In Madwoman in the Attic Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argued that women are regularly depicted in literature either as pure angels or dangerous madwomen. Angels or demons, victims or perpetrators, women are routinely destroyed on the opera stage. The angelic Gilda sacrifices herself to save her seducer, Madame Butterfly stabs herself in desperation, Salome is slaughtered after she kisses the severed head of John the Baptist, Carmen is brutally murdered by her vengeful lover, and Lulu is finished off by Jack the Ripper, leaving her final scream to reverberate in our ears after the opera is over. In opera only a few women are allowed to survive with dignity the onslaught of male desire. With its misogynistic plots, opera is the perfect place to start reading music from a feminist perspective. Along with seminal texts by feminist music critics such as Catherine Clément, Susan McClary, and Carolyn Abbate, we will read the music of women in famous operas (among them Lucia di Lammermoor, Bluebeard’s Castle, Carmen, Salome, Madame Butterfly), finishing the course with an opera by a contemporary woman composer, Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin.
Fall semester. Professor Moricz.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
This seminar will look at the varied ways artists use image and text to find their voice, engage in political discourse or dissent, and attempt to move others to action. Much of the course work will be focused on students learning to use these tools themselves to make art that expresses a voice uniquely their own; concepts and theories will be discussed, demonstrated and applied through a series of visual problems. Students will study the works of artists from 1938 to the present, specifically those who use these tools to question ideas and norms that include race, gender, class, political unrest and globalism. We will look critically at the ways in which the collision of carefully crafted images and text can create something new and powerful. This work will be complemented with lectures and discussions with visiting artists, collectives and critics. No prior art experience is necessary for this course.
Fall semester. Professor Kimball.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
In post-Enlightenment Europe, intellectuals frequently drew on images of Asia to illustrate what it meant to be modern, enlightened, and historically progressive. Why and how might we be complicit in this mode of thinking even today? Through close readings of key figures in the intellectual tradition of modern Europe, including Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), Karl Marx (1818-1883), and Max Weber (1864-1920), this seminar will explore the epistemological and ideological function of historicism and the inescapable tension between visions of universal progress and resistance in the name of particular identities. We will end the seminar with more contemporary thinkers to weigh the abiding influence of Hegel, Marx, and Weber.
The seminar will focus on the related skills of close reading, engaged discussion, and critical writing. Reading prompts and short exercises will ask you to practice the reading skills required for active class discussion and effective writing. Two class meetings per week.
Fall semester. Professor Maxey.
Can neuroscientists tell if you are lying? Is it possible to take a pill that will make you smarter? Or change your memory of the past? Can we implant technology into our brains to enhance cognition the same way glasses enhance our vision? Will machines ever develop human-like intelligence, thus enabling them to take over the world? These questions may seem more like science fiction than science, but current research in neuroscience suggests that the answers to these questions may not lie very far from our grasp. This course will survey the current state of the neuropsychological research with an eye towards predicting how future technologies might be applied to everyday life. We will consider not only what is possible, but the ethics of scientific exploration, as well.
2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
The recent and ongoing controversies over "Intelligent Design" and the teaching of evolution represent the tip of a large and rather interesting iceberg. Christian opposition to evolution is not new, but neither does it represent the universal report of the tradition. In fact, prior to the early twentieth-century emergence of the fundamentalist movement in the United States, attempts to reconcile Christianity and an evolutionary understanding of human beings were prominent among Christian intellectuals. This course will explore the pre-history and history of the relationship between Christianity and theories of evolution. Over the course of the semester we will explore the classical "design argument" for the existence of God, as articulated by William Paley in the early nineteenth century, attempting to understand both the content of the argument and its religious importance; pre-Darwinian attempts to construct a developmental and yet Christianity-friendly understanding of the world; Darwin’s theory of evolution and its initially positive reception in Christian circles; the Scopes Trial of 1925 and its historical context; and texts drawn from proponents and opponents of the contemporary Intelligent Design movement. Finally, we will turn briefly to recent attempts to explain religion itself using evolutionary theories.
This course will focus on developing a number of competencies central to liberal studies: understanding the positions articulated in texts and the chains of reasoning advanced in their support; engaging, with charity, the thought of others whose fundamental convictions differ significantly from one’s own; constructive dialogue across the same sort of differences; and expository writing. Classroom time will be spent primarily in discussion of the assigned texts and the issues they raise, with a minimal amount of lecturing by the instructor. Writing assignments will be relatively frequent and relatively short, and will receive substantial commentary from the instructor. Students will also be required to make short (ca. 10-minute) presentations to the class on material drawn from the assigned texts.
Fall semester. Professor A. Dole.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
“Exile” is both a person who is forced to leave his or her native country and a state of exclusion; both an individual and an experience. This class attempts to understand the exile experience through the work of artists, writers and thinkers from Spain and Latin America who were forced from their homelands. We will trace the reasons, confusions and consequences that the experience of exile produces by examining the lives and works of artists such as Cristina Peri Rossi, Jorge Semprún, Julio Cortázar, Reinaldo Arenas, Rigoberta Menchú, and Pablo Picasso, among other examples, as they enter into states of exile and self-consciously examine their own limbo between two countries. Many of these individuals and works of art left Spain or countries in Latin America because of their political opposition to the ruling regime; we will delve into the historical, political and cultural backgrounds that resulted in their exile. In addition, we will linger over the larger questions exile raises: Is there a difference between immigration and exile? Can the exile ever return home? Are the children of exiles also exiles?
As an interdisciplinary approach to the topic of exile, this course will expose the student to a variety of fields of inquiry central to the liberal arts, including literary, film, historical, political, and cultural studies. The class focuses on Spain and Latin America, and some texts will be available in both English and Spanish; however, knowledge of Spanish is not required. This course will be discussion based, meaning that students will be expected to come to class having read and studied the reading for the day prepared to share reactions, questions, and doubts about the assigned texts and films as well as to listen and respond thoughtfully to their classmates’ contributions: active participation is crucial. We will work on critical reading and interpretation, analytical writing and the thoughtful oral articulation of ideas as necessary skills to a student’s success at Amherst College. Special attention will be given to writing: students will compose frequent short response papers, longer essays focusing on diverse approaches to academic writing, and will participate in writing workshops and peer review sessions in class.
Fall semester. Professor Brenneis.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
A faraway place. What does this conjure for you? This course takes as its object of inquiry the notion of a faraway place. Cutting across histories of scientific expeditions, colonialism, pilgrimage, migration, trade and tourism, we will begin to think about what it means to travel and how it has impacted identity, language, place, space and time. Questions we will ask include: What makes a place faraway? Is travel required? What kind? What is learned through contact? How have places and people been represented in faraway places? What is the relationship between visitor and visited? What is produced through contact and difference? Why do people travel? Can everyone travel? Who is mobile and who isn’t? What does it mean to be located?
This is a discussion-driven course and students should be prepared to be active participants in both class presentations and discussions. Materials will be drawn from a wide array of sources including research articles, novels, films, photographs, poems, and popular essays. This course is also writing attentive and will offer students a variety of opportunities to prepare, edit and improve their writing through reading reviews, reflection pieces and research analysis.
Fall semester. Visiting Professor A. Hall.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
Food shapes our lives in many ways that extend far beyond mere ingestive acts. Through a broad survey of basic and clinical research literature, we will explore how foods and food issues imbue our bodies, minds, and relationships. We will consider biological and psychological perspectives on various aspects of eating, such as metabolism, neural mechanisms of hunger and satiety, metabolic disorders, dieting, pica, failure to thrive, starvation, taste preference and aversion, obesity, anxiety and depression relief, food taboos, bulimia, and the anorexia. Strong emphasis will be placed on biological mechanisms and controlled laboratory research with both human and animal subjects.
Fall semester. Professor Baird.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
The sequencing of the human genome ranks as one of the most significant scientific achievements of the last century. How might we ensure that scientific progress is matched by society’s ability to use that knowledge for human betterment? While the scientific ramifications of the genomic revolution continue to be explored, major implications are already apparent in such diverse fields as philosophy, medicine and law. The course will begin with a primer on genetics and molecular biology but quickly move to consider some of the philosophical, ethical, and very practical societal concerns raised by recent genetic discoveries. We will consider such issues as the safety of recombinant DNA, the origin of humans and of human races (and are there such?), the use and potential misuse of DNA fingerprinting by governmental agencies, the complex interaction between one’s genes and one’s environment, the ability of parents to screen potential offspring for a range of diseases, the creation of genetically altered plants and animals, and human gene therapy.
In this discussion-based course, students will consider the “code of life” from molecular, evolutionary, philosophical, ethical, and legal perspectives. Students will be expected to engage the full range of thought–from the evaluation of primary-source scientific data to the consideration of their societal ramifications–that accompanies a major scientific revolution. Readings will be drawn from an array of sources including original-research articles, histories, popular-science works, and essays. Careful attention will be paid to the conveyance of ideas: frequent writing projects will be assigned, and students will discuss their work in formal presentations and the occasional debate. All students should expect to contribute to the back-and-forth exchange of ideas in the classroom each day.
Fall semester. Professor Ratner.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
In the last century, genocide has occurred all too often. The Holocaust is the most famous case, but it was not the first, nor has it been the last. Indeed, in the past 25 years, genocide has occurred in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sudan. But just what is genocide? Why do states engage in mass murder? How do they mobilize citizens to become perpetrators? What happens to societies in the aftermath of genocide? Was the Holocaust unique, or can we make important comparisons to other instances of genocide? And finally, what are the politics surrounding the term “genocide”? We will examine these and other questions through the in-depth study of three particular cases of genocide: the Nazi murder of Jews during World War II, Pol Pot’s massacre of Cambodians in the 1970s, and the 1994 killings in Rwanda.
Fall semester. Professors Boucher, Redding, and Trask.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
“A History of the Native Book” takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying Native American and Indigenous peoples’ histories, cultures, literatures, and political movements by exposing students to several critical fields of inquiry. These include: Native American History, Public History, American History, Book History, and Literary Studies. Students immerse themselves in published materials written by Native American authors from the seventeenth century to the present by doing archival research in the Kim-Wait/Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection (or KWE for short). In addition, we read secondary sources by Native Studies scholars to add context to our reading of KWE texts. Working in small groups and individually, students practice and hone both research and writing skills. As a class, students collaborate on a Digital Humanities project to produce new understandings about the significance of Native authorship, publishing, and writing in regards to settler-colonialism. This final project takes the form of digital exhibition that will be accessible to the public. As a First-Year Seminar, students practice writing and reading skills and are introduced to research methods that will be essential in their future studies at Amherst.
Fall semester. Professor Vigil.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
From the early nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, Russia served as the world's greatest incubator of revolutionary thought. Philosophers, politicians, clerics, literary figures, and activists of every stripe asked in publication after publication and debate after debate, "What is to be done?” How do we fix a country beset by innumerable and seemingly intractable problems? Do we look to the West for answers, or do we look within? Should we face our travails by affirming traditional values, or should we reexamine those values? Must we reform existing institutions, or must we scrap the entire system altogether and start anew?
In this course we will read proposals by those advocating this latter option—outright revolution—and the responses of those horrified by such thinking. All these proposals and counterproposals tackle fundamental questions still relevant in our era: Does history follow rules? Can individuals change the course of history? Is government a tool for good or evil? Does religion function as a reactionary or a progressive force? Can we identify and embrace universal values, or do values rightly differ among regions? Does ideology flow from economics, or do economics develop according to ideology?
We will read arguments by Bakunin, Berkman, Chernyshevsky, Dostoevsky, Herzen, Lenin, Plekhanov, Pobedonostsev, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Zaulich, and others—published in philosophical essays, novels, political treatises, journal articles, and pamphlets. And as we read these thinkers arguing with each other, we will debate their questions ourselves.
Fall semester. Professor Geffert.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
The late eighteenth century is often characterized as the Age of Enlightenment, a time when educated men and women were confident that human reason was sufficient to understand the laws of nature, to improve society’s institutions, and to produce works of the imagination surpassing those of previous generations (and rivaling those of classical antiquity). The early nineteenth century brought a distrust of rationality (the Head) and an affirmation of the importance of human emotion (the Heart). “Romanticism and the Enlightenment” will test these broad generalizations by reading, looking at, and listening to some representative verbal, visual, and musical texts. Among the texts are paired and opposed works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, J. W. von Goethe, Voltaire, Thomas Gray, John Keats, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Jacques Louis David, and Caspar David Friedrich. In dealing with these and other diverse texts, no special skills are required.
The course is a series of discussions in which everyone is expected to participate (although it is understood that some students will probably speak more often than others). The assumption of the course is that the ability to express yourself by speaking is almost as important as the ability to express yourself by writing. It is also assumed that for all of us, including the faculty, there is room for improvement. There will be three or four short papers (approximately four pages each) and a longer paper that will serve as a take-home final exam. The discussions and the papers will ask students to engage intellectually and emotionally with the assigned texts.
Fall semester. Professor Brandes.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
Based on the premise that noticing is a necessary skill for all disciplines and modes of inquiry--requiring curiosity, discipline, and ongoing practice--this seminar is designed to strengthen our ability to pay attention with more depth, engagement and precision using all of our senses. The course will focus on the arts (literary, visual and performing) as a means to sharpen our noticing skills. Most art comes from observation, paying close attention to one’s surroundings and interactions and developing ways to bring what one notices into meaningful expressions. Through exercises and improvisations, we will increase our ability to notice new things in ourselves and in our environments, discerning details about things that we often take for granted or that we miss entirely. We will also notice what is not in the room, what is missing in different places. Drawing on our observational practice we will experiment with different media--writing, video/photography, performance--to communicate what we have noticed.
Students will work in a studio environment as well as in various locations on and off campus, during class time and during pre-arranged field trips, developing the skills of observation until the art of noticing is an enhancement of their daily life, as well as a source for intellectual inquiry and creative expression.
Fall semester. Professor Woodson.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
Our impact on the environment has been large, and in recent decades the pace of change has clearly accelerated, with the effects of climate change now being experienced around the world. Many species face extinction, forests are disappearing, and toxic wastes and emissions accumulate. The prospect of a general environmental calamity seems all too real.
This sense of crisis has spurred intense and wide-ranging debate over what our proper relationship to nature should be. This debate will be the focus of the seminar. Among the questions we shall explore will be: What obligations, if any, do we have to non-human animals, to living organisms like trees, to ecosystems as a whole, and to future generations of humans? Do animals have rights we ought to respect? Is nature intrinsically valuable or merely a bundle of utilities for our benefit? Is there even a stable notion of “what is natural” that can be deployed in a workable environmental ethic? We will investigate these and related questions with readings from diverse literature.
This is a discussion-based seminar, with close attention to writing. The seminar’s goal is to sharpen the ability to critically think and write argumentatively, but also flexibly, about nature and our attitudes towards it.
Fall semester. Senior Lecturer Levin.
We are surrounded by things that mean something–-the objects we place by our bedsides, the pictures we tack on our walls, the books and DVDs we set on our shelves, even the foods we keep in our cupboards. To the unwitting passerby, these things might mean differently or they might appear to mean nothing at all. But in fact we know that, in the space of a house or a dorm room, a subculture, or a nation, things matter. Objects tell stories; images reveal histories; favorite television shows represent tastes; movies incite emotions. Through readings in literature, poetry, autobiography, and philosophy and through screenings of films and television, this seminar will explore the meaning of things in our everyday lives. How do things matter? What do they mean? And how do we describe the ineffable quality of stuff?
This course will encourage attentive reading and viewing practices, so that our discussion-based meetings will allow us to dwell on the details of what we see. Students will compose frequent short writing assignments, trying out a range of approaches, including the autobiographical, interpretive, historical, and essayistic. And we will learn how to write about a variety of “objects”: knick-knacks, consumer products, food, photographs, films, poetry, and novels.
Fall semester. Professor Hastie.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
As a boy, Einstein famously imagined chasing a light beam on its way to a mirror and wondered if he would see his reflection in such an event. Later in life, he was struck by the conflict such a hypothetical experiment would create with other parts of experience and physical theory. This reflection (or its absence!) eventually led him to the formulation of the special theory of relativity. The kind of reasoning Einstein undertook as a boy goes by the name gedankenexperiment or thought-experiment. In fact before Einstein, different kinds of thought-experiments had been used by Galileo and Newton among others in their path-breaking contributions to physics. The common element in these works in the philosopher Martin Cohen's words "is the discovery of a way of seeing the world" rather than making an observation, measurement or even a realistic model of some physical system. In this seminar we will read the accounts of thought experiments by Galileo, Newton and Einstein as a primary means of gaining some insights into aspects of space, time, motion, relativity, and gravity. The discussion will be supplemented by more contemporary texts. We will inquire into the peculiar status thought experiments have in producing knowledge or understanding.
This course does not require a background in science, but we will be reading sources that make use of some geometry and mathematical reasoning. In addition, students will be assigned simple problem sets involving numerical and graphical work based on high school mathematics. The aim of these exercises is to teach parts of fundamental physics that are accessible without a strong technical background, but with some attention to epistemological considerations; while some historical context will be essential, our main focus will not be on issues in history of science. The course will require a fair amount of writing, including short papers on the strengths and limitations of the particular arguments advanced by our sources and a final paper on the philosophical questions raised by thought-experiments.
Fall semester. Professor Jagannathan.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
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.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
An introduction to the major concepts that animate American politics and culture. Students will study the historic and contested meanings of keywords such as freedom, equality, citizenship, racism, democracy, patriotism, tolerance, feminism, capitalism, and colonialism. Readings will be drawn from a range of fields including history, literature, media studies, political science, and LGBTQ studies. Primary sources for examination include both historic and contemporary newspapers, dictionaries, encyclopedias, short stories, social media, and popular culture. The course teaches students the art of close reading, the joy of rigorous debate, the skill of succinct writing, and the value of media literacy. Two class meetings per week.
Fall semester. Professor Manion.
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. Professors Couvares and Himmelstein.
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. Prof. Robinson.2017-18: Not offered
“So innocent!” may be the phrase most frequently heard and reflexively uttered regarding children. This phrase signals the universality of the child as a symbol of innocence in the modern West, where childhood is often understood as a blank slate set apart from the complications of labor, politics, history and sexuality. Yet, there is nothing innocent or apolitical about the representations of children that circulate through advertising, children’s literature, films, and photography. In them, children are expected to remain innocent of sexual desires, yet they are assumed to be heterosexual. Furthermore, their innocence is associated with whiteness. Indeed, these representations abound with paradoxes, imagining children as simultaneously human and beast-like, innocent and perverse, imperiled by and a peril to society.
Taking these paradoxes into account, this course will consider a difficult question: far from being innocent, what if the child is a decidedly queer figure–one whose liminality reveals the fragility and instability of sexuality, humanity, and of the social order itself? We will consult historical and contemporary writings that help us grapple with this question, such as Sigmund Freud’s theories of children’s sexuality, contemporary queer scholarship on the place of the child in the modern family, and human rights debates about child labor. Our conversations will be anchored in representations of children in media forms ranging from animated, documentary, and fiction films to reality TV, fairy tales, human rights media, and reproductive and gay rights videos.
Fall semester. Professor Rangan.2017-18: Not offered
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.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
Politics seems almost unimaginable without secrecy and lying. From the noble lie of Plato's Republic to the controversy about former President Clinton's "lying" in the Monica Lewinsky case and President Trump’s alleged assault on truth, from the use of secrecy in today's war against terrorism to the endless spinning of political campaigns, from President John Kennedy's behavior during the Cuban missile crisis to cover-ups concerning pedophile priests in the Catholic church, from Freud's efforts to decode the secrets beneath civilized life to contemporary exposés of the private lives of politicians, politics and deception seem to go hand-in-hand. This course investigates how the practices of politics are informed by the keeping and telling of secrets, and the telling and exposing of lies. We will address such questions as: When, if ever, is it right to lie or to breach confidences? When is it right to expose secrets and lies? Is it necessary to be prepared to lie in order to advance the cause of justice? Or, must we do justice justly? When is secrecy really necessary and when is it merely a pretext for Machiavellian manipulation? Are secrecy and deceit more prevalent in some kinds of political systems than in others? Can democracy survive in a “post-truth” era? As we explore those questions we will discuss the place of candor and openness in politics and social life; the relationship between the claims of privacy (e.g., the closeting of sexual desire) and secrecy and deception in public arenas; conspiracy theories as they are applied to politics; and the importance of secrecy in the domains of national security and law enforcement. We will examine the treatment of secrecy and lying in political theory as well as their appearance in literature and popular culture, for example Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Primary Colors, Schindler's List and The Insider.
This is a discussion-based course. Students will be expected to be active participants in the seminar. During the course of the semester we will use our discussions to cultivate reasoning skills as well as student capacities to present arguments in a compelling manner. In addition, there will be frequent writing, and I will provide careful and extended responses to student writing. The course will provide an introduction to liberal studies by helping students learn how to read and comprehend complex texts, respond to them in sophisticated ways, and engage in critical reasoning about venerable and pressing ethical, social and political problems.
Fall semester. Professor Sarat.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
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 Servos.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
All political systems must operate according to the "rule of law" if they are to be deemed legitimate. This statement has assumed the quality of a truism: we hear it repeated by the President of the United States, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the President of the International Criminal Court. At the same time, though, that everyone seems to agree that the "rule of law" is a good thing, no one seems able to say for sure what the "rule of law" is. What, then, do we mean by the "rule of law"? What does it mean to speak of government limited by law? What are these limits, where do they come from, and how are they enforced? What role does the "rule of law" play in legitimating structures of governance? Does the "rule of law" imply any particular relationship between legality and morality? We will hazard answers to these questions through a close reading of works of theorists such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, H.L.A. Hart and Lon Fuller. In addition, we will examine the arguments of the theorists as they help us think through pressing legal challenges of our age, such as defining the limits of executive power in the "war against terror."
Our seminar will be devoted to the close reading of a select number of texts. We will analyze the structure, meaning and adequacy of the arguments contained in these works through vigorous discussion and frequent writing assignments. Our aim is to gain a rich critical understanding of a concept that lies at the foundation of domestic and international socio-political systems, and to improve our abilities to discuss and write about complex ideas with sophistication, nuance and flair.
Fall semester. Professor Douglas.2017-18: Not offered
What is our place in nature? How do we feel about natural spaces we encountered growing up and 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? How have their ideas affected us today? And how do we imagine the future of the natural world?
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, learn some basic drawing techniques that will help us take visual notes on the landscape, 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 traditions of landscape painting, 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.2017-18: Not offered
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.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
Violence lies at the very heart of both political institutions, such as the state, as well as the expression of political beliefs. Focusing on domestic rather than international forms of conflict, this course will address questions of what violence is, how it is organized in society, and what it means to those who use it. We will first identify ways to think about violence as a political activity--why do actors choose violent over non-violent means of resisting governments or expressing dissent? Is violence ever rational? What purposes does it serve? How is violence different from other kinds of political interaction like arguing or debating? Next we will think about how violence is organized--that is, how do political leaders, parties, police forces, and paramilitaries, for example, try to control and manage the use of force? When do private individuals and groups choose to protect themselves and when do they turn to the state? Building on the theoretical interventions of scholars such as Arendt, Weber, Sartre and others, we will use empirical studies of the political use of force from around the world to ask how violence shapes political phenomena such as elections, protest movements, taxation, and nationalism.
This seminar course is designed both to facilitate engaged classroom discussion as well as improve analytic skills. Throughout the course we will engage with the arguments and contentions of a number of key theoretical and empirical works, which will provide a foundation for critical reading and reflection through writing. The core assignment of the course is a 12-15 page paper, which we will break into a number of sub-assignments, allowing students to learn organizational skills involved in managing larger projects and providing feedback and opportunities for re-drafting.
Fall semester. Professor Obert.2017-18: Not offered
On August 6, 1945, a United States bomber dropped the first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, transforming the world in an instant. This course explores the emergence of nuclear technology and its impact on global politics, society, and culture from roughly the Second World War to the present day. We will begin with the invention of the atomic bomb during World War II, exploring its societal, environmental, and cultural effects in Japan as well as its broader impact on American and European politics and identity. We will then examine the diverse ramifications of the nuclear arms race in the 1950s and 1960s, and again in the 1980s, which both pushed the world towards the brink of destruction and also fostered new forms of international cooperation and grassroots activism. We will also analyze the continuing debates over nuclear technology in the context of energy, natural resources, scientific responsibility, and environmentalism. Drawing on a range of sources, from governmental reports and diaries to cartoons, films, and paintings, the course will highlight the perspectives of a variety of groups and individuals who shaped and were shaped by the nuclear age, including scientists, policymakers, journalists, artists, activists, and victims of atomic blasts. Two class meetings per week.
Fall semester. Professor Boucher.
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.
Fall semester. Professor Melillo.2017-18: Not offered
We will luxuriate in Goya’s magisterial works, from his rococo Tapestry Cartoons to his harrowing Pinturas negras. We will avail ourselves of the treasures at the Mead Museum--a complete set of the Caprichos, the Disasters of War, the Tauromaquia and the Disparates. We will study Goyas at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts--including many rare works on ivory, and the most important cache of his works on paper outside of the Prado. To understand Goya’s apparently inscrutable images and his obsession with evil, we will pore over his letters, study his themes such as witchcraft and bullfighting, immerse ourselves in his fraught historical moment, and revel in his culture at large--from music to dance to literature--all inflected with a fragile Enlightenment, all still in the Inquisition’s grasp. There will be one required field trip, on a Friday.
Reading knowledge of Spanish would be helpful, but is not necessary. Fall semester. Professor Staller.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
What is justice? How might we recognize it? Is justice fairness? Is it giving to each what is owed? Maybe justice is helping our friends? Or maybe justice is merely the advantage of the stronger? Justice can be difficult to name, especially because we might confuse justice for all and justice for some. And yet, however difficult it is to point to, justice is absolutely essential to our social and political lives. This course aims to investigate justice, putting the very idea of justice in question. What is a theory of justice? What might we want justice to be? How could we achieve such justice? This course will consider these questions, reflecting on ancient and more modern answers to these fundamental puzzles. As a means to approach these questions, we will engage Plato’s Republic as the central text for our course. Plato’s theorizing of justice, and especially the problem of power and justice together in politics, offers an amazing opportunity for us to question normative structures. Additional readings will include more recent political and philosophic reflections on the meaning and significance of justice. Examining a variety of theories of justice in this way should help to problematize our thinking on justice, as well as reveal its necessity for contemporary life.
This seminar is designed to introduce students to liberal studies through close textual analysis, frequent writing, and shared discussion. Throughout the semester, students will have the opportunity to develop habits of critical reading and reflection, writing frequent response papers that directly engage philosophic texts. In addition, students will have several longer assignments which will encourage critical analysis and self-evaluation through re-drafting and re-writing. The aim of the course is to further develop students’ capacities to consider complex theoretical phenomena, individually through written work and collectively through engaged discussion, and all with the intent to develop sophisticated and persuasive arguments.
Fall semester. Professor Poe.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
This course will examine the emergence of the “New Woman” as a category of social theory, political action, and literary representation at the turning of the twentieth century. Early readings will trace the origins of the New Woman as a response to nineteenth-century notions of “True Womanhood.” Discussions will situate literary representations of women in larger cultural events taking place during the Progressive Era–debates over suffrage as well as their relationship to issues of citizenship, immigration, Jim Crow segregation, urbanization, and nativism. The course will focus on texts written by a diverse group of women that present multiple and, at times, conflicting images of the New Woman. Close attention will be paid to the manner in which these women writers constructed their fictions, particularly to issues of language, style, and form. Readings will include texts by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Pauline Hopkins, Anzia Yezierska, and Sui Sin Far.
Fall semester. Lecturer Bergoffen.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
The dangerous characters who “pass” among us, shift categories, or transition have long left their mark on storytelling, scripture, and law. The lines of racial purity, gender conformity, and sexual normality are enforced by parables of powerful figures who cross boundaries to assume new identities, for good or ill. Seen variously as outlaws or pioneers, they disrupt the social order or, alternatively, renew it. Some do both. Tales of women warriors, race-émigrés, two-spirit people, and closeted geniuses celebrate human potential, if often tragically. What is “liberation” for some amounts to “crimes against nature” for others.
We consider a range of novels, plays, films, and self-narratives that address the intersectionality of racial, gendered, and LGBTI identities in Western culture. We focus on three turning points: Athens in the fifth century BCE; the 1920s, including the Harlem Renaissance; and the recent growth of multicultural queer and trans culture. Literary works include Sophocles, Oedipus the King; Euripides, The Bacchae; Plato, Symposium; Nella Larsen, Passing; James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man; Virginia Woolf, Orlando; Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask; Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman; David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly, and Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain.” Of self-narratives, we read Alison Bechdel, Fun Home, and selections from Jonathan Ames (ed.), Sexual Metamorphosis. Films include Leontine Sagan, Mädchen in Uniform; Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning; Kimberly Peirce, Boys Don’t Cry; and Barry Jenkins, Moonlight.
This seminar aims to develop skills of critical reading and analytical writing by active participation in class discussion, as informed by questions and comments submitted before class, and by consultation with the instructor in the writing of five essays of increasing complexity. To develop oral argumentation, discussion is regularly supplemented by group reports and debates.
Fall semester. Professor Griffiths.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
A vital question in today’s multicultural societies is how individuals with different identities—religious, racial, ethnic, etc.—can live and prosper together. Participants in this seminar will explore the literature, culture, and history of Spain, where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side-by-side for centuries. Through readings and class discussion, we will examine how varied relations between Christians, Muslims, and Jews developed and how writers from the three cultures treated questions of acculturation and assimilation, tolerance/intolerance, religion, and gender. Examining the context of medieval Spain will also serve as a means to help us think through issues of diversity in our world today. Primary sources will include literary texts, historical accounts, films, legal documents, and maps and will be supplemented by secondary critical texts. This is a discussion-based course and students will be expected to be active participants in class discussions. The course will also give special attention to writing, offering students a number of opportunities to edit and improve their written expression.
Fall semester. Professor Infante.2017-18: Not offered
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.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
For centuries, Paris has been an exemplary site of our urban sensibility, a city that has indelibly and controversially influenced the world’s imagination since early modern times. Poets, novelists and essayists, painters, photographers and film-makers: all have made use of Paris and its cityscape to examine relationships among technology, literature, city planning, art, social organizations, politics and what we might call the urban imagination. This course will study how these writers and visual artists have seen Paris, and how, through their representations, they created and challenged the idea of the modern city.
In order to discover elements of a common memory of Paris, we will study a group of writers (Baudelaire, Zola, Calvino, Stein, Hemingway and others), philosophers and social commentators (Simmel and Augé), filmmakers (Truffaut, Godard, Tati and others), photographers (Atget and Brassaï), and painters (Manet, Cézanne, Picasso, Delaunay, and others). Finally, we will look at how such factors as tourism, print media, public works, immigration and suburban development affect a city’s simultaneous and frequently uncomfortable identity as both a geopolitical and an imaginative site.
This is a course where participation will be expected of each and every student. To do well, each student will be expected to be an active participant in each class meeting. Written work should reflect the quality of the seminar’s discussions. Logic in argument and rhetorical subtlety will be considered strengths. I will provide extensive comments on student papers, and will expect students to discuss those comments—positive and negative—with me in private meetings. Students will also work in teams on specific projects.
This course seeks to introduce students to the intellectual variety of the liberal arts, their content and methods. We will touch on such disciplines as literary analysis and close reading, translation, history, sociology, psychology, photographic and film analysis, art and architectural history, anthropology, gender and ethnic studies, sexuality, demographics, politics and the law. Knowledge of French is not necessary.
Fall semester. Professor Rosbottom.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
What does it mean to “be present?” What do we mean when we say that someone “has presence?” Can we truly say that we are ever fully present? Can we recognize presence in ourselves or in others? Can another person, nature, a work of art, or particular activities help us to become more present? Are there different kinds of presence relating to intimacy, work, or one’s political and social selves? Over the course of the semester, we will explore questions about the nature of presence. As an introduction to liberal studies, the seminar will develop students’ abilities in close reading, productive class discussion, and effective writing through frequent assignments increasing in complexity over the course of the semester. Students will also learn to think with versatility about presence, and for this reason, will encounter the subject through a variety of media, ranging from live and video performances to readings in performance theory, literature and philosophy. In addition, class meetings will include an introduction to group exercises used in the training of actors to foster improved attention, listening, and verbal communication. A small number of optional class field trips may be offered.
Fall semester. Professor Bashford.2017-18: Not offered
This course considers from many perspectives what it means to read and write and learn and teach both for ourselves and for others. As part of the work of this course, in addition to the usual class hours, students will serve as weekly tutors and classroom assistants in adult basic education centers in nearby towns. Thus this course consciously engages with the obstacles to and the power of education through course readings, through self-reflexive writing about our own varied educational experiences, and through weekly work in the community. Although this course presses participants to reflect a great deal about teaching, this course does not teach how to teach. Instead it offers an exploration of the contexts and processes of education, and of the politics and desires that suffuse learning. Course readings range across literary genres including essays, poems, autobiographies, and novels in which education and teaching figure centrally, as well as readings in ethnography, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. The writing assignments cross many genres as well.
Fall semester. Professor Frank.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
This course investigates the limits, problems, and errors of vision. Taught by an art historian, it nevertheless explores the defects of and obstructions to seeing, looking, and watching as these modes of apprehension figure in a variety of fields, from philosophy to biology to psychology to law to disability studies. Scrutinizing works of art, films, and other cultural materials, we will examine what can and cannot be gleaned from images. What is a picture’s relationship to truth, to evidence, to knowledge? Is there such a thing as a “period eye” (as art historian Michael Baxandall argued) or is sight trans-historical? What exceeds and what evades visibility? What is the role of vision in contemporary society, and how does the primacy of the visual in turn structure the social world? What might be gained from an embrace of other senses, and how would this sensory shift affect both our understanding and our experience?
Fall semester. Prof. Vicario.2017-18: Not offered
Iconic and yet dramatically diverse landscapes characterize the American West, including snow-capped mountain ranges, deep canyons, monuments of stone, geyser fields, and vast lava-capped plateaus, in marked contrast to the more subdued lands east of the high plains. Can a geologic history of the continent be constructed from the evidence in these lands? If so, how might awareness of that history influence the nation of people who live there? By engaging with the rocks and landscapes of the West, late nineteenth century geological and topographic expeditions produced transformational insights about a range of earth processes and the time scales on which such processes operate. Their reports sketched out a backstory of our continent as a dynamic, sometimes violent, and sometimes quiescent land with a deep history. Expedition reports, in turn, influenced contemporary American views of Americanness.
This seminar will introduce the geology of notable western landscapes, focusing our attention on the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Rocky Mountains, and the Columbia Plateau. We will investigate the geology of these parklands in concert with the writings of those nineteenth century surveyors, explorers, and scientists whose accounts introduced the west to the American populace: John Wesley Powell, Nathaniel P. Langford, John C. Fremont, and Clarence King. We will also join the debate surrounding some unresolved problems in western geology by critically assessing cutting-edge data and interpretations.
We will, indeed, cover principles of geology in this course, so no prior study of geology is necessary. Through in-class discussion and frequent reading and writing assignments, students will experience the scientific method of constructing understanding from analysis of observations; develop habits of reading thoughtfully; experiment with formulating and substantiating a position based on critical assessment of a variety of inputs; and practice expressing understanding or uncertainty, and agreement or disagreement in concise and clear writing and through lucid dialog.
Professor Harms. Omitted 2018-19.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
Manifestos defined the modern age. They did so loudly, with great urgency, declaring a break with the past, diagnosing the present, and proclaiming the future. Manifestos, one observer noted, are “a document of ideology, crafted to convince and convert.” We, however, will read political, literary, theological, cultural, and artistic manifestos, not only for what they proclaim, but for what they signify. This First -Year Seminar will study manifestos critically, as historical documents of a contested modernity, as works of literature, and as specimens of a unique genre. Our manifesto reading will range from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, from the communist to the fascist, from the canonical to the outlandish, from the political to the literary, and from theatrical gravity to hilarious irony. Among others we will read The Communist Manifesto (1848), The Futurist Manifesto (1909), Feminist Manifesto (1914), The Fascist Manifesto (1919), The Cannibalist Manifesto (1928), Humanist Manifesto I (1933), Existentialism is a Humanism (1945), and the SCUM Manifesto (1968). The diversity of the manifestos we will read lends itself to this seminar’s interdisciplinary approaches. Students in this discussion-based course will seriously engage the major ideologies of the modern age and critically reflect on the ideological landscapes of their own place and time.
Fall semester. Professor A. Gordon2017-18: Not offered
Who or what is Asian American? What meanings does that term have? How does it operate to define a range of people of heterogeneous histories and cultural backgrounds? How is it defined and manifested in the realms of art, law, education and politics? In this course, we will explore the evolution of terms to define peoples of Asian descent in America and the corresponding creation of this fluid panethnic label of identificaiton. By examining discrete moments in American history when the meaning of Asian American was contested we will examine the construction and ongoing legacy of this American identity.
The course will be highly interdisciplinary and include readings in literature, history, and law and involve archival research on local Asian American history. Most course meetings will involve group discussion of course materials. Coursework will include essays, research assignments, and group presentations. Instruction in writing will also be a major focus of the course.
Fall semester. Professor Hayashi.2017-18: Not offered
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.
Fall semester. Professor Wolfson.
2017-18: Not offered
Most of us agree that we should be tolerant of the beliefs and practices of others. Often the call for tolerance is grounded in some form of relativism—that is, in the thought that there simply isn’t an absolute or objective fact of the matter. After all, on what basis could we insist that others share our beliefs if those beliefs are subjective in some way, a function of our upbringing, our religion, our social norms, our culture, or our own peculiar tastes and concerns? But what reasons do we have to accept some such form of relativism? Can relativism really ground our commitment to tolerance? If not, then how else can we justify that commitment? We will explore these questions as they arise in a number of different philosophical and religious traditions. Readings will be drawn from both classical and contemporary sources and will include the work of anthropologists, literary and political theorists, philosophers, and theologians.
Most course meetings will involve a combination of interactive lecture and discussion. Our task will be to make sense of the ideas and arguments advanced in the texts we are reading and to determine whether those ideas and arguments are cogent. We will also work together to formulate compelling arguments of our own. Students are required to participate actively and intelligently in these class discussions, which will often take the form of a close reading and analysis of a passage from the assigned reading. I will encourage participation by randomly calling on students at various points during the semester to summarize and explain ideas and arguments from the reading. Note that in order to participate effectively in such discussions, students must read the assigned texts carefully and aggressively before coming to class.
Fall semester. Professor Shah.2017-18: Not offered
Have you ever had to solve a problem that you had never encountered before, on the spot, to come up with a new, original idea? It turns out that we human beings have a tremendous capacity for such feats. We all improvise. Improvisation is a complex activity stretching across disciplines and across domains of human experience. Often, much preparation lies behind a successful improvisation: the expert tennis player who can, in the moment, deliver or adapt to a powerful serve; the chef who can make a delicacy out of ingredients thrown in front of her; the freestyle rapper who can pull compelling lyrics seemingly out of thin air, the scientist who achieves a creative breakthrough after countless hours of testing hypotheses.
In this course, we will examine improvisation as a mode of thinking. We will consider how it is similar to, and different from, other ways of thinking. Through readings and class discussions, we will study various concepts of improvisation. Drawing from such diverse fields as theater, neuroscience, dance, medicine, music, psychology, religion and physics, we will explore the variety of techniques and strategies used in improvisation, and we will consider what is gained or lost when improvisational skills are cultivated or suppressed. We will test our ideas by performing simple improvisations in class, by observing expert improvisors in action and by critically reflecting on this work. The course culminates with a final research project.
Fall semester. Professor Harper.2017-18: Not offered
By some accounts, cooking is what makes us human. Food provides sustenance for survival, and its production, preparation, and consumption also shape, define and sustain personal identities, social groups, nations, bodies, and myriad relationships with other beings. As such, food is an exceptional site through which to examine broader social scientific questions about the formation and perpetuation of racial and class differences, the impact of capitalism and global interconnection on how we live, the role of taste and the senses in memory making, gendered ideals of domesticity in national discourses of modernity, and the rationales we use to incorporate other beings into our own groups, to name just a few. Thus, this course examines the varied facets of food as a socio-cultural phenomenon to examine how what we eat constitutes who we are and who we may want to become.
This is a discussion driven seminar. The course is also writing attentive and will offer students a variety of opportunities to hone their writing skills.
Fall semester. Visiting Professor A.Hall.2017-18: Not offered
This course draws inspiration from the PBS show Finding your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates. In each episode, celebrities speak to Gates about what they think they know about their family’s history. Gates’s team of researchers then undertakes archival research and DNA analysis that sometimes leads to surprising discoveries. Each episode becomes a window into global histories of migration, society, nation, and empire. Martha Stewart, for example, discovered that she had Muslim ancestors in central Poland, and Wanda Sykes, who spoke of her strong identity as a proud descendant of Black slaves, was taken aback when she discovered not only that her Black ancestors enjoyed freedom at least as far back at the mid-1700s, but that they had been slave owners. Gates used these examples to explore the deep roots of Islam in Europe and the complex history of Black slavery in America. Through research, story-telling and conversations, celebrity guests, and even Gates himself, learned to see their present and their past as windows into larger trends in history.
In this course students will practice various strategies for recovering and narrating their own stories of home and of family (with a broad understanding of what “home” and “family” mean). Next, students will draw inspiration from Gates as they conduct genealogical research, store their findings in structured databases, and read histories of migration, race, and nation formation in various parts of the world. Students will have the opportunity to get their DNA analyzed and will choose what they wish to share about their findings. Each student then will select a particular person, moment, place, or time that they learned about during their genealogical research. This will become the subject of a historical research project based on physical and digital archival sources. Students will finish the course by reflecting upon how the things they have learned about their diverse pasts shape how they think about the changes and challenging transitions they are currently experiencing as the newest members of the Amherst College community. Two class meetings per week.
Fall semester. Professor Lopez.
Who should have access to education and to what sorts? Should people shoulder the costs of their and their children’s education, or would a just society insure an equal opportunity to education for all members? These issues, in turn, raise basic philosophical questions. What is the nature of a just society? Are we entitled only to the results of our own labor (and luck) in a market economy? Or does a just society guarantee rights to certain goods to all citizens (or all members)? If the latter, which goods must a just society protect? What role does education play in a good human life? Is its value mainly instrumental in giving one the skills and credentials that are desired in a market economy? Does the optimal functioning of a democratic society depend on its citizens having a certain level of understanding of the way the world works? Does it depend on its citizens having a certain moral character? Can character be taught? Should it be? These issues, in turn, raise questions about the relative weight and nature of various goods (e.g., life, liberty, and happiness) and questions about the justice of various distributions of these goods between different individuals. Finally, our attempts to answer these questions will raise basic questions about the nature of rationality. Is it possible to reach rational decisions about ethical matters, or is ethics merely subjective?
This course is designed as a First-Year Seminar for transfer students. In addition to the philosophical content of this course, we will focus on the academic skills (e.g., critical reading, writing, discussion, public speaking) and institutional knowledge required for students to thrive academically at Amherst College.
Fall semester. Professor Gentzler and Senior Writing Associate Sanchez.2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017