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Amherst College Subject-First Year Seminar for 2014-15

Africa: Power and Representation

The right to represent oneself has always been an important piece of symbolic capital and a source of power.  External representations of Africa have consistently distorted and misinterpreted the peoples and cultures of the continent.  Within Africa, this right--to produce and display particular images--has been inseparable from both secular and sacred power.  The discrepancy in interpretation of various images, whether these are in the form of visual objects or in the form of philosophies or concepts, has produced a misunderstanding of African institutions and art.  In addition, historically the right to represent and claim one's identity has become increasingly politicized.  Control over various representations and images of Africa and things African has become contested.  Using an interdisciplinary focus from the fields of art history, history and anthropology, this course will examine representations and interpretations of images of Africa both from within and from outside the continent.  Ultimately we will link these various forms of power and legitimacy to consider the complexity behind the development of an idea of Africa. 

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

Fall semester.  Professor Goheen.

2014-15: Not offered

The Brothers Karamazov: a Multidimensional Approach

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

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


2014-15: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

Exile in Spain and Latin America

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

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


2014-15: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

Space and Place

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

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


2014-15: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013

Voting and Elections: A Mathematical Perspective

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

2014-15: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

101 Illness and Meaning

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

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

Fall semester.  Professors Frank and C. Dole.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

102 Archival Explorations:  Becoming a Part of College History

Want to learn more about how the past has shaped Amherst College and may influence your future here? This course takes a dialogic approach to discussion where students and their teachers approach the history of higher education in America through the lens of Amherst College. Team taught by Professor Vigil in American Studies, and Mr. Kelly, Head of Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College, students will learn how to conduct original research using primary documents. In addition, students will participate in weekly writing assignments by contributing to our class blog. Students will also collaborate in planning an exhibition of college history drawn from the archives and other resources, which will culminate in a public event and online exhibition. Students will also document student life at the college in the face of digital ephemera to actively contribute to college history. Research topics and writing assignments, as well as a final term paper, will enable students to engage in a wide range of issues and topics, which may include, but are not limited to, the following: athletics, shifting demographics and “the rule of ten,” gender and sexuality, coeducation, 1960s activism and civil rights, student journalism, music and theater, scrapbooking, fraternities, war, missionaries, and international diplomacy.

Focused on College history this course takes an interdisciplinary approach to research and writing. Through both individual and group assignments students will practice archival and secondary source research, close reading, as well as informal, formal, and public online writing, in addition to giving a public presentation. As a writing attentive course students will have many opportunities to revise and refine their prose while working with their instructors. In addition, students will regularly meet in small groups throughout the semester to workshop each other’s writing pieces.

Fall semester.  Professor Vigil and Mr. Kelly (Head of Archives and Special Collections).


2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014

103 Death and Dying in Islam

In this course we will explore the many and diverse ways that the Islamic religious tradition has made sense of a fundamental and universal concern: death. We will attempt to understand the complexity of this theme by studying Islamic texts that provide insight into a range of issues, including the fear of death; the creation of the universe and the end times (apocalypse); the nature of God’s justice (theodicy) and retribution; the soul’s salvation (soteriology); rituals surrounding the dead—funerary rites, tomb visitation, and the veneration of the dead—all of which form part  of Islamic ritual and practice. Through periodic comparative work, we will see how these topics are understood by other religious traditions.

Fall semester.  Professor Jaffer.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014

104 Friendship

An inquiry into the nature of friendship from historical, literary, and philosophical perspectives.  What are and what have been the relations between friendship and love, friendship and marriage, friendship and erotic life, friendship and age?  How do men’s and women’s conceptions and experiences of friendship differ?  Readings will be drawn from the following:  The Epic of Gilgamesh; Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus; selections from the Bible and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; essays by Montaigne, Emerson, and C.S. Lewis; Mill’s On the Subjection of Women; Whitman’s poetry; Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs; Morrison’s Sula; Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, and Herzog’s My Best Fiend.

The readings vary considerably.  The seminar being an introduction to liberal studies, students will be encouraged to cross, even transcend disciplinary lines intelligently.  There will be frequent, short writing assignments on the materials of the seminar and one relatively long final paper which will be, in effect, an essay on Friendship.  The seminar will be one prolonged discussion, a discussion of the texts and of short papers, the aim of which is to encourage creative reading as well as creative writing.

Fall semester.  Professor Emeritus Townsend.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013

105 Romanticism and the Enlightenment

The late eighteenth century is often characterized as the Age of Enlightenment, a time when educated men and women were confident that human reason was sufficient to understand the laws of nature, to improve society’s institutions, and to produce works of the imagination surpassing those of previous generations (and rivaling those of classical antiquity).  The early nineteenth century brought a distrust of rationality (the Head) and an affirmation of the importance of human emotion (the Heart).  “Romanticism and the Enlightenment” will test these broad generalizations by reading, looking at, and listening to some representative verbal, visual, and musical texts.  Among the texts are paired and opposed works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, J. W. von Goethe, Voltaire, Thomas  Gray, John Keats, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Jacques Louis David, and Caspar David Friedrich.  In dealing with these and other diverse texts, no special skills are required.

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.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013

106 Things Matter

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

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

Fall semester. Professor Hastie.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

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.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013

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 Williamson.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013

109 Political Leadership

Political leadership can be a good and noble profession. But leadership can also be a position from which great damage can be done. Leadership in political life attracts various kinds of people and for various reasons. Some leaders live for politics; for them politics is a cause. Others live off politics; for those leaders politics is essentially a livelihood. Most leaders seem to enjoy the pleasures of power and influence, whether openly or hidden in their inner lives. Some leaders would refuse to trade their power even for significant wealth.

Leadership is necessary to all government—democratic, authoritarian and totalitarian governments, revolutionary movements and even terrorist networks. There seem to be certain general qualities of leadership and then there are those particular to a given type of politics. Understanding democratic leadership requires comparative thinking because it’s important to consider what democracy is not, as well as what it is. The paradox of a vibrant democracy is that it necessarily involves perpetual struggle between the people and the leaders, even if both want the public good. Citizens must be supportive yet vigilant; leaders must be effective yet accountable. Democracy is by nature self-contradictory and often frustrating, like life itself.

The course emphasizes improvement of student writing as well as an understanding of political life. 

Fall semester.  Professor Tiersky.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013

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.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014

111 Thinking Through Improvisation

Much of the thinking we do in college is applied to activities that involve large amounts of reworking and editing. But in many endeavors, efforts that are apparently more spontaneous are required. Thinking in improvisational modes requires several special techniques, and yet is done by virtually all of us at times. Improvisation can be used to solve emergency problems or create art at the highest levels. The preparation for successful improvisation is often enormous, but editing must occur just before the act of execution.  We will explore improvisational thinking with the aid of several skilled practitioners as guest lecturers and performers. We will ask how improvisational thinking differs from other ways of thinking and how it is similar. We will inquire into the variety of techniques used in improvisation, drawing from diverse fields. We will explore the relationship between improvisation and creativity.  We will learn how to naturally incorporate improvisational strategies into our explorations of the liberal arts.

Improvisation is a process not a product. It involves creating in the moment without the opportunity to edit later, instead evaluating during its execution. Improvisation is difficult, rewarding and unavoidable. It requires mastery of many automatic subroutines as raw material and extreme attention to one’s surroundings and inner voice to integrate these subroutines successfully. Improvisation is one major way of thinking. It can be routine or creative and can be practiced and learned. It requires risk-taking and courage, openness and trust. Good improvisation is strongly connected to the creative life. Improvisational skills are intrinsically multidisciplinary and can be used to advantage in many fields where they are often unacknowledged. Improvisation is also multicultural in practice. Therefore experience with improvisational thinking is essential to a complete liberal arts education.

Students will read articles and books on improvisation and creativity, listen to and critique two outside improvisational performances, write evaluations of 10-12 in-class performances, and prepare a substantial term paper on one improvisational activity in depth. About half of the classes are devoted to discussion of texts. Students will also have several opportunities to improvise and self-critique (without grading in order to provide a safe environment for exploration and risk-taking).

Fall semester.  Professor Poccia.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013

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 Aries.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

113 Liberation

With a focus on close reading and persuasive argumentation, we ask two linked questions: How has Western culture defined itself through tales and declarations of liberation? How have such texts even in affirming freedom also imposed constraining norms of gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuality?

We start with the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Mary Prince, and then look back to ancient accounts of deliverance, including Homer’s Odyssey; the Books of Genesis, Exodus, and Isaiah; and the Gospel of Matthew. From the modern era we read Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. We also analyze the act of claiming freedom in the American Declaration of Independence, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and documents and films from liberation movements.    

This seminar aims to develop critical skills and expresssive range through discussion, as informed by questions and comments submitted before class, and through writing five essays of increasing complexity in consultation with the instructor. Students regularly collaborate in groups to debate and lead discussion, and learn to use the resources of the Writing Center and Library.

Fall semester. Professor Griffiths.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014

114 Encounters with Nature

What is our place in nature? How do we feel about natural spaces we encountered growing up and how do we view the environment of Amherst College and its setting in New England? How did people in the past think about nature and how did they change their environments as a consequence? How have their ideas affected us today? And how do we imagine the future of the natural world?

This course will explore how our ideas of nature have changed over time. We will give particular attention to the ways we have recreated particular kinds of natural spaces and how we have depicted nature in images. We begin with walks in the nearby wildlife sanctuary, discussions of our past encounters with nature, a study of the Amherst Campus, and, while the weather is still warm, a hike or two. During these excursions we will discuss what we see, learn some basic drawing techniques that will help us take visual notes on the landscape, and discuss and write about how our experience with the land might differ from how people experienced it in the past. We then will explore New England further, discuss ideas about wilderness in the United States, and look closely at American landscape painting. Where do our deeply held assumptions come from? To find out, we will look at poetry, philosophy, Western traditions of landscape painting, and scientific illustration. We also will think about why people collect and draw natural specimens, and how they mapped their environments from the Renaissance through the Aztec empire to the current day.

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

 Fall semester.  Professors Courtright and López.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013

115 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.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014

116 Genes, Genomes and Society

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

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

Fall semester. Professor Ratner.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013

117 Big Books

This seminar explores the particular pleasures and interpretive problems of reading and writing about three very long works of fiction–novels so large that any sure grasp of the relation between individual part and mammoth whole may threaten to elude author and reader alike.  How do we gauge, and thereby engage with, narratives of disproportionate scale and encyclopedic ambition?  How do we lose, or find, our place in colossal fictional worlds?

As befits its interest in the losing and finding of place, the course introduces students to college-level literary study.  Short papers on different aspects of the novels will be assigned most weeks.  Discussion in class will focus primarily on the novels themselves, though we will also consider (using our own and others’ essays as examples) ways of writing about our experience as readers.  Students will team up in pairs to open the conversation at the start of every class.

In a recent version of the course, the seminar’s three novels included Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, and Samuel K. Delany’s Dhalgren.  Although the novels for fall 2014 have not yet been selected, they are likely to display similar historical, geographic, and stylistic diversity.

Fall semester.  Professor Christoff.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

118 Science Fiction or the Posthuman

What does it mean to be human, and how can we make sense of the emerging category of the posthuman? In this course we will examine some of the anxieties and aspirations clustered around the idea of the posthuman since its initial development by Norbert Wiener’s model of cybernetics following World War II. We will track the posthuman imaginary through contemporary novels, films, and significant essays by leading humanists and scientists. Central to our investigation will be looking at how the posthuman arises along the nebulous boundary between traditional notions of humanity and radical new modes that challenge those notions. If we use technology to colonize our environment, aren’t we always at risk of being colonized by our own tools? One could argue that the posthuman has always been with us in the form of traditional external information processing and data storage systems like books and libraries. But recent advances in computing capacity, digital and surveillance technology, and robotics have changed the rules of the game. The anxiety which the posthuman arouses comes from its perceived threat to an organic model of human personhood as a stable, unified self. At the same time, the posthuman offers a bold vision of secular transcendence by reducing, or elevating, the soul to data. In many ways, science fiction has become the definitive genre for mapping how we experience the modern since it continually poses compelling questions about the cultural implications of technology.  We will look at four groupings of classic SF texts: The Posthuman Body, Future Shock, The Sublime, and Trouble in Utopia. In each of these sections we will investigate questions about human-machine interfaces, the sacred and the secular, and the ways in which technology effects profound changes in everyday behavior, gender dynamics, and the basic cultural codes for understanding memory and identity.

Course Goals and Requirements:  This course will be a discussion-based seminar limited to 15 students. Its purpose is to introduce students at Amherst to a formal process of engagement through a humanistic framework of some of the major questions emerging from rapid changes in technology. As part of this students will learn such research methodologies as close reading, critical thinking, how to use secondary sources, and how to construct evidence-based arguments. Students will be asked to prepare for each class through careful reading of and reflection on course material, formulation of arguments in advance of class, active listening and regular contributions of their own ideas to class discussion.  In general, laptops will not be permitted in the classroom.

Responses: By the evening before class, students will contribute brief responses to each week’s readings on the course website.  These need not be formal, but they should be thoughtful.  Papers: Students will write two analytical papers, two short response papers, and one longer final essay or creative project which may be collaborative. Presentations: Toward the end of the semester students will give ten-minute presentations based on their (in-progress) final essays.  

Fall semester.  Visiting Professor Pritchett.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014

119 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.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014

120 Pariscape: Imagining Paris in the Twentieth Century

Paris has been for centuries one of the exemplary sites of our urban sensibility, a city that has indelibly and controversially influenced the twentieth-century imagination.  Poets, novelists and essayists, painters, photographers and film-makers: all have made use of Paris and its cityscape to examine relationships among technology, literature, city planning, art, social organizations, politics and what we might call the urban imagination.  This course will study how these writers and visual artists have seen Paris, and how, through their representations, they created and challenged the “modernist” world view.In order to discover elements of a common memory of Paris, we will study a group of writers (Baudelaire, Zola, Calvino, Stein, Hemingway and others), philosophers and social commentators (Simmel, Benjamin), filmmakers (Truffaut, Godart, Tati and others), photographers (Atget and Brassaï), and painters (Manet, Cézanne, Picasso, Delaunay, and others).  Finally, we will look at how such factors as tourism, print media, public works, immigration and suburban development affect a city’s simultaneous and frequently uncomfortable identity as both a geopolitical and an imaginative site.

This is a course where participation will be expected of each and every student. It will not be a lecture course. To do well, each student will be expected to be an active participant in each class meeting. Written work should reflect the quality of the seminar’s discussions. Logic in argument and rhetorical subtlety will be considered strengths. I will provide extensive comments on student papers, and will expect students to discuss those comments–-positive and negative-–with me in private meetings. Students will also work in teams on specific projects.

This course seeks to introduce students to the intellectual variety of the liberal arts, their content and methods. We will touch on such disciplines as literary analysis and close reading, translation, history, sociology, psychology, photographic and film analysis, art and architectural history, anthropology, gender and ethnic studies, sexuality, demographics, politics and the law.  Knowledge of French is not necessary.We will always keep a sense of humor, perhaps take a field trip to New York, and not be patronizing to those who do not have the good fortune to be in this seminar.

Fall semester. Professor Rosbottom.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

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

Intellectuals in post-Enlightenment Europe have frequently drawn on images of Asia and Asians to illustrate what it means to be modern, enlightened, historically progressive, and universal.  These images of Asia in European thought have been surprisingly consistent and durable. Through close readings of key figures in the intellectual tradition of modern Europe, including Georg W. H. Hegel (1770-1831), Karl Marx (1818-1883), and Max Weber (1864-1920), this seminar asks why this might have been the case. We will explore the epistemological and ideological function of the division between universals and particulars by placing the philosophical projects of these thinkers in historical context. We will conclude the semester by examining more recent examples of intellectuals struggling against universal definitions of modernity, in particular, the project of “provincializing Europe”. The seminar will focus on the related skills of close reading, engaged discussion, and critical writing. You will write guided response papers to the readings, participate in writing workshops, conduct peer review exercises, and give oral presentations. Fall semester. Professors Maxey and Sen.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014

122 Representing Equality

This seminar is the second in a sequence that  studies Amherst campus life, its history, privileges and problems, with the aim of creating productive discussions designed to make a friendlier and more integrated community.  In Representing Equality, students will engage with art work and texts that touch on a variety of aspects of inequality in our larger society, including educational disparities as well as racial, ethnic, gender, and economic inequality; for example, they will read  the work of Anna Deveare Smith that examines the ethnic rifts leading to violence. They will also explore techniques of productive dialogue across differences and acquire skills in interviewing and careful listening. These discussions and skills will help students to construct a class project that will explore social life on the Amherst campus and that will pick up on and broaden conversations started in this seminar in 2013 about creating a  safer and more cohesive environment--one that helps members to benefit from the extraordinary diversity among students and that links inequalities and stereotypes to sexual violence and other local and national problems. Students will conduct interviews  with other students, faculty, and staff to deepen their understanding of campus life. They will collaborate  on photographic representations of campus issues and produce an end-of-semester public event to  summarize their findings and generate further dialogue.      

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

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

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 Bromell’s Tomorrow Never Knows; films include Drugstore Cowboy and Traffic. This course will be writing attentive.

Fall semester. Professors Couvares and Himmelstein.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014

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.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013

125 Movement: A Dance and Sociology Collaboration

The most recent World Social Science Report published by UNESCO, focused on Changing Global Environments, highlights four urgent, interrelated challenges facing our generations: unprecedented ecological degradation, global inequality, poverty, and sociopolitical discontent. The report, based on contributions from scientists around the world, suggests addressing such challenges requires making creative spaces, across disciplines and differences, to envision alternative futures, ways of living, and ways of understanding and interacting with one another as well as with the rest of nature. This course provides such a space through a unique collaboration between Dance and Sociology. We will explore how the arts and sciences together allow us to better understand the world we live in today and think through the social transformations needed to address these serious challenges.

Broader social realities affect us differently, depending on our social location, at the bodily level. Inequality, poverty, and ecological degradation are imprinted physically on all of us in ways we rarely consider—with enormous health, emotional, and psychological consequences. Scholars refer to this as the “corporeality of social life” and have sought ways to examine, as we will in this course, these realities through traditional research and creative activities. In the studio simple but innovative task-based movement activities will allow us to rethink how we move through space in relation to one another in ways that shape, and are shaped by, the society in which we live. Collaborative movement exercises will draw attention to our conscious and unconscious interactions with those around us, as well as with the rest of nature. Through such efforts we will make concrete connections between macro-level phenomena and everyday lived experience that inform and complement our scientific inquiry.  In the classroom we will introduce methodological and theoretical tools sociology offers to address questions such as: What are the social drivers of the challenges highlighted in the most recent World Social Science Report? How do we understand the impact of broader social trends on our everyday lives? How do our everyday activities contribute to broader trends? How do personal and societal beliefs about environmental and social issues develop in different places and times? How do communities work across differences of age, gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, and ability, to address challenges such as inequality, poverty, and ecological degradation?

This course is reading and writing attentive, while also involving regular movement activities. We will introduce the work of movement-based artists such as Keith Hennessey, Sean Dorsey, David Dorfman, and Deborah Hay, who interrogate a range of social questions as well as personal issues. We will also look at performance troupes such as The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, a diverse ensemble of individuals that represents for Bill T. Jones, “the world in which I want to live.” Readings will include recently released scientific reports focused on global ecological and social issues, scholarly articles within the social sciences, and books written by visionary sociologists who both study and engage in the work of social change, from W.E.B. DuBois to Juliet Schor. Our class will host guest lecturers and performers, and take at least one field trip to observe an artistic performance. No experience in social science or dance is necessary or expected. There is only one section for this course and both Professors Matteson and Holleman will be present in every class.

Fall semester.  Professors Holleman and Matteson.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014

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.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013

127 Music, Faith, and the Utopian Impulse

Music figures prominently in the human experience of hope and faith. This course explores why this is so, concentrating on three iconic works—J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (1727), Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1825), and George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess (1935). In-class work will focus on attentive listening. Written assignments emphasize critical thinking about music and culture. There will be frequent opportunities to attend live performances and meet professional musicians. No prior musical experience is required.

Fall semester.  Professor Kallick.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014

128 The Great Schism through Eastern Eyes

How does one account for the Great Schism, the centuries-long estrangement between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian churches? How does a religion such as Christianity—whose texts and traditions speak so eloquently about unity—find itself so riven by division? We'll explore such questions in a broad array of primary documents authored between the first and twenty-first centuries by Greeks, Russians, Syrians, Egyptians, Georgians, Serbs, Palestinians, Ukrainians, and Poles.

We'll engage in close reading, critical interpretation, and vigorous discussion of theological treatises, biographies, diplomatic communiqués, fiction, scripture, journalistic accounts, travelogues, commentaries, missives, and satire. We'll examine portrayals of "the other" in film, painting, music, photography, and posters. We'll consider attempts by political scientists, anthropologists, theologians, and historians to explain religious divisions. We'll grapple repeatedly with tensions between, on the one hand, Eastern Orthodoxy's conception of itself as an ecumenical and universal confession, and, on the other hand, its multiple manifestations in various regions and cultures. And as we critique arguments crafted by others through the centuries, we'll critique our own in structured debates and written essays. 

Fall semester.  Professor Geffert.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014

129 Understanding Haiti: Memory, Violence, and Resilience

Through close textual readings of select texts from the literary oeuvre of Haitian-American author, Edwidge Danticat, this class aims to introduce students to the rich history of Haiti’s people, the deep violence that has afflicted the nation, the trauma that its diaspora carries, and the channels for healing made available to Haitian and Haitian-American communities through literature, theater, and traditions such as oral story-telling and religion.  In particular we will examine: What is the function of literature? Can literature perform healing for its writers and the communities therein represented? Can it function as a tool of memory and human rights action? How does diaspora literature affect life on the island? How do recent catastrophic events get addressed in new writings on the subject?  Supplemented by historical and theoretical essays, we will attempt to understand the Haitian condition in its complexity and astonishing beauty.

The course has three primary objectives. First, students will examine literary genres, memoir, historical fiction, creative fiction, short stories, and oral storytelling. Second, the students will have short writing assignments in which they come to understand better the form and function of different writing styles. Finally, students will learn interpretive reading, learning to read at face value (including emotional response) and also to read for meaning (fact-finding, synthesis evaluation, multiple interpretations).

Fall semester.  Professor Suárez.

2014-15: Offered in Fall 2014