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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 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 environmental collapse 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 think critically and write argumentatively, but also flexibly, about nature and our attitudes towards it.

Fall semester. Senior Lecturer Levin.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2022, Fall 2024

102 The State

Most humans live in territories that are controlled by a state. Why do different nations have different types of states? Why are some states more repressive than others, more war-prone than others, better promoters of development than others, more inclusive than others? How can we make sense of the varied reactions to state domination, ranging from active support to negotiated limits to apathy to vigorous contestation? Does globalization make states more or less democratic, more or less efficient, more or less able to promote development?

This course goes to the heart of current debates on the “state of the state.” How significant is the state in an era in which its sovereignty is increasingly challenged both by global and domestic forces? What ought to be the proper role of the state in the twenty-first century? These questions are central to the current debates taking place—in the U.S. and abroad—on the extent to which countries should open up their economies, privatize social services, incorporate minorities and immigrants, recognize gay marriages, counterbalance U.S. pop culture, accommodate religious fundamentalism, etc. We will explore these questions by studying political theorists and empirical cases from around the world.

Limited to 16 students. Open to first-year students only. Fall semester. Professor Corrales.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2023, Fall 2024

103 Political Autobiographies

This first-year seminar exposes students to political autobiography as a genre by reading political autobiographies written by Black authors across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We will pay careful attention to the manner in which their personal narratives connect to some key themes in American and global political thought such as race, capitalism, incarceration, gender, sexuality, and resistance.

Limited to 16 students. Open to first-year students only. First-year seminar. Fall semester. Assistant Professor Loggins.

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

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.

Omitted 2023-24. Professor Turgeon.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2023

105 History and Memory in America

"The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only photographs." Susan Sontag

Americans are at war over history. While scholars continue to produce new interpretations and sources of historical knowledge, others in American society seek to revise the established historical record to assert their interpretation of historical events in the public sphere. Monuments and schoolboard meetings are sites of sometimes acrimonious contestations over history: what happened in the past and how Americans should learn and remember history. In this course, we will study a range of historical events, such as the Holocaust, Japanese American Incarceration, 9/11, and the Covid pandemic. We will examine how individuals and groups have wrestled with the challenges of recording and remembering these events, including their sometimes conflicting memories. We will look at the tensions that arise when different perspectives of events enter the public realm, whether in the form of museum exhibits, movies, photographs, or poems.

Fall semester.  Professor Hayashi.

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, Fall 2024

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 Authority, Obedience and The Rule of Law

All political systems must operate according to the "rule of law" if they are to be deemed legitimate. This statement has assumed the quality of a truism: we hear it repeated by the President of the United States, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the President of the International Criminal Court. At the same time, though, that everyone seems to agree that the "rule of law" is a good thing, no one seems able to say for sure what the "rule of law" is. What, then, do we mean by the "rule of law"? What does it mean to speak of government limited by law? What are these limits, where do they come from, and how are they enforced? What role does the "rule of law" play in legitimating structures of governance? Does the "rule of law" imply any particular relationship between legality and morality? We will hazard answers to these questions through a close reading of works of theorists such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, H.L.A. Hart and Lon Fuller. In addition, we will examine the arguments of the theorists as they help us think through pressing legal challenges of our age, such as defining the limits of executive power in the "war against terror." Our seminar will be devoted to the close reading of a select number of texts. We will analyze the structure, meaning and adequacy of the arguments contained in these works through vigorous discussion and frequent writing assignments. Our aim is to gain a rich critical understanding of a concept that lies at the foundation of domestic and international socio-political systems, and to improve our abilities to discuss and write about complex ideas with sophistication, nuance and flair.

First Year Seminar. Fall semester. Professor Douglas.

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. Omit 2023-24. Professor Corrales.

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

114 Music and Difference

What do we hear when we listen to music?  By developing active listening skills and drawing from the “deep listening” practice of composer and improviser Pauline Oliveros, this course encourages students to hear music as histories, politics, protests, and structures. This kind of close listening reveals a profound connection between musical expression and foundational aspects of the human experience. In questioning our assumptions about the nature of music, we discover that music—and sound more broadly—reflects ideas about difference, belonging, and exclusion. With a primary focus on American music, we will examine how modes of difference, including race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion, are expressed in musical performance and (re)contextualized in listening. Course readings will include texts by Pauline Oliveros, Susan McClary, Ruth Solie, Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky), Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, and others. Students will be encouraged to transpose close listening into critical thinking and writing.

Fall semester. Professor Robinson.

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

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 Mothers and Fathers

We all have them, in one way or another: mothers and fathers. Be it so-called tiger moms, helicopter dads, grandparents who raised us or a neighbor with maternal instincts, our lives are deeply shaped by the presence or absence of mother and father figures. In this class, we will thus pose the question of family values: why do we value the family and how does this value structure affect not only our personal life but also society at large? We will depart from the assumption that the family is an object worthy of serious study and then pose a variety of questions: How do race, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation shape what counts as family? Why do resentment, anger, and indifference seem to be as present in family life as love and care? And how do the politics of sexual reproduction, the possibilities of various reproductive technologies such as IVF, and the economic system of capitalism shape what the family means today?

In pursuing these questions, students will be introduced to a wide range of fields that are crucial to a liberal arts education. Literature (including authors such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Christian Kracht), philosophy (G.W.F. Hegel), and political economy (Friedrich Engels, Silvia Federici) as well as work from queer theory (Lauren Berlant, Jack Halberstam) and Black Feminist Thought (Saidiya Hartman, Sara Ahmed) will help us think through family values. Lastly, we will occasionally turn to pop culture—e. g. TV shows such as The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, and Arrested Development—for insight into how the family is represented (and, in its oddity, makes us laugh) in daily life.

Fall semester: Professor Rosenbrück.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

119 Science and Religion

Science and religion have a long history of conflict, at times fighting bitterly to establish themselves as the authority that best dictates how we should view our world. Must this division exist? Are science and religion fundamentally competing viewpoints? Or should they be complementary views that, understood properly, address distinct aspects of our lives?

Some believe the latter: that science describes the physical world while religion proves moral and ethical grounding. Others believe that this distinction is artificial, and that neither religion nor science can be so easily constrained. We will sample the history of this conflict and analyze opinions on both sides. More broadly, we will examine whether and how sensitive topics, including a person's core beliefs, can be rationally discussed. We will apply our examination to current conflicts such as genetic engineering, vaccines, and artificial intelligence. The reading for this course will begin with an historic examination of early scientific concepts and the reception and opposition they received.  We will then examine the scientific process itself, discovering that it is not the neat and tidy progression popularly presented. Finally, we will address current topics for which scientific directions conflict with religious concepts or ethics.

Fall semester. Professor Kaplan

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, Fall 2024

121 Orthodoxy, Heresy, and Apostasy in Islam

What is correct Islamic belief and practice? Is there such a thing? Who has been labeled a heretic, unbeliever, or apostate in the history of Islam, and why? How did Muslim “freethinkers” contest Islamic orthodoxies? We will discuss the ways that a wide variety of Muslim sects or denominations developed in the history of Islam. Our objectives are to examine how groups and individuals established, prescribed, or remade standards of Islamic belief and practice; and to examine how they faced the plurality of Muslim sects and other religions. We will pay special attention to the theme of salvation, which shaped the ways that Muslims classified sects and other religions. As we explore the above issues we will read from a range of Islamic discourses, including scripture, theology, law, and mysticism. All readings are in English. 

Fall semester. Professor Jaffer.

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

122 Mysticism

This course will explore the meaning and role of mysticism, its unique path in diverse religious traditions, and its creative expression through mystical and literary texts. Given the challenges to its accessibility, mystical experience is often misunderstood by the public and, on occasion, marginalized by its respective religious traditions. Yet, it can be argued that mysticism is the highest manifestation and the ultimate goal of many religions and is, therefore, worthy of deeper exploration. This deeper study promises to illuminate the nature of mysticism as a spiritual apprehension of knowledge that rises beyond reason, as a path to access the higher Self, or as a means to find union with God. Throughout this course, we will examine various mystical traditions through metaphysical treatises, poetry, autobiography, and novels by asking questions such as: What is mysticism and how is it connected to different religions? What is the role of mystics in framing this definition? What are the convergences, differences, and interactions of different mystical paths?

Fall Semester. Professor Brodnicka.

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 Africa and the Globalization of Football (soccer)

In our contemporary global world, football (known as soccer in the United States) is the preeminent sport around the globe. Widely played by girls and boys, women and men, poor and rich— and across vast social spaces everywhere in the world — football has shaped the human experience in degrees only comparable to world religions, global political ideologies, and economic systems. With roots in a Western imperial encounter, football is ubiquitous in African local, national, and transnational experiences in our contemporary world. This first-year seminar will explore the fascinating story of footballing culture in Africa in the context of globalization since the attainment of independence by Africa societies in the 1960s. To provide the essential context for the course, seminar readings in the first half of the course will focus on the following important issues: football and colonialism; football and Christian missionary education; football and the post-colonial state. Seminar readings --- and documentary films --- in the second half of the course will focus on our contemporary moment of globalization, exploring the following important issues: the globalization of football and post-colonial state crisis; football, globalization, and transnationalism; football, globalization, and racism; women, gender, and the globalization of football; South Africa and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. This course will not only tell the story of how football became Africa’s game, but more importantly, it will critically discuss the important place of Africa’s footballing culture in local and global contexts, emphasizing African social, political, and economic tapestries from the late nineteenth century to the twenty first century.

Fall semester. Prof. Vaughan

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

125 Difference and Xenophobia in the Ancient Mediterranean

This class explores the historical processes by which ethnic and cultural difference were made into “problems” in the Ancient Mediterranean. In reading Greek and Roman literary texts (in translation) alongside contemporary historical and theoretical scholarship, the class challenges the notion that xenophobia is an inevitable consequence of difference per se. Frequent interaction across linguistic, cultural, and ethnic divides was a simple fact of life in the Ancient Mediterranean. While the existence of difference was often considered a positive—a driver for growth and innovation—it was equally often seen as a threat. We will study under which specific social, political, and economic forces ancient xenophobia thrived, how this xenophobia was subsequently justified by Greco-Roman philosophers and (pseudo-)scientists, and how these processes compare to modern forms of racism, scapegoating, and othering. We will also discuss how Greco-Roman culture itself has been invoked in recent years to justify racist and white supremacist ideologies in Europe and the United States. Primary texts include Aeschylus’ Persians; Hippocrates’ Airs, Waters, Places; Aristotle’s Politics, Ezekiel Tragicus’ Exagoge; Plautus’ Poenulus; Cicero’s Pro Archia and Verrines; Virgil’s Aeneid; Juvenal’s Satires.

Professor Janssen

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

126 Thinking Body, Dancing Mind

What is body intelligence? In what ways is the body's ability to perceive and know the world equal to that of the mind? What can we learn from the body’s unique experience of the world? Utilizing dance and the performing arts as a framework for our investigations, we will explore embodied exercises to develop kinesthetic awareness and presence, attune ourselves to our bodies’ sensations and feelings, and practice observing the world through the lens of physical experience. In addition, we will cultivate a discipline of articulating our bodies’ perceptions through discussion and writing. We will study works and techniques of seminal choreographers and dance practitioners, such as Pina Bausch and Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, who emphasize the integration of body and mind through the lived experience. This course will also provide an introduction to the liberal arts by helping students engage with, and critically reflect on, a broad range of media, including theoretical works, live performance, film, sound, music, and visual art. Regular short writing will also be required. 

Fall semester. Professor Riegel

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

127 Music and Totalitarianism

In 1936 the official Soviet newspaper Pravda denounced Dmitri Shostakovich’s latest opera as “muddle instead of music.” In 1942 the Party used his “Leningrad” Symphony as propaganda in the Soviet Union’s war against Nazi Germany. Shostakovich’s career demonstrates both the unlimited government support and the unlimited control totalitarian states exercise over their artists. This course explores musical life under totalitarian regimes: the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the GDR, Socialist Hungary, China at the time of the Cultural Revolution, and North Korea. Classes will center on musical works affected by such control, including Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth and his Symphony No. 5, and the Chinese ballet The Red Detachment of Women. We will watch propaganda films such as Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will as well as films about the perils of totalitarianism such as István Szabó’s Mephisto, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Life of Others, and the documentary From Mao to Mozart. Readings will include Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism and historical documents pertinent to interpreting musical works in their political context. No previous knowledge of music is required.

Fall semester. Professor Moricz.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023, Fall 2024

129 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 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 Incipit vita nova: The Implications of Origins

Incipit vita nova: The Implications of Origins.  Why do cultures seek to understand or to articulate beginnings?  What cultural significance is to be attached to a given representation of a beginning?  This course will study texts that purport to describe cosmic, natural, historical, political or personal origins.  In addition, the course will investigate the cultural implications of the desire to seek or to establish origins.  Readings will be drawn from Plato, the Bible, Bernardus Silvestris, Virgil, Dante, the anonymous Roman d’Eneas, Galileo, Rousseau, Jefferson, Descartes, Freud, and Nietzsche.

Fall semester.  Professor Paul Rockwell.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023, Fall 2024

135 Ring of Fire: Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Devastation

Roughly 90 percent of today’s earthquakes and 75 percent of active volcanoes reside along the Ring of Fire, a nearly 25,000-mile stretch wrapped around the edges of the Pacific Ocean. The Ring of Fire is ground zero for some of the deadliest earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in human history, recorded in writings, traditions, and legends. These catastrophic events often have global repercussions. Examples include the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and subsequent tsunami that killed over 200,000 people in 14 countries and the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815, which resulted in climate anomalies and global famines. The focus of the course will be case studies of specific disasters – both within and outside the Ring of Fire – across human history. Through in-class discussion and frequent reading and writing assignments, we will gain an understanding of the geologic processes responsible for these volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and the vulnerability of human populations to them. While taught from an earth science perspective, this course will be interdisciplinary, using historic and artistic accounts of disasters along with modern scientific research publications to help answer the following questions: What determines the location of volcanoes and earthquakes? Can we predict the next great earthquake or volcanic eruption? How are some communities disproportionately vulnerable to these hazards? How has our collective understanding of earthquakes and volcanoes changed through time?

Throughout the semester we hope to take advantage of local opportunities to enhance our understanding of geologic processes and the intertwined history of human response to change and catastrophe.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

136 Good Speech: Philosophy and Rhetoric in Theory and Practice

In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates argues with three sophists who practice and teach the art of rhetoric. To Socrates’ mind, rhetoric is a dangerous tool that aims at mere persuasion, indifferent to the question of truth. Philosophy, in contrast, aims at truth and knowledge. In this class, we will examine and participate in the ancient battle between philosophy and rhetoric. What makes for a good speech? Are the logical tools of philosophy necessarily at odds with the rhetorical tools that effective speakers use to move their audience to conviction and action? What constitutes a good argument? How do effective speakers move their audience through the use of their voice, body, and character? We will consult Aristotle’s Rhetoric in order to gain some theoretical insight into the constituents of effective public speech. We will also gain some first-hand insight into the nature of good speaking by trying out, and assessing, various techniques and strategies that have been used in famous speeches throughout history. In all of our work, our goal is to become good speakers. 

Fall Semester. Professor Jyl Gentzler and  Susan Daniels, Associate of Public Speaking.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023