Philosophy

At Sarah Lawrence College, the study of philosophy retains a centrality, helping students synthesize their educational experience with the discipline’s many connections to other humanities and to social science. Through conference work, students also find numerous ways to connect the study of philosophy with their interests in the arts and natural sciences. Stressing the great tradition of classical and contemporary philosophy, the College offers three types of philosophy courses: those organized around thematic topics, such as Philosophy of Science, Aesthetics, and Philosophy and Literature; those organized historically, such as Moral Philosophy, Political Philosophy, and 20th-Century Philosophy; and those that study the “systems” of philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein.

Philosophy faculty use the latest technology in their teaching, including Web boards for posting course material and promoting discussion. Yearlong courses make extensive textual work possible, enabling students to establish in-depth relationships with the thought of the great philosophers and to “do philosophy” to some degree—particularly valuable to students preparing for graduate work in philosophy. Conference work often consists of students thinking through and writing on single philosophic and literary works, ranging from Greek tragedy, comedy, or epic to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Descartes, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, or Heidegger.

2019-2020 Courses

Philosophy

First-Year Studies: The Origins of Philosophy

Open , FYS—Year

What is being? What is time? What is knowledge? What is the best kind of government, and what is the happiest kind of life? Should we fear death? More than 2,500 years ago in Ancient Greece, a tradition of asking this sort of questions developed under the name “philosophy” (Greek for “love of wisdom”). In this course, we will read the earliest surviving texts of the philosophical tradition—from the first philosopher, Thales, to the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle—as well as interpretations and critiques of them by thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Throughout the course, we will discuss the relations (and the tensions) between philosophy and science, religion, art, and politics. Students will have an individual conference every other week and group conference on alternating weeks. In the group conferences, we will discuss the nature of academic work in general and practice research, reading, writing, and editing skills.

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Introduction to Social Theory: Philosophical Tools for Critical Social Analysis

Open , Lecture—Year

How can social order be explained in modern societies that are too large, fluid, and complex to rely on tradition or self-conscious political regulation alone? Social theory is a distinctly modern tradition of discourse centered on answering this question and focused on a series of theorists and texts whose works gave rise to the modern social sciences, overlap with some of the most influential modern philosophy, and provide powerful tools for critical understanding of contemporary social life. The theorists whose works form the backbone of this course explore the sources of social order in structures, many of which work “behind the backs” of the awareness and intentions of those whose interaction they integrate and regulate. The market economy, the legal and administrative state, the firm and the professions, highly differentiated political and civil cultures, racial and gender order, a variety of disciplinary techniques inscribed in diverse mundane practices—one by one, these theorists labored to unmask the often-hidden sources of social order in the modern world. Moreover, this understanding of social order has evolved side-by-side with evaluations that run the gamut, from those that view Western modernity as achieving the apex of human freedom and individuality to those that see it as insinuating a uniquely thorough and invidious system of domination. This class will introduce many of the foundational texts and authors in social theory, the social sciences, and social philosophy—including Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, and Jürgen Habermas. In this way, we will also cover various schools of social explanation, including: Marxism, structuralism, poststructuralism, and (in group conferences) critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and feminism. The thread connecting these disparate authors and approaches will be the issue of the worth or legitimacy of Western modernity, the historical process that produced capitalism, representative democracy, religious pluralism, the modern sciences, ethical individualism, secularism, fascism, communism, new forms of racism and sexism, and many “new social movements.” Which of the institutions and practices that structured the process of modernization are worth defending or reforming? Which should be rejected outright? Or should we reject them all and embrace a new, postmodern social epoch? In addressing these issues, we will grapple both with classical texts and with the contemporary implications of different approaches to social analysis.

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Existentialism

Open , Lecture—Spring

Does life have a purpose, a meaning? What does it mean “to be”? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a woman (or to be a man)? What does it mean to be black (or to be white)? What makes us into who we are? What defines each of us? What distinguishes each of us? And what, if anything, is common to all of us? These and other questions are raised by existentialist philosophy and literature, mostly through interrogation of real-life experiences, situations, and “fundamental emotions” such as anxiety, boredom, loneliness, and shame. In the first half of this class, we will get acquainted with the thought and writing of two of the most influential figures on existentialist philosophy: Jean-Paul Sartre (France, 1905-1980) and Martin Heidegger (Germany, 1889-1976). In the second half, with what we have learned from Sartre and Heidegger as our background, we will analyze texts by other authors associated with existentialism, including Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Frantz Fanon, Franz Kafka, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Simone Weil.

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Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art

Open , Seminar—Fall

Art seems to be an inextricable part of human life. The question that guides this class is seemingly simple: What is art? As will soon become clear, answering this question proves to be exceedingly difficult. For example: Are trees works of art? Is an iPhone a work of art? Is a movie a work of art? Are all movies works of art? Is a doodle in your notebook a work of art? It may turn out that no definitive answer to our guiding question is possible; however, without demarcating between what counts as art and what doesn’t, art refers to everything and, consequently, to nothing special. This class investigates how works of art become meaningful. The narrative of the class traces the different frameworks that philosophers over the last 2,500 years have used to pursue this question. We will follow a historical narrative, learning how these frameworks have responded both to each other and to the artworks of their time. We will read texts by Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Danto, Benjamin, and others, as well as analyze artworks from Sophocles, William Shakespeare, Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, John Cage, Kara Walker, Jordan Peele, and many others. At the end of the semester, our aim will be to articulate what is so special about art and why we care about it.

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Theories of Knowledge

Open , Seminar—Spring

What does it mean to know something? Every day, we presume to know things: We presume to know that the Earth circles around the Sun, that human beings are born with unalienable rights, that you are upset with me for answering honestly about whether I like your new shirt, that I am currently reading a course description for a philosophy class, that Radiohead is my favorite band, or that this is my right hand. Beyond specific claims, when we act we rely on knowledge about the world; for instance, when we sit in a chair, we demonstrate knowledge that a chair is a thing to be sat upon. This class investigates what these varied instances of knowledge share in common, how knowledge should be defined, and what capacities qualify us as knowers. We will begin by reading the first historical queries into how we arrive at knowledge (Plato and Aristotle), then jump to consider modern attempts to secure foundations for knowledge (René Descartes), and then turn to investigate the asymmetry between knowledge of our own minds and knowledge of others’ minds (Gilbert Ryle and Stanley Cavell). Finally, reading critical race theory (W. E. B Du Bois and Charles Mills) and feminist philosophy (Sally Haslanger and Lorraine Code), we will consider how our identities and relative privileges or underprivileges influence what we are capable of knowing. This will give us the opportunity to reflect on the vital relationship between knowledge and justice.

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Virtue and the Good Life: Ethics in Classical Chinese Philosophy

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course centers on the close, detailed reading of a small number of foundational texts in classical Confucianism and Taoism. Our focus will be to explore how these texts might fit “virtue ethics,” which emphasizes moral character and the pursuit of a worthwhile life. Some attention will be paid to other forms of ethics, including those that stress either the adherence to duties and obligations or the social consequences of ethical action. Our primary goal, however, will be to examine the ways in which classical Chinese philosphers regarded personal virtues and “good character” as both a prerequisite to and an explanation of appropriate action and its consequences. Among the more specific topics that we will explore are: ideal traits of virtue, the links between moral values and different understandings of human nature, the pyschological structures of virtue, practices leading to the cultivation of virtue, the roles of family and friendship in developing moral values, and what constitutes a good life.

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“I Think, Therefore I Am:” The Meditations of René Descartes

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

While specific background knowledge is not expected, a previous course or conference in philosophy is required.

This course will consist of a close reading of René Descartes’ masterwork: Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). One of the founding texts of modern philosophy, this book introduces the core problems that continue to preoccupy all subsequent philosophy: the psychophysical problem (i.e., What is the relationship between consciousness and the body, and how does the one “act upon” the other?); the problem of knowledge (i.e., Is knowledge grounded in reason or in the senses? And is there any way to conclusively distinguish between dream, or fantasy, and reality?); the problem of other minds (How can I know that another consciousness exists, if I can only ever access it through my consciousness?). Conference work may focus on Descartes, on one of the above-mentioned problems, or on a closely related philosopher of the student’s choice.

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Ancient Philosophy (Aristotle)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of a small number of texts from a major figure in ancient philosophy. The goal of the course is twofold. It is first designed to acquaint students with one of the seminal figures of our tradition in more than a superficial way. Doing that will force us to slow our usual pace of reading, to read almost painfully carefully, with a view to understanding the thinker as he wrote and as he understood himself and not as a stage in an historical development. The second part of the goal of the course is to introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading. The text for spring 2020 will be Aristotle’s Rhetoric. We do not ordinarily claim knowledge of what is most important to us—the good, the beautiful, and just things. Still, our practical lives require that we are not content merely to withhold judgment about them. Accordingly—about the good, the beautiful and the just—we are generally persuaded and seek to persuade. We convince and are convinced without simply teaching or learning. If this sort of thinking is intrinsic to incomplete beings, to human beings, when rhetoric claims be an art or a science of persuasion, this would seem to amount to a claim to be an art or a science of the human. We will read Aristotle’s Rhetoric in light of this tacit claim and with a view to the question: What does it mean that human beings are put together in such a way that we both must and can be moved by persuasion?

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Lift Up Your Hearts: Art and Architecture of the Baroque—Europe and Its Colonies, 1550–1700

Open , Lecture—Year

In Annibale Carracci’s painting of St. Margaret (1609), an Early Christian martyr, an altar is inscribed: Sursum Corda (Lift Up Your Hearts). This course explores what that meant in the 17th century—for the arts to be a vehicle of uplift and salvation, a challenge to the supremacy of nature, an analysis of history, and a site of contention, paradox, and pride for artists and architects. Using PowerPoint presentations, class discussion, and papers focusing on works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the course will cover the art of 16th-century Italy—as that art frames the questions that painters, sculptors, and architects pursued throughout Europe in the 17th century, commonly called the Age of the Baroque. Included will be studies of major movements in religion, politics, and society (Catholic reform and the founding of the Jesuits Order, the evolution of academic art, the creation of papal Rome, the importance of private patronage); issues in aesthetics and art theory (the transformation of classical models, theories of the reception of nature, the links to poetry, and the dynamics of style); the emergence of the varying national traditions (the sweet style and Bel Composto in Italy, Calvinist naturalism and the power of light in The Netherlands, and high classicism and Bon Gout in France). Focus will also be on careers of artists like Titian and the erotics of the brush; Michelangelo and transcendent form; Caravaggio and naturalism as the death of painting; Artemisia Gentileschi, biography and exemplum; Bernini and the beautiful whole; Rubens and the multiple ways of transforming; Rembrandt and the rough style; Vermeer and the discipline and technique of light; and Poussin and the modes of expression, among others. Group conferences in the first semester will focus on the art of Michelangelo as practice and problem and theories of the Baroque; in second semester, theories and problems in 17th-century architecture.

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Virtue and the Good Life: Ethics in Classical Chinese Philosophy

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course centers on the close, detailed reading of a small number of foundational texts in classical Confucianism and Taoism. Our focus will be to explore how these texts might fit “virtue ethics,” which emphasizes moral character and the pursuit of a worthwhile life. Some attention will be paid to other forms of ethics, including those that stress either the adherence to duties and obligations or the social consequences of ethical action. Our primary goal, however, will be to examine the ways in which classical Chinese philosphers regarded personal virtues and “good character” as both a prerequisite to and an explanation of appropriate action and its consequences. Among the more specific topics that we will explore are: ideal traits of virtue, the links between moral values and different understandings of human nature, the pyschological structures of virtue, practices leading to the cultivation of virtue, the roles of family and friendship in developing moral values, and what constitutes a good life.

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Introduction to Economic Theory and Policy

Open , Lecture—Year

This yearlong lecture will, broadly speaking, cover introductory microeconomics and macroeconomics from a wide range of theoretical perspectives, including neoclassical, post-Keynesian, Marxian, feminist, and institutional political economy perspectives. The objective of the course is to enable students to understand the more “technical aspects” of economics (e.g., usage of supply/demand analysis within and outside neoclassical economics), as well as some economic history and the history of economic thought. The theoretical issues will be applied to contemporary policy debates, such as the Green New Deal, inequality, health care, and international trade.

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Introduction to Development Studies: The Political Ecology of Development

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Some experience in the social sciences is desirable but not required.

In this intermediate seminar, we will begin by examining competing paradigms and approaches to understanding “development” and the “Third World.” We will set the stage by answering the question: What did the world look like 500 years ago? The purpose of this part of the course is to acquaint us with and to analyze the historical origins and evolution of a world political-economy, of which the "Third World" is an intrinsic component. We will thus study the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the rise of merchant and finance capital, and the colonization of the world by European powers. We will analyze case studies of colonial "development" to understand the evolving meaning of the term. The case studies will also help us assess the varied legacies of colonialism apparent in the emergence of new nations through the fitful and uneven process of decolonization that followed. The next part of the course will look at the United Nations and the role some of its associated institutions have played in the post-World War II global political-economy, one marked by persistent and intensifying socioeconomic inequalities as well as frequent outbreaks of political violence across the globe. By examining the development institutions that have emerged and evolved since 1945, we will attempt to unravel the paradoxes of development in different eras. We will deconstruct the measures of development through a thematic exploration of population, resource use, poverty, access to food, the environment, agricultural productivity, urbanization, industrialization, and different development strategies adopted by Third World nation-states. We will then examine globalization and its relation to emergent international institutions and their policies; for example, the IMF, World Bank, AIIB, and WTO. We will then turn to contemporary development debates and controversies that increasingly find space in the headlines—widespread land grabbing by sovereign wealth funds, China, and hedge funds; the “global food crisis”; and the perils of climate change, as well as the potential of “a new green deal.” Throughout the course, our investigations of international institutions, transnational corporations, the role of the state, and civil society will provide the backdrop for the final focus of the class—the emergence of regional coalitions for self-reliance, environmental and social justice, and sustainable development. Our analysis of development in practice will draw upon case studies from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States. Conference work will be closely integrated with the themes of the course, with a two-stage substantive research project. Project presentations will incorporate a range of formats, from traditional papers to multimedia visual productions. Where possible and feasible, students will be encouraged to do primary research over spring break.

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Beginning Greek

Open , Seminar—Year

This course provides an intensive introduction to Ancient Greek grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, with the aim of reading the language as soon as possible. By mid-semester in the fall, students will be reading authentic excerpts of Ancient Greek poetry and prose. Students will also read and discuss selected works of Plato, Aristophanes, Thucydides, and Ps.-Xenophon in English. During the spring semester, while continuing to refine their grammar and reading skills, students will read extended selections of Plato’s Apology in the original Greek.

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First-Year Studies: The Disreputable 16th Century

Open , FYS—Year

Sixteenth-century Europeans shared a variety of fundamental beliefs about the world that a secular-minded Westerner of today is likely to find “disreputable”—intellectually preposterous, morally outrageous, or both. Almost all well-educated people believed that the Earth was the unmoving center of the universe, around which the heavenly bodies revolved; that human destinies were dictated, at least to some extent, by the influence of the planets and stars; that the welfare of their communities was threatened by the maleficent activities of witches; and that rulers had a moral duty to compel their subjects to practice a particular religion. In this course, we will examine 16th-century ideas on these and other topics and see how these beliefs fit together to form a coherent picture of the world. We will also look at the writings of pioneer thinkers—Machiavelli, Montaigne, Galileo—who began the process of dismantling this world-conception and replacing it with a new one closer to our own. It is not only ideas, however, that render the 16th century “disreputable” to modern eyes. Some of history’s most notorious kings and queens ruled European states in this period—Henry VIII of England with his six wives; Mary, Queen of Scots with her three husbands; Philip II of Spain, patron of the Inquisition; Ivan the Terrible, slaughterer of his own nobility. This was also the era of the most scandalous of the popes—Alexander VI and Leo X. In the second half of the course, we will examine the careers of these powerful 16th-century men and women and of others like them. We will endeavor to make their appalling deeds humanly comprehensible, partly by considering the specific historical circumstances in which these figures acted and partly by exploring the notions of power, authority, morality, and order entertained by the Europeans of their age.

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Democracy and Emotions in Postwar Germany

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

The passion of the people has been treated as both the foundation of democracy and its greatest threat. Groups of people, not least women, were denied the vote because of their supposedly too emotional nature. More recently, in light of decreasing voter turnout and frustration with the political process, politicians, pundits, and the press have made contradicting appeals to the hearts—but also the minds—of citizens across democratic societies. This seminar explores the ambivalent connection of emotions and democracy in the case of post-1945 Germany. While the focus lies on the Federal Republic, the claim of the German Democratic Republic to be a different kind of democracy is taken seriously. Both East and West tried to formulate new rules for political feelings following the rise and defeat of the Third Reich. For both states, the connection of bodies, spaces, and practices in the attempt to establish democratic sentiments will be examined. The course combines a chronological account, with a typology of different feelings and practices. The role of architecture—for example, for the connection between governing and governed—will be discussed, as will be the role of guilt and its different expressions in establishing democratic communities in East and West. By the end of the semester, students will have gained familiarity with the political history of postwar Germany and with the history of emotions.

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First-Year Studies: The Perils of Passion: Ancient Greek History for Today’s Troubled Times

Open , FYS—Year

Are we unwittingly reliving the past? Authoritarianism, magical thinking, and tribalism are beginning to characterize the 21st century as they characterized archaic Greece. Over centuries, however, the ancient Greeks experienced a movement in the opposite direction: They began to prioritize reality, condemn tyranny, and experiment with broader forms of political participation. In the fifth century BCE, the ancient Greeks devised, simultaneously, the concepts of history and democracy. As the Athenians were experimenting with the world’s first-ever democratic political institutions, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides distinguished history from myth and offered examples of behaviors to emulate or to avoid. These early historians can help us today to analyze facts, identify causes and consequences, and avoid the pitfalls of the past. Students will read (in English translation) Herodotus’s Histories and Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, as well as selected works by Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristotle, and Ps.-Xenophon. Students will meet with the instructor individually for a half-hour conference once every two weeks. On the alternate weeks, when individual conferences do not meet, the entire class will meet for a group conference.

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Romanticism and Its Consequences in English-Language Poetry

Open , Seminar—Year

The first half of this course will explore the work of the most influential poets writing in English in the time between the French Revolution and the American Civil War. One of the goals of the course is to demonstrate the ways in which modern poetry originated in this period. In the wake of the French Revolution, Blake and Wordsworth, among others, invented a new kind of poetry that largely internalized the myths that they had inherited from literary and religious traditions. The poet’s inner life became the inescapable subject of the poem. In the second half of the course, we will trace the impact of 19th-century Romanticism on subsequent generations of poets writing in English, with particular attention to the first half of the 20th century. Our preeminent goal will be to appreciate each poet’s—indeed, each poem’s—unique contribution to the language. Our understanding of literary and historical trends will emerge from the close, imaginative reading of texts. Authors will include: Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Tennyson, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, Hardy, Frost, Stevens, Yeats, and T. S. Eliot.

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Comparative Literary Studies and Its Others

Open , Seminar—Fall

As a discipline that defines itself as an inherently interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and transnational enterprise, comparative literature occupies a distinct place in the humanities. Many locate the origins of “comp lit” in Goethe’s conception of Weltliteratur, according to which the literary imagination transcends national and linguistic borders even as it views every work of literature as historically situated and aesthetically unique. Since its beginnings, comparative literature has foregrounded the dynamic tensions between text and context, rhetoric and structure—comparing different works within and across genre, period, and movement in their original language. By balancing theoretical readings in/about comparative literature with concrete examples of close textual analyses of poems, short stories, and novels, this course will also expose students to the ways in which comparative literature has expanded from its previous classically cosmopolitan and fundamentally Eurocentric perspectives to its current global, cultural configurations. Comparative literature is continually reframing its own assumptions, questioning its critical methodologies, and challenging notions of center and periphery—therefore, subverting traditional definitions of the canon and which writers belong in it. Today, it is impossible to study comparative literature without engaging its relation to translation studies, postcolonial and diaspora studies, and globalization, as well as to the ongoing concerns and various approaches of language-rich literary criticism and theory.

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The Poetry of Earth: Imagination and Environment in English Renaissance Poetry

Open , Seminar—Fall

One of John Keats’s sonnets begins, “The poetry of earth is never dead.” This course will step back from Keats to the writing of several of his great predecessors in the English Renaissance to reflect on how imagination shapes environment and environment shapes imagination in the early modern period. The late 16th and 17th centuries were a time of transition between traditional, feudal society—with its hierarchical ideas of order, of humanity, and of nature—and emerging modernity, with its secularizing humanism, its centralization of political and economic power, its development of increasingly dense and complex urban centers, and its commitments to the study and potential mastery of nature through empirical science. With early modernity come all of the challenges to natural environment and its resources that we are so familiar with and challenged by: urban sprawl and environmental degradation, privatization of land, air and water pollution, deforestation and exhaustion of other resources, and diminishment of local species populations. We will study how several major writers register and respond to these tensions and these changes in what we might call their environmental vision, their imagination of nature: as wilderness, the “other” to civilization and its values, as chaos and threat, as liminal space of transformation, as pastoral retreat, as cultivatable human habitation and home. Class reading will include major works of Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, and Margaret Cavendish. Conference work may entail more extended work in any of these writers or literary modes or other authors who are engaged in theorizing and imagining nature—and may include study in history, philosophy, geography, politics, or theory.

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Odyssey/Hamlet/Ulysses

Open , Seminar—Spring

James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the most important novels of literary modernism, tracks its two major characters, hour by hour, through the streets of Dublin, Ireland, on a single day, June 16, 1904. Never have the life of a modern city and the interior lives of its inhabitants been so densely and sensitively chronicled. But the text is not only grounded in the “real life” of turn-of-the-century Dublin; it is also deeply grounded in literary landscapes, characters, and plots that stretch back to Shakespeare—and beyond Shakespeare to Homer. This class offers the chance for close study of three great texts that are deeply implicated in one another: Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Joyce’s Ulysses. The themes of circular journeying, fate, identity, parent-child relations, and indebtedness—and “the feminine mystique” that we trace in the Odyssey and Hamlet—will prepare us for a careful and joyful reading of Joyce’s exuberant human comedy in Ulysses. Conference work may entail more extended work in these major authors or other authors and texts roughly contemporary with them or subsequently responding to them, whose work extends and complicates the intertextual webs we will be weaving in class.

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Eight American Poets: Whitman to Ashbery

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

American poetry has multiple origins and a vast array of modes and variations. In this course, we will focus our attention on the trajectories of eight major American poetic careers. We will begin with Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson—fountainheads of the visionary strain in American poetic tradition—before turning to a handful of their most prominent 20th-century heirs: Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and Elizabeth Bishop. Some of the poems that we will be reading are accessible on a superficial level and present challenges to interpretation only on closer inspection; other poems—most notably, the poems of Dickinson, Stevens, Eliot, and Crane—present significant challenges at the most basic level of interpretation. The major prerequisite for this course is, therefore, a willingness to grapple with literary difficulty—with passages of poetry that are, at times, wholly baffling or highly resistant to paraphrase. We will seek to paraphrase them anyway—or account, as best we can, for the meanings that they create out of the meanings that they evade. Our central task will be to appreciate and articulate the unique strengths of each of the poems (and poets) that we encounter through close, imaginative reading and informed speculation.

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Discrete Mathematics: Gateway to Higher Mathematics

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Prior study of calculus is highly recommended.

There is an enormous, vivid world of mathematics beyond what students encounter in high-school algebra, geometry, and calculus courses. This seminar provides an introduction to this realm of elegant and powerful mathematical ideas. With an explicit goal of improving students’ mathematical reasoning and problem-solving skills, this seminar provides the ultimate intellectual workout. Five important themes are interwoven in the course: logic, proof, combinatorial analysis, discrete structures, and philosophy. For conference work, students may design and execute any appropriate project involving mathematics. A must for students interested in pursuing advanced mathematical study, this course is also highly recommended for students with a passion for computer science, engineering, law, logic, and/or philosophy.

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Strange Universes: An Introduction to Non-Euclidean Geometry

Open , Seminar—Fall

If you draw two straight lines on a piece of paper, it’s not difficult to keep them from crossing. Imagine, however, that the lines extend in both directions off the page and without end. Do these hypothetical lines cross? Surprisingly, this mundane question goes to the heart of our modern conception of space. Your experience might suggest that the lines will cross unless they head off the edge of the page at exactly the same angle. In that case we call the lines parallel; and this is the answer Euclid asserts with his fifth (or “parallel”) postulate of the “Elements.” Roughly 2,000 years later, mathematicians came to the shocking realization that lines need not obey the parallel postulate. The resulting non-Euclidean geometries were so unexpected to the mathematicians who first conceived of them that one, János Bolyai, remarked, “Out of nothing I have created a strange new universe.” This course will explore the alternatives to Euclidean geometry that first appeared in the 19th century. These include hyperbolic, spherical, and projective geometry, as well as more idiosyncratic geometries that we will devise together. Our exploration of these strange universes will be aided by visualizations that include drawing, computer-graphics animation, and video-game technology. Throughout, we will discuss the impact of the non-Euclidean revolution on astronomy, philosophy, and culture.

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The Philosophy of Music

Open , Lecture—Spring

This course may also be taken as a semester-long component.

Music is central to most of our lives. How can we understand the experience of music? What does music express? If it expresses emotions, how do those emotions relate to the emotions we experience in everyday life? Can music without words express emotions with as much clarity as music with words? As a background to these questions, we will also be looking at issues concerning the nature and experience of art of general; and we will examine the views of writers such as Plato, Kant, Schopenhauer, Dewey, and Adorno and compare how they understand the role of art in society and in our own experience. The musical repertory will include medieval and Renaissance music, music by Bach, songs by Schubert, and examples from the symphonic repertory by composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky. We will study those works using the techniques of formal analysis that are generally used in music-history classes but also attempt to draw out the many contextual threads: How are they embedded in a culture, and how do they reflect the temperament and orientation of the composers? While most of our musical examples will be from the classical repertory, other styles will also occasionally be relevant. The goals of the class will be to understand how musical and philosophical thought can illuminate each other and to deepen our awareness of the range and power of music. No prior knowledge of music theory or history is required; we will introduce and define the terms we need as the class proceeds.

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20th-Century Physics Through Three Pivotal Papers

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Prerequisites: one year of general physics and one year of calculus.

This course takes an in-depth look at three pivotal papers in 20th-century physics pertaining to special relativity and fundamental interpretations of quantum mechanics that transformed and defined our way of thinking in modern science. In this seminar-style class, we will deeply read, dissect, and discuss these three primary sources. In the process, we will together derive the predictions of special relativity; debate the various interpretations of quantum mechanics revolving around the famous Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen (EPR) paradox; and explore experiments meant to test our fundamental understanding of quantum mechanics.

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Introduction to Social Theory: Philosophical Tools for Critical Social Analysis

Open , Lecture—Year

How can social order be explained in modern societies that are too large, fluid, and complex to rely on tradition or self-conscious political regulation alone? Social theory is a distinctly modern tradition of discourse centered on answering this question and focused on a series of theorists and texts whose works gave rise to the modern social sciences, overlap with some of the most influential modern philosophy, and provide powerful tools for critical understanding of contemporary social life. The theorists whose works form the backbone of this course explore the sources of social order in structures, many of which work “behind the backs” of the awareness and intentions of those whose interaction they integrate and regulate. The market economy, the legal and administrative state, the firm and the professions, highly differentiated political and civil cultures, racial and gender order, a variety of disciplinary techniques inscribed in diverse mundane practices—one by one, these theorists labored to unmask the often-hidden sources of social order in the modern world. Moreover, this understanding of social order has evolved side-by-side with evaluations that run the gamut, from those that view Western modernity as achieving the apex of human freedom and individuality to those that see it as insinuating a uniquely thorough and invidious system of domination. This class will introduce many of the foundational texts and authors in social theory, the social sciences, and social philosophy—including Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, and Jürgen Habermas. In this way, we will also cover various schools of social explanation, including: Marxism, structuralism, poststructuralism, and (in group conferences) critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and feminism. The thread connecting these disparate authors and approaches will be the issue of the worth or legitimacy of Western modernity, the historical process that produced capitalism, representative democracy, religious pluralism, the modern sciences, ethical individualism, secularism, fascism, communism, new forms of racism and sexism, and many “new social movements.” Which of the institutions and practices that structured the process of modernization are worth defending or reforming? Which should be rejected outright? Or should we reject them all and embrace a new, postmodern social epoch? In addressing these, we will grapple both with classical texts and with the contemporary implications of different approaches to social analysis.

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Democracy, Diversity, and (In)equality

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

Modern democracy, as defended by its most progressive advocates, promised to resurrect an ancient form of popular self-rule on a newly inclusive and egalitarian foundation. At certain points in recent history, it has seemed credible to believe that the “moral arc of the universe bends toward justice”—i.e., that the long-term trend of modern political life moved in the direction of democratic polities that treated all members with equal concern and respect; realized genuine fair equality of opportunity for all; limited social inequality so as to render it compatible with political equality; and repaired historical injustices like those rooted in race, gender, sexuality, and class. Since the beginning of the current century, however, this claim has appeared far less credible. Instead, modern politics appears increasingly less equal, inclusive, just, and democratic. On the one hand, democratic societies have become increasingly unequal as a result of globalization, changes in the nature and remuneration of work, new policies and technology, and new political conditions. On the other, the hitherto dominant (understood variously in racial, ethnic, national, gender, and/or religious terms) appear increasingly unwilling to surrender their privileges in the name of social justice, diversity, or inclusion—even while democratic societies are increasingly diverse as a result of immigration and demographic shifts and their citizens less willing to “forget” their many differences to melt into a dominant national culture. These two trends are far from unrelated: The failure to preserve fair distributions of income, wealth and opportunity contribute to the rise of nationalism and reactionary populism, while the fracturing of common civic identities undermines the resources of commonality and solidarity needed to resist the concentration of wealth and power in ever-smaller elite circles. These developments raise some basic questions: Is 21st-century democracy increasingly an instrument of unjust politics, impotent in the face of the social changes that globalization and galloping technological change produce, and perhaps simply doomed? Or might it be possible to reform democracy to render it compatible with conditions of deep diversity while also making it capable of securing the requisite degrees of political and social equality? This course will explore these questions in a number of ways. We will study exemplary historical statements of the ideal of democracy, drawing on traditional works in political philosophy. We will also draw on contemporary work in sociology, anthropology, cultural and legal studies, and political science to examine the nature of social and cultural diversity—including religion, class, gender, sexuality, and race. We will draw on a similar range of disciplines to seek to comprehend the causes and consequence of the widening inequality characteristic of almost all economically advanced democratic societies. Finally, we will explore works that bring these themes together by examining current scholars efforts to (re-)articulate the ideal and practice of democracy in light of increased diversity and inequality.

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First-Year Studies: The Buddhist Philosophy of Emptiness

Open , FYS—Year

The concept of a “thing”—an entity that exists in and of itself, separate from all other things—is nothing but a useful fiction: In the real world, there actually are no “things” that meet that description. This, in a nutshell, is the startling proposition advanced by the Buddhist doctrine of śunyatā, or “emptiness,” as the Sanskrit term is usually translated. Often misconstrued by critics as a form of nihilism (“nothing exists”), idealism (“all that exists are mental phenomena”), or scepticism (“we can never know what really exists”), the emptiness doctrine is better interpreted as a radical critique of the fundamental conceptual categories that we habitually use to talk about and make sense of the world. This FYS course has several aims. In general, it is designed to help students develop the kind of research, writing, and critical thinking skills that are needed for academic success in college and in whatever career paths they may pursue thereafter. More specifically, the course aims to impart a clear, accurate understanding of the “emptiness” doctrine as it developed in the context of Buddhist intellectual history and found expression in various genres of classical Buddhist literature. Another aim of the course is to explore ways in which the emptiness doctrine, if taken seriously as a critique of the mechanisms and inherent limitations of human knowledge, may be fruitfully brought to bear in a number of different disciplines, academic and otherwise. In the fall semester, the class will read and discuss a number of Buddhist texts—primary sources in English translation from the original Sanskrit or Chinese—that advocate the philosophy of emptiness, as well as some secondary scholarship on the subject. Students will also be given a series of homework assignments that target basic academic skills in the humanities and social sciences (e.g., how to do bibliographic research and evaluate the reliability of sources, how to annotate scholarly writing, etc.). Individual conference meetings with the instructor in the fall will be devoted to learning and improving those skills. In the spring semester, the class will read and discuss a number of scholarly works written in English that deal with Western (non-Buddhist) traditions of historiography, literary theory, and scientific inquiry. The readings are designed to introduce students to some of the main intellectual trends in the humanities, social sciences, and “hard” sciences that they are likely to encounter in other college courses. At the same time, the class will learn how to use the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness as an analytical tool to critique the conceptual models employed in the various academic disciplines treated in the readings. For individual conference work in the spring, each student will be required to use that tool to analyze the fundamental nomenclature—the way of dividing up the world into “things”—employed by some particular field of human endeavor, which may be an academic, artistic, or athletic discipline or any other endeavor (e.g., political or economic) in which the student is especially interested. At the end of the semester, each student will have half of a class meeting to introduce his or her particular field of inquiry to everyone else. Students will select some representative readings that the class will do in advance, lead a discussion of those readings, and present their own critical analysis of the nomenclature used in the field in question. All students will have an individual conference meeting with the instructor on a weekly basis for the first six weeks of the course; thereafter, conferences may be held on a biweekly basis, depending on student progress.

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The Buddhist Tradition in India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia

Open , Lecture—Fall

This intoductory course treats the evolution of Buddhism in India, from the origins of the religion as a group of “world-renouncing” ascetics through the development of large, state-supported monastic communities and the emergence of the major reform movements known as Mahāyāna and Tantra. The course also focuses on the Buddhism of two regions of the world—Southeast Asia and the Tibetan plateau—where the respective traditions have been most self-consciously concerned with maintaining precedents inherited from India. Equal attention is paid to: (1) matters of philosophy and doctrine, (2) religious rites and practices, and (3) social and institutional arrangements. The lectures are accompanied by copious audio-visual materials. For students who wish to continue studying the development of the Buddhist tradition in other parts of the world, a companion lecture course, entitled The Buddhist Tradition in East Asia, is offered in the spring semester.

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The Buddhist Tradition in East Asia

Open , Lecture—Spring

This introductory course focuses on the Buddhism of East Asia: China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Buddhism first began to take root in China in the early centuries of the Common Era, having been transmitted from India via Central Asia and the maritime states of Southeast Asia. Buddhism initially met with much resistance, being branded an “alien” cult that was at odds with native Chinese (especially Confucian) values. Eventually, however, the Indian religion adapted to Chinese culture and came to have a profound influence on it, spawning new schools of Buddhism such as Tiantai, Huayan, Pure Land, and Chan (called Zen in Japan). The smaller, neighboring countries that fell under the sway of Chinese civilization—Korea, Japan, and Vietnam—first imported forms of Buddhism that had taken shape in China, not India; but each, in turn, further changed the religion in ways that accorded with their own indigenous cultures. Equal attention is paid in this course to: (1) matters of philosophy and doctrine, (2) religious rites and practices, and (3) social and institutional arrangements. The lectures are accompanied by copious audio-visual materials. The course has no prerequisite, but it is suitable for students who have already taken the companion lecture, The Buddhist Tradition in India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia, which is offered in the fall.

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The Emergence of Christianity

Open , Seminar—Year

There is perhaps no one who has not heard of the name of a seemingly obscure carpenter's son executed by the Romans around 33 CE. Why? The religion we call Christianity shaped the Western World for at least 1,500 years. In this course, we will study the origins of this tradition. As we study the origins of this movement, we will explore Judaism in the strange and fertile Second Temple period (515 BCE -70 CE). We will encounter the learned societies of holy men like the Pharisees and the Qumran sectarians, as well as the freedom fighter/terrorists called the Zealots. Our main source will be the New Testament of the Christian Bible, though these will be supplemented by other primary materials. Excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic literature, as well as other Hellenistic texts from this period, provide the cultural backdrop in which Christianity has its roots. We will learn about the spread of the new movement of “Christians,” as it was called by its detractors in Antioch. How did this movement, which began among the Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean, come to be wholly associated with Gentiles by the end of the second century. Who became Christian? Why were they hated so much by the greater Greco-Roman society? What did they believe? How did they behave? What are the origins of “Christian anti-semitism”? What kind of social world, with its senses of hierarchy and gender relations, did these people envision for themselves?

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Readings in the Hebrew Bible: The Wisdom Tradition

Open , Seminar—Fall

The question of theodicy is most acute in times of social and political crisis. Theodicy refers to the problem of evil in the context of a religion whose foundation is the monotheistic belief in a good and benevolent God. The Bible, in the Book of Deuteronomy, promises Israel that adherence to the Torah will lead to a good life. This belief system was severely challenged by the loss of the land of Israel in the Babylonian invasion of 587 BCE. The destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile of the Israelites engendered a rich and complex body of literature. Jewish scribes wrote books of wisdom intended to guide Israel into uncharted waters that their God had presumably taken them. To this end, we will read books like Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ben-Sira with a view to understanding how those works addressed theological issues of their day.

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Drawing From Nature

Open , Seminar—Fall

The world we inhabit and learn to navigate with awe, delight, and wonder is filled with things whose existence we had no hand in making. How do you see your own individuality and importance when facing the vast and incomprehensible backdrop of nature? To escape the turmoil of earthly confinement, nature has come to represent both the desire for freedom and our need for order. Before written language, drawing was a way to understand our connection to the world around us, a way to record a sense of place, to mark where one was, here, in relationship to something else there. This course will focus on themes and concepts of landscape, on seeing and understanding nature through observation, documentation, journeying, mapping, and locating one’s perceived place in a world that is partly real and partly invented.

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Media Burn: Moving Image Installation in Practice

Open , Seminar—Year

This yearlong production seminar investigates histories, strategies, and concepts related to the production and exhibition of moving-image installation. Over the year, students will investigate the histories of moving-image installation and create their own works of time-based art. We will look at artworks that use moving images, space, sound, loops, performance, site-specificity, chance operations, multiple channels, and games as tools for communicating ideas. In the fall semester, our work will be inspired by close readings of specific seminal artworks in installation from the late 1960s to the present, including pieces that utilize feedback loops, multiple projections, home movies, and new technologies. Students will learn craft and concept simultaneously through collaborative and individual production. Spring semester, we will engage with our own concepts and ideas of how time-based installation can be activated. Site-specificity, social practice, and interdisciplinary projects are introduced, and students are encouraged to connect their conference in this class to collaborations in theatre, dance, sculpture, painting, and academics. Conference works involve research, craft, and rigorous conceptual and technical practice and are presented in exhibitions at the end of each semester. A component of the class will take place outside the classroom at museums, galleries, nonprofits, performance spaces, and historic sites in and around New York City. (The title of this class, Media Burn, comes from the 1975 performance by the San Francisco-based art collective Ant Farm, https://www.eai.org/titles/media-burn)

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The Ideas of Photography

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course is a hybrid. Each week, for the first 10 weeks of the semester, a different photographic idea or genre will be traced from its earliest iterations to its present form by means of slide lectures and readings. And each week, students will respond with their own photographic work inspired by the visual presentations and readings. Topics may include personal dressup/narrative, the directorial mode in photography, contemporary art-influenced fashion photography, new strategies in documentary practice, abstraction, the typology, the photograph in color, and narrative photography. In the final weeks of the semester, the emphasis will shift as students work on a subject and in a form that coincides with the ideas they most urgently wish to express. No previous experience in photography is necessary nor is any specialized equipment. A desire to explore and to create a personally meaningful body of work are the only prerequisites.

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The New Narrative Photography

Open , Seminar—Spring

A photograph alone, without caption, is like a simple utterance. “Ooh!” or “aah!” or “huh?” are responses to it. But when pictures are presented in groups with an accompanying text—and perhaps in conjunction with political or poetic conceptual strategies—any statement at all becomes possible. Then, photographs begin to function as a sentence, a paragraph, or an even larger discourse. Whether working in fiction or nonfiction, artists such as Alan Sekula, Robert Frank, Susan Meiselas, Taryn Simon, Jim Goldberg, Roni Horn, and others have transformed the reach of the photograph. Without formal agreement to do so, they have created a new medium, which might be entitled: The New Narrative Photography. In this course, students will study the work of these artists and others and will create their own bodies of work. If you have a story to tell or a statement to make, this course is open to you. No previous photographic experience is necessary nor is any special equipment. The opportunity to work in a new medium is rare. This course aims to create the forum and the conditions necessary for all to do so in a critical and supportive workshop environment.

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Experiments With Truth: Nonfiction Writing From the Edges

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

Nonfiction writing is defined not by what it is but by what it is not. It is not fiction. But what it is not comprehends a vast territory. We will spend the semester looking at the more unusual, experimental, and lyrical inhabitants of this territory: personal essays masquerading as anthropological studies or paleontological meditations or political screeds, blog posts from medieval Japan and Renaissance France, diaries, poems in the form of diary entries, essays masquerading as poems, micro nonfictions, feuilletons, prose poems passing themselves off as travelogues, koans, sermons, speeches, and prayers. We will read a variety of writers from the past (among—but not limited to—Sei Shonagon, Montaigne, Sir Thomas Browne, Wilde, Pessoa, Gandhi, Mandelstam, Elizabeth Bishop, V. S. Naipaul, the unknown genius who wrote the Book of Job), and from the present (John D’Agata, Bhanu Kapil, Anne Carson, Jonathan Franzen). After the first few weeks, we will alternate, week-by-week, sessions discussing reading with sessions discussing student work. Conference work will comprise discussion of reading tailored to individual students and the equivalent of two large pieces of writing in whatever form student and instructor agree upon.

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First-Year Studies: Ecopoetry: Poetry in Relation to the Living World

Open , FYS—Year

Poetry is the human song called out: in joy, in love, in fear, in wonder, in prayer, in rebuke, in war, in peace, in story, and in vision. The human poem collects us together, individuates us, and consoles us. We read poems at funerals, at weddings, graduations...they accompany us through the gates of our lives, in public, or in private...shared through a book, a computer, a letter, a song. Now we find ourselves at the brink of an unstoppable ecological disaster. A change of consciousness is necessary. How can poetry accomplish this? For a long time, we have not noticed how our civilizations and technologies have affected the rest of the living world. This course will ask questions: Who do we think we are? Who taught us that? Who are we in relation to the other animals? To trees and plants? To insects? To stars? How have our human myths informed those relationships? How are those myths evident in our human world today? What is poetry? What is ecopoetry? How can poetry instruct? How can poetry document? How can poetry re-vision? Prophesy? Protest? Preserve? Imagine? In our time together, you will read poetry written by published poets. You will write your own poems, one each week, and share them with each other. You will keep observation journals, meet with another person in our class each week in a poetry date, and meet with me in individual and small-group conferences. We will proceed as curious learners and writers. Through our close study, each of you (in conference work and together) will learn about a very specific aspect of the natural world that interests you (an animal, a forest, a coral reef, etc.) and then teach the rest of us in class what you have learned. We will learn how to write poems about these subjects so that the poem itself becomes an experience we have never had before. And we might slowly move away from the human as the center of the poem and welcome the rest of the living world in. We will know more at the end of this class about the other animals and plants and insects and rivers and oceans. If our hearts break with this deepening relationship, we might also discover a great joy and a new responsibility. We will want to share what we have learned and written with the wider community. We will find ways to do that. I can assure you, we will be changed. Students will have an individual conference every other week and a half-group conference on alternating weeks.

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Nonfiction Workshop: To Tell the Truth

Open , Seminar—Year

This yearlong class will explore the mysteries of reading and writing what has been called “nonfiction,” focusing particularly on questions around what has been called lying and what has been called telling the truth. Was Toni Morrison right when she said our minds have an “antipathy to fraud”? Does lying have a syntax? What are the cultural contexts, nourishments, and manipulations that may affect what happens between a writer or reader and a drafted or published sentence? Is it possible to identify a lie in print? When you write, is it possible to lie less? Is it possible to “tell the truth”? In conference, we’ll discuss drafts of student work; in class, in light of the questions above and as a way of guiding our own makings, we’ll discuss readings that may include the work of June Jordan, Graham Fuller, Teju Cole, Wallace Stegner, Dionne Brand, William F. Buckley, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and Bertolt Brecht—with the work of James Baldwin throughout. You’ll be expected to attend class, respond to assigned and suggested readings, and participate in discussions. By the end of the first semester, you’ll have written at least five pages exposing a lie in print and have given a brief presentation on your process; by the end, you’ll have produced 20 pages of publishable nonfiction in whatever form you choose. The only prerequisites are a passion for reading that equals your passion for writing and a willingness to undertake whatever might be necessary to read and write better on our last day of class than on our first.

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Our World, Other Worlds

Open , Seminar—Year

This is a writing course that explores the use of episodes in a world made of words. We read short stories, parts of novels, poems, newspaper articles, and essays from many times and worlds and occasionally watch episodes and films. We also do exercises designed to help practice character drawing, dialogue, pacing, composition, editing, and world building. Still, much of the work of the class involves writing episodes of a long work that becomes our conference work and can be completed in one or two semesters. These works are discussed in small groups, whose members become experts on each others’ creations. Many of the works take place in an imaginary world, some are memoirs, others go back and forth between worlds. The course is open but involves a willingness to enter sympathetically into someone else's work over time and to be an informed reader for that person. It also involves the ability to work on a piece of writing for at least a semester.

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Poetry: What Holds the Unsayable

Open , Seminar—Spring

Poems are not merely feelings, the poet Ranier Maria Rilke has written, but experiences. What is the difference between a feeling and an experience? How can a poem become an experience? How can a poem, originating from the personal, transcend the personal? How can writing the poem transform the writer? Every poem holds the unsayable. How does a poem do that? How can we attempt to do that—using words? If you are interested in these questions, take this course. It is open to experienced writers, as well as to absolute beginners. If you are interested in these questions, you are welcome. This is a reading/writing course. We will spend time every week reading poems that have already been published (by dead poets and living poets) to see how they were made: music, syntax, line, sound, and image. We might spend time generating new work in class through exercises and experiments. And we will spend time looking closely at one another’s work, encouraging each other to take risks and move even closer to the mystery of the poem. Each writer in the class will meet with another class member once a week on a “poetry date.” Each writer will be responsible for reading the assigned work and for bringing to class one written offering each week. We will work hard, learn a great deal about poetry and about our own poems, and have a wonderful time.

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