Fall 2020

Ailing States

Listed in: , as COLQ-210

Moodle site: Course


Megan L. Estes (Section 01)
Michael M. Kunichika (Section 01)
Adam Sitze (Section 01)
Martha M. Umphrey (Section 01)


“Plague” has multiple origins, so the etymologists tell us. It is associated with stroke, wound, illness, interpreted as divine punishment. “Pandemic,” a word of more recent vintage, relates to “a disease: epidemic over a very large area; affecting a large proportion of a population.” This colloquium will inquire into the current crisis by undertaking a critical history of plagues and pandemics and how they relate to governance and the state. How did we arrive at this moment? How does studying past plagues enable us to better understand the various valences of the present pandemic moment? How does the pandemic implicate the state, and can it be thought outside of state governance? Can any political system “manage” a pandemic, and at what costs? What are the narrative or representational modes that would be proper to capturing this moment? And what kind of explanation and mode of historical understanding would our answers to such questions indicate about ourselves and our scholarly disciplines?

We will read and engage a wide range of texts (ancient texts such as Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian Wars and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the contemporary theories of Michel Foucault, Wendy Brown, Pierre Bourdieu, Hannah Arendt, and others, alongside contemporary cultural explorations of plague and pandemic in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries such as the Spanish flu, HIV/AIDS, and coronavirus). Sections taught by Professor Umphrey and Associate Professor Kunichika will combine lectures (some of which may be made available to the Amherst community via Zoom) with an in-class discussion format and tutorial model that will allow students to pursue independent work. Professor Sitze will teach an online only section. 

Limited to 18 students. Fall semester. Professor Umphrey, Professor Sitze and Associate Professor Kunichika.

If Overenrolled: Priority given to sophomores


Attention to Issues of Class, Attention to Issues of Gender and Sexuality, Attention to Issues of Race, Attention to Issues of Social Justice, Attention to Research


2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020