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Amherst College First Year Seminar for 2013-14

Drugs in History

This course examines the changing ways in which human beings have used psychoactive drugs and societies have controlled that use. It examines drug use in historical and cross-cultural perspectives, the physiological and psychological effects of different drugs, and 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 and Kramer’s Listening to Prozac; films include Drugstore Cowboy and Traffic. This course will be writing attentive.Fall semester. Professor Couvares.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION ON COURSE GOALS AND METHODS

This course is meant to enable you to think, speak and write clearly and persuasively about a subject that often evokes hysteria, hyperbole, dogmatism, confusion and rhetorical excess. It focuses on

 

1) reading: on your ability to extract the main points, the gist of the argument – the thesis -- from each source you read, so that you can more effectively enter into the scholarly conversation in progress;

 

2) conversing: on your ability to discuss openly and critically what you have read and what your classmates have said in class;

 

3) writing: on your ability to clearly and accurately summarize the views of others, generate arguments that express your point of view, and adduce evidence to support that view.

 

2015-16: Not offered

100 The Brothers Karamazov: a Multidimensional Approach

The contemporary Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk claimed in 1999 that “the book of the millennium is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  I know of no other book which dramatizes with such beautiful intensity, and on almost encyclopaedic scale, the problems of living in this world, of being with other people, and dreaming of a next world.”  Through a careful reading of Dostoevsky’s final work of fiction and universally regarded supreme artistic masterpiece (1880), we shall investigate the applicability of Pamuk’s claim, availing ourselves of additional works that shed light on the novel’s socio-political, psychological, religious/spiritual, philosophical and aesthetic dimensions.  Other texts to be considered include:  1) Dostoevsky’s early travelogue “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions” (1862); 2) excerpts from Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utopian novel What is to be Done? (1863); 3) a medieval saint’s life, “Alexei, Man of God”; and 4) two critical  studies by American Dostoevsky specialists James Rice (Dostoevsky and the Healing Art, 1985) and Liza Knapp (The Annihilation of Inertia: Dostoevsky and Metaphysics, 1996).  We shall be using the recent Pevear and Volokhonsky translation (1990), occasionally comparing it to Constance Garnett’s previously considered standard version of the early twentieth century  (revised by Ralph Matlaw in the 1970s).  Our semester-long examination of The Brothers Karamazov will conclude with a discussion of Jose Ortega y Gasset’s “Why Dostoevsky Lives in the Twentieth Century,” from his 1925 essay “Dostoevsky and Proust,” and Leonid Tsypkin’s short novel Summer in Baden Baden (1980), which will help us to articulate further the attractions, the challenges and the ambiguities we encounter when reading a writer as profound, and as controversial, as Dostoevsky.

This course includes frequent writing assignments of various lengths.  Emphasis will be on close reading, with attention paid to textual detail as students develop skills as critical readers and imaginative thinkers. We will occasionally discuss student writing in class, entertaining suggestions about how argumentation might be more persuasive and lucidity of expression further enhanced.   

Fall semester.  Professor Rabinowitz.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

101 Illness and Meaning

This course examines the interplay between meaning, illness, and bodily experience.  We will read a range of literary, anthropological, and philosophical texts in order to explore the following questions:  How do writers try to make order and meaning out of illness, and how do they use illness to talk about other aspects of experience?  How might we understand illness as not merely a disorder of the body but also a disordering of meaning?  Given the seemingly subjective nature of bodily experience, how does one understand or access the pain of the other?  How have writers conceptualized the ailing body as a site of both creative experience and political and economic control?

This is a discussion-based course that will give students a sense of what it means to think interdisciplinarily, and to advance their skills at reading critically, analyzing arguments and literary language, and articulating ideas orally and in their writing.  In addition to promoting active participation in classroom discussion, the course will help develop these skills through frequent short writing assignments and a 6-7 page final project.

Fall semester.  Professors Frank and C. Dole.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Fall 2014

102 Voting and Elections: A Mathematical Perspective

The outcomes of many elections, whether to elect the next U.S. president or to rank college football teams, can displease many of the voters. How can perfectly fair elections produce results that nobody likes? We will discuss different voting systems and their pros and cons, including majority rule, plurality rule, Borda count, and approval voting, and examine the results of various past elections. We will also assess the power of each voter under various systems, for example, by calculating the Banzhaf power index. After exploring the pitfalls of various voting systems (through both theoretical analysis and examples from recent as well as historical elections), we will try to answer some pressing questions: Which voting system best reflects the will of the voters? Which is least susceptible to manipulation? What properties should we seek in a voting system, and how can we best attain them?The course will be discussion-based, and students are expected to be active participants in the seminar. The course will develop critical thinking skills and the ability to write carefully reasoned arguments. No prior mathematics is assumed. This course will provide an introduction to liberal studies through in-class discussions, readings, and writing assignments. Feedback will be provided to help students improve their writing skills.Fall semester. Professor Leise.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

103 Slavery and the American Imagination

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

Fall semester.  Professor Moss.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

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.

2015-16: 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.

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.  Professor Emeritus Guttmann.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

106 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.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Fall 2014

107 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.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

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 Jones and Martini.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

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.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

110 Ethnicity, Race and Racialization in the United States

This first-year seminar explores the social construction of race and ethnicity in the United States, the national dependence on early and contemporary immigration, the emergence of U.S.-based ethnic and/or racial identities, the different patterns of racialization practiced throughout the history of the nation, and the tension between the realities of racial inequality and the national projections of democratic equality and equal protection under the law. We look at the evolution of race and ethnicity theories, at the relationship between overt and covert expressions of racism, and discuss at length the difference and relationship between racism as a personal attitude and racism as a system of privilege and disadvantage based on race.

The course will provide a safe space for inquiry into the racial, ethnic and economic data of the students' own census tract, public school catchment, and congressional district. It will discuss affirmative action with specific attention to Amherst College and the two Amicus Briefs it sent to the Supreme Court in less than a decade. We will make room—in weekly writing and daily conversations—for honest and civil discussions at the intersections of race, and religion,  gender and class, real estate and intermarriage. We will discuss what kind of education or penal system we want to finance for other people's children and why, and what kind of medical care should be made accessible or inaccessible and to whom. One of the main purposes of the course is to recognize that the harder it is to talk about the issues that divide the nation, the more important it is to develop forms of inquiry and communication that allow us to describe and analyze social problems and social opportunities, hoping to maximize our participation in the search for political, economic and cultural responses to those problems and opportunities.

Fall semester. Visiting Lecturer B. Sánchez-Eppler.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

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.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

112 Growing Up in America

How do race, ethnicity, 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 culture and community. 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 2-6 pages and involve the analysis of individual texts and the connection between texts. Through paper assignments students will work on developing their own arguments, backing up their arguments with evidence, and revising their prose.

Fall semester. Professors Aries and Hart.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Fall 2014

113 Exile in Spain and Latin America

"Exile" is both a person who is forced to leave his or her native country and a state of exclusion; both an individual and an experience. In this course, our study of exile will encompass the individual writers, artists and thinkers who were exiled from their homelands as well as the reasons, confusions and consequences that the experience of exile produces. We will trace poets such as Cristina Peri Rossi, the authors Jorge Semprún and Reinaldo Arenas, works of art like Pablo Picasso's Guernica, and films such as Luís Buñuel's Viridiana, among other examples, as they enter into states of exile and self-consciously examine their own limbo between two countries.  Many of these individuals and works of art left Spain or Latin America because of their political opposition to the ruling regime; we will delve into the historical, political and cultural backgrounds that resulted in their exile. In addition, we will linger over the larger questions exile raises:  Can the exile ever return home? Are the children of exiles also exiles? Can we generalize about the exile experience?

As an interdisciplinary approach to the topic of exile, this course will expose the student to a variety of fields of inquiry central to the liberal arts, including literary, film, historical, political, and cultural studies. The course focuses on Spain and Latin America, and some texts will be available in both English and Spanish; however, knowledge of Spanish is not required. This course will be discussion based, meaning that students will be expected to come to class having read and studied the reading for the day, prepared to share reactions, questions, and doubts about the assigned texts as well as to listen and respond thoughtfully to their classmates' contributions: active participation is crucial. We will work on critical reading and interpretation, analytical writing and the thoughtful oral articulation of ideas as necessary skills to a student's success at Amherst College. Special attention will be given to writing: students will compose frequent short response papers, longer essays focusing on diverse approaches to academic writing, and will participate in writing workshops and peer review sessions in class.

Fall semester.  Professor Brenneis.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

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 Courtright.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

115 Beethoven Hero

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was assigned the role of “hero” early in his career, creating a sensation as a piano virtuoso upon his arrival in Vienna. Some of his greatest compositions embrace heroic struggle and triumph, as for example, in the Eroica Symphony with its initial dedication to Napoleon, or in Fidelio, an opera about the victory of freedom over tyranny. In addition, his well-known personal struggles with deafness, unrequited love, and financial insecurity helped amplify the popular notion of Beethoven Hero. This course will explore how and why Beethoven continues to embody the highest aspirations of humanity across culture and history. We will develop the practice of active listening through class discussion, frequent short writing projects, study of Beethoven biography and related documents, and conversations with visiting musicians. There will be occasional trips to attend concerts. Each member of the seminar—with or without prior musical training—will have an opportunity to perform Beethoven’s music according to individual interest, experience, and skill.

Fall semester. Professor Kallick.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

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? While the scientific ramifications of the genomic revolution are just now being explored, major implications are already apparent in such diverse fields as philosophy, medicine and law. The course will begin with a primer on genetics and molecular biology but quickly move to consider some of the philosophical, ethical, and very practical societal concerns raised by recent genetic discoveries. We will consider such issues as the safety of recombinant DNA, the origin of humans and of human races (and are there such?), the use and potential misuse of DNA fingerprinting by governmental agencies, the complex interaction between one’s genes and one’s environment, the ability of parents to screen potential offspring for a range of diseases, the creation of genetically altered plants and animals, and human gene therapy.

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

Fall semester. Professor Ratner.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

117 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 Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, and Samuel K. Delany’s Dhalgren.  Although the novels for fall 2013 have not yet been selected, they are likely to display similar historical, geographic, and stylistic diversity.

Fall semester.  Professor Christoff.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Fall 2014

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.     

Fall semester.  Professors Epstein and Redding.

2015-16: 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.

Fall semester.  Professor Barbezat.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013

120 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 (Baudelaire, Zola, Calvino, Stein, Hemingway and others), philosophers and social commentators (Simmel, Benjamin, Barthes), filmmakers (Clair, Truffaut, Tati and others), photographers (Atget and Brassaï) and painters (De Chirico, 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 will also work in teams on specific projects.

This course seeks to introduce students to the intellectual variety of the liberal arts, their content and methods. We will touch on such disciplines as literary analysis and close reading, translation, history, sociology, psychology, photographic and film analysis, art and architectural history, anthropology, gender and ethnic studies, sexuality, demographics, politics and the law.  Knowledge of French is not necessary.We will always keep a sense of humor, perhaps 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.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Fall 2014

121 Asia in the European Mind: Modern European Discourse on History and Identity

In post-Enlightenment Europe, intellectuals have frequently drawn on images of Asia and Asians to illustrate what it means to be modern, enlightened, and historically progressive.  Why?  Through close readings of key figures in the intellectual tradition of modern Europe, including Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), Adam Smith (1723-1790), Georg W. H. Hegel (1770-1831), Karl Marx (1818-1883), and Max Weber (1864-1920), this seminar will explore the epistemological and ideological function of cultural opposites, in this case the “East and the West.”  The seminar will conclude with more recent Western constructs of East Asia, asking to what extent do currently prevalent images of Asia continue to reproduce the logic and substance of Hegel, Marx, and Weber?  How might we learn to read against the grain of persistent images of an Asian other that sustains the identity of the modern West?  

The seminar will focus on the related skills of close reading, engaged discussion, and critical writing.  In addition to assigned readings, we will also look at visual resources, including a field trip to the Peabody Essex Museum to view the “Fish, Silk, Tea, Bamboo: Cultivating an Image of China” exhibition.  We will also examine eighteenth and nineteenth-century travel narratives about Asia from the Amherst College Rare Books Collection, many of them important sources for the well-known intellectuals we focus on in this course.

Fall semester. Professor Maxey.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

122 Representing Equality

In Representing Equality, students will discuss art works and texts that touch on a variety of aspects of inequality in our larger society, including educational disparities as well as racial ethnic, gender, and economic inequality. They will also explore techniques of productive dialogue across differences and acquire listening skills in interviewing and careful listening. 

The course will be discussion based and writing intensive with four analytic papers based on course materials. These will include J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and art works like Jeremy Deller’s, The Battle of Orgreave, in which the community of Orgreave in Yorkshire re-enacted for film the 1984 battle between police and workers during a coal miners’ strike.  Participants will also engage with work done by contemporary artists dealing with representation and tensions or inequality within or between communities, such as the work of Anna Deveare Smith that examines the ethnic rifts leading to violence, Kara Walker’s installations on slavery, Emily Jacir’s collaborative project, Where We Come From, and Donna Ferrato’s work on domestic violence.

As a final assignment, pairs of students or one student and a staff or community member will design and carry out a collaborative art project that will explore social issues as they relate to the Amherst College campus and the lives of first-year students. Participants will interview one another and make a series of images that accompany their interviews.  In addition to developing listening and interviewing techniques, students will learn picture-making skills to present their words and images in a coherent way. 

Fall semester. Visiting Artist in Residence Ewald and Professor Saxton.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Fall 2014

123 Sick Unto Death: Plague in Literature and History

Our class will read about epidemic disease with one eye toward exploring personal responses to plague in literature and the other toward understanding the ways communities have responded to the risks and dislocations of epidemic disease. Some motifs are constants across centuries and cultures—the anguish of sudden loss, the mysteries of why some fall victim while others evade illness, and the confusion that accompanies the breakdown of social institutions and the habits of ordinary life. Other aspects of the experience change over time, especially the conceptual frameworks through which plague has been understood, treated, and prevented. We shall be thinking about these continuities and discontinuities as we read classics, such as, Albert Camus’ The Plague, as well as some yet-to-be classics, such as, James C. Mohr’s Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown.

The class will be discussion-centered and will require frequent writing assignments. Many of the assignments will be short exercises aimed at acquainting students with Frost Library’s resources and with some of the numerous research tools that have become available online in recent years. Others will be brief essays on common readings.

Fall semester. Professor Servos.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

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.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

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

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013

126 Relativism and Toleration

Most of us agree that we should be tolerant of the beliefs and practices of others. Often the call for tolerance is grounded in some form of relativism—that is, in the thought that there simply isn’t an absolute or objective fact of the matter. After all, on what basis could we insist that others share our beliefs if those beliefs are subjective in some way, a function of our upbringing, our religion, our social norms, our culture, or our own peculiar tastes and concerns? But what reasons do we have to accept some such form of relativism? Can relativism really ground our commitment to tolerance? If not, then how else can we justify that commitment? We will explore these questions as they arise in a number of different philosophical and religious traditions. Readings will be drawn from both classical and contemporary sources and will include the work of anthropologists, literary and political theorists, philosophers, and theologians.

Most course meetings will involve a combination of interactive lecture and discussion. Our task will be to make sense of the ideas and arguments advanced in the texts we are reading and to determine whether those ideas and arguments are cogent. We will also work together to formulate compelling arguments of our own. Students are required to participate actively and intelligently in these class discussions, which will often take the form of a close reading and analysis of a passage from the assigned reading. I will encourage participation by randomly calling on students at various points during the semester to summarize and explain ideas and arguments from the reading. Note that in order to participate effectively in such discussions, students must read the assigned texts carefully and aggressively before coming to class.

Fall semester. Professor Shah.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Fall 2014

127 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 Emeritus S. George.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

128 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.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015