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First Year Seminar



01 The Value of Nature

Our impact on the environment has been large, and in recent decades the pace of change has clearly accelerated. 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 drawn from literature, philosophy, the social sciences and ecology.

This seminar requires students to closely read essays by scientists, social scientists, philosophers, and non-fiction nature writers.  We will be self-conscious about the different ways writers in each of these genres characterize “nature.”  The literary scholar, Raymond Williams, in his seminal work Keywords (Oxford University Press, revised edition, 1976) observes “Nature is perhaps the complex word in the language.”  (219)  We will explore why this is so.  In the process of unraveling the complexity of nature, we will pay attention both to how we share and contest views of nature in class discussion.  There will be several short writing assignments as well as four or five longer essays which will require appreciating the many ways of valuing nature.

Fall semester.  Professor Dizard.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010

02 Genes, Genomes and Society

The sequencing of the human genome ranks as one of the most significant scientific achievements of the last century. How might we ensure that scientific progress is matched by society’s ability to use that knowledge for human betterment? Although the scientific ramifications of the genomic revolution are just beginning 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 origin of humans and of human races (and are there such?), the use and potential misuse of DNA fingerprinting by governmental agencies, whether genetic information should be protected from scrutiny by insurance companies or employers, 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 actively 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. The seminar will be taught in three separate sections so as to give students the greatest opportunity to contribute to the back-and-forth exchange of ideas in the classroom.

Fall semester. Professors Goutte, O'Hara, and Ratner.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009

03 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.  It will then consider 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 from Darwin's contemporaries will be used to look at the scientific, social, and theological responses to Darwin's theory.  Finally, a few of the major issues that still reverberate today will be considered.

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, many of them short.  Common assignment will 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.

 Fall semester.  Professor Williamson.


2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2009, Fall 2010

04 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 additional, 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.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2009, Fall 2010

05 Drugs in History

This course examines the changing ways that human beings have used psychoactive drugs and societies have controlled that use. After examining drug use in historical and cross-cultural perspectives and studying the physiological and psychological effects of different drugs, we look at the ways in which contemporary societies both encourage and repress drug use. We address the drug war, the disease model of drug addiction, the proliferation of prescription drugs, the images of drug use in popular culture, America’s complicated history of alcohol control, and international drug trafficking and its implications for American foreign policy. Readings include Huxley’s Brave New World, Kramer’s Listening to Prozac and Bromell’s Tomorrow Never Knows; films include Drugstore Cowboy and Traffic. This course will be writing attentive.

Fall semester. Professors Couvares and Hunt.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010

06 From Martin Luther King, Jr., to Barack Obama

    The election of Barack Obama has raised many questions, among them these: How much and in what ways has the place of race in American public life changed since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s? Did the 2008 presidential campaign show how far we have come in escaping old racial loyalties and animosities or did it make clear how much they endure? How and to what extent has the Obama presidency carried forward the legacy of the civil rights movement in general and Martin Luther King, Jr., in particular. In what ways are issues of race entangled with those of religion in the United States--and how much has this changed in the last fifty years? What was the role of the black churches in the civil rights movement and what is the political role of those churches today? How has the place of Islam in African American religious life--and in American religious life generally--changed since the mid-twentieth century and what difference does that make for American politics? What is the relation, both past and present, between political activism tied to African American religious groups and the political mobilization of such other religious groups as evangelical Protestants? What is the relation between grassroots protest movements and electoral politics in effecting social change in the United States? How do the media shape the ways in which both race and religion appear--and disappear--in American public life?

    In exploring these questions, this course will take as its point of departure a comparison of the public careers of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama. We will examine their life histories, the development of their political and religious ideas, and their rhetorical strategies as writers and speakers. We will investigate the ways in which each--as any African American leader must do--positions himself both within black America and within American public life generally. We will note their relations to black allies and rivals and the strategies of each in forming wider coalitions--and the connection  of these coalitions to electoral politics. The course will also attempt to place both King and Obama in a wider historical context, in part by examining some of the major trends and landmark events occurring in the period between King’s assassination and Obama’s election, e.g., the establishing of the King national holiday and the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson.     The course will be primarily discussion-based. Our goal will be to examine aspects of contemporary political life and the heated debates they occasion without succumbing to partisan sloganeering, a shallow present-mindedness, uncritical credulity about the prevailing public discourse, or cynical indifference. There will be multiple writing assignments, mostly short, designed to foster students’ skills as both discerning readers and disciplined writers.

Fall semester. Professor Wills.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010

07 Romanticism and the Enlightenment

The late eighteenth century is often characterized as the Age of Enlightenment, a time when educated men and women were confident that human reason was sufficient to understand the laws of nature, to improve society’s institutions, and to produce works of the imagination surpassing those of previous generations (and rivalling 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 Samuel Johnson, John Keats, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Jacques Louis David, and Eugène Delacroix.  In dealing with these and other diverse texts, no special skills are required and all are welcome.

Although there will be several lectures for which all sections will meet together, the course is basically 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.  Professors Brandes, Greenstein, and Guttmann.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

08 War

This seminar investigates war from prehistory to the present, spending much of the time on the period since 1700 and paying special attention to the consequences of twentieth-century warfare.  Topics to be examined include: the transformative impact of technology (e.g., more efficient guns, new surveillance capabilities, air power, and weapons of mass destruction) on military tactics and strategy as well as on the concept of a “just war"and human rights (particularly the problem of war crimes and of non-combatant fatalities); the relationship of international law to war; the problem of representing and remembering wars past; women and gender in the context of war; war in an era of globalization; war and genocide; and the war on terrorism.  Our scope will be global and a range of conflicts will be considered, if not exhaustively covered.  We will draw on a diverse array of sources, including social and military history, literature, movies, war memoirs and international human rights reportage.

This is a discussion based course with the expectation of active participation by the students.  The individual sections of the course will usually meet separately and only come together occasionally (two or three times) for group activities and guest speakers. Both instructors are members of the history department: one is a specialist in American history and the other in the history of science.  The course employs a variety of approaches drawn from the humanities and the social sciences.  Students will develop critical skills by reading, writing, and discussing the films, histories, images, literature, memoirs, and government documents used in the course.  In addition to brief written exercises, students will write four five-page essays designed to integrate each section of the course. The essays will provide an opportunity to work on analytical writing and will emphasize the importance of constructing a written argument supported by evidence.

Fall semester.  Professors Servos and K. Sweeney.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009

09 Slavery and the American Imagination

This interdisciplinary seminar explores how Americans have imagined slavery over time. Drawing from works of history, fiction, and film, this course examines depictions of the “peculiar institution” to uncover connections between America’s racial past and its racial present. Specific discussion topics include the origins of American slavery; the slave narrative; the emergence of radical abolitionism and pro-slavery ideology; the invention of the South; the politics of slavery in the Civil Rights era; the “discovery” of slave society; the “Roots” of black power; agency and resistance; slavery in contemporary fiction; and slavery and autobiography. Weekly readings will span a wide array of primary sources including poetry, short essays, novels,and slave narratives. There will also be occasional film screenings. Two class meetings per week.

This course seeks to give students the tools to read, write, and express themselves effectively.  Course assessment will consist of three components:  weekly response writings; three essays ranging in length from five to seven pages; and rigorous class participation. To facilitate engaging exchanges, students will post one-page response papers on Blackboard the evening before class.  During the course of the semester, students will also submit three analytical essays designed to stress efficient writing and argumentation.  To master the art of revision, students will submit multiple drafts of these assignments.  Finally, to strengthen students’ independent research skills, we will also spend some time in the college archives.

Fall semester.  Professor Moss.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

10 Exile in Spain and Latin America

"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.  In this course, our study of exile will encompass the individual writers, artists and thinkers who were exiled from their homelands as well as the reasons, confusions and consequences that the experience of exile produces.  We will trace poets such as Cristina Peri Rossi, the authors Jorge Semprún and Gabriel García Márquez, works of art like Pablo Picasso's Guernica, and films such as Luís Buñuel's Viridiana, 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 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:  Can the exile ever return home?  Are the children of exiles also exiles?  Can we generalize about the exile experience?

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 course 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 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.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009

11 Decisions and Uncertainty

This course will explore the processes individuals and institutions use to make decisions. Particular emphasis will be given to the role that uncertainty plays in these decisions. The mathematics of probability provides a framework that allows us to understand better the nature of uncertainty. We shall observe how we use probability implicitly and explicitly in our everyday lives. Through case studies of political, economic and social issues in such areas as law, medicine and regulation, the usefulness of probability in making decisions will be demonstrated. The course explores, through common sense approaches, how probability helps us understand today's complex and uncertain world.

The course emphasizes quantitative reasoning by exploiting a pedagogical technique called the “Moore method.”  Instead of assigning an extensive reading list, a problem set is required for nearly every class.  The problems are designed to “tease out” important points that will be developed in the subsequent class.  The goal is to make you, the student, an enthusiastic participant in the learning process in which you discover for yourself the important concepts rather than learning the concepts passively from a textbook.  Consequently, students are expected to participate actively in classroom discussions.  In addition, exams and short papers will be required.

Fall semester. Professor Westhoff.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009

12 Friendship

An inquiry into the nature of friendship from historical, literary, and philosophical perspectives.  What are and what have been the relations between friendship and love, friendship and marriage, friendship and erotic life, friendship and age?  How do men’s and women’s conceptions and experiences of friendship differ?  Readings will be drawn from the following:  The Epic of Gilgamesh; Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus; selections from the Bible and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; essays by Montaigne, Emerson, and C.S. Lewis; Mill’s On the Subjection of Women; Whitman’s poetry; Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs; Morrison’s Sula; Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, and Herzog’s My Best Fiend.

The readings vary considerably.  The seminar being an introduction to liberal studies, you will be encouraged to cross, even transcend disciplinary lines intelligently.  There will be frequent, short writing assignments on the materials of the seminar and one relatively long final paper which will be, in effect, your essay on Friendship.  The seminar will be one prolonged discussion, a discussion of the texts and of your short papers, the aim of which is to encourage creative reading as well as creative writing.

Fall semester.  Professor Emeritus Townsend.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2009, Fall 2010

13 Gender and Science

What can science tell us about gender?  Can we depend on empirical research focused on the biological bases of gender to give us the truth about what is male or female, masculine or feminine?

We will look first at gender stereotypes--beliefs about the characteristics, abilities, traits, and behaviors that distinguish women and men--and explore how these beliefs differ by race and class and culture.  We will then compare theories and data from the natural and social sciences that describe and explain gender differences and similarities.  We will encounter arguments that sex differences are large, that they are small if they occur at all, that they are fixed and stable properties of individuals, and that they vary by situation and context.  We will attempt to make sense of these conflicting contentions by looking closely at the nature of the evidence, by considering the political and social contexts in which gender differences and similarities are studied, and by questioning whether the doing of science is itself a gendered activity.

This is a discussion-based course that pays particular attention to the development of competency in the written and oral presentations of arguments.  Our reading of texts from the natural and social science literatures will provide the opportunity to contrast disciplinary points of view as well as to explore the more comprehensive understanding provided by taking an interdisciplinary perspective.

This seminar will be writing attentive.  A series of brief writing assignments focused on analysis of the arguments posed in the assigned texts will provide the foundation for a longer final paper and oral presentation in which students propose an empirical study based on library resources as well as on the course materials.

Fall semester.  Professor Olver.


2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

14 Autobiographical Acts

A close examination of the art of self-portraiture in words and film with frequent exercises both in critical appreciation and creative practice of a variety of autobiographical forms.  The course pays particular attention to the recovery of experienced moments and the formation of an image of the self in texts deliberately selected from different cultures and several centuries.  Students will be encouraged to notice the power of the individual creative imagination and the force of cultural influences in the compositions they are reading and writing.  Among the authors likely to be assigned will be Rousseau, Franklin, Obama, Wordsworth, Tolstoy, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Elizabeth Bishop, John Updike, and Sandra Cisneros.

This course assigns both analytic and creative exercises in autobiographical writing.  Class discussions will focus on careful, close reading of texts as well as occasional workshops centered on student writing.  Emphasis will be given to the art of composition, providing practice in selecting textual evidence in support of argument as well as developing awareness of voice and tone in the shaping of sentences.

Fall semester.  Professor Peterson.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009

15 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, 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? 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.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018, Fall 2019, Fall 2020

16 History and Memory in Literature and Photography

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

In her final book, Susan Sontag warned about the dominant role images play in shaping Americans’ memories and sense of history.  We will study events such as the Holocaust, Japanese American Relocation, Vietnam, and 9/11, and how both images and literature create narratives of these events for individuals, ethnic groups, and nations.  We will look at the conflicts that arise when different perspectives of events enter the public realm and when memory and history are presented for the consumption of the public, whether in the form of a museum exhibit, movie, photograph, or poem.

The course will be highly interdisciplinary and include readings in literature, cultural studies, history and psychology.  Class meetings will be discussion-oriented, including discussions led by individual students.  Coursework will include short critical analyses of reading assignments, a review essay of an art exhibit and a research paper. The course will also include individual conferences with the instructor to discuss students’ written work.

Fall semester.  Professor Hayashi.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2009

17 Leadership, Citizens and Democracy

The paradox of American democracy, or of any democracy, is that effective self-government requires a perpetual struggle between the people and their leaders.  Citizens must be active but wary; governments must be efficient yet accountable. The result is that democracy is frustrating and self-contradictory, even while it is the best, or the least bad system of government.  In the world order, America's claim to an international leadership role is also based on a contradiction.  The United States is simultaneously a Liberal Democracy and a Great Power, caught inevitably between democratic ideals and the responsibilities and temptations of having so much power.

This course is a seminar discussion with regular short papers assigned.  Papers are read for both content and writing.  An important goal of the class is to help students improve their writing.

Fall semester.  Professor Tiersky.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

18 Science and Music

Appreciating music requires no special scientific or mathematical ability. Yet science and mathematics have a lot to tell us about how we make music and build instruments, what we consider harmonious and how music is processed by the ear and brain. This course will delve into the fundamentals of music theory, perceptual psychology and physics in exploring such topics as scales and tunings, the physical properties of sound, Fourier analysis, organizing principles of musical forms, fundamentals of instrument construction, vocal sound production, and basic electronic music. No background in music or physics is required.  Students are expected to be well versed in high-school-level mathematics but no knowledge of calculus will be assumed.

 This course will focus on the interface between two disciplines often thought to be disparate. Co-taught by one physicist and one musician, the course will bring quantitative skills to bear on an aesthetic discipline. The course will comprise various formats, including lectures, discussions and labs. Students will be asked to write essays, build some basic circuits, compose music, complete exercises in elementary music theory, and construct simple instruments, among other things.

Fall semester.  Professors Friedman and Sawyer.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009

19 Growing Up in America

How do race, social class and gender shape the experience of growing up in America? We will begin by examining the life of a contemporary African-American male on his journey from the inner city to an Ivy League university. We then look back historically at some nineteenth-century lives--male and female, black and white, real and fictional--to understand how the transition from an agricultural to an urban industrial society has influenced the experience of coming of age. The remainder of the course will center on coming of age in the twentieth century. Our focus will be on the formation of identity, relationship with parents, courtship, sexuality and the importance of place. In addition to historical, sociological and psychological texts, the class will include fiction by Horatio Alger, Ella Deloria, and James Baldwin.

The course introduces students to liberal studies through exposure to interdisciplinary readings and methods of inquiry from history, psychology, sociology and literature. We hope to advance students’ skills at reading critically, analyzing arguments, and articulating ideas orally and in their writing, skills that will be crucial for future coursework at the college. Preparation for each class involves students formulating questions on the reading assignment and they are expected to be active participants in this entirely discussion-based course. We find that students readily connect to the material and the class affords the opportunity for students to learn from one another as they respond to the material in diverse ways. The writing assignments range in length from 1-6 pages. Shorter assignments focus on understanding an individual author’s approach, argument, and evidence, while the longer assignments ask students to develop connections between the readings from each unit of the course. Students will have the opportunity to rewrite one paper to further develop and refine their thinking, argumentation and prose.

 Fall semester. Professor Clark.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010

20 Africa: Power and Representation

The right to represent oneself has always been an important piece of symbolic capital and a source of power. External representations of Africa have consistently distorted and misinterpreted the peoples and cultures of the continent. Within Africa, this right--to produce and display particular images--has been inseparable from both secular and sacred power. The discrepancy in interpretation of various images, whether these are in the form of visual objects or in the form of philosophies or concepts, has produced a misunderstanding of African institutions and art. In addition, historically the right to represent and claim one’s identity has become increasingly politicized. Control over various representations and images of Africa and things African has become contested. Using an interdisciplinary focus from the fields of art history, history and anthropology, this course will examine representations and interpretations of images of Africa both from within and from outside the continent. Ultimately we will link these with various forms of power and legitimacy to consider the complexity behind the development of an idea of Africa.

This course will be organized in classic seminar format: it will focus on class discussions of assigned readings, on class presentations by students, and on various weekly writing assignments. For at least one assigned reading per week, students will be asked to write about that reading in order to facilitate their understanding of the ways in which readings are framed, and to learn to read for ideas and arguments as well as the facts that support these. Each student, in concert with one or two others in the class, will be asked to give brief presentations on assigned readings, and to lead the class discussion of these. In addition, each student will pick an African country to be responsible for during the term: this includes writing a short background paper to be shared with the rest of the class, and to act as a news reporter during the term. We will spend time each week talking about the news from Africa, and relating current events to readings assigned for the course.  Much of the focus of the course is on learning what one needs to know to take a course at Amherst College: to learn to present ideas clearly and lucidly in writing and speaking. The overall aim is to give students an understanding of what they need to know about African cultures and societies and the historical contingencies that have created these internally and externally in the global political economy to understand fully modern Africa.

Fall semester. Professor Goheen.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010

21 Christianity and Evolution

The recent and ongoing controversies over ‘Intelligent Design’ and the teaching of evolution represent the tip of a large and rather interesting iceberg.  Christian opposition to evolution is not new, but neither does it represent the universal report of the tradition.  In fact, prior to the early twentieth century emergence of the fundamentalist movement in the United States, attempts to reconcile Christianity and an evolutionary understanding of human beings were prominent among Christian intellectuals.  This course will explore the pre-history and history of the relationship between Christianity and theories of evolution.  Over the course of the semester we will explore the classical "design argument" for the existence of God, as articulated by William Paley in the early nineteenth century, attempting to understand both the content of the argument and its religious importance; pre-Darwinian attempts to construct a developmental and yet Christianity-friendly understanding of the world; Darwin’s theory of evolution and its initially positive reception in Christian circles; the Scopes Trial of 1925 and its historical context; and texts drawn from proponents and opponents of the contemporary Intelligent Design movement.  Finally, we will turn briefly to recent attempts to explain religion itself using evolutionary theories.

 This course will focus on developing a number of competencies central to liberal studies:  understanding the positions articulated in texts and the chains of reasoning advanced in their support;  engaging, with charity, the thought of others whose fundamental convictions differ significantly from one’s own;  constructive dialogue across the same sort of differences;  and expository writing.  Classroom time will be spent primarily in discussion of the assigned texts and the issues they raise, with a minimal amount of lecturing by the instructor.  Writing assignments will be relatively frequent and relatively short, and will receive substantial commentary from the instructor.  Students will also be required to make short (ca. 10-minute) presentations to the class on material drawn from the assigned texts.

Fall semester.  Professor A. Dole.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009

22 Strange Russian Writers

We will read tales of rebels, deviants, dissidents, loners and losers in some of the weirdest fictions in Russian literature. The writers, most of whom imagine themselves to be every bit as bizarre as their heroes, will include Odoevsky, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Saltykov, Sukhovo-Kobylin, Olesha, Babel, Kharms, Platonov, Sinyavsky, Petrushevskaya, Sorokin and Pelevin. Our goal will be less to construct a canon of strangeness than to consider closely how estranged women, men, animals, and objects become the center of narrative attention. The "strangeness" of these texts--their unorthodox uses of character, motivation, plot, and genre--will help attune us to the less visible strategies of more familiar kinds of writing.  Frequent writing assignments will provoke alert observation of how literary works are constructed and what effects they produce.

Fall semester.  Professor Wolfson.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020, Spring 2021
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018, Fall 2020

23 Happiness

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson breaks with John Locke's emphasis on "life, liberty and property" and instead asserts that the basic rights ("inalienable") of humans are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".  In this bold move, Jefferson placed "happiness" at the core of the political and personal concern.  In this seminar, we will examine how we define, measure, and attempt to generate and maintain happiness.  Our examination will serve as an introduction to the many methods of inquiry and articulation available at the College.  We will read, discuss and write about written texts from philosophy, political science, history, literature, psychology and economics.  We will watch, discuss and write about films from different eras that demonstrate examples of "happiness."  In  addition, we will undertake exercises that will allow students to become mindful of their own well-being and will allow them to have direct experiences of the issues we address.  Classes will be held to generate conversations about the texts, films and exercises.  There will be frequent, short writing assignments on the materials of the seminar and one relatively long final paper.  Thus, students will gain practice in the articulation of their ideas and internal states through speaking, writing and self-awareness.

 Fall semester.  Professor Barbezat.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

24 Bad Science

What is "bad science"?  How do you recognize it and why does it occur? For instance, why is philosophy no longer considered science?  Is "experimental ethics" an oxymoron?  Can we trust current science when so much past science has proved wrong? This course examines incorrect, immoral, corrupt and just plain kooky ideas in the physical sciences.  It will touch on history, philosophy, ethics, and politics as they pertain to the scientific endeavor.  We start from the gold standard of scientific process, the scientific method, and its relationship to the scientific product, knowledge or truth.  We consider why, how, and sometimes if obsolete theories are dethroned.  We will attempt to classify disciplines ranging from the straightforward to the murky, from physics to alchemy to xenobiology.  We will examine science that crosses into popular culture, producing common knowledge that may contradict expert opinion. The course will focus around specific examples from many sources of bad science.  Bad science can arise from fraud, from honest errors, or from conscious or unconscious biases.  Science can be co-opted to serve political or religious ends, which may or may not undermine it.  Some science is considered "bad" because it has been used or acquired unethically.  Pseudoscience adopts the trappings of science to conceal an unscientific agenda. This course is conceived as an introduction to liberal arts studies from the perspective of a working scientist.   Through discussion and frequent writing, you will learn to place examples of "bad science" in their larger context and, ultimately, you will decide what credence you wish to attach to scientific truth.  As we address these issues, we will find many questions to be unanswerable--yet science marches on.

Though general scientific and numeric literacy will be necessary for this course, it is organized around reading and writing rather than around problem sets and calculations.  We will have weekly readings drawn from eclectic sources, followed by collective discussion.  Since many of this course's questions are ambiguous or contradictory, we will engage in robust, though polite, debate over interpretation.   You will write near-weekly short essays (3-4 pages), a longer mid-semester paper (10 pages), and a final paper (12-15 pages).  The course's topics lend themselves to opinion and speculation, so these essays will not be scientific writing per se, but we will emphasize the precise, spare style that characterizes scientific prose.  

Fall semester.  Professor Darnton.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009

25 Privacy

Broadly stated, the "right to privacy" can be understood as a "right to be let alone."  But that language of rights tends to universalize and decontextualize a concept that has a traceable history and that exists within particular social landscapes.  In this seminar we will examine the idea of "privacy" and the values protected by it, exploring how the very idea of the "private" developed and how it has been represented in literature and culture in shifting ways.  Drawing upon novels and films, historical studies, philosophical texts, legal cases, and political/cultural debates, we will consider, for example, the relation between privacy and property, the emergence and development of individual self-consciousness, the conflict between sexual privacy and state police powers, and the redefinition of privacy  through technology.  Who has the privilege of privacy, and how does access to privacy inflect social identity?  How and why does law either protect or puncture private spaces in liberal democracies?  Given the power and lure of technology in contemporary society, has  the idea of privacy been emptied of meaning? 

This seminar is writing attentive, engaging  students in frequent writing assignments, both imaginative and expository. 

Fall semester.  Professor Umphrey.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

26 Improvisational Thinking

Much of our work in college is applied to activities that involve large amounts of reworking and editing.  But in many endeavors, efforts that are apparently more spontaneous are required.  Thinking in improvisational modes requires several special techniques, and yet is done by virtually all of us at times.  Improvisation can be used to solve emergency problems or create art at the highest levels.  Dictionary definitions of improvisation usually refer to "inventing or reciting without preparation," "executing something offhandedly" or "preparing hastily or without previous preparation."  In reality, preparation for successful improvisation is arduous, although editing occurs just before or during the act of execution.  We will explore improvisational thinking with the aid of several skilled practitioners of improvisation as guest lecturers and performers.  We will ask how improvisational thinking differs from other ways of thinking and how it is similar.  We will inquire into the variety of techniques used in improvisation and discuss its relationship to the creative process.  Neither improvisation nor creativity is limited to the arts or any other discipline.  We will draw from diverse fields including jazz, Indian music, rap, Chinese painting, dance, mime, science, cooking, sports, story telling, psychotherapy, poetry and stand-up comedy.  Class discussion is encouraged and students will have several opportunities to improvise in class and explore their individual interests in improvisation.

Fall semester.  Professor Poccia.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010