Course SchedulerShow curriculum in:

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 is a discussion-based seminar, though close attention will also be paid to student writing, both in required papers and in more informal writing assignments. The seminar’s goal is to sharpen our ability to think and write argumentatively, but also flexibly about nature and our attitudes towards it. Accordingly, we will investigate the way that the value of nature is approached in texts of many different types: philosophical, historical, sociological, scientific and literary.

Fall semester.  Professor Moore.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010

02 Human Health:  Rights and Wrongs

Currently, Americans are engaged in heated debates about access to health care.  These debates are unlikely to end soon because they raise some of the most fundamental questions about what it means to live in a just society.  Do all humans have a right to health care?  What about education, safe neighborhoods, meaningful work, deep personal relationships, which many have argued are equally, if not more, important to determining lifelong human health?   Do we have any obligation to protect the health of our fellow citizens?  What about the health of humans beings who live far away in distant lands, or of human beings who will live in the distant future?  Does justice require us to eliminate health disparities associated with class, race, and gender?   In this course, we will investigate the multiplicity of factors that determine human health, and attempt to determine the extent of our moral obligations to protect and promote it.  We will also investigate another class of fundamental questions raised by the current health-care debates. What makes an argument a good argument?   Do we have obligations to argue well--that is, to avoid fallacious reasoning, appeals to false or misleading information, personal attacks, and fear-mongering?  Or, are such argumentative tactics legitimate if the social ends these arguments serve are sufficiently important?

In this discussion-based course, students will develop skills in close and critical reading, clear and eloquent communication both in writing and in speech, cogent argumentation, and reliable research.  Required work will include frequent short writing, exercises in argument analysis, class discussion and debate, medium-length papers, and a final research paper.

Limited to 15 students. Fall semester.  Professor Gentzler.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2010

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.  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, 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.  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.  Professors Servos and Williamson.


2021-22: 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.

2021-22: 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. Professor Couvares.

2021-22: 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. Readings will includes writings by King and Obama, historians’ accounts of the civil rights era and its aftermath, social scientific analyses of recent American voting patterns, and contemporary news accounts and opinion pieces about the Obama presidency. There will be multiple writing assignments, mostly short, designed to foster students’ skills as both discerning readers and disciplined writers.

 Fall semester. Professor Wills.

2021-22: 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 and Guttmann.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

08 Figures of Ill Repute

The French term demimonde means literally “half-world.”  Together with the equivalent in Japanese (karyûkai), it generally indicates an eroticized space or profession that is outside the pale of respectable society.  The quintessential figure is the female prostitute—whether the low-ranking sex worker or the high-class courtesan—but the term can also encompass the catamite, the bar hostess, the geisha, and the male prostitutes who cater to a female clientele.  Because of their ambiguous status, demimonde figures and their sexuality often become a vehicle through which writers, artists, and polemicists explore the effects of desire on the larger social order, critique contemporary social mores, project their fantasies about male-female relations, and seek idealized symbols of femininity and masculinity.This comparative course focuses on the demimonde cultures of France and Japan in an interdisciplinary exploration involving narrative fiction, film, historical scholarship, material culture, autobiography, art, law, theatrical works, and anthropology.  As an introductory and interdisciplinary course in liberal studies, we will use both pre-modern, modern, and contemporary sources to ask questions about representation, agency, lived experience, desire, morality, law, abjection, money, and social stratification.  This is a discussion-based course that is also designed to develop student competency in critical thinking and in writing.  Assignments include short responses and longer essays, with an emphasis on developing skills at crafting thesis/support essays.  It will be taught in sections, but we will come periodically together as a group for plenary sessions and lectures on particular cultural phenomena. The course requires no knowledge of Japanese or French.

Fall semester.  Professors Katsaros and Van Compernolle.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2010

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.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

10 Pariscape: Imagining Paris in the Twentieth Century

Paris has been for centuries one of the exemplary sites of our urban sensibility, a city that has indelibly and controversially influenced the twentieth-century imagination.  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 “modernist” world view.In order to discover elements of a common memory of Paris, we will study a group of writers (Apollinaire, Calvino, Stein, Hemingway and others), philosophers and social commentators (Simmel, Benjamin, Barthes), filmmakers (Clair, Truffaut, Tati and others), photographers (Atget) and painters (DeChirico, 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. It will not be a lecture course. 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 are expected to see me outside of class. Students will also work in teams on specific projects.

This course seeks to introduce students to the intellectual wealth 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.We will also keep a sense of humor, take a field trip to New York and not be patronizing to those who do not have the good fortune to be in this seminar.

Fall semester. Professor Rosbottom

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2010

11 Eros and Insight

What would it be like to experience yourself, those around you, and the world through deliberate and disciplined contemplation? This seminar will define and then explore through specific exercises contemplative knowing as attentiveness, openness and the act of sustaining contradiction. By this means we will seek common ground between the seemingly opposed realities of art and science in the contemplative integration of erôs and insight. Our goal will be to discover the contemplative heart of higher education. During the first half of the course we will use brief readings from Thoreau, Simone Weil and others to discover the nature of contemplative engagement. We will then work with material drawn from science (Kepler, Oliver Sacks, Einstein, Barbara McClintock) and the arts (Rembrandt, Goethe, Mondrian, Ryoan-ji in Kyoto) that exemplify such engagement and can lead to contemplative insight. In the second part of the course we turn to the question of love, and seek its deep relationship to contemplation and knowing. In this exploration we will be guided by the writings of Marguerite Porete, the troubadours, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Thomas Merton. We will conclude by re-imagining together Plato’s famous Symposium on the question of love.   During the course of the seminar, there will be many varied occasions for conversation and discussion. There will be frequent short but sharply focused writing assignments, complemented by an on-going semester journal, as well as exercises involving visual thinking and practice. Throughout the seminar there will be regular occasions for contemplative engagement. This contemplative work will serve to foster the goal of the seminar.

Fall semester. Professors Upton and Zajonc.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2010, Fall 2011

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, students 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, an essay on Friendship.  The seminar will be one prolonged discussion, a discussion of the texts and of short papers, the aim of which is to encourage creative reading as well as creative writing.

Fall semester.  Professor Emeritus Townsend.

2021-22: 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.


2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

14 The Unseen Universe

    In recent years, astronomers have come to realize that the view of the universe which we get through telescopes is not telling the whole story. Rather, in addition to all the astronomical objects we can observe, the universe contains an enormous number of unseen things: objects we have never directly detected and, in some cases, that we never will. Some of these objects are black holes, some are planets orbiting nearby stars, and the nature of the rest – the mysterious “dark matter” – is entirely unknown.    In this course, working with real and simulated data, students will retrace the path whereby we have come to this remarkable conclusion. Much of the course takes an inquiry-based approach to learning: there will be very few lectures, but rather students will forge their own understanding through seminar discussions and scientific investigations in small groups. Students will write three long papers (there will be an opportunity to rewrite two of them); they will write and then orally present a large number of short communications discussing the status of their research; and they will present their final results in a formal "course conference" at the close of the semester.    The course meets two days per week from 2:30 to 5:00 p.m. in the Webster Technology Classroom. These unusual meeting times are required by the inquiry-based nature of the course.

Fall semester.   Professor Greenstein.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2010

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.

2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021
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, Fall 2021

16 Liberation

With a focus on close reading and persuasive argumentation, we ask two linked questions: How has Western culture defined itself through tales and declarations of liberation? How have such texts, though affirming freedom, also imposed constraining norms of gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuality?

We start with the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Mary Prince, and others and then look back to ancient accounts of deliverance, including Homer’s Odyssey, the Books of Genesis and Exodus, Plato’s Symposium, and the Gospel of Matthew. From the modern era we read Manuel Puig’s The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (with Euripides’ Medea), and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. We also analyze the act of claiming freedom in the American Declaration of Independence, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s Communist Manifesto, and documents and films from other liberation movements.    

Students master essay formats of increasing complexity by revising drafts and meeting regularly with the instructor, as well as by learning to use the resources of the Writing Center and the Library.  They also on occasion collaborate in groups to lead discussion and analyze writing.  

Fall semester.  Professor Griffiths.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2010

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, both response papers and short essays.  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.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

18 Arts of Spain

We begin with Goya, from royal commissions to the harrowing “pinturas negras.” Our primary focus will be visual arts: Picasso’s paintings, Gaudí’s architecture, Almodóvar’s films.  We also will consider García Lorca’s poetry, Saura’s  flamenco music and dance, as well as religious rituals.  We will read very probably the most bizarre autobiography ever written (by Dalí.)  We will address the diversity of Spain’s political, linguistic and cultural centers, and consider how this complicates any discussion of nationalism or a Spanish “mentality.”  We will explore how gender was imagined, reading anthropological texts on machismo and primary tracts about powerful, dangerous women (brujas.)  We will address the importance of concepts like duende, the legacy of literary themes and characters (La Celestina, Don Quijote), as well as the “anxiety of influence” toward Golden Age giants like Velázquez and Zurbarán. Our period was marked by conflict: an empire lost, the defeat by Napoleon, civil war. Holy wars, anti-clerical insurrections, economic vicissitudes, all came into play, as did battles waged in nature’s realm, the cosmic order. We close with the artistic efflorescence of Spain’s nascent democracy. We will read closely, discuss rigorously.  Whenever possible, we will study original objects, including an array of prints at Amherst’s Mead Museum. We will meditate on the ways in which beliefs, fears and dreams were given form, as we revel in some of the greatest works ever made. There will be frequent response essays, a five-page paper, and a somewhat longer paper which will be an opportunity for students to explore what they found most exciting. No prior knowledge of Spanish or art is required. We will take a required field trip Friday, October 1, to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts--with its paintings by El Greco, Velázquez , Zurbarán, Picasso, and the most extensive collection of Goya images on paper outside of the Prado. Fall semester.  Professor Staller.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2010

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 students are expected to be active participants in this entirely discussion-based course. We find that students readily connect to the material and 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 Aries.

2021-22: 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 acting 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.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010

21 Giving

What moves us to give to other people?  Is gift-giving mainly a matter of altruism or can it entail negative, even selfish, motives?  What does it mean to receive gifts and charity from others?  Does giving create social bonds or test them?  In what ways can charity backfire and wind up harming both recipient and donor by creating patterns of obligation and dependency?  What do we expect philanthropy to do and what kinds of philanthropy are effective? 

The objective of the course is to develop our sophistication about a set of values and practices widely regarded as important for all human beings. We will explore generosity, charity, and philanthropy from both theoretical and practical perspectives.  We will read classic sociological and anthropological studies of the gift (starting with the work of Marcel Mauss) and philosophical and literary treatments of generosity (including Aristotle, Seneca, Emerson, Baudelaire, Derrida, and others).  We will look closely at generosity and charity in Asian and western religious traditions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). We will also consider several case studies that look at giving and philanthropy in contemporary contexts in public welfare, private philanthropic organizations, and international humanitarian aid. Finally, this seminar sharpens students' critical and argumentative tools, their ability to read and analyze texts, and their capacity to express themselves in writing.

Please note that students in this course will be expected to be involved with community engagement activities outside of class and will be using their experience as volunteers as important opportunities for reflection about the major themes of the course. We will be working with the Center for Community Engagement to set up volunteer opportunities.

 Fall semester.  Professor Heim.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2010

22 Genocide

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 your lifetime, 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?  How unique is the Holocaust as a case 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 and other groups during World War II, Pol Pot’s massacre of Cambodians in the 1970s, and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Course materials will focus on close readings of historical and contemporary texts, including films, songs, oral histories, memoirs, court documents, and scholarly works.  We also hope to introduce the class to someone who has endured genocide so as to promote discussion about how individuals experience traumatic historical events.  In terms of assignments, students may expect various exercises that will foster their skills in critical thinking.  We will focus on writing skills, including researching topics and conveying effective arguments at the college level.  We will also encourage web-based assignments; debates and other kinds of collaborative exercises; and assignments that focus on oral presentations.     

Fall semester.  Professors Epstein and Redding. 

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2010

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. We will examine in this seminar 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.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

24 Mozart and His World

Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) is among the most important and productive musicians in the history of western classical music. Among his outstanding traits was an ability to absorb, synthesize, and re-imagine virtually all of the styles of music fashionable throughout Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. This ability stemmed from a combination of natural proclivity and the unusual tutelage of his father Leopold (perhaps history’s most famous “stage father”) whose methods included taking his son on extended tours throughout Europe, which allowed him to meet the most important musicians of his day. This class will be devoted to Mozart’s life and music with an emphasis on several of his masterworks—chamber music, symphonies, piano concertos, and especially operas—written in the last decade of his life. The specific repertoire will be chosen to correspond with performances we will attend locally and in Boston and/or New York. A significant portion of class time will involve group listening with the aim of learning how to analyze a complex piece of music in detail. Readings will include biographies of Mozart by Jane Glover and Maynard Solomon, as well as letters (many of which display lively enthusiasm for the sexual and scatological) and other historical documents by Mozart and members of his family.

In addition to reading, assignments will include listening to recordings and live performances, making entries in a listening journal, short responses to historical readings, and four more formal papers. Class time will include lecture, listening, discussion, and, at the end of the term, final group presentations on scenes from an opera. There is no musical prerequisite for this class.

Fall semester.   Professor Schneider.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2010

25 Privacy

In the age of the internet, do we have any privacy anymore?  More to the point, do we want it?  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 culture in shifting ways.  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.  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 rights, 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 the lure of technology in contemporary society, has the idea of privacy been emptied of meaning? 

This seminar will introduce students to a number of scholarly approaches so that they can learn how to analyze one rich concept - privacy - from varying angles and can gain some insight into the different ways rigorous scholarship is conducted and presented.  Because writing is both an art and a practice, students will write frequently with an eye to learning the fundaments of lucid and compelling college-level prose style and argumentation.  Weekly, students will craft one-to-two page responses to questions arising out of the course materials and will occasionally read or speak in class from those response papers.  Students will also draft and polish three medium-length pieces of writing, analytic and imaginative, so that they can understand the process and virtues of revision.

Fall semester.  Professor Umphrey.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

26 Thinking Through Improvisation

Much of the thinking we do 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. The preparation for successful improvisation is often enormous, but editing must occur just before the act of execution.  We will explore improvisational thinking with the aid of several skilled practitioners 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, drawing from diverse fields. We will explore the relationship between improvisation and creativity.  We will learn how to naturally incorporate improvisational strategies into our explorations of the liberal arts.

Improvisation is a process not a product. It involves creating in the moment without the opportunity to edit later, instead evaluating during its execution. Improvisation is difficult, rewarding and unavoidable. It requires mastery of many automatic subroutines as raw material and extreme attention to one’s surroundings and inner voice to integrate these subroutines successfully. Improvisation is one major way of thinking. It can be routine or creative and can be practiced and learned. It requires risk-taking and courage, openness and trust. Good improvisation is strongly connected to the creative life. Improvisational skills are intrinsically multidisciplinary and can be used to advantage in many fields where they are often unacknowledged. Improvisation is also multicultural in practice. Therefore experience with improvisational thinking is essential to a complete liberal arts education.

Students will read articles and books on improvisation and creativity, listen to and critique two outside improvisational performances, write evaluations of 10-12 in-class performances, and prepare a substantial term paper on one improvisational activity in depth. About half of the classes are devoted to discussion of texts. Students will also have several opportunities to improvise and self-critique (without grading in order to provide a safe environment for exploration and risk-taking).

Fall  semester.  Professor Poccia.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2010

27 Thought-Experiments in the Development of Physics

As a boy of ten 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, Newton and Maxwell 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 or measurement.  In this seminar we will take up the thought experiments considered by these and other physicists as a primary means of gaining some insights into aspects of space, time, motion, thermodynamics, relativity, gravity and quantum physics.  We will also examine the different kinds of thought experiments and inquire into the peculiar status they 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.

2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2010

28 Reading Nature

One of humankind’s greatest ambitions has been to understand, measure, and control nature, as well as imitate its appearance and harness its powers.  Scientists and artists labored over millennia to discover what they believed were principles and fundamental truths embedded in natural phenomena.  Rulers and citizens, masters and servants, scientists, craftsmen, doctors, cartographers, artists and historians traversed landscapes and seascapes. They mapped familiar and unfamiliar territories, documented their fauna and flora, wrote descriptions of them, and created microcosms and macrocosms of these spaces for the privileged to possess.    

The seminar will raise issues of how we know what we know about the past and about the world around us, and about how we think about, look at, and experience material culture and landscape. We will think about how we ask questions about human experience, about accumulated histories of power relations, and about change over time. We will hike through altered landscapes in the area, and walk around Amherst College to consider its design and place in the universe of education when it was founded.  We will visit Historic Deerfield and analyze its relationship to ideas about nature in the early history of the colonies, and contrast it with Louis XIV’s gardens at Versailles and their role in early modern absolutist control within Europe. We will examine how nature and the products of nature have been understood in the past, looking at botanical drawings and photographs in Frost Library’s Special Collections, rocks in the Natural History Museum, and art in the Mead Art Museum.

 Throughout the semester students will do close readings of visual and printed material, weekly will write brief analyses of historical sources, spaces, and images, and will design interdisciplinary projects of inquiry.  Students will be asked to hone and critique their own writing, speaking and thinking skills as the course progresses.


Fall semester.  Professors Courtright and López.


2021-22: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2010