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First Year Seminar

Year:

2020-21

Amherst Poets

From Emily Dickinson to Sonia Sánchez, Amherst is known throughout the world for its poets. More than twenty well-known poets have written, lived, and taught in the area where we find ourselves living. This introductory course is designed to welcome students into the literary environment of Amherst. In addition to reading and discussing the work of canonical poets like Dickinson, Sánchez, Robert Frost, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, and Richard Wilbur, we will also read the work of poets, like Martin Espada, who are writing today, making frequent visits to local poetry readings in order to meet these poets in person. The class also includes several field trips to places important to Amherst writers, such as the Dickinson House Museum, and makes use of manuscript versions of poems held by the Frost Library. Our main focus will be on the close-reading skills needed to engage with poetry of all kinds, and on the skills needed to write a college-level argumentative essay. The class culminates in a poetry reading, which students themselves will organize, to honor the work of Amherst Poets. No prior experience of poetry will be assumed; all welcome.

Omitted 2020-21. Professor Worsley.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

Books on the Brain

The Male Brain, The Female Brain, The Mommy Brain, The Sexual Brain, The Teenage Brain, The Hungry Brain, Your Brain on Porn: an increasing number of scientists are publishing books for the general reader on recent advances in neuroscience and how we can apply these scientific findings to our daily lives. This course will provide an introduction to the workings of the brain and will examine how these books interpret scientific data and package results for the general public. We will seek out the original sources upon which the authors base their claims and consider the extent to which the research is being represented accurately to the public.

Omitted 2020-21. Professor Turgeon.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

Education: For Whom and What For?

Who should have access to education and to what sorts? Should people shoulder the costs of their and their children’s education, or would a just society ensure an equal opportunity to education for all members? These issues, in turn, raise basic philosophical questions. What is the nature of a just society Are we entitled only to the results of our own labor (and luck) in a market economy? Or does a just society guarantee rights to certain goods to all citizens (or all members)? If the latter, which goods must a just society protect? What role does education play in a good human life? Is its value mainly instrumental in giving one the skills and credentials that are desired in a market economy? Does the optimal functioning of a democratic society depend on its citizens having a certain level of understanding of the way the world works? Does it depend on its citizens having a certain moral character? Can character be taught? Should it be? These issues, in turn, raise questions about the relative weight and nature of various goods (e.g., life, liberty, and happiness) and questions about the justice of various distributions of these goods between different individuals. Finally, our attempts to answer these questions will raise basic questions about the nature of rationality. Is it possible to reach rational decisions about ethical matters, or is ethics merely subjective?

This course is designed as a first-year seminar for transfer students. In addition to the philosophical content of this course, we will focus on the academic skills (e.g., critical reading, writing, discussion, public speaking) and institutional knowledge required for students to thrive academically at Amherst College.

Fall semester. Professor Gentzler and Senior Writing Associate Sanchez. Omitted 2020-2021.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

Food and Culture

By some accounts, cooking is what makes us human. Food provides sustenance for survival, and its production, preparation, and consumption also shape, define and sustain personal identities, social groups, nations, bodies, and myriad relationships with other beings. As such, food is an exceptional site through which to examine broader social scientific questions about the formation and perpetuation of racial and class differences, the impact of capitalism and global interconnection on how we live, the role of taste and the senses in memory making, gendered ideals of domesticity in national discourses of modernity, and the rationales we use to incorporate other beings into our own groups, to name just a few. Thus, this course examines the varied facets of food as a socio-cultural phenomenon to examine how what we eat constitutes who we are and who we may want to become.

This is a discussion driven seminar. The course is also writing attentive and will offer students a variety of opportunities to hone their writing skills.

Fall semester. Visiting Professor A. Hall.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

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 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 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, education, courtship, sexuality, and the importance of culture and community. In addition to historical, sociological and psychological texts, we will read works of fiction and non-fiction.  

The course introduces students to liberal studies through exposure to interdisciplinary readings and methods of inquiry from history, psychology, sociology and literature. The course will 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. 

Omitted 2020-21.   Professor Aries.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018

Happiness

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson radically breaks with John Locke's emphasis on "life, liberty and property" and instead asserts that the "inalienable" rights of humans are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" – further, he asserts that governments should be supported by the People to the extent that they can “most likely effect their safety and happiness.” In this bold move, Jefferson placed "happiness" at the core of, not only personal, but our collective political concern. However -- what did Jefferson mean by “happiness"? What does it mean for us and this Nation today? In this seminar, we will examine how we define, measure, and attempt to generate and maintain happiness. Our examination will serve as an introduction to the many methods of inquiry and articulation available at the college. We will read, discuss and write about written texts and film, drawn from philosophy, political science, history, literature, psychology and economics. In addition, we will undertake in-class exercises allowing an exploration of our own well-being and those around us. 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.

Omitted 2020-21.  Fall semester. Professor Barbezat.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

Keywords in American Culture

An introduction to the major concepts that animate American politics and culture. Students will study the historic and contested meanings of keywords such as freedom, equality, citizenship, racism, democracy, patriotism, tolerance, feminism, capitalism, and colonialism. Readings will be drawn from a range of fields including history, literature, media studies, political science, and LGBTQ studies. Primary sources for examination include both historic and contemporary newspapers, dictionaries, encyclopedias, short stories, social media, and popular culture. The course teaches students the art of close reading, the joy of rigorous debate, the skill of succinct writing, and the value of media literacy. Two class meetings per week.

Not offered in 2020-21. Professor Manion.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

Liquid Gold: The Science and History of Olive Oil

For millennia, the olive and its precious oil have been fundamental to the Mediterranean region. This course will begin with the history of olive trees and their symbolic importance in ancient art, culture, and religion. We will explore methods of production, the chemical composition, and the biologically active nutraceuticals contained in the oil. Is extra virgin olive oil really the healthiest oil one can consume? We will critically read the studies that have led to these claims, particularly focusing on the Mediterranean diet. How does the chemistry of the oil affect its use in the preparation and tasting of foods? We will also consider uses of olive oil outside the kitchen and explore its ritual incorporation in the ancient world and its usefulness in the making of soap. Olive oil fraud is a major concern for modern consumers in the U.S. What are the parameters by which oils are graded and evaluated? Can we imagine ways in which the industry might be better regulated and consumers be better educated?

Fall semester. Professor O'Hara.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

Manifestos

Manifestos defined the modern age. They did so loudly, with great urgency, declaring a break with the past, diagnosing the present, and proclaiming the future. Manifestos, one observer noted, are “a document of ideology, crafted to convince and convert.” We, however, will read political, literary, theological, cultural, and artistic manifestos, not only for what they proclaim, but for what they signify. This first-year seminar will study manifestos critically, as historical documents of a contested modernity, as works of literature, and as specimens of a unique genre. Our manifesto reading will range from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, from the communist to the fascist, from the canonical to the outlandish, from the political to the literary, and from theatrical gravity to hilarious irony. Among others we will read The Communist Manifesto (1848), The Futurist Manifesto (1909), Feminist Manifesto (1914), The Fascist Manifesto (1919), The Cannibalist Manifesto (1928), Humanist Manifesto I (1933), Existentialism is a Humanism (1945), and the SCUM Manifesto (1968). The diversity of the manifestos we will read lends itself to this seminar’s interdisciplinary approaches. Students in this discussion-based course will seriously engage the major ideologies of the modern age and critically reflect on the ideological landscapes of their own place and time.

Not offered in 2020-21. Fall semester. Professor A. Gordon

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

Progress?

Is the world a better place today than it was fifty years ago? Will it be better yet in another fifty years? We cannot answer such questions without asking what we mean by “better,” that is, what counts as progress. The question of what progress is cannot be answered simply: the term has been used in different ways at different times and has also been the subject of much critical examination. We will explore the meaning of progress by engaging with a variety of thought-provoking and influential works.

Fall semester. Professors Bashford, Dole, George, Schmalzbauer, and Shah.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

Space and Place

This course is an interdisciplinary exploration of physical space and the sense of belonging and rootedness 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, imagination, nationalism, borders, war, exile, imperialism, and globalization. Works range across philosophy, history, anthropology, film, fiction, and environmentalism, among others. We will approach this material from within a liberal arts framework, 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. Writing workshops will help students develop their writing skills, with emphasis on crafting thesis/support essays. Trips outside the classroom will introduce students to the wide range of resources at the College.

Fall semester. Professor Van Compernolle.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

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.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy insisted that War and Peace was not a novel, all appearances to the contrary. As we carefully read his subversive masterpiece, we will consider the ways in which the book attempts to revolutionize what literature can do, by posing radical questions about freedom, violence, the relationship between the life of the mind and everyday experience, the value of culture, the possibility of change, and the search for an authentic self. This course takes Tolstoy’s text as a departure point for exploring the possibilities of interpretation as an intellectual practice: the fictions of history and the truth of fiction; the challenges of writing about emotions, events, and texts; and the attempts to adapt something as complex and unorthodox as this book to stage and film.

Fall semester. Professor Wolfson.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

What is Mainstream Music?

What is Mainstream Music? What does it mean when we describe music as mainstream? Who is the intended audience, who are its creators, and what does it sound like? In this first year seminar, we will critically examine mainstream music from the nineteenth century to the present in the context of art and literature, developing critical reading and analytical writing skills through frequent reading, writing, and listening assignments. Drawing on sociological theories of taste, critiques of the mass culture industry, studies of the music industry, and critical race theory, we'll discuss such issues as: why, in an increasingly diverse America, the de facto mainstream audience is white and middle class; why major symphony orchestras mostly play music by a select few composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms; how institutions such as museums, schools, television networks, and record companies work together as gatekeepers to regulate the inclusion of new artistic movements such as pop art, hip hop, rock and roll, and minimalism in the mainstream; and how the internet and the resulting fragmentation of media has given citizens agency to redefine the nature of the mainstream. Reading and listening assignments will help guide class discussions, and students will complete a series of papers.

Fall semester. Prof. Coddington.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

101 The Soviet Experiment

For most of the twentieth century, the peoples of the Russian empire took part in a mass human experiment: to create a society in which social and economic justice were realized. What can we learn about social transformation from the Soviet experiment? How do the Russians themselves view the Soviet past? In this course we will study the evolution of Soviet society from its beginning in 1917 to its sudden collapse in 1991, and the aftermath that yielded Putin’s reign, as a case study in the complex interactions of ideals, customs, mythologies, politics and individual fates in the making of culture.

Most of our materials will be primary, meaning they were produced during the period we are studying. These include literary texts, films, cultural artifacts, memoirs and historical documents, such as declarations of state policy on how artists should make their work. We also will read secondary materials, namely, analyses of such materials by scholars. Throughout our work, we will be attentive to how various commentators argue for their conclusions, and we will bring the same awareness to our own arguments. You will do frequent writing and will have the opportunity to bring one of your papers to final form through a process of revision. This course is discussion-based, and most of our work will be done collaboratively.

Fall Semester. Professor Ciepiela.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

102 Romanticism and the Enlightenment

The 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.

The course is 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.  It will be very important to discussing the materials with your fellow students in class.

Fall semester. Professor Brandes.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019, Fall 2020

103 Fake News

In our information-saturated world, "fake news" may feel like an inescapable reality. But what exactly is fake news, why does it exist, and how do we distinguish it from trustworthy information? In particular, if experts can disagree and data can be fabricated, where do we go when the subject matter is beyond our expertise? Can something that "makes sense" be false? Can a theory that contradicts our personal experiences or beliefs still hold true?

In this course we will take a critical look at how science is reported in the media and how logic, probability, and statistics can be manipulated to fit various narratives. We will focus on identifying sources of (mis)information, constructing fact-based arguments, and establishing ways to distinguish between news, opinions, rumors, advertisement, and propaganda.

Fall semester. Assistant Professor Culiuc.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

104 Authority, Obedience and The Rule of Law

All political systems must operate according to the "rule of law" if they are to be deemed legitimate. This statement has assumed the quality of a truism: we hear it repeated by the President of the United States, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the President of the International Criminal Court. At the same time, though, that everyone seems to agree that the "rule of law" is a good thing, no one seems able to say for sure what the "rule of law" is. What, then, do we mean by the "rule of law"? What does it mean to speak of government limited by law? What are these limits, where do they come from, and how are they enforced? What role does the "rule of law" play in legitimating structures of governance? Does the "rule of law" imply any particular relationship between legality and morality? We will hazard answers to these questions through a close reading of works of theorists such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, H.L.A. Hart and Lon Fuller. In addition, we will examine the arguments of the theorists as they help us think through pressing legal challenges of our age, such as defining the limits of executive power in the "war against terror."

Our seminar will be devoted to the close reading of a select number of texts. We will analyze the structure, meaning and adequacy of the arguments contained in these works through vigorous discussion and frequent writing assignments. Our aim is to gain a rich critical understanding of a concept that lies at the foundation of domestic and international socio-political systems, and to improve our abilities to discuss and write about complex ideas with sophistication, nuance and flair.

Fall semester. Professor Douglas.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

105 Reading Asian American

In this course, we explore the genesis and influence of terms defining peoples of Asian descent in America and especially the contemporary panethnic ascription: Asian American. We will examine the material impact of such labels and analyze what characteristics have defined a group, individual, or text as Asian American. How well does Asian American operate as an umbrella term to define peoples of vastly heterogeneous histories, identities, and cultural backgrounds? Or to define realms of intellectual inquiry, social practice, and government policy? These are some of the key questions that will guide our conversations and engagement with materials over the course of the semester.
This class is highly interdisciplinary and includes readings in literature, history, sociology, American Studies, and education; and includes the study of visual materials, especially photographs. Course meetings will involve seminar-style discussion of course materials, guest speakers, training sessions, and lectures. Coursework will include short written assignments, research assignments, substantial group collaborative work, and a self-designed semester-long research project.

Students will have regular individual conferences with the instructor, interface with various support services on campus, as well as alumni who have taken the course in prior years.

Fall semester. Professor Hayashi.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019, Fall 2020

106 Language Crossing and Living in Translation

When did you start dreaming in a second language? Which translation of the Bible counts as the Word of God? Was Mary a virgin or a maiden? What happens to the immigrant children who need to the be interpreters in the life of their family? How much more tangled or how much more nimble is the wiring of the bilingual brain? What are we doing to our languages when we immerse in a new academic discipline? We will tackle these and other questions like these as we engage in the following units of study: (1) Babel and language differentiation and diffusion. (2) European translators from early modern humanism and the Reformation. (3) Case studies: Squanto, Malinche and the Navajo Code talkers. (4) Language in contemporary empires and resistance, migrations and globalization. (5) Language issues in gay and lesbian diasporas. (6) Bi- or multi-lingual education. (7) Literary practitioners of living in and out of translation:  Luis de León, Vladimir Nabokov, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

The seminar will work with the same texts, issues and exercise for about two-thirds of our time together. The other third we will concentrate on projects that emerge from the students’ own linguistic condition. Students will be required to delve into their own family archives looking for ancestors’ letters written in languages they cannot yet read. They will be encouraged to document/fictionalize the stakes of marrying into another language, or to study and report on the language crossings of their particular diaspora.

Despite the apparent advantage of having more than one language to engage in our work, this course has no prerequisites and its does not exclude monolinguals. When we talk about the cultural contributions, the headiness and the struggles of bi- or multi-lingual individuals, it will be invaluable to have interlocutors who think they live only in one language.

Fall semester. Lecturer B. Sánchez-Eppler.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2016, Fall 2019, Fall 2020

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 and President Trump’s alleged assault on truth, from the use of secrecy in the war against terrorism to the endless spinning of political campaigns, from controversies about "fake news" to efforts to hide and excuse police miscoduct, 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? Can democracy survive in a “post-truth” era? 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. 

For fall, 2020 I am planning to teach online. However, that may change as the plans for the fall are finalized. If I teach online, I will hold frequent individual meetings with students. I will connect students to each other to work on shared projects and for social events. I will break students into groups and convene the groups before the semester starts and throughout the semester.

Fall semester. Professor Sarat.

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

108 The Value of Nature

Our impact on the environment has been large, and in recent decades the pace of change has clearly accelerated, with the effects of climate change now being experienced around the world. Many species face extinction, forests are disappearing, and toxic wastes and emissions accumulate. The prospect of environmental collapse 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 from diverse literature.

This is a discussion-based seminar, with close attention to writing. The seminar’s goal is to sharpen the ability to critically think and write argumentatively, but also flexibly, about nature and our attitudes towards it.

Fall semester. Senior Lecturer Levin.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019, Fall 2020

109 "Finding Your Roots": Narratives of Self and Community

In each episode of the PBS show Finding your Roots, celebrities speak with host Henry Louis Gates about their family’s history. Gates’s team of researchers then undertakes archival research and DNA analysis that sometimes leads to surprising discoveries. Rather than fetishize lineage, each episode of Finding your Roots and a similar show called Who Do You Think You Are? walks guests through the process of research and discovery, and offers insight into global histories of migration, society, nation, and empire. In one episode, for example, Martha Stewart discovered that she had Muslim ancestors in central Poland, which became an opportunity to explore the deep roots of Islam in Europe. In another, the comedian Wanda Sykes spoke proudly of her identity as descendant of Black slaves. She was surprised to learn not only that her Black ancestors enjoyed freedom at least as far back as the mid-1700s, but, to her horror, they were slave owners. Gates used this as an opportunity to explore the complex history of Black slavery in America. Another famous comedian, Margaret Cho, spoke with pride about her Korean roots, only to learn that her ancestors who had migrated to San Francisco from Korea were descendants of Chinese migrants. This points to ways migration patterns within Asia contradict ethno-nationalist narratives within the region. The actress Jessica Alba guessed that, as a Latina, she had a complicated heritage, but Gates found that her Mexican past was even more revealing of global empires than Alba had anticipated. While some of Gates’ guests found surprises, others found their family stories confirmed by DNA and archival research. Through research, story-telling and conversations, the celebrity guests, and even Gates himself, learned to see their present and their past as part of larger trends in history.

In this course you will practice various strategies for recovering and narrating your own stories of home and of family (with a broad understanding of what “home” and “family” mean). Next, you will conduct genealogical research, store your findings into structured databases, and read histories of migration, race, and nation formation in various parts of the world. You will have the opportunity to get your DNA analyzed and will choose whether to share your findings. Next, you will select a particular person, moment, place or time that you discovered through your genealogical research. This will become the subject of a historical research project using digital archives. You will finish the course by reflecting upon how the things you and your peers discovered about your diverse pasts shape how you think about the changes and challenging transitions you are currently experiencing as the newest members of the Amherst College community.

To learn about a past iteration of the course, visit https://www.amherst.edu/ amherst-story/magazine/issues/ 2019-spring/college-row/rooted

Fall semester. Professor Lopez.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019, Fall 2020

110 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? Did different races experience and alter nature in different ways? How have the ideas and experiences of the past affected us today? And how do we imagine the future of the natural world? Has the current pandemic permanently changed how we think about nature?

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, take visual notes on the landscape through drawing (no expertise necessary), 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 painting traditions, 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.

In-person teaching in tent until bad weather, then class in classroom and teacher remote.
In-person hikes.
Office hours outdoors and remotely.
Visits to Mead Art Museum when possible.
Options for online-only participation will be available for those students unable to be present in person.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018, Fall 2020

111 Giving

 

The act of giving seems, at first, to be deceptively straight-forward and entirely altruistic.  But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us, “We wish to be self-sustained.  We do not quite forgive a giver.”  In this seminar we will examine the act of giving – between people, between institutions and people, and entirely between institutions – from an interdisciplinary lens to reflect on what it means to give. We will intentionally reveal and challenge our initial assumptions about giving.  Using a variety of texts – religious, literary, first person accounts, and public policy – we will explore the diverse forms philanthropy has taken over time and across cultures; its philosophical underpinnings, its complex interrelationships with religious notions of charity and secular notions of democracy, and its often paradoxical effects on social relations and public policy.

The course will begin and end with the same assignment–a reflective essay in which you develop your personal framework for giving. It is anticipated that the texts and class discussions will influence the evolution of this framework and, hence, the robustness of your final essay.  Along the way, class discussions, readings, and short papers will help you develop as readers, writers, speakers and thinkers. 

Fall semester. Lecturer Mead.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

112 Beginnings

This course offers a sustained encounter with premodern worldviews, lifeways, and models of being human--that is to say, with the vast majority of human experience in recorded history. In this course we will consider a wide variety of premodern literatures and cultures, focusing on a broad range of works from western antiquity and medieval history to American, African, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, and Islamic societies.

Part of the explicit aim of our endeavors is to destabilize the centrality of western patterns of historical and intellectual development by offering robust alternatives to it. We will explore various kinds of beginnings, such as arts and technologies, languages, ideas, literatures, cities, and civilizations. For fall 2020, the course theme is “Worlds and World-Making.” We will study cosmologies and cosmogonies, both scientific and mythic; and we will explore theories that explain the beginnings of human beings and key inventions and innovations across multiple histories and literatures.

The course has two weekly meetings: one plenary session (lecture) and one small-group discussion section. The two components are aimed at different yet essential skills: the art of attention to lectures and effective spoken and written communication in small-group meetings. The course is taught by a cluster of faculty from across disciplines and thereby offers an interdisciplinary introduction to liberal arts studies and to the essential tools for exploring the cultural and literary legacies of our diverse fields of study.

The reading for this class will be available online and through the Moodle website. Tuesday's meetings will include all four sections (c. 60 students) in an online format with all four participating faculty. We will ask you to listen to a lecture asynchronously in advance of Tuesday's meeting, which will be dedicated to the weekly material related to one individual faculty member's expertise. Thursday's meetings will be in individual discussion sections (15 students) with one designated faculty member who will remain constant throughout the semester. Thursday's meetings will consist entirely of discussion of the weekly material. All sections will be conducted online. 

Fall semester. Professor Ringer, Associate Professor Jaffer and Assistant Professors Qiao and Hunter-Parker.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019, Fall 2020

113 The Nuclear Age

On August 6, 1945, a United States bomber dropped the first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, transforming the world in an instant. This course explores the emergence of nuclear technology and its impact on global politics, society, and culture from roughly the Second World War to the present day. We will begin with the invention of the atomic bomb during World War II, exploring its societal, environmental, and cultural effects in Japan as well as its broader impact on American and European politics and identity. We will then examine the diverse ramifications of the nuclear arms race in the 1950s and 1960s, and again in the 1980s, which both pushed the world towards the brink of destruction and also fostered new forms of international cooperation and grassroots activism. We will also analyze the continuing debates over nuclear technology in the context of energy, natural resources, scientific responsibility, and environmentalism. Drawing on a range of sources, from governmental reports and diaries to cartoons, films, and paintings, the course will highlight the perspectives of a variety of groups and individuals who shaped and were shaped by the nuclear age, including scientists, policymakers, journalists, artists, activists, and victims of atomic blasts. Two class meetings per week.

Fall semester. Professors Boucher and Walker.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018, Fall 2019, Fall 2020

114 Thinking Through Improvisation

Have you ever had to solve a problem that you had never encountered before, on the spot, to come up with a new, original idea? It turns out that we human beings have a tremendous capacity for such feats. We all improvise. Improvisation is a complex activity stretching across disciplines and across domains of human experience. Often, much preparation lies behind a successful improvisation: the expert tennis player who can, in the moment, deliver or adapt to a powerful serve; the chef who can make a delicacy out of ingredients thrown in front of her; the freestyle rapper who can pull compelling lyrics seemingly out of thin air, the scientist who achieves a creative breakthrough after countless hours of testing hypotheses.

In this course, we will examine improvisation as a mode of thinking. We will consider how it is similar to, and different from, other ways of thinking. Through readings and class discussions, we will study various concepts of improvisation. Drawing from such diverse fields as theater, neuroscience, dance, medicine, music, psychology, religion and physics, we will explore the variety of techniques and strategies used in improvisation, and we will consider what is gained or lost when improvisational skills are cultivated or suppressed. We will test our ideas by performing simple improvisations in class, by observing expert improvisers in action and by critically reflecting on this work. The course culminates with a final research project. Remote format with two synchronous meetings per week; individual meetings as needed.

Fall semester. Professor Harper.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

115 Goya and His World

We will luxuriate in Goya’s magisterial works, from his rococo Tapestry Cartoons to his harrowing Pinturas negras. We will study treasures at the Mead Museum—a complete set of the Caprichos, the Disasters of War, the Tauromaquia and the Disparates. To understand Goya’s apparently inscrutable images and his obsession with evil, we will pore over his letters, study his themes such as witchcraft and bullfighting, immerse ourselves in his fraught historical moment, and revel in his culture at large—from music to dance to literature—all inflected with a fragile Enlightenment, all still in the Inquisition’s grasp.

Except for the student visits to the Mead Museum, our class will be online. In addition to vibrant discussions, there will be weekly written assignments to deepen students' understanding of the material, as well as to develop the beauty of their writing, the acuity of their sight, their synthetic and analytical powers. There will be frequent one-on-one meetings with me, and constantly changing mini-groups, as we learn and explore together.

Reading knowledge of Spanish would be helpful, but is not necessary. Fall semester. Professor Staller.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018, Fall 2020

116 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 and after Einstein, different kinds of thought-experiments had been used by Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Schrodinger, and Feynman in their path-breaking contributions to physics. In this seminar we will read the arguments, in the form of thought experiments, that these authors and others employed to acquire insights into or advocate viewpoints about space, time, motion, gravity, and the nature of the microscopic world.  The discussion will be supplemented by more contemporary texts.  We will inquire into the peculiar status thought experiments 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 to the frequent writing exercises on the strengths and limitations of the particular arguments advanced by our sources, discussion and assignments will cover the necessary physics background. 

The course will be designed for in-person meetings and discussion, but because of the complications of the pandemic in fall 2020, there will be backup plans in place for partially or wholly remote discussions.

Fall semester.  Professor Jagannathan. 

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

117 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, most of them short. A common assignment might 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.

This fall the course will be team-taught in a hybrid format, with both in-person and on-line components each week. Options for online-only participation will be available for those students unable to participate in person.

Fall semester. Professors Jones and Martini. 

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

119 Transformative Ideas

This course is an exploration of ideas that have changed the way humans think about the world. This year, we will study thinkers who have written about race, racism, and other forms of subjugation. Among those we will consider reading and discussing are Tzvetan Todorov, Toni Morrison, William Apess, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Franz Fanon, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, bell hooks, Cornel West, Judith Butler, and others.

This course emphasizes the development of several skills, including close reading, interpretation, and expository writing. Students are required to pose and post critical questions concerning the readings posted to the course blog on the night prior to each meeting. Each week students will write a brief essay commenting on a passage in the week’s reading. These essays are evaluated for grammar, style, logical coherence, and clarity.

Fall semester. Professor Dumm.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019, Fall 2020

120 Africa and the Globalization of Football (Soccer)

In our contemporary global world, football (known as soccer in the United States) is the preeminent sport around the globe. Widely played by girls and boys, women and men, poor and rich— and across vast social spaces in all continents — football has shaped the human experience in degrees only comparable to world religions, global political ideologies, and economic systems. With roots in a Western imperial encounter, football is ubiquitous in African local, national, and transnational experiences in our contemporary world. This first-year seminar will explore the fascinating story of footballing culture in Africa in the context of globalization since the attainment of independence by Africa societies in the 1960s. To establish the foundation for the course, the first half of our readings will focus on the following important issues: football and colonialism; football and Christian missionary education; football and post-colonial African state-society formation. Readings in the second half of the course will focus on our contemporary moment of globalization, exploring the following important issues: post-colonial African state crisis and the globalization of football; football and transnationalism; football, globalization, and racism; gender and the globalization of football; South Africa and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. This course will not only tell the story of how football became Africa’s game, but more importantly, it will critically reflect on the important place of African footballing culture in local and global contexts, emphasizing African social, political, and economic tapestries from the late nineteenth century to the twenty first century.

Fall semester. Professor Vaughan. 

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

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

In post-Enlightenment Europe, intellectuals frequently drew on images of Asia to illustrate what it meant to be modern, enlightened, and historically progressive. Why and how might we be complicit in this mode of thinking even today? Through close readings of key figures in the intellectual tradition of modern Europe, including Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Georg W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), Karl Marx (1818–1883), and Max Weber (1864–1920), this seminar will explore the epistemological and ideological function of historicism and the inescapable tension between visions of universal progress and resistance in the name of particular identities. We will end the seminar with more contemporary thinkers to weigh the abiding influence of Hegel, Marx, and Weber.

The seminar will focus on the related skills of close reading, engaged discussion, and critical writing. Reading prompts and short exercises will ask you to practice the reading skills required for active class discussion and effective writing. Two class meetings per week.

Not offered in 2020-21. Professor Maxey.

2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2014, Fall 2019

122 Pariscape: Imagining Paris in the Twentieth Century

For centuries, Paris has been an exemplary site of our urban sensibility, a city that has indelibly and controversially influenced the world’s imagination since early modern times. 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 idea of the modern city.

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 and Augé), filmmakers (Truffaut, Godard, Tati and others), photographers (Atget and Brassaï), and painters (Manet, Cézanne, 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. 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.

Course will be completely taught remotely. Combination of class discussion and small group discussion. Substantive writing assignments. Office hours individually arranged.

Fall semester. Professor Rosbottom.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

123 Antiracism

The summer of 2020 will long be remembered for the racist killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Arbery among others, and the global uprisings this violence fueled. In this seminar we will apply a sociological lens to the anti-black racism and white supremacy underlying this violence, as well as to the long standing resistance accompanying it. Central to the seminar will be a deep engagement with historian Ibram X. Kendi’s concept of “antiracism”, which proposes that individuals and communities shift out of the neutral zone of “not racist” into daily life thinking and practices that contribute to dismantling systemic racism. We will use Kendi’s framework to explore texts focused on white fragility, reparations for slavery, and the criminal justice system. Throughout the seminar we will strive to bring our own experiences with race and racism into conversation with the course material and with each other. It can be extraordinarily difficult and uncomfortable to talk about race, especially among peers who occupy different racial identities. As such, we will work from day one to build a community of trust that will enable honest dialogue-based learning that promises to strengthen our relationships as well as deepen our intellectual understanding of this critical moment in history.  

Fall semester.  Professor Schmalzbauer.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

124 Telling Stories

We all like a good story. But why? And what is a good story? Neurobiologists have documented the chemical changes that occur in our brains when we listen to a well told story. Hannah Arendt argues that who we are is best determined by the stories others tell about us, not the stories we tell about ourselves. TED talks have over-determined that all ideas worth sharing must be explained in 18 minutes, no more or less, with compelling graphics, of course. Stories are a feature of cultures around the world, and elements of both universality and diversity can be found in storytelling norms. The explosion of oral history work has done much to add the stories of “regular” people to historical narratives about events deemed worth remembering. It is possible that a story well told can compel listeners to behave more altruistically.

In this course we will think about stories, write stories, tell stories and listen to stories. We will acknowledge the comfort that cherished stories provide and de-familiarize those stories at the same time. We will read across a wide range of disciplinary perspectives on storytelling, including biology, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and cultural studies, acknowledging our limits as readers when we lack substantial disciplinary foundations but also embracing the ways we can be thoughtful about ideas that are partially beyond our reach. We will expand our thoughts about what a story is and use the lens of story to examine things we would never have imagined were stories. In this course students will develop their skills as a reader and a writer and a speaker, but also, of course, as a listener.

Fall semester. Lecturer Mead.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019, Fall 2020

125 Race, Difference, and the American Imagination

What role has “race” played in shaping the American imagination? How has its use as a metaphor in U.S. national life influenced our understandings of power, privilege, and justice? In what ways has popular culture influenced our understanding of race, and how do “creatives” today resist, reject, and reimagine racial and ethnic difference on social media? In this course, we will examine contemporary racial discourse in the United States, surveying its use as a contested fact of social life by authors, artists, theorists, and activists in the twentieth and twenty-first century. By studying a range of creative and critical texts, including literature, poetry, music, art, film, comedy, cultural criticism, and social media, the course will prepare students to read racial discourse critically across genres and disciplines while also introducing them to the rigors of academic reading and writing.

This discussion-based course will be available online only, using Zoom and Moodle platforms.

Fall semester. Professor Polk.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

126 Polemical Women Writers of the Premodern Era

Many people think that women have only recently been allowed to write: that until recently, cultural and social conditions prevented women from having a voice or being able to express themselves to a public audience. This is not true; women have been writing publicly for a long time. Thus, this course engages with women authors who wrote in, for, and sometimes at the public, and who attracted varying degrees of censure for doing so. We will read in a wide variety of genres, including devotional writings, poetry, prose, fiction, recipes, and pamphlets. Along the way we will consider questions such as: How did women write? For whom? Did categories like race, class, and gender matter in the same ways they do today? What were the social and political implications for women who decided to write in public? Our authors will include Julian of Norwich, Queen Elizabeth I, Phyllis Wheatley, Mary Wortley Montagu, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, Mercy Otis Warren, and others.

This course will meet virtually once a week at the assigned course time; all other activities and readings will be available for the student to complete on their own schedule. Please contact the instructor if you would like to take the class from a different time zone, and we will work out a plan to make this possible.

Fall semester. Visiting Professor Henrichs.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

127 Populism

Most debate about populism presumes that the audience is unsympathetic. As often as not, this debate sounds like something from a horror film: an alien bacterium that has somehow slipped through democracy’s defenses which is poisoning civil society and leading to authoritarianism and ultimately fascism. The aim of this seminar is to suggest that instead of a supposed zero-sum relationship between populism and democracy, the connection between the two is necessarily overlapping and, indeed, interdependent. The logic of democratic politics is one where antagonism is unavoidable, in which consensus cannot ever be permanent, that there is always a “we” and a “they.” Any stable democratic system is always hegemonic but always only temporary; it can always be challenged by a movement that seeks to replace it with something new. Political change comes as the result of demands against the existing order, which must be fused together into a movement to change that order – a movement that may look a lot like populism. When individual demands are brought together in such a movement, they can become the basis for a new political “we”, i.e., the “people” insisting that the current arrangement of power be altered in their name. To the extent that such a movement succeeds, it creates a new hegemony which itself becomes open to challenge over time. From this perspective, the political question is not how to fight populism, but rather which type of populist you want to be. It’s about who you’re with, who you’re against and where to take your stand. By the end of the course, it is hoped that students will be better able to answer these questions for themselves.

Fall semester. Professor Machala.

2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020