Year: Show curriculum in:

Amherst College First Year Seminar for 2011-12

101 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.

2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012

102 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.

2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016

103 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. Professors Aries and Clark.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012

104 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.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

105 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.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

106 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.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011

107 Science and Religion

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

Some believe the latter: that science describes the physical world while religion provides moral and ethical grounding. Others believe this distinction is artificial, and that neither religion nor science can be so easily constrained. We will sample the history of this conflict and analyze opinions on both sides. More broadly, we will examine whether and how sensitive topics, such as a person's core beliefs, can be rationally discussed.  We will apply our examination to current conflicts such as stem-cell research and genetic engineering. The reading for this course will begin with an historic examination of how early scientific concepts were received and opposed.  We will then examine the scientific process, discovering that it is not the neat and tidy progression that many assume it to be.  Finally, we will address current topics for which scientific directions conflict with religious concepts or ethics.This course will focus substantially on critical argument, both spoken and written.  Class sessions will center on in-depth discussions of the reading, serving as our primary method for delving into challenging topics.  There will be a smaller number of substantial writing assignments.  For each assignment, each student will be required to formulate and persuasively present an argument.  Moreover, for each writing assignment, each student will critically review the written arguments of other students.

Fall semester. Professor Kaplan.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011

108 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 Martini and Williamson.

2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016

109 Political Leadership

Political leadership can be a good and noble profession. But leadership can also be a position from which great damage can be done. Leadership in political life attracts various kinds of people and for various reasons. Some leaders live for politics; for them politics is a cause. Others live off politics; for those leaders politics is essentially a livelihood. Most leaders seem to enjoy the pleasures of power and influence, whether openly or hidden in their inner lives. Some leaders would refuse to trade their power even for significant wealth.

Leadership is necessary to all government—democratic, authoritarian and totalitarian governments, revolutionary movements and even terrorist networks. There seem to be certain general qualities of leadership and then there are those particular to a given type of politics. Understanding democratic leadership requires comparative thinking because it’s important to consider what democracy is not, as well as what it is. The paradox of a vibrant democracy is that it necessarily involves perpetual struggle between the people and the leaders, even if both want the public good. Citizens must be supportive yet vigilant; leaders must be effective yet accountable. Democracy is by nature self-contradictory and often frustrating, like life itself.

The course emphasizes improvement of student writing as well as an understanding of political life. 

Fall semester.  Professor Tiersky.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

110 Heroes and Heroines in Ancient Athens

We will try to imagine the world of Athens in the fifth century B.C., a pivotal time for the course of western civilization. It was the time of great wars between Greece and Persia, of the development of democracy, and of Athenian prominence in literature and art as well as in politics.

The people of ancient Athens lived in a world full of gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, and the connections between their world and this mythic presence are evident throughout their artistic and literary creations. Our focus will be the heroic figures central to Athenian art and literature, and the ways in which these figures intersect with Athenian life, in recurrent ritual activities and in the patterns of daily existence. Readings will include tragedies by Aeschylus (Persians, the Oresteia), Sophocles (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus), and Euripides (Hippolytus, Ion, Iphigeneia among the Taurians), comedies by Aristophanes (Lysistrata, Clouds), selections from Plato’s dialogues (Apology, Symposium), and passages from the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides. We will also examine the images visible on the architecture of fifth-century Athens, from the sculpture of the Parthenon to the paintings, now lost but described in ancient sources, which celebrated Athenian accomplishments in the presence of mythic heroes who appeared on earth to witness or join Athenian efforts. 

We will read slowly and carefully, considering the possible significance of brief references to mythic figures as well as the heroic characters (mythic and real) that receive more attention.  In examining the monuments of ancient Athens, we will become familiar with the conventions of Greek art as well as the details that might allow us to make connections to fifth-century events. 

Class time will be devoted to discussion of this material. We will often compare different sources, to gain a sense of the variety of the Athenians’ use of heroic imagery. Short (2-3 page) essays will be required throughout the semester, to facilitate thinking before class discussion as well as to develop ease in clear and cogent writing. By the end of the semester each student will be responsible for presenting to the class the results of the study of a particular monument or text and will submit a 5-7 page essay discussing its use of heroic imagery.

Fall semester.  Professor R. Sinos.



2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011

111 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.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

112 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.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012

113 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.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2010, Fall 2011

114 Encounters with Nature

What is our place in nature? How do we feel about natural spaces we encountered growing up and how do we view the environment of Amherst College and its setting in New England? How did people in the past think about nature and how did they change their environments as a consequence? How have their ideas affected us today? And how do we imagine the future of the natural world?

This course will explore how our ideas of nature have changed over time. We will give particular attention to the ways we have recreated particular kinds of natural spaces and how we have depicted nature in images. We begin with walks in the nearby wildlife sanctuary, discussions of our past encounters with nature, a study of the Amherst Campus, and, while the weather is still warm, a hike through the Holyoke Range. During these excursions we will discuss what we see, learn some basic drawing techniques that will help us take visual notes on the landscape, and discuss and write about how our experience with the land might differ from how people experienced it in the past. We then will explore New England further, discuss ideas about wilderness in the United States, and look closely at American landscape painting. Where do our deeply held assumptions come from? To find out, we will look at poetry, philosophy, Western traditions of landscape painting, and scientific illustration. We also will think about why people collect and draw natural specimens, and how they mapped their environments from the Renaissance through the Aztec empire to the current day.

The course will provide an introduction to liberal studies by helping students learn how to read and comprehend complex texts and images, respond to them in sophisticated ways, and engage in critical reasoning. We expect students to be active participants in class discussions. Students will write brief abstracts every week about the readings and every other week or so perform close readings of texts, art, maps, and even gardens and landscapes.

 Fall semester.  Professors Courtright and López.


2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

115 Healing Literature: Edwidge Danticat and Her Beloved Haiti

Through close textual readings of select texts from the literary oeuvre of Haitian-American author, Edwidge Danticat, this class aims to introduce students to the rich history of Haiti’s people, the deep violence that has afflicted the nation, the trauma that its diaspora carries, and the channels for healing made available to Haitian and Haitian-American communities through literature, theater, and traditions such as oral story-telling and religion.  In particular we will examine: What is the function of literature? Can literature perform healing for its writers and the communities therein represented? Can it function as a tool of memory and human rights action? How does diaspora literature affect life on the island? How does the recent hurricane get addressed by the author, and new literature on the subject?  Supplemented by historical and theoretical essays, and film, we will attempt to understand the Haitian condition in its complexity and astonishing beauty.

The course has three primary objectives. First, students will be exposed to the examination and understanding of literary genres, memoir, historical fiction, creative fiction, short stories, poetry, and oral storytelling. Second, the students will have short writing assignments in which they come to better understand the form and function of different writing styles. Finally, students will learn interpretive reading, learning to read at face value (emotional response) and also to read for meaning (fact-finding, synthesis evaluation, multiple interpretations).

Fall semester.  Professor Suárez.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011

116 Big Books

This seminar explores the particular pleasures and interpretive problems of reading and writing about three very long works of fiction–novels so large that any sure grasp of the relation between individual part and mammoth whole may threaten to elude author and reader alike.  How do we gauge, and thereby engage with, narratives of disproportionate scale and encyclopedic ambition?  How do we lose, or find, our place in colossal fictional worlds?

As befits its interest in the losing and finding of place, the course introduces students to college-level literary study.  Short papers on different aspects of the novels will be assigned most weeks.  Discussion in class will focus primarily on the novels themselves, though we will also consider (using our own and others’ essays as examples) ways of writing about our experience as readers.  Students will team up in pairs to open the conversation at the start of every class.

In its most recent version, the seminar’s three novels included Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, and Samuel K. Delany’s Dhalgren.  Although the novels for fall 2011 have not yet been selected, they are likely to display similar historical, geographic, and stylistic diversity.

Fall semester.  Professor Parker.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011

117 Transformative Ideas

In this course we will explore a series of ideas from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that have substantially changed the way people think about humanity. Each idea is closely associated with an author. While from year to year the ideas and thinkers will shift, for 2011 we will closely read and write about several of Karl Marx’s early essays, Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, Sigmund Freud’s final book, Moses and Monotheism, Max Weber’s essays “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation,” Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty, and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

Fall semester. Professor Dumm.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012

118 A History of the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

This course will trace the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinian Arabs from its origins in the late nineteenth century to the present. We will try to understand why this conflict has been intense and unresolved for over one hundred years.  Among the issues we will consider are: the origins of Zionism, the nature of Zionist/Palestinian relations during the British Mandate years, the birth of Israel and the origins of the exodus of the Palestinian refugees, the origins of the 1967 War, the Israeli settlement movement since 1967, and the abortive Israeli/Palestinian peace negotiations since 1967.  We will also examine the role of the United States in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict since 1948 and especially in recent years.

This seminar emphasizes class discussion, brief reader response writing for each class, and four longer essays spaced throughout the semester.

Fall semester. Professor Levin.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011

119 Democracy in Latin America

This is an introduction to the study of both contemporary Latin American politics and democratization in general.  The overriding question guiding this seminar is:  why have democracy and self-sustained prosperity been so difficult to accomplish in the region?  We will focus on Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela, and to a lesser extent on Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

The course is divided into four parts.  The first part focuses on common historical and institutional legacies that might have hindered democratic and economic development in the region.   This part also examines similarities in the way that Latin American nations have responded to this legacy.  For example, almost all Latin American countries developed intense economic nationalism, an over-expanded state bureaucracy, and corporatist-populist methods of political control.  We will ask why Latin American countries adopted these similar political features.

The second part of the course looks at some differences among our cases.  Despite their similar traditions, the countries of the region developed very different political systems after World War II.  Why?  Hypotheses will be formulated to explain, for instance, variations in levels of democraticness, and stability.  This part of the course also examines the role of political institutions, pressure groups (such as business, labor, the military and the Catholic Church), and cultural traits (such as machismo) in shaping these responses. 

The third part of the course examines the current democratic period.  What explains the odd combination of democratic rebirth and economic chaos in the 1980s?  As we move to the 1990s, our question changes again:  why do some countries continue on a path of greater democratization, while others exhibit democratic reverses, even authoritarian revivals?  

The last part of the course will focus on a completely new topic, both in Latin American politics and in the scholarship of democracy worldwide:  the fate of gay/lesbian rights movements.  Advancing gay rights in any country confronts enormous challenges.  Are such challenges different, maybe even more onerous, in Latin American, than say, advanced democracies? Or to the contrary, is there something about Latin American institutions and cultures that would suggest that this will be the site of the wave of democratic advances in the fight for gay rights?

The course will rely heavily on readings, active class discussion, and frequent, short papers.   In addition, we will watch at least five films.

Fall semester.  Professor Corrales.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011

120 Performance

This course will explore the basic elements of performance as an art form, including the relationship between action and environment, time and space, and perception and memory on the stage.  Students will attend a broad range of performances, from traditional theater and opera to contemporary dance and installation work, and explore the nature of performance and the audience experience in regular descriptive and analytical writing.  In addition, readings and videos will serve not only as a springboard for class discussion but also as a starting point for a final project.  Folklore texts from a variety of cultures will provide a narrative framework for the creation of designs or performance pieces, allowing students to develop and adapt their ideas within established contexts. 

Fall semester.  Professors Dougan and Bashford.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011

121 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.

2017-18: Offered in Fall 2017
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012

122 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.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011

123 Mind and Brain

How could there be any difficulty understanding mind, when we seem to have easy and direct access to the workings of our own minds simply by paying attention to what we are experiencing at the moment?  By comparison, matter—including the matter our bodies are made of—seems foreign and remote.  Yet why, on thinking more about it, does mind seem so mysterious that the seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes could liken it to something "extremely rare and subtle like a wind, a flame, or an ether"?  Descartes believed that mind is puzzling because our apprehension of it is obscured and distorted by the body and the senses.  He argued that until we turn things around and analyze the mind with the penetrating clarity he thought possible, we will not be able to justify our claims to know anything.

These are intriguing ideas, especially since one aim of liberal education is to develop habits of mind such as a willingness to question one's own beliefs, to say clearly what we believe and why we believe it, and to ask ourselves whether we have a sound basis for our beliefs.  If Descartes is right, we cannot proceed far in liberal studies without inquiring into the nature of mind and determining its powers and limitations in connection with knowledge and reasonable belief.  We will ask whether Descartes' account of mind can survive what is known today about the unconscious, the influence of emotions and conditioning on belief and action, and the relation between brain function and mind.  How does Descartes' view of mind fare in explaining personal identity, free will, and differences between humans and computers or animals?

The goal of the course is not to uncover a completely satisfactory account of mind—none exists at present—but rather to organize puzzlement through the process of clarifying and examining basic beliefs and assumptions about the nature of mind.  This process involves self-scrutiny, as well as discussion and writing based on readings from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, plus occasional laboratory work.  The aim is to give opportunities to develop an inquiring mind capable of tolerating ambiguity rather than clinging to false certainties, yet also capable of having beliefs rather than retreating into total skepticism.

Fall semester.  Professor S. George.


2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011

124 Dreamslands: The Universe of Dreams in Chinese Culture

The course will explore the world of dreams in pre-modern, modern, and contemporary Chinese literature and culture. Beginning with Daoist and Buddhist sources, and proceeding in a chronological fashion, we will navigate the dreamscapes mapped by traditional oneiromancy, philosophy, poetry, drama, and fiction, all the way to contemporary theatrical and cinematic discourse. What do dreams mean? How does their language intersect with the language of faith, desire, gender, politics, power, and fear? How similar and how different are our dreaming brains today from those of Chinese philosophers that lived three thousand years ago? Do cultural differences make us dream different dreams? These are just some of the questions that we will try to answer together during the semester. In order to do so, we will look at the semantic, religious, and aesthetic function of dreams in the changing world of Chinese culture, connecting our findings to recent discoveries in the fields of contemporary psychology, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience. Where possible, we will also engage in comparison of dream-related practices and traditions in other South and East Asian contexts, such as those of India and Tibet. This seminar will expose students to scholarship produced in different historical periods in China, East Asia, Europe, and the United States about dream culture, in order to expose students to different ways of studying dreams in heterogeneous academic and scientific contexts. The course will also introduce students to a number of analytical, critical, and creative ways to deconstruct dream culture, in China and beyond. Frequent writing assignments (ranging from response papers to book reviews, from creative writing to a final research essay) will engage students in creating college-level prose and analysis.

Fall semester.  Professor Zamperini.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011

125 Vienna around 1900: Cradle of Modernity

This course explores the “joyful apocalypse” of fin-de-siècle Vienna, where brilliant artistic creativity emerged in a volatile multi-ethnic Empire teetering on the verge of collapse.   We shall examine how and why the city became the birthplace of many ideas on gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity that continue to be relevant today. We shall explore artistic experimentation in literature (Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Musil, Kraus), music (Mahler, Schönberg), and the visual arts (Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, O. Wagner, A. Loos).  We shall trace the various forces that sought to respond to a pervasive sense of crisis: the emergence of new, often irrational, forms of mass politics; the psychoanalysis of Freud; the skeptical philosophies of Ernst Mach and Ludwig Wittgenstein; the pacifism of Bertha von Suttner; and the emergence of modern Zionism (Theodor Herzl) in a context of a growing anti-Semitism that shaped Hitler’s irrational worldview.  And we shall discuss how fin-de-siècle Vienna became a breeding ground for many of the social, cultural, and political forces that characterize modernity to this day.  Weekly writing assignments of diverse kinds will be complemented by a focus on methods and techniques of inquiry.

Fall semester.  Professor Rogowski.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011

126 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.

2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011