary physics background.

Fall semester.  Professor Jagannathan. 

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

127 How to Do Nothing

Throughout history, writers and artists have explored how their activities fit into a model of work determined by productivity, while philosophers have asked if there is an ethical value to idleness. The work of thought and creation frequently requires what looks like “doing nothing” but actually consists of attention to the world. This course will combine practice-based learning, community engagement, and readings in the Western literature of idleness from the Classical period to the present day. We will use mindfulness practices like soundwalks and slow looking, as well as creative practices of non-productivity to inform our critical reading and writing. Students will create their own “form-of-life,” a model for life outside of the always-on, productivity focused “attention economy.” Readings will include the work of Cicero, Seneca, St. Benedict, Thorstein Veblen, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Giorgio Agamben, and Jenny O’Dell.

Fall semester. Professor Nelson.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023, Fall 2024

128 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 a Broadway “electropop opera.”

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

129 Reading Asian America

In this course, we explore the genesis of Asian American identity through the study of a wide range of materials, with particular focus on literature by Asian Americans.  Despite heterogeneous ethnic, cultural and national identites, people of Asian descent share a common racial identity in the United States -- as Asian Americans.  But how useful is this term?  Although this shared identity has proven effective in political organizing, it can also be problematic, limiting.  We will analyze the racialization of Asians by studying the historical experiences of people of Asian descent in the United States and the development of this panethnic ascription:  Asian American.

This class is highly interdisciplinary and includes readings in literature, history, sociology, American Studies, and education; it includes the study of visual materials, especially photographs.  Most course meetings will involve seminar-style discussion of course materials.  Coursework will include short written assignments, group work, and a semester-long research project.

Professor Hayashi

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023, Fall 2024

130 The Photograph: Image, Text, Context

It is estimated that more than 1.4 trillion photographs were taken in 2021 alone; arguably the photograph has become the dominant language of contemporary culture. The recorded image is increasingly used as evidence and has had a meaningful social impact. Simultaneously, the camera has also become a pervasive tool of surveillance. Yet, how deeply do we really look at photographs? How often is the lasting effect of these multitudinous images really considered, by either the maker or the consumer? Are everyday photographs works of art, or simply a kind of currency? In contrast to the fleeting snapshot or screen swipe, this course will take a deliberate, slow approach, and focus on a small, select number of photographs studied in significant depth. Making use of diverse methods of looking and analysis, we will examine photographs that are both canonical and non-canonical: from the earliest daguerreotypes in the nineteenth century, to avant-garde experimentations to contemporary global networks and questions of appropriation. As an introduction to liberal studies, the seminar will study the social, intellectual, and art histories of photography, interrogating concepts of visual representation and reproduction, and issues of technology, identity, and power, while also employing the theoretical lenses of diverse writers. Students will write in direct response to the photographs, post essays on primary sources and critical readings, take some pictures, and develop a research project on a single photograph from the collections of the Mead Art Museum.

Fall semester: Professor Koehler.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

131 What Computers Can't Do

Computers play increasingly important roles in nearly all human activities, and computational power is changing the world.  But what are the limits and contours of computational power? Are there things that humans can do, but that no computer will ever be able to do? Will computers eventually be able to solve any clearly stated logical or mathematical problem? What computational power might we expect from future technologies, and what can we rule out? These questions raise complex, interdisciplinary issues. In some cases, there is strong evidence that popular conceptions of computational power are incorrect, underestimating or overestimating the power of computers in significant ways. In this course we will explore the real limits of computation from philosophical, logical, mathematical, and public-policy perspectives. We will begin with a discussion of the possibility of artificial intelligence (AI), covering the claims that have been made by AI scientists and the critiques of such claims that have arisen from the philosophical community. We will then focus on the fundamental logic and mathematics of computation, including techniques for proving that certain problems are intractable or unsolvable. In the third part of the course we will turn to social and political questions on which an informed view of the limits of computation can have an impact. Students will be evaluated through a combination of short papers and problem sets, along with a final project.

Professor Spector

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

132 Ancient and Modern Political Rhetoric

This course considers the role that rhetoric plays in the formation and presentation of individuals for public consumption and especially in democratic contexts. We will not—like much of modern political discourse—regard rhetoric as an insubstantial or even dangerous supplement to the allegedly real substance of political discourse. This is a disputed (if not false) dichotomy with a long history. Rather, this class examines why rhetoric was and remains so essential to public discourse. How does rhetoric make humans what they believe themselves to be? What kinds of narratives does rhetoric craft and can democracies even function without such narratives? What makes us so resistant to rhetoric when in fact we can’t ever describe the world or ourselves without it? We focus closely on the analysis and employment of skilled language, and we examine how individuals use language to fashion narratives about the world and themselves. We also consider contemporary debates on language usage and regulation, analyze successful rhetoric in modern politics, and consider the types and forms of rhetoric from the fall electoral season in the United States.

The course includes several written assignments and the production and evaluation of different types of rhetoric and speeches. Readings will draw from a range of ancient and modern authors who considered the vexed relationship between democracy and rhetoric: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Hume, Nietzsche, George Orwell, and David Foster Wallace, among others.

Fall semester. Professor van den Berg.

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

133 Education: For Whom and What For

Education has often been considered a fundamental social good. But who should have access to education and to what sorts? Should citizens who have political power in a democracy be obligated to be educated, and if so, in what way? These questions, in turn, raise more basic philosophical questions. What is the nature of a just society? What role does education play in a good human life? Is the value of education mainly instrumental in giving one the skills and credentials that are desired in a market economy, and thus allow for the possibility of individual social mobility and a robust market economy? Do certain forms of education have intrinsic value for human beings?

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. If overenrolled: Priority given to incoming transfers over transfers who have been enrolled for a semester or longer.

Fall semester. Professor Gentzler 

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

137 Asia in the European Mind

From the late-eighteenth century onward European intellectuals frequently drew on images of Asia to discuss what it meant to be modern, enlightened, and historically progressive. By critically tracing this intellectual genealogy we will together confront controversial yet remarkably durable conceptions of human subjectivity, freedom, and social progress, conceptions in which we may find ourselves to be complicit today. We will start with 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), but move on to the echoes of their thought in more recent, especially Asian, conversations about modernity. We will conclude with contemporary thinkers like Judith Butler (1956-), Ueno Chizuko (1948-), Naoki Sakai (1946-), and Dipesh Chakrabarty (1948-), and consider their attempts to grapple with the tension between universal conceptions of human history and modes of criticism and resistance.

The seminar is designed to practice the related skills of close reading, engaged discussion, and critical writing. In addition to 5 formal essays, reading prompts and short writing exercises will ask you to practice the reading skills needed for active class discussion and effective writing. Short research exercises will introduce you to Frost Library and a group presentation will allow you to practice oral communication skills. Class meetings twice weekly.

Fall semester. Professor Maxey.

2023-24: Not offered