Year: Show curriculum in:

Amherst College First Year Seminar for 2019-20

Coexistence: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Spain

A vital question in today’s multicultural societies is how individuals with different identities—religious, racial, ethnic, etc.—can live and prosper together. Participants in this seminar will explore the literature, culture, and history of Spain, where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side-by-side for centuries. Through readings and class discussion, we will examine how varied relations between Christians, Muslims, and Jews developed and how writers from the three cultures treated questions of acculturation and assimilation, tolerance/intolerance, religion, and gender. Examining the context of medieval Spain will also serve as a means to help us think through issues of diversity in our world today. Primary sources will include literary texts, historical accounts, films, legal documents, and maps and will be supplemented by secondary critical texts. This is a discussion-based course and students will be expected to be active participants in class discussions. The course will also give special attention to writing, offering students a number of opportunities to edit and improve their written expression.

Professor Infante.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018


The dangerous characters who “pass” among us, shift categories, or transition have long left their mark on storytelling, scripture, and law. The lines of racial purity, gender conformity, and sexual normality are enforced by parables of powerful figures who cross boundaries to assume new identities, for good or ill. Seen variously as outlaws or pioneers, they disrupt the social order or, alternatively, renew it. Some do both. Tales of women warriors, race-émigrés, two-spirit people, and closeted geniuses celebrate human potential, if often tragically. What is “liberation” for some amounts to “crimes against nature” for others.  

We consider a range of novels, plays, films, and self-narratives that address the intersectionality of racial, gendered, and LGBTI identities in Western culture.  We focus on three turning points: Athens in the fifth century BCE; the 1920s, including the Harlem Renaissance; and the recent growth of multicultural queer and trans culture. Literary works include Sophocles, Oedipus the King; Euripides, The Bacchae; Plato, Symposium; Nella Larsen, Passing; James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man; Virginia Woolf, Orlando; Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask; Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman; David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly, and Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain.” Of self-narratives, we read Alison Bechdel, Fun Home, and selections from Jonathan Ames (ed.), Sexual Metamorphosis. Films include Leontine Sagan, Mädchen in Uniform; Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning; Kimberly Peirce, Boys Don’t Cry; and Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

This seminar aims to develop skills of critical reading and analytical writing by active participation in class discussion, as informed by questions and comments submitted before class, and by consultation with the instructor in the writing of five essays of increasing complexity. To develop oral argumentation, discussion is regularly supplemented by group reports and debates.    

 Fall semester. Professor Griffiths.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015, Fall 2017, Fall 2018

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. Two class meetings per week.Fall semester.

Professors Couvares and Himmelstein.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018

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 Servos.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018

Faulty Vision

This course investigates the limits, problems, and errors of vision. Taught by an art historian, it nevertheless explores the defects of and obstructions to seeing, looking, and watching as these modes of apprehension figure in a variety of fields, from philosophy to biology to psychology to law to disability studies. Scrutinizing works of art, films, and other cultural materials, we will examine what can and cannot be gleaned from images. What is a picture’s relationship to truth, to evidence, to knowledge? Is there such a thing as a “period eye” (as art historian Michael Baxandall argued) or is sight trans-historical? What exceeds and what evades visibility? What is the role of vision in contemporary society, and how does the primacy of the visual in turn structure the social world? What might be gained from an embrace of other senses, and how would this sensory shift affect both our understanding and our experience?

Omitted 2019-20. Professor Vicario.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018

Geology of the American West: Critical Landscapes in Earth Science and in American Cultural Debate

Iconic and yet dramatically diverse landscapes characterize the American West, including snow-capped mountain ranges, deep canyons, monuments of stone, geyser fields, and vast lava-capped plateaus, in marked contrast to the more subdued lands east of the high plains. Can a geologic history of the continent be constructed from the evidence in these lands? If so, how might awareness of that history influence the nation of people who live there? By engaging with the rocks and landscapes of the West, late nineteenth century geological and topographic expeditions produced transformational insights about a range of earth processes and the time scales on which such processes operate. Their reports sketched out a backstory of our continent as a dynamic, sometimes violent, and sometimes quiescent land with a deep history. Expedition reports, in turn, influenced contemporary American views of Americanness.

This seminar will introduce the geology of notable western landscapes, focusing our attention on the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Rocky Mountains, and the Columbia Plateau. We will investigate the geology of these parklands in concert with the writings of those nineteenth century surveyors, explorers, and scientists whose accounts introduced the west to the American populace: John Wesley Powell, Nathaniel P. Langford, John C. Fremont, and Clarence King. We will also join the debate surrounding some unresolved problems in western geology by critically assessing cutting-edge data and interpretations.

We will, indeed, cover principles of geology in this course, so no prior study of geology is necessary. Through in-class discussion and frequent reading and writing assignments, students will experience the scientific method of constructing understanding from analysis of observations; develop habits of reading thoughtfully; experiment with formulating and substantiating a position based on critical assessment of a variety of inputs; and practice expressing understanding or uncertainty, and agreement or disagreement in concise and clear writing and through lucid dialog.

Fall semester. Professor Harms.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2017, Fall 2018

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. Omitted 2019-20. Professor Staller.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018

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. 

Fall semester. Professor Aries.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018

The Literature of Love

This course examines literary, artistic, religious, and philosophical explorations of romantic, erotic, and ethical varieties of love. It is centered on the literary, artistic, and intellectual traditions of premodern South Asia, but will offer occasional comparative forays into conceptions and schemas of love in western traditions. We will focus on India’s classical art and its literatures of epic stories, court poetry, erotics, and aesthetic theory to examine romantic love, and its religious literatures to explore ethical and religious love.

The objective of the course is to develop conceptual and aesthetic sophistication about love in many of its varieties: ethical, religious, family, romantic, and erotic. While we are focused on the rich literary, religious, and philosophical texts of classical India, we will also engage in comparative study with theorists of love from the western traditions. While we are cultivating our capacities to read texts in rich and complex ways, the course will also incorporate the study and critical appreciation of South Asian art, using the Mead Art Museum’s fine collection. The seminar sharpens students’ critical and argumentative tools, their abilities to read and analyze texts, and their capacities to express themselves in writing. 

Fall semester. Professor M. Heim.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2017, Fall 2018

New Women in America

This course will examine the emergence of the “New Woman” as a category of social theory, political action, and literary representation at the turning of the twentieth century. Early readings will trace the origins of the New Woman as a response to nineteenth-century notions of “True Womanhood.” Discussions will situate literary representations of women in larger cultural events taking place during the Progressive Era–debates over suffrage as well as their relationship to issues of citizenship, immigration, Jim Crow segregation, urbanization, and nativism. The course will focus on texts written by a diverse group of women that present multiple and, at times, conflicting images of the New Woman. Close attention will be paid to the manner in which these women writers constructed their fictions, particularly to issues of language, style, and form. Readings will include texts by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Pauline Hopkins, Anzia Yezierska, and Sui Sin Far.

Fall semester. Lecturer Bergoffen.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2017, Fall 2018


What does it mean to “be present?” What do we mean when we say that someone “has presence?” 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, or one’s political and social selves? Over the course of the semester, we will explore questions about the nature of presence. As an introduction to liberal studies, the seminar will develop students’ abilities in close reading, productive class discussion, and effective writing through frequent assignments increasing in complexity over the course of the semester. Students will also learn to think with versatility about presence, and for this reason, will encounter the subject through a variety of media, ranging from live and video performances to readings in performance theory, literature and philosophy. In addition, class meetings will include an introduction to group exercises used in the training of actors to foster improved attention, listening, and verbal communication. A small number of optional class field trips may be offered.

Fall semester. Professor Bashford.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018

The Queerness of Children

So innocent!” may be the phrase most frequently heard and reflexively uttered regarding children. This phrase signals the universality of the child as a symbol of innocence in the modern West, where childhood is often understood as a blank slate set apart from the complications of labor, politics, history and sexuality. Yet, there is nothing innocent or apolitical about the representations of children that circulate through advertising, children’s literature, films, and photography. In them, children are expected to remain innocent of sexual desires, yet they are assumed to be heterosexual. Furthermore, their innocence is associated with whiteness. Indeed, these representations abound with paradoxes, imagining children as simultaneously human and beast-like, innocent and perverse, imperiled by and a peril to society.

Taking these paradoxes into account, this course will consider a difficult question: far from being innocent, what if the child is a decidedly queer figure–one whose liminality reveals the fragility and instability of sexuality, humanity, and of the social order itself? We will consult historical and contemporary writings that help us grapple with this question, such as Sigmund Freud’s theories of children’s sexuality, contemporary queer scholarship on the place of the child in the modern family, and human rights debates about child labor. Our conversations will be anchored in representations of children in media forms ranging from animated, documentary, and fiction films to reality TV, fairy tales, human rights media, and reproductive and gay rights videos.

Omitted 2019-20. Professor Rangan.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018

Reading, Writing, and Teaching

This course considers from many perspectives what it means to read and write and learn and teach both for ourselves and for others. As part of the work of this course, in addition to the usual class hours, students will serve as weekly tutors and classroom assistants in adult basic education centers in nearby towns. Thus this course consciously engages with the obstacles to and the power of education through course readings, through self-reflexive writing about our own varied educational experiences, and through weekly work in the community. Although this course presses participants to reflect a great deal about teaching, this course does not teach how to teach. Instead it offers an exploration of the contexts and processes of education, and of the politics and desires that suffuse learning. Course readings range across literary genres including essays, poems, autobiographies, and novels in which education and teaching figure centrally, as well as readings in ethnography, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. The writing assignments cross many genres as well.

Omitted 2019-20. Professor Frank.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2017, Fall 2018

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.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018

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.

Professor Douglas.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018

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.

Fall semester. Professor Harper.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018

101 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, Ringer, Schmalzbauer, and Shah.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

102 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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

103 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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

104 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.

Fall semester. Professor Turgeon.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

105 Reading Asian American

In this course, we explore the genesis and impact of terms defining peoples of Asian descent in America, 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. Most course meetings will involve seminar-style discussion of course materials. Coursework will include short written assignments, research assignments, substantial group work, and a semester-long research project.

Fall semester. Professor Hayashi.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019
Other years: 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 and President Trump’s alleged assault on truth, 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? 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. 

Fall semester. Professor Sarat.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019
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

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 a general environmental calamity seems all too real.

This sense of crisis has spurred intense and wide-ranging debate over what our proper relationship to nature should be. This debate will be the focus of the seminar. Among the questions we shall explore will be: What obligations, if any, do we have to non-human animals, to living organisms like trees, to ecosystems as a whole, and to future generations of humans? Do animals have rights we ought to respect? Is nature intrinsically valuable or merely a bundle of utilities for our benefit? Is there even a stable notion of “what is natural” that can be deployed in a workable environmental ethic? We will investigate these and related questions with readings 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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

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

This course draws inspiration from the PBS show Finding your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates. In each episode, celebrities speak to Gates about what they think they know about their family’s history. Gates’s team of researchers then undertakes archival research and DNA analysis that sometimes leads to surprising discoveries. Each episode becomes a window into global histories of migration, society, nation, and empire. Martha Stewart, for example, discovered that she had Muslim ancestors in central Poland, and Wanda Sykes, who spoke of her strong identity as a proud descendant of Black slaves, was taken aback when she discovered not only that her Black ancestors enjoyed freedom at least as far back at the mid-1700s, but that they had been slave owners. Gates used these examples to explore the deep roots of Islam in Europe and the complex history of Black slavery in America. Through research, story-telling and conversations, celebrity guests, and even Gates himself, learned to see their present and their past as windows into larger trends in history.

In this course students will practice various strategies for recovering and narrating their own stories of home and of family (with a broad understanding of what “home” and “family” mean). Next, students will draw inspiration from Gates as they conduct genealogical research, store their findings in structured databases, and read histories of migration, race, and nation formation in various parts of the world. Students will have the opportunity to get their DNA analyzed and will choose what they wish to share about their findings. Each student then will select a particular person, moment, place, or time that they learned about during their genealogical research. This will become the subject of a historical research project based on physical and digital archival sources. Students will finish the course by reflecting upon how the things they have learned about their diverse pasts shape how they think about the changes and challenging transitions they are currently experiencing as the newest members of the Amherst College community. Two class meetings per week.

Fall semester. Professor Lopez.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

110 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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

111 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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

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 2019, 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.

Fall semester. Professor Maria Heim, Associate Professors Jaffer and Nelson, Assistant Professor Qiao.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

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. Professor Walker.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

114 Oceans of the Past

Participants in "Oceans of the Past" will explore global maritime history. We will investigate how mariners, pirates, smugglers, merchants, novelists, cartographers, hunters, policymakers, and scientists have understood the seas from ancient times to the present. We will also look at long-term environmental issues shaping our maritime futures. These include: climate change, fisheries management, and aquatic pollution. In addition to our classroom activities, we will use the collections at the Mead Art Museum and make a trip to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. Staff members from the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole and the Nantucket Historical Association will visit us during the semester. Two class meetings per week.

Fall semester. Professor Melillo.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018

116 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.

Fall semester. Professor Barbezat.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

117 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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

118 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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

119 Transformative Ideas

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. We will read and write 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's 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 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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

120 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.

Fall semester. Professor A. Gordon

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

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.

Fall semester. Professor Maxey.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019
Other years: Offered in Fall 2014

123 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.

Fall semester. Professor Manion.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

125 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.

Fall semester. Professor Worsley.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

127 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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019