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Amherst College First Year Seminar for 2016-17

101 Amherst Poets

Amherst has an unusually rich literary heritage:  from Emily Dickinson to Robert Frost; Sylvia Plath to Richard Wilbur; James Merrill to Elizabeth Alexander; many of America’s most treasured poets have called this area home.  This introductory course is designed to welcome students who have not previously taken a college-level English course into the literary environment of Amherst, and from there, into the global community of poetry readers. How does our experience of living in Amherst change how we might read the poetry that was written here?  In turn, how might reading this poetry deepen our experience more broadly?

We will explore how poetry can mediate the relationship between interior and exterior worlds, between real and imagined communities, and between private and public spheres.  We will make sustained use of the local resources available to us, discuss manuscript versions of poems held at Amherst’s Frost Library and at Smith College, meet with David Sofield and Daniel Hall, poets writing and teaching on the Amherst College campus today, and attend a poetry reading at the Smith Poetry Center. Students will also work to give something back to our literary community as part of their own learning process. We will make several trips to the Emily Dickinson Museum and attend to the intersections between Dickinson’s poetry and the spaces she wrote in.  Students will work closely with the director of public programs at the museum to produce audio and digital guides specially designed for disabled visitors to the museum.  Finally, the class will collaborate on an event in celebration of Amherst poets, hosted by the Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Amherst College.

No prior experience of poetry will be assumed.  Limited to 12 students.  Fall semester.  Professor Worsley.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

102 Cicero to Trump: Political Rhetoric and the Public Fashioning of the Self

This course considers the role rhetoric plays in the formation and presentation of individuals for public consumption.  Rather than regard rhetoric as an insubstantial—or even dangerous—supplement to the allegedly real substance of political discourse, this class examines why rhetoric was and remains so essential to public presentation.  How does rhetoric make humans what they believe themselves to be?  We focus closely on the analysis and employment of skilled language and we examine how individuals employ language to fashion and present themselves.  The course includes a number of written assignments and the production and evaluation of speeches. Readings will draw from a range of ancient and modern authors: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Quintilian, Hume, Nietzsche, Kenneth Burke, George Orwell, Foucault, and David Foster Wallace, among others.  We also consider contemporary debates on language usage and regulation, analyze successful rhetoric in modern politics, and examine rhetoric from the 2016 electoral season in the United States.

Fall semester.  Professor van den Berg.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

103 Revolutionary Thinking

From the early nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, Russia served as the world's greatest incubator of revolutionary thought. Philosophers, politicians, clerics, literary figures, and activists of every stripe asked in publication after publication and debate after debate, "What is to be done?”  How do we fix a country beset by innumerable and seemingly intractable problems? Do we look to the West for answers, or do we look within? Should we face our travails by affirming traditional values, or should we reexamine those values? Must we reform existing institutions, or must we scrap the entire system altogether and start anew?

In this course we will read proposals by those advocating this latter option—outright revolution—and the responses of those horrified by such thinking. All these proposals and counterproposals tackle fundamental questions still relevant in our era: Does history follow rules? Can individuals change the course of history? Is government a tool for good or evil? Does religion function as a reactionary or a progressive force? Can we identify and embrace universal values, or do values rightly differ among regions? Does ideology flow from economics, or do economics develop according to ideology?

We will read arguments by Bakunin, Berkman, Chernyshevsky, Dostoevsky, Herzen, Lenin, Plekhanov, Pobedonostsev, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Zaulich, and others—published in philosophical essays, novels, political treatises, journal articles, and pamphlets. And as we read these thinkers arguing with each other, we will debate their questions ourselves. 

Fall semester. Professor Geffert.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

105 Faraway Places

A faraway place. What does this conjure for you? This course takes as its object of inquiry the notion of a faraway place. Cutting across histories of scientific expeditions, colonialism, pilgrimage, migration, trade and tourism, we will begin to think about what it means to travel and how it has impacted identity, language, place, space and time. Questions we will ask include: What makes a place faraway? Is travel required? What kind? What is learned through contact? How have places and people been represented in faraway places? What is the relationship between visitor and visited? What is produced through contact and difference? Why do people travel? Can everyone travel? Who is mobile and who isn’t? What does it mean to be located?

This is a discussion-driven course and students should be prepared to be active participants in both class presentations and discussions. Materials will be drawn from a wide array of sources including research articles, novels, films, photographs, poems, and popular essays. This course is also writing attentive and will offer students a variety of opportunities to prepare, edit and improve their writing through reading reviews, reflection pieces and research analysis.

Fall semester. Visiting Professor A. Hall.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

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.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

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.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015

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, 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.

Fall semester.  Professor Miller.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015

109 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.  Three classroom hours per week.

Fall semester. Professor Emeritus S. George.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015

110 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.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2014, Fall 2015

111 Violence and Politics

[ IL, G ] Violence lies at the very heart of both political institutions, such as the state, as well as the expression of political beliefs.  Focusing on domestic rather than international forms of conflict, this course will address questions of what violence is, how it is organized in society, and what it means to those who use it.  We will first identify ways to think about violence as a political activity--why do actors choose violent over non-violent means of resisting governments or expressing dissent?  Is violence ever rational?  What purposes does it serve?  How is violence different from other kinds of political interaction like arguing or debating?  Next we will think about how violence is organized--that is, how do political leaders, parties, police forces, and paramilitaries, for example, try to control and manage the use of force?  When do private individuals and groups choose to protect themselves and when do they turn to the state?  Building on the theoretical interventions of scholars such as Arendt, Weber, Sartre and others, we will use empirical studies of the political use of force from around the world to ask how violence shapes political phenomena such as elections, protest movements, taxation, and nationalism.

This seminar course is designed both to facilitate engaged classroom discussion as well as improve analytic skills. Throughout the course we will engage with the arguments and contentions of a number of key theoretical and empirical works, which will provide a foundation for critical reading and reflection through writing. The core assignment of the course is a 12-15 page paper, which we will break into a number of sub-assignments, allowing students to learn organizational skills involved in managing larger projects and providing feedback and opportunities for re-drafting.  

Fall semester.  Professor Obert.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015

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. Professor Hart.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015

113 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 the past 25 years, 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?  Was the Holocaust unique, or can we make important comparisons to other instances 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 during World War II, Pol Pot’s massacre of Cambodians in the 1970s, and the 1994 killings in Rwanda.

Fall semester. Professors Boucher, Redding, and Trask.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

114 Reading Asian American

Who or what is Asian American? What meanings does that term have? How does it operate as a descriptor to define a range of people of heterogeneous histories and cultural backgrounds? How is it defined and manifested in the realms of art, law, education and politics? In this course, we will explore the evolution of terms to define peoples of Asian descent in America and the corresponding creation of this fluid panethnic label of identification. By examining discrete moments in American history when the meaning of Asian American was contested we will examine the construction and ongoing legacy of this American identity.

The course will be highly interdisciplinary and include readings in literature, history, and law and involve archival research on local Asian American history. Most course meetings will involve group discussion of course materials. Coursework will include essays, research assignments, and group presentations. Instruction in writing will also be a major focus of the course. 

Fall semester.  Professor Hayashi.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015

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 avail ourselves of the treasures at the Mead Museum--a complete set of the Caprichos, the Disasters of War, the Tauromaquia and the Disparates.  We will study Goyas at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts--including many rare works on ivory, and the most important cache of his works on paper outside of the Prado.  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.  There will be one required field trip, on a Friday.

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

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

116 Justice in Question

What is justice? How might we recognize it? Is justice fairness? Is it giving to each what is owed? Maybe justice is helping our friends? Or maybe justice is merely the advantage of the stronger? Justice can be difficult to name, especially because we might confuse justice for all and justice for some. And yet, however difficult it is to point to, justice is absolutely essential to our social and political lives. This course aims to investigate justice, putting the very idea of justice in question. What is a theory of justice? What might we want justice to be? How could we achieve such justice? This course will consider these questions, reflecting on ancient and more modern answers to these fundamental puzzles. As a means to approach these questions, we will engage Plato’s Republic as the central text for our course. Plato’s theorizing of justice, and especially the problem of power and justice together in politics, offers an amazing opportunity for us to question normative structures. Additional readings will include more recent political and philosophic reflections on the meaning and significance of justice. Examining a variety of theories of justice in this way should help to problematize our thinking on justice, as well as reveal its necessity for contemporary life.

This seminar is designed to introduce students to liberal studies through close textual analysis, frequent writing, and shared discussion. Throughout the semester, students will have the opportunity to develop habits of critical reading and reflection, writing frequent response papers that directly engage philosophic texts. In addition, students will have several longer assignments which will encourage critical analysis and self-evaluation through re-drafting and re-writing. The aim of the course is to further develop students’ capacities to consider complex theoretical phenomena, individually through written work and collectively through engaged discussion, and all with the intent to develop sophisticated and persuasive arguments.

Fall semester.  Professor Poe.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

117 Liquid Gold: The Science, History, and Social Context of Olives and Olive Oil

The olive has been fundamental to both the culture and lifestyle of the Mediterranean region for several millennia.  This course will begin with the history of olive trees and its symbolic importance in ancient art and culture.  We will explore the production of the oil, and the chemicals that make up the oil with particular attention to their biological impact. Some have proclaimed that olive oil is the healthiest oil, and we will include a critical reading of the health claims for this amazing substance in the context of 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.  Olive oil fraud is a major concern for modern consumers in the U.S.  We will discuss the parameters by which oils are graded and evaluated and consider ways in which the industry might be better regulated and consumers better educated.     

Fall semester.  Professor O'Hara.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

118 Presence

What does it mean to “be present?”  What do we mean when we say that someone “has presence?”  Presence is a characteristic of the human condition that pervades many spheres of our lives: work, play, relationships, entertainment, politics, and our relationship to the arts and nature.  Indeed, many of our most significant memories and experiences are those with which we associate “being present.”  In addition, we tend to associate presence with the work of performing artists, leaders, and athletes.

Yet presence can be hard to define.  It is often ephemeral, elusive, or illusory.  Can we truly say that we are ever fully present?  Can we recognize presence in ourselves or in others?  Can another person, nature, a work of art, or particular activities help us to become more present?  Are there different kinds of presence relating to intimacy, work, and social life?  Over the course of the semester, we will explore these and other questions about the nature of presence.  We will also examine the work of performing artists, athletes, and leaders of various kinds.

This is a discussion-based seminar, augmented by close attention to frequent student writing fashioned to a variety of purposes.  As an introduction to liberal studies, the goal of the seminar is to develop our abilities in close reading skills, and dialectical thinking and writing.  We will also learn to think with versatility about presence, and for this reason, we will encounter the subject of presence in a variety of media and texts, ranging from live and video performances to performance theory, literature and philosophy.  A small number of class field trips will be required.

Fall semester. Professor Bashford.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

119 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.

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.

Fall semester.  Professor Brandes.


2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

120 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.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

121 The Confession:  Theory and Practice

In our daily lives, we are constantly confessing or witnessing the confessions of others in TV talk shows, YouTube coming-out videos, Yelp testimonials, or Facebook updates.  Everywhere we turn, we are confronted by institutions whose currency is confession:  juries rely on confessions to arrive at their verdict, and doctors require them to make a diagnosis.  In turn, we too demand confessions from public figures and our intimate companions alike.  But such demands are not always met–sometimes they are met with apologies, excuses, and on occasion, simple refusal.  At other times, admissions of guilt are forcibly, pre-emptively extorted.

This course will use the theme of confession as a rich and varied entry point into the study of identity, speech, and power.  It will also introduce you to some of the central critical figures associated with the confession, such as Michel Foucault and Sigmund Freud. We will begin by tracing confession’s pre-history in the Christian confessional, and then consider its historical role in torture, psychoanalysis, and self-writing.  Subsequently, we will consider its proliferation in media genres from autobiographical video to the trial film, reality television, and cinematic melodrama.  Finally, we will contemplate what rhetorical tactics are available to us to defuse and intervene in the power dynamics of confession.

This is an intimate discussion-oriented first-year seminar that places a heavy emphasis on speaking in class, and on regular writing assignments.

Fall semester.  Professor Rangan.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

122 Representing Equality

This seminar is part of an on-going campus conversation about building community out of diversity and considering how equality is essential to that goal.  Recently, many communities have had to respond to incidents of aggressive disrespect directed against specific racial, sexual or religious groups. This year, the debate around transgender bathrooms has taken such discussions in a new direction. As more and more people address the multiple and fluid ways in which they define themselves, the focus has shifted from an emphasis on accommodation to considering how these differences can become a tool for reshaping our communities.  Difference can be sources of tension as well as a resource for learning and growth between people. We will look at examples of the former and work towards creating the conditions for the latter. 

We will read essays and works of fiction drawn from a variety of disciplines that consider campus diversity in the U.S. in the context of other spaces where scarcity and struggle have led to exciting new ways of exploring difference and creating dialogue. We will also view a number of films and art works. Visiting artist Zanele Muholi, a renowned South African photographer and visual activist, will work with us on our final project, a representation of ourselves and members of the LGBT community in photographs and text.

 Fall semester. Professor Cobham-Sander and Visiting Artist-in-Residence Ewald.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015

123 Drugs in History

This course examines the changing ways that human beings have used psychoactive drugs and societies have controlled that use. After examining drug use in historical and cross-cultural perspectives and studying the physiological and psychological effects of different drugs, we look at the ways in which contemporary societies both encourage and repress drug use. We address the drug war, the disease model of drug addiction, the proliferation of prescription drugs, the images of drug use in popular culture, America’s complicated history of alcohol control, and international drug trafficking and its implications for American foreign policy. Readings include Huxley’s Brave New World, Kramer’s Listening to Prozac and Reinarman and Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise; films include Drugstore Cowboy and Traffic. This course will be writing attentive.

Fall semester. Professors Couvares and Himmelstein.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2014, Fall 2015

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.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015

125 Giving

The act of giving can appear 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–giving between people, between institutions and people, and entirely between institutions–from an inter-disciplinary 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 in class–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.  Each student will be asked to spend at least 10 hours working with a local charity organization.

The work with a local charity will be undertaken with careful attention to the ethical questions that are raised by this work. We will also view it as one more text that is accessible to analysis and meaning making. The course will begin and end with the same assignment–a reflective essay in which each student develops his or her 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 the final essay.  Along the way, class discussions, readings, and short papers will help students develop their skills as readers, writers and thinkers. 

Fall semester.  Lecturer Mead.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015

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.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015

127 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 continue to be explored, major implications are already apparent in such diverse fields as philosophy, medicine and law. The course will begin with a primer on genetics and molecular biology but quickly move to consider some of the philosophical, ethical, and very practical societal concerns raised by recent genetic discoveries. We will consider such issues as the 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.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015

128 Transformative Ideas

[PT] This course explores a series of ideas from the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries that have substantially changed the way people think about humanity in the Western world.  Each idea is closely associated with an author. While from year to year the ideas change, for 2016 we read and wrote about, Karl Marx and Frederic Engels' The Communist Manifesto, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, Sigmund Freud’s The Ego and the Id, selections from Franz Kafka's The Complete Stories, Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Students are required to purchase a copy of Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.

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

Fall semester. Professor Dumm.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

129 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 twenty-first 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 contests 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 discussion.

Fall semester.  Professor Goheen.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015

130 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--including a recent BBC re-make and an “electropop opera” opening on Broadway this fall, which we will plan to visit as a class.  

Fall semester.  Professor Wolfson.


2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

131 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 insure 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.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016