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First Year Seminar



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.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2017

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.

2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022
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, Fall 2022, Fall 2023

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, 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.

2022-23: 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.

2022-23: 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 rivaling those of classical antiquity).  The early nineteenth century brought a distrust of rationality (the Head) and an affirmation of the importance of human emotion (the Heart).  “Romanticism and the Enlightenment” will test these broad generalizations by reading, looking at, and listening to some representative verbal, visual, and musical texts.  Among the texts are paired and opposed works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, J. W. von Goethe, Voltaire, Thomas  Gray, John Keats, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Jacques Louis David, and Caspar David Friedrich.    In dealing with these and other diverse texts, no special skills are required and all are welcome.

Although there may be several lectures when 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.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

106 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 various forms of power and legitimacy to consider the complexity behind the development of an idea of Africa. 

The assigned readings for this seminar  draw on literature from a wide range of disciplines as well as on films and novels.  These assignments are designed to teach students the ways in which knowledge and understanding of seemingly disparate and unrelated  fields of inquiry combine and are essential to our understanding of this large and diverse continent in the 21st  century.  This includes both our understanding of larger philosophical questions such as the relationship between control over categories of meaning and representation of both groups and individuals in the calculus of power at various historical moments,  and the realities of the historical forces, contingencies and contexts that have led to the situations  of African peoples and States in today’s global political economy.  Students will complete weekly reading and writing assignments ranging from learning African geography and a map quiz to filling out question sheets on assigned readings designed to teach them how to read for overall themes and questions rather than facts alone,  to turning in questions on the readings and being responsible in small groups for leading class discussions.  Students are expected to participate actively in class discussion, and most assignments are designed to encourage lively conversation.  

Fall semester.  Professor Goheen.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015, Fall 2016

107 Ancient and Modern Rhetoric

This course explores the theory and practice of Greek and Roman oratory in comparison with contemporary speeches, with particular regard to those that will be delivered during the presidential campaign. Are there rules for crafting a successful speech? What does a speech reveal about the assumptions and mentality of its audience? How much do Greek and Roman oratory affect the way we construct and evaluate a speech today? Oratory will be considered both as a discipline with its own laws and practices and as a window into the values and debates that animate the public life of a people. We will do close readings of key passages and orations and analyze their rhetorical structure and argument. Assignments will include not only essays on major themes in classical rhetoric and on their reception in modern discourse, but also close readings of key passages and orations, and analysis of their rhetorical structure and argument.

Discussion-based classes will focus on readings taken not only from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes and Cicero but also from past history and from the modern era (e.g., George Washington, Dr. King, Hitler, Churchill and the 2012 presidential candidates). Students will work closely with the instructor to craft a speech, which they will deliver to the rest of the class at the end of the course.

Fall semester. Professor Grillo.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012

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.  Professor Martini.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018

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.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

110 Art in Place and The Place of the Arts

Art is the product of the imagination, but imagination is often the product of a place.  We will examine the process by which art can spring from and return to a place, whether geographically or abstractly located.  In coordination with this year’s Copeland Colloquium of the same title, the course will survey the interaction of place and art from several perspectives: site-specific art, art in the community, borders and frontiers, art in the academy, and art and ecology.  Each perspective will be framed by examples of established work in music, dance, theater, and film that arise from or respond to place, both locally and globally.  We will also consider art being created on our own campus by Copeland fellows and Five College faculty and students.  Finally, students will be given tools to work on a final creative project of their own, individual or collaborative, following the models and approaches to interaction with place that they have studied.

The course will include weekly attendance at a schedule of outside performances and visits to museums and other sites with weekly writing assignments based on these experiences.  At the conclusion of the term students will create and perform their own place-based artistic project.  A central goal of the writing assignments will be to develop a vocabulary for describing and evaluating art forms not primarily made of words.  Participation in class discussion will be a key to success in learning to describe and make art.  There are no prerequisites, though a creative interest will be helpful.

Fall semester.  Professors Sawyer and Woodson.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012

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.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

112 Thought-Experiments in Physics

As a boy Einstein famously imagined chasing a light beam on its way to a mirror and wondered if he would see his reflection in such an event.  Later in life, he was struck by the conflict such a hypothetical experiment would create with other parts of experience and physical theory.  This reflection (or its absence!) eventually led him to the formulation of the special theory of relativity.  The kind of reasoning Einstein undertook as a boy goes by the name gedankenexperiment or thought-experiment.  In fact before Einstein, different kinds of thought-experiments had been used by Galileo, 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, relativity, and gravity.  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.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012

113 Christianity & Evolution

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

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

Fall semester.  Professor A. Dole. 

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2021

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 or two. During these excursions we will discuss what we see, learn some basic drawing techniques that will help us take visual notes on the landscape, and discuss and write about how our experience with the land might differ from how people experienced it in the past. We then will explore New England further, discuss ideas about wilderness in the United States, and look closely at American landscape painting. Where do our deeply held assumptions come from? To find out, we will look at poetry, philosophy, Western traditions of landscape painting, and scientific illustration. We also will think about why people collect and draw natural specimens, and how they mapped their environments from the Renaissance through the Aztec empire to the current day.

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

 Fall semester.  Professor López.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

115 Encounters with Eurasia: Russian Culture at the Frontier

From medieval times to the present, Russians have defined themselves as positioned between Western and Eastern cultural traditions, claiming for themselves a unique role in an historic “clash of civilizations.”  This course closely examines influential representations, in literature and film, of Russia’s encounter with the peoples on the southern and eastern borders of Imperial, Soviet, and contemporary Russia. Beginning with the depiction of pagan “others” in the ancient chronicles and narrative poetry of early Russia’s Orthodox civilization, the course will shift focus onto the secular literature of Imperial Russia, reading the texts that shaped popular conceptions of the “natives” with whom Russians battled, traded, and incorporated into their own non-Western identity. We shall investigate the long history of Russian “Orientalism” in poems, stories, and films that powerfully imposed or challenged stereotypes of the tribal peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Coming closer to the present, we shall follow the development in recent times of the concept of “Eurasianism,” which proclaims Russia to be the center of an emerging civilization that blends the races and cultures of East and West. As appropriate, the course will pause to consider comparisons and contrasts with American national expansion and the encounter with indigenous people on the North American continent. Works to be studied include Russian literary classics by Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, and Tolstoy as well as more recent Soviet and post-Soviet depictions of Russia’s “inner Asia” in film and writing.

This course includes frequent and varied writing assignments of different lengths and oral presentations of assigned material. Students will be encouraged to pay attention to textual and cinematic details and to develop skills as critical readers and creative thinkers. Writing will be discussed and edited in class with the aim of achieving persuasive argument and improving grace of expression. With the help of library staff students will research topics of interest to them in preparation for an independent final project.

 Fall semester. Professor Peterson.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012

116 Genes, Genomes and Society

The sequencing of the human genome ranks as one of the most significant scientific achievements of the last century. How might we ensure that scientific progress is matched by society’s ability to use that knowledge for human betterment? Although the scientific ramifications of the genomic revolution are just beginning to be explored, major implications are already apparent in such diverse fields as philosophy, medicine and law. The course will begin with a primer on genetics and molecular biology but quickly move to consider some of the philosophical, ethical, and very practical societal concerns raised by recent genetic discoveries. We will consider such issues as the origin of humans and of human races (and are there such?), the use and potential misuse of DNA fingerprinting by governmental agencies, whether genetic information should be protected from scrutiny by insurance companies or employers, the ability of parents to screen potential offspring for a range of diseases, the creation of genetically altered plants and animals, and human gene therapy.

In this discussion-based course, students will consider the “code of life” from molecular, evolutionary, philosophical, ethical, and legal perspectives. Students will be expected to engage the full range of thought–from the evaluation of primary-source scientific data to the consideration of their societal ramifications–that accompanies a major scientific revolution. Readings will be drawn from an array of sources including original-research articles, histories, popular-science works, and essays. Careful attention will be paid to the conveyance of ideas: frequent writing projects will be assigned, and students will discuss their work in formal presentations and the occasional debate. The seminar will be taught in two separate sections so as to give students the greatest opportunity to contribute to the back-and-forth exchange of ideas in the classroom.

Fall semester. Professors Bishop and Ratner.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

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 2012 we will closely read and write about Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Communist Manifesto, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, Sigmund Freud’s The Ego and the Id, Max Weber’s essays “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation,” Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Franz Kafka’s story, “In the Penal Colony,” and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

This course introduces students to modes of critical thinking and analysis, by exposing them to writers who have mastered various techniques of intellectual inquiry and critique. Active participation in seminar discussion will enable students to learn how to articulate their understanding of the materials. Students will be required to bring to each class a particular passage from the reading for the day, and explain to all why that passage is of import for the day’s discussion. Weekly written assignments of various length – from two to six pages each week – variously involving description, presentation of evidence, logical analysis, critique and creative response – will help students develop their writing skills. The final assignment of the course will be designed to allow students to provide an overview of their experience, and a separate (and anonymous) critique of the syllabus and the instructor. 

Fall semester. Professor Dumm.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012

118 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.     

 Professors Boucher, Epstein, and Redding.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013

119 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.

Professor Barbezat.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2015

120 Imagining the Past

How do we imagine the past, and how does that imagining inform our understanding of the present?  What can we learn by studying literature and art that takes the (historical or personal) past as its topic? This course examines the intersections between the historical past (especially the medieval past) and modes of imaginative representation, especially the literary text. We will read literature by Shakespeare, Chaucer, and others; visit the Mead Art Museum on campus; and examine the “Prince Valiant” archives in Frost Library to think about how literature, art, and history interact with each other. The course will conclude with a conference in which students present creative projects that demonstrate how they imagine their own past, whether cultural, personal, or familial.

This discussion-based course will provide students with an introduction to college-level study of literature, art, and archival materials.  A progressive set of writing assignments will focus on both analysis and gaining familiarity with the conventions of academic writing.  The final project offers an opportunity for a personal reflection on the course content.

Limited to 15 students.  Fall semester.  Professor Nelson.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012

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.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2017, Fall 2018

122 Strange Russian Writers

We will read tales of rebels, deviants, dissidents, loners and losers in some of the weirdest fictions in Russian literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The writers, most of whom imagine themselves to be every bit as bizarre as their heroes, will include Kharms, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Saltykov, Sukhovo-Kobylin, Olesha, Erdman, Babel, Nabokov, Platonov, Tertz, and others.  Their enigmatic masterpieces foreground the authors’ attempts to redefine the very idea of what art can do, and so to reshape the relationship between text and experience.  Our goal, then, will be less to construct a canon of strangeness than to consider closely how estranged women, men, animals, and objects become the center of narrative attention. The "strangeness" of these texts--their unorthodox uses of character, motivation, plot, and genre--will help attune us to the less visible strategies of more familiar kinds of writing.  Our discussions, student presentations, screenings of several films that engage with the texts we read, visits to the Mead Art Museum, the Frost Library and the Amherst Center for Russian Culture, and frequent short writing assignments, some of which will entail substantial revision of earlier work in the course, will provoke alert observation of how literary works are constructed and what effects they produce.

Fall semester.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012

123 Reading Serially

When we think of a novel, we usually think of a book: a single bound volume that we read from cover to cover.  But in the nineteenth century, novels were published in a variety of different formats, from multi-volume “triple-deckers” to even smaller weekly or monthly parts.  Reading a novel in parts meant devouring a few chapters at a time and waiting weeks to find out what would happen next, and it also meant living with characters for a very long time.  In this seminar, we will read like the Victorians.  The focus of our course will be Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, originally published in 20 monthly installments in 1852-53. Reading the novel in parts and making frequent trips to the archives to see it in its original form, we will ask:  How does an understanding of serial publication change the way we see not only Bleak House, but also the novel as a genre?  And finally, how do changes in technology, the marketplace, and literary form change the experience of reading itself?

To bring serial reading and Victorian culture to life, we will read Dickens alongside other fiction published in the same year and that nineteenth-century readers would have been reading simultaneously.  How does Bleak House compare, for instance, to the sensational “penny dreadfuls” of the 1850s?  What makes one work canonical and the other “merely” popular? Finally, we will consider modern versions of seriality by tracing a favorite TV show, blog, or graphic novel throughout the semester.

This discussion-based course will provide students with an introduction to college-level literary study and to archival research.  Frequent short writing assignments focus on both literary analysis and gaining familiarity with the conventions of academic writing as well as expressive reflections on personal reading experience.  Perhaps most importantly, this seminar allows us to spend an extended amount of time with one of the most celebrated novels in the English language, Bleak House, whose sheer length is both a treat and a challenge.

Fall semester.  Visiting Professor Christoff.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012

124 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.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017

125 Space and Place

This course is an interdisciplinary exploration of physical space and the sense of belonging we call place. The organizing principle of the course is the expanding circle; we will begin with the individual, then move to the home and family, the city, the nation, and end with the globe as a whole. We will cover a range of topics along the way, including memory, narrative, representation, nationalism, borders, exile, imperialism, and globalization. Works include Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenology of space, Benedict Anderson’s classic Imagined Communities, contemporary critical geography, the 1920s film genre of the “city symphony,” with works by Ruttmann, Vertov, and Vigo, and novels by a diverse array of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, including E. M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, and Tayeb Salih. We will approach this material from a liberal arts perspective, which will give students exposure to a wide variety of perspectives in the humanities and social sciences.

This is a discussion-based course designed to develop student competency in critical thinking and argumentation. Assignments include oral presentations, reading evaluations, short responses, and formal essays of varying lengths, including a research paper. Workshops by the Writing Center staff and peer reviews will help students develop their writing skills, with emphasis on crafting thesis/support essays. Trips to the library, the art museum, CCE, and other places on campus will introduce students to the wide range of resources at the College.

Fall semester. Professor Van Compernolle

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2021

126 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.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012

127 Things Matter

We are surrounded by things that mean something–the objects we place by our bedsides, the pictures we tack on our walls, the books and DVDs we set on our shelves, even the foods we keep in our cupboards. To the unwitting passerby, these things might mean differently or they might appear to mean nothing at all.  But in fact we know that, in the space of a house or a dorm room, a subculture, or a nation, things matter.  Objects tell stories; images reveal histories; favorite television shows represent tastes; movies incite emotions.  Through readings in literature, poetry, autobiography, and philosophy and through screenings of films and television, this seminar will explore the meaning of things in our everyday lives.  How do things matter?  What do they mean?  And how do we describe the ineffable quality of stuff?

This course will encourage attentive reading and viewing practices, so that our discussion-based meetings will allow us to dwell on the details of what we see.  Students will compose frequent short writing assignments, trying out a range of approaches, including the autobiographical, interpretive, historical, and essayistic.  And we will learn how to write about a variety of “objects”:  knick-knacks, consumer products, food, photographs, films, poetry, and novels.

Fall semester.  Professor Hastie.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012

128 Race and Racialization in the United States

In this course, we will investigate the cultural meanings and social consequences of the categories of race and ethnicity in the United States. We will explore the historical production of modern conceptions of racial and ethnic difference by investigating the role of these ideas in producing “scientific” knowledge, nation-building, and capitalist accumulation. We will track the changing “common sense” ideas about race and ethnicity over the past two centuries. The material in this course covers a variety of theoretical approaches to the study of race and ethnicity. The course begins with an examination of both classical and more contemporary sociological perspectives on race-ethnic stratification including assimilation, pluralism, class theory, and racial formation theory. Attention is given to the shifting boundaries of race and ethnicity, the construction of ethnic and racial identities, research on prejudice and racial attitudes, race and gender intersectionality, and the urban poverty-segregation debate. Inequality in education, work, and wealth are also covered, and the course ends with an overview of immigrants and the changing racial/ethnic landscape in the United States. Rather than focusing at length on any one racial or ethnic category, we will focus on analytical frameworks, such as biological determinism, historical materialism, and fantasy, to promote comparisons and connections between cases of racialization at different historical moments. We will also investigate how globalization has altered the dynamics of race and racism in American society. The interdisciplinary design of the seminar encourages critical thinking about the complex ways that race and ethnicity shape scientific knowledge, material realities, social interactions, and personal experiences.

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, students will write frequently and receive careful and extended responses to their writing. Students will also learn how to read and comprehend complex texts, respond to them in sophisticated ways, and engage in critical reasoning about historical and contemporary social problems in the United States with regard to the socially constructed concept of race and the process of racialization.

Fall semester. Visiting Lecturer B. Sánchez-Eppler.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012