Philosophy

At Sarah Lawrence College, the study of philosophy retains a centrality that helps 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 thoughts 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.

Philosophy 2021-2022 Courses

Philosophy with/for Children

Open, Small Lecture—Fall | 5 credits | Remote

Philosophy with/for Children is a movement that was started by Matthew Lipman in the early 1970s in the United States. Today, it is an established pedagogy that is practiced across dozens of countries and about which there is a rich and evolving body of research, writing, and discussion. What makes the idea of philosophy with children so interesting is, first of all, the children: listening to children, to their thoughts, ideas, and questions. But no less importantly, the it forces us to rekindle the foundational questions of philosophy: What is philosophy? What makes a thought, idea, or a question philosophical? When and how does philosophical thinking begin? And who is the subject of philosophy? Who does philosophy, and how is it “done”? In this course, we will read and watch children’s philosophical dialogues and become familiarized with theoretical texts about children’s philosophical thinking. We will be constantly shifting from theoretical to practical aspects of Philosophy for Children. During group conference, we will experience the pedagogical methods of Philosophy for Children hands-on, including games, discussion sessions, and the ways children generate philosophical questions. Our focus will be on children from the ages of five to 11. Among our readings will be texts by philosophers Matthew Lipman, Catherine McCall, Jana Mohr Lone, Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigaray Jacques Ranacière, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

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Philosophy Through Film

Open, Lecture—Fall | 5 credits

You care about movies (I presume). Why do you care about movies? Because they entertain you? Because they are beautiful? Because they are informative? Because they make you feel things? The guiding thought of this class is that we care about movies because they participate in the practice of philosophy (or at least they have that potential). Of course, this also presumes that we care about philosophy (a claim that will take some time to defend). To test that hypothesis—that films have the potential to participate in the practice of philosophy—we first need to consider what the practice of philosophy is; then we will need to say something about what film is; and then we can examine whether film can do philosophy. In the first part of the course, we will analyze the medium of film in order to clarify the characteristics of it that would allow it to be philosophical. In the second part of the class, we will explore how those characteristics of film contribute to how we think philosophically about our lives. In particular, we will explore problems pertaining to subjectivity (What it is to be a human being?) and to ethics (How do I know the right thing to do?). Each week we will watch a film (including Jeanne Dielman, Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Get Out, and Spring Breakers) and read a philosophical text (including Aristotle, Cavell, Merleau-Ponty, Parfit, and Adorno), with the aim of placing the two in conversation.

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Existentialism

Open, Lecture—Spring | 5 credits

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 distinguishes each of us? And what, if anything, is in 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 core tenets of existentialist thought by reading two of its most influential figures: Jean-Paul Sartre (France, 1905-1980) and Martin Heidegger (Germany, 1889-1976). In the second half, we will analyze texts by authors who set out to expand or challenge these core tenets on the grounds of their experiences of oppression. These authors are Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, and Jean Améry. Group conference will meet weekly and play a central role in this course. In it, we will mostly read literary texts or watch films that are relevant to the work of the above-listed authors. Conference material will include stories by Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, and Ralph Ellison and films like The Battle of Algiers (1967) and Monsieur Klein (1977).

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Critical Race Theory: Philosophical Perspectives

Open, Lecture—Spring | 5 credits

What is race? In what ways have prominent political movements—such as liberalism, Marxism, and feminism—failed to fully address the significance of racism? How should the relationship between racial and gender identity be conceptualized? How do processes of racialization differ across the globe? Is the assertion of racial identity in conflict with universal humanism—or are these, in fact, necessarily connected? In this course, we will look at some of the major themes, debates, and questions within critical race theory from a historical and global perspective. In the first half of the course, we will engage with thinkers from the African continent and the Caribbean who centered issues of Black consciousness and decolonial, antiracist solidarity. We then look at some of the major historical forbearers of critical race theory within the United States before turning to contemporary debates. Some of the figures that we will be reading include Paulette Nardal, Léopold Senghor, Frantz Fanon, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. By foregrounding the plurality of critical-race theoretical traditions, this course provides students with the theoretical tools to critically engage problems central to current political realities and discourse. Group conferences will meet every week, and discussion will be a central part of the course.

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Women Philosophers in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Open, Seminar—Year | 10 credits

Western philosophy originated in Ancient Greece more than 2,000 years ago, addressing fundamental questions about being and time, about the human condition, about ethics and politics, about science and religion. Despite the fundamental and universal nature of these questions, philosophy was practiced (at least publicly) mostly by men for the majority of those 2,000 years. It was not until the 20th century that this convention began to be significantly challenged, both practically (by the fact that more and more women entered the forefront of philosophical discussion) and theoretically (by questioning the validity and scope of this male-dominant tradition). This yearlong course is a survey of 20th-century continental philosophy that, countering the aforementioned tradition, focuses exclusively on the work of women in philosophy. Among the authors we may read are Sarah Ahmed, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Talia Bettcher, Judith Butler, bell hooks, Luce Irigaray, Melany Klein, Julia Kristeva, Audre Lorde, Maria Lugones, Simone Weil, Sylvia Winter, and Virginia Woolf. Some of these philosophers are feminists or consider the issue of sexual difference as central to their work or to philosophy in general; some are not. More importantly for our purposes, surveying their thought will be our means of acquiring a comprehensive view of the key developments in continental philosophy of the 20th and 21st centuries and the relations between them, including phenomenology, existentialism, psychoanalysis, critical theory, structuralism and poststructuralism, feminism, black feminism, and trans-feminism, decolonial and queer theories. During the fall semester, in addition to biweekly individual conferences, first-year students will have a biweekly group conference, in which we will discuss the nature of academic work in general and practice research, reading, writing, and editing skills.

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Big, Deep, and New: Recent Works in Moral and Political Philosophy

Advanced, Seminar—Year | 10 credits

While important trends in contemporary culture and politics seem to promise not only “the death of philosophy” but also the arrival of a “post-truth epoch,” the oldest discipline itself seems not to have gotten the memo. Instead, the last 50 years witnessed a blossoming of original, important, exciting, and genuinely new work in systematic philosophy. Spanning different traditions (analytic and continental) and locations (Anglo-American, German, French, Italian, postcolonial, etc.), the reemergence of systematic philosophy revisits many of the most important questions that occupied the grand tradition for much of the last 2,500 years. What matters in life? What do we owe to each other? What do we mean by the truth? In what does human agency consist? Does human morality stem primarily from reason or emotion or their combined operation? What is the nature of justice? Is it always wrong to lie? Can all aspects of human experience be accounted for in terms of biological processes, or do some escape reductive scientific explanation? At the same time, new issues of race, gender, identity, and, ultimately, the claim to universal knowledge and authority made on behalf of philosophy itself have been added to the range of traditional issues addressed by contemporary philosophers. This course is for anyone interested in coming up to speed with important developments in recent philosophy and will focus on the big ideas from some of the most important recent thinkers. In it, we will not only survey some of the most important and challenging works in contemporary philosophy but also put these thinkers in dialogue with each other, testing the insights that they generate and also the blind spots that they produce by comparing them with one another. The first half of this yearlong course considers several of the most important critical philosophers of the last third of the 20th century, while the second half concentrates on thinkers whose works and ideas gained prominence primarily in the first decades of 21st-century philosophy.

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Decolonizing Philosophy

Open, Seminar—Fall | 5 credits

In this course, we will think about the various strategies for reforming the philosophical “canon” with decolonial aims in view. Some of the questions that will guide our discussions throughout the semester are: How does academic decolonization differ from political decolonization? What are the connections between philosophy as an academic discipline and the historical reality of colonialism? Does decolonial theory require a break with the Western tradition of thought? And, if not, what are the advantages and disadvantages of remaining in dialogue with the Western “canon”? What are the various decolonizing strategies, and what goals do they enact? In the first half of the course, we will read a variety of key texts within decolonial theory that propose very different answers to these questions. Some of the thinkers we will look at include Walter Mignolo, Marisa Belausteguigoitia, Audre Lorde, Kwasi Wiredu, Lewis Gordon, and Nadia Yala Kisukidi. The second half of the course then moves on to put into practice one strategy for decolonizing philosophy in order to allow us to engage these questions more concretely. This strategy involves reading “canonical” texts of European phenomenology—including texts by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger—through the lens provided by decolonial thinkers such as Paulin Hountondji, Frantz Fanon, and Mariana Ortega. Beyond equipping students with the tools to think critically about canon formation and the meaning of academic decolonization, this course will familiarize students with seminal texts in Latinx and Africana traditions of decolonial theory, as well as with critical and decolonial phenomenology.

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Human Nature, Second Nature, and Our Way of Life

Open, Seminar—Fall | 5 credits

This class is an exploration of our human way of being. As Aristotle theorized, our nature is distinctive in being incomplete—only finding its completion in the social world. Taking Aristotle’s thought as a guiding principle, we will investigate not only our innate nature but also our second nature. This second nature includes the customs, habits, and practices that we inhabit as we mature and through which we see, think, and interact with the world. As such, second nature accounts for everything from walking upright to our ethical and political commitments. The paradox of second nature is that while it shades the entirety of our experience, we are largely unaware of its operation. While we might know what we are thinking about, we rarely know how we are thinking or what guides us to certain conclusions. Accordingly, the topics of second nature will touch upon philosophical problems such as the establishment of criteria for knowledge, judging the rightness or wrongness of our action, as well as the role of art in both facilitating and resisting second nature. Lastly, if we are guided in our thoughts and actions by a second nature whose effect is mostly opaque to us, then we must also address the apparent challenge to our freedom; that is, the degree to which our thoughts and actions are up to us. Readings for this course will include Aristotle, G. W. F. Hegel, Felix Ravaisson, Sigmund Freud, William James, John Dewey, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sally Haslanger, and Charles Mills.

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Being and Time

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall | 5 credits

In this seminar, we will study closely one of the most influential books of 20th-century philosophy: Being and Time, by German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1776). Among the founding texts of existentialism and phenomenology, Being and Time (1927) offers an existential analysis of the human condition, including what it means to be in the world, to be with others, and to be toward death, as well as the difference between authentic and inauthentic modes of being. This work revolutionized some of the most deep-seated assumptions in philosophy, psychology, and science, inspiring new movements in psychoanalysis, feminism, linguistics, political theory, literary theory, and other fields.

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Theories of Knowledge

Open, Seminar—Spring | 5 credits

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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Ancient Philosophy (Plato)

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring | 5 credits

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of one text. The goal of the course is twofold. First, it is designed to acquaint students in more than a superficial way with, perhaps, the seminal figure in the philosophical tradition. (The 20th-century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, once remarked that the “safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.) This will force us to slow our usual pace of reading, to read almost painfully carefully, with a view to understanding Plato as he wrote and as he understood himself and not as a stage in a 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 2022 will be Plato’s Phaedo.

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Life and Beauty—Kant’s Critique of Judgment

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring | 5 credits

Immanuel Kant revolutionized philosophy with his Copernican turn, which limits our knowledge of the world to our subjective experience of it. Kant elaborated this thought in the three volumes of philosophy that comprise his critical system. After investigating questions pertaining to knowledge in the First Critique and problems of validating moral judgment in the Second Critique, Kant shifts in the Third Critique (our object of study) to elaborate the forms of judgment that we employ in making sense of beauty in nature, works of art, and the meaning or purpose of life. The first part of the book focuses on aesthetic judgments; in it, Kant asks, What do we mean when we call something—for instance, a sunset or even painting of a sunset—beautiful? The second part of the book investigates teleological judgments; in it, Kant asks, How do we judge something to be alive? Not only does this book establish many of the central questions of modern aesthetics—such as, How can aesthetic judgments be objective?—but it also addresses the antagonism between freedom and nature, the experience of the sublime, the emergence of artistic genius, the postulation of a sensus communis (common sense), and the relation between beauty and morality. Over the course of the semester, we will observe the vast influence of the Critique of Judgment on both art and the philosophy of art. We will complement our reading of Kant’s text by considering such modern thinkers as Theodore Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Achille Mbembe, and Hannah Ginsborg. As well, we will appraise Kant’s ideas in consideration of the works of Beethoven, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Jo Baer, Marcel Duchamp, James Turrell, among many others.

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Sursum Corda: Art and Architecture from Michelangelo to the Dawn of the Enlightenment, 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—Fall

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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Artificial Intelligence and Society

Open, Seminar—Spring

In recent years, the field of artificial intelligence (AI) has made astonishing technical progress and has begun to assume an increasingly widespread and important role in society. AI systems can now (at least to some extent) drive cars; recognize human faces, speech, and gestures; diagnose diseases; control autonomous robots; instantly translate text from one language to another; beat world-champion human players at chess, Go, and other games; and perform many other amazing feats that just a few decades ago were only possible within the realm of science fiction. This progress has led to extravagant expectations, claims, hopes, and fears about the future of AI technology and its potential impact on society. In this course, we will attempt to peer beyond the hype and to come to grips with both the promise and the peril of AI. We will consider AI from many angles, including historical, philosophical, ethical, and public-policy perspectives. We will also examine many of the technical concepts and achievements of the field in detail, as well as its many failures and setbacks. Throughout the course, students will be asked to read texts, write responses, do follow-up research, and participate in classroom discussions. This is not a programming course, and no background in computer programming is expected or required.

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Yoga

Component—Year

This yoga class is designed with the interests of dancers and theatre students in mind. Various categories of postures will be practiced, with attention to alignment, breath awareness, strength, and flexibility. The physical practice includes seated and standing poses, twists, forward bends and backbends, traditional yogic breathing practices, and short meditations. Emphasis is placed on mindfulness and presence. This approach allows the student to gain tools for reducing stress and addressing unsupportive habits to carry into other aspects of their lives. Attention will be given to the chakra system as a means and metaphor for postural, movement, and character choices. The instructor has a background in dance and object theatre, in addition to various somatically-based practices that she draws upon for designing the classes to meet the individual needs of the class members. Virtual attendance is a requirement.

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Worldbuilding

Open, Large Lecture—Fall

A world is an artificial living thing, but a living thing nonetheless. —Ian Cheng (2018)

The concept of “worldbuilding” has been around for hundreds of years in the development of science fiction and is often used to describe art direction for commercial video game and film studios. Recently, this term has begun to be used by individual artists to describe a method for developing personal work presented online, in cinemas, and as museum installations. In this class, we will look at the history of this concept as it pertains to narrative art. While the focus of the course is on noncommercial moving-image work, we will also explore the history of worldbuilding in philosophy (Martin Heideggar), literature (Octavia Butler), and comics (Moebius). Additionally, we will discuss the role of “internal coherence,” style, and narrative structure as they pertain to dozens of artworks, including work by Ian Cheng, Jacolby Satterwhite, Mati Diop, and Porpentine.

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Introduction to Development Studies: The Political Ecology of Development

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall

In this 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 this term. These case studies will 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 North America. 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, you will be encouraged to do primary research over fall study days. Some experience in the social sciences is desired but not required.

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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 English translations of selected works of Plato, Aristophanes, Thucydides, and Ps.-Xenophon. During the spring semester, while continuing to refine their knowledge of Greek grammar and their reading skills, students will read extended selections of Plato’s Apology in the original Greek.

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Winds of Doctrine: Europe in the Age of the Reformation

Open, Seminar—Year

In the 16th century, Europe entered upon a religious crisis that was to permanently alter the character of Western Christianity. Between 1520 and 1580, the religious unity of Catholic Christendom was destroyed, as believers throughout Central and Northern Europe severed their ties with the papacy to form new “Protestant” communities. But the impact of the religious crisis was by no means confined to the emergence of the churches of the Reformation. Luther’s revolt against the Roman church ushered in an era of soaring religious creativity and savage religious conflict that lasted for nearly two centuries and revolutionized thought, art, music—and politics. The modern state is ultimately a product of the Reformation crisis, as is the system of international law that still governs the relations among sovereign states. Students in this course will examine multiple aspects of the religious, intellectual, and political history of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. The readings will focus attention on the diversity of religious thinking and religious experience in this era. Besides tracing the rise of the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican churches and the complex history of the “radical Reformation,” we will consider forms of belief independent of any church and new varieties of skepticism and doubt. We also will devote considerable attention to the reform movements that transformed Roman Catholicism during those two centuries and the upsurge of missionary energy and mystical spirituality that accompanied them. We will investigate the effects of the Reformation crisis on politics and the state and on the social order that Europe inherited from the Middle Ages. As part of this investigation, we will examine the most important political struggles waged in the name of religion between 1524 and 1689: the Peasants’ Revolt and Thirty Years’ War in Germany, the Dutch revolt against Spain, the French Wars of Religion, and the English Revolution. Texts we will read include works by Luther, Calvin, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Ávila, Queen Marguerite of Navarre, Rabelais, Montaigne, and Pascal.

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Intermediate Latin

Intermediate, Seminar—Year

See the full description under Literature: Can This Republic Be Saved? Cautionary Evidence From Ancient Rome. Intermediate Latin students will complete the reading assignments for the literature course and attend all literature seminar meetings. In place of an independent conference project, Intermediate Latin students will read selected works in Latin and attend twice-weekly Latin group conferences.

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First-Year Studies: Romanticism to Modernism in English-Language Poetry

Open, FYS—Year

In the first semester of this course, we will explore the work of major poets writing in English 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, Wordsworth and Coleridge invented a new kind of poem that largely internalized the myths they had inherited from literary and religious traditions. To put it another way, the inner life of the poet became the inescapable subject of their poetry.  In the second semester, we will trace the impact of their work on subsequent generations of poets writing in English.  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, Yeats, and T. S. Eliot.  During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences. In the spring, we will meet every other week.

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Theatre and the City

Open, Large Lecture—Year

Athens, London, Paris, Berlin, New York...the history of Western theatre has always been associated with cities, their politics, their customs, their geography, their audiences. This course will track the story of theatre as it originates in the Athens of the fifth-century BCE and evolves into its different expressions and practices in cities of later periods, all of them seen as "capitals" of civilization. Does theatre civilize, or is it merely a reflection of any given civilization whose cultural assumptions inform its values and shape its styles? Given that ancient Greek democracy gave birth to tragedy and comedy in civic praise of the god Dionysos—from a special coupling of the worldly and the sacred—what happens when these genres recrudesce in the unsavory precincts of Elizabethan London, the polished court of Louis XIV, the beer halls of Weimar Berlin, and the neon “palaces” of Broadway? Sometimes the genres themselves are challenged by experiments in new forms or by performances deliberately situated in unaccustomed places. By tinkering with what audiences have come to expect or where they have come to assemble, do playwrights like Euripides, Brecht, and Sarah Kane destabilize civilized norms? Grounding our work in Greek theatre, we will address such questions in a series of chronological investigations of the theatre produced in each city: Athens and London in the first semester; Paris, Berlin, and New York in the second.

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Studies in Ecocriticism: The Idea of Nature in the Western Tradition

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

As the capitalistic and predatory model aggressively promoted by the United States continues to reveal itself as a major threat to biodiversity and the environment in general, it is vital to understand the cultural and literary history of the concept of “nature” that is at the core of the Western and Judeo-Christian tradition while also putting that concept in the context of gender, race, and ethnicity in America today. For example, comparing stories of world creation from indigenous nations, with narratives taken from the Bible and from Greek and Roman classical texts, will allow us to better grasp how language in the European tradition functions as a deep divider between humans and other living creatures. We will also follow the development of the genre of the pastoral as an idealized construction of nature that deeply influenced Europe from third-century BC to 19th-century English and American Romanticism. We will try to better understand how the conception of wilderness in America is in close relation to the presence of enslaved black bodies on its land. Going in a different direction, we will analyze how contemporary feminism and gender studies provide crucially important models to invent new ways for the West to relate to nature. Animals will also be a focus of our discussions, from classical representations of animals as machines to the use of models like the burrow or territoriality imported from the animal realm by Deleuze and Guattari, to the possibility of shifting from a humanist understanding of nature inherited from European Renaissance, to new forms of ecocentric expression. These are some of the themes that we will cover in this lecture, with the goal of reading texts of the past in order to better understand the complexities of today’s discussions and debates about how to invent new forms of relating to the living environment around us.

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Milton, Blake, and the Bible

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

John Milton in the 17th century and William Blake in the late-18th and early-19th centuries forged fiercely independent poetics of visionary resistance to the trends toward intellectual materialism, religious conformity, economic mercantilism, and political authoritarianism that dominated the England and Europe of their periods. Both represented themselves as visionary teachers and prophets in a line of prophetic succession that began with Moses and included Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, and John, the writer of the Apocalypse. They founded their prophetic imaginations on what Blake called, “the sublime of the Bible,” the great epic of human liberation and imaginative inspiration. This course will provide readings of central biblical narratives and poetry and examine how Milton and Blake read, understood, and rewrote scripture in their major poetic texts in their prophetic expectation of changing the world and how we see it.

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Can This Republic Be Saved? Cautionary Evidence From Ancient Rome

Open, Seminar—Year

The democratic republic in the United States was modeled on the Roman Republic, for good and ill, and has lasted just 234 years. Our democratic republic is now under siege, both figuratively and literally, by forces threatening to replace it with a dictatorship or some form of authoritarian populism. The ancient Roman Republic lasted 450 years before imploding into a military dictatorship. The Roman experience shows that the introduction or reintroduction of violence into the political process—even if the aim is social justice—absolutely precludes any possibility of equity or justice. Since the collapse of the Roman Republic, history has shown repeatedly that political violence, if condoned and unchecked, inevitably produces not social justice but the atrocities and devastations of fascism or totalitarianism. This course will examine this and other lessons from ancient Roman literature and history that are vital for us today if we hope to survive and thrive as individuals, as members of various communities, and as a species. We will read (in English translation) and discuss selected works by Catullus, Cicero, Sallust, Appian, Plutarch, Horace, Livy, Ovid, and Cassius Dio.

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Toward a Theatre of Identity: Ibsen, Chekhov, and Wilson

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Year

Theatre emerges from social rituals; and as a communal exercise, theatre requires people to work together toward a common purpose in shared and demarcated physical space. Yet, the very notion of “character,” first expressed in the indelibly defining mask of the ancient Greek protagonist, points paradoxically toward the spirit, attraction, and trial of individuation. And so we have been given Medea, Hamlet, and Tartuffe, among the many dramatic characters whose unique faces we recognize and who speak to us not only of their own conflicts but also of something universal and timeless. In the 19th century, however, the Industrial Revolution, aggressive capitalism, imperialism, Darwinism, socialist revolution, feminism, the new science of psychology, and the decline of religious clarity about the nature of the human soul—all of these, among other social factors—force the question as to whether individual identity has point or meaning, even existence. Henrik Ibsen, a fiercely “objective” Norwegian self-exile, and Anton Chekhov, an agnostic Russian doctor, used theatre—that most social of arts—to challenge their time, examining assumptions about identity, its troubling reliance on social construction, and the mysteries of self-consciousness that elude resolution. The test will be to see how what we learn from them equips us—or fails to do so—in a study of August Wilson, an African-American autodidact of the 20th century, whose plays represent the impact, both outrageous and insidious, of American racism on “characters” denied identity by definition.

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Conscience of the Nations: Classics of African Literature

Open, Seminar—Fall

One way to think of literature is as the conscience of a people, reflecting on their origins, their values, their losses, and their possibilities. This course will study major representative texts in which sub-Saharan African writers have taken up the challenge of cultural formation and criticism. Part of what gives the best writing of modern Africa its aesthetic power is the political urgency of its task: The past still bears on the present, the future is yet to be written, and what writers have to say matters enough for their work to be considered dangerous. Political issues and aesthetic issues are, thus, inseparable in their work. Creative tensions in the writing between indigenous languages and European languages, between traditional forms of orature and storytelling and self-consciously “literary” forms, register all of the pressures and conflicts of late colonial and postcolonial history. To discern the traditionalist sources of modern African writing, we will first read examples from epic, folk tale, and other forms of orature. Major fiction will be selected from the work of Tutuola, Achebe, Beti, Sembene, Ba, Head, Ngugi, La Guma, Dangaremgba, and Sarowiwa; drama from the work of Soyinka and Aidoo; poetry from the work of Senghor, Rabearivelo, Okigbo, Okot p’Bitek, Brutus, Mapanje, and others. Conference work may include further, deeper work on the writings, writers, and genres that we study together in class; aspects of literary theory, particularly aspects of postcolonial and womanist theory relevant to readings of African literature; or readings of more recent writers out of Africa whose work draws on and develops the “classical” works that will be the foundation of our work together.

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Mathematics and Jorge Luis Borges

Open, Seminar—Fall

The works of Jorge Luis Borges, the highly influential 20th-century Argentine writer, feature imaginatively intelligent and deeply provocative use of mathematical ideas and imagery. Borges’s writings—primarily short stories, essays, and poetry—describe fictitious worlds that warp standard notions of time, space, and existence and reveal the unavoidable friction between competing notions at the heart of modern mathematics: the infinite versus the finite versus the infinitesimal (set theory); the discrete versus the continuous (calculus); the reasonable versus the paradoxical (logic); the Euclidean versus the otherworldly (geometry); the symmetric versus the distorted (fractals, chaos); the convergent versus the divergent (limits, series); the improbable versus the impossible (combinatorics, probability). In short, this seminar will explore various fundamental and foundational topics in mathematics from a Borgesian perspective. Student conference projects for this seminar may focus upon the mathematical themes in the works of other writers or explore any mathematically-themed subject.

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The Philosophy of Music

Open, Large Lecture—Fall

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 that 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 look at issues concerning the nature and experience of art in general. 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, as well as our own experiences. 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 occasionally be relevant. The goals of the class are 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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The Music of Russia

Open, Large Lecture—Spring

This course will survey the great contributions of Russian composers to Western music from the first half of the 19th century to the end of the Soviet era and beyond. We will study these works in the context of the important historical events and intellectual movements that galvanized Russian artists: the desire to find the appropriate expression of Russian identity, the ambivalence toward the achievements of Western Europe, the ideals of civic responsibility, the aestheticism of the later 19th century, the Russian Revolution, and the repressions of Soviet society. Composers to be studied include Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. No prior music courses or knowledge of music theory is required.

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The Art of Interpretation

Open, Seminar—Fall

Interpretation is a central activity in human experience. It’s how we make sense of things from works of art to peoples’ actions, but much of the time we’re unaware of how we go about making our interpretations. In the classical music world, interpretation is central and usually carefully considered. Every moment of a classical music performance is mediated through the performer’s interpretation. Much of what we do as performers goes far beyond the instructions on the page. Are there rules or constraints on this process? What criteria can we use to evaluate performances? How have performance styles changed, and how can we relate those changes to our contemporary tastes? In this class, we will look at scores and listen to performances from the entire history of Western music and reflect on the many interpretive decisions made by singers, instrumentalists, and conductors. We will study historical sources and write critical appraisals of performances. Readings will range from historical writers such as Leopold Mozart, C. P. E. Bach, Tosi, Muffat, North, Frescobaldi, and Quantz to contemporary writers such as Taruskin, Harnoncourt, and Haynes. There are no conferences.

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It’s About Time

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

This seminar will explore the topic of time from a wide variety of viewpoints—from the physical to the metaphysical to the practical. We will seek the answers to questions such as: What is time? How do we perceive time? Why does time appear to flow only in one direction? Is time travel possible? How is time relative? We will explore the perception of time across cultures and eras, construct an appreciation of the arrow of time by designing and building a Rube Goldberg machine, and discuss scientific articles and science-inspired works of fiction to make sense of this fascinating topic. Time stops for no one, but let’s take some time to appreciate its uniqueness.

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20th-Century Physics

Open, Seminar—Spring

This course will provide an overview of the pivotal developments in 20th-century physics that dramatically overturned the centuries-old scientific understanding of the fundamental laws of our universe. In this seminar-style class, we will discuss readings, walk through thought experiments, and unravel paradoxes to understand the concepts behind Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, debate various interpretations of quantum mechanics, and explore the open questions that are motivating theoretical physics research in the 21st century.

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Big, Deep, and New: Recent Works in Moral and Political Philosophy

Advanced, Seminar—Year

While important trends in contemporary culture and politics seem to promise not only “the death of philosophy” but also the arrival of a “post-truth epoch,” the oldest discipline itself seems not to have gotten the memo. Instead, the last 50 years witnessed a blossoming of original, important, exciting, and genuinely new work in systematic philosophy. Spanning different traditions (analytic and continental) and locations (Anglo-American, German, French, Italian, postcolonial, etc.), the reemergence of systematic philosophy revisits many of the most important questions that occupied the grand tradition for much of the last 2,500 years. What matters in life? What do we owe to each other? What do we mean by the truth? In what does human agency consist? Does human morality stem primarily from reason or emotion —or their combined operation? What is the nature of justice? Is it always wrong to lie? Can all aspects of human experience be accounted for in terms of biological processes, or do some escape reductive scientific explanation? At the same time, new issues of race, gender, identity, and, ultimately, the claim to universal knowledge and authority made on behalf of philosophy itself have been added to the range of traditional issues addressed by contemporary philosophers. This course is for anyone interested in coming up to speed with important developments in recent philosophy and will focus on the big ideas from some of the most important recent thinkers. In it, we will not only survey some of the most important and challenging works in contemporary philosophy but also put these thinkers in dialogue with each other, testing the insights that they generate and also the blind spots that they produce by comparing them with one another. The first half of this yearlong course considers several of the most important critical philosophers of the last third of the 20th century, while the second half concentrates on thinkers whose works and ideas gained prominence primarily in the first decades of 21st-century philosophy.

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First-Year Studies: The Senses: Art and Science

Open, FYS—Year

The perceiving mind is an incarnated mind. —Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1964

Sensory perception is a vital component of the creation and experience of artistic works of all types. Investigation of sensory systems has been foundational for psychologists and neuroscientists developing understanding of brains, minds, and bodies. Recent work in brain science has moved us beyond the Aristotelian notion of five discrete senses to a view of the senses as more various and interconnected—with each other and with the fundamental psychological categories of perception, attention, emotion, memory, imagination, and judgment. What we call “taste” is a multisensory construction of “flavor” that relies heavily on smell, vision, and touch (mouth feel); “vision” refers to a set of semi-independent streams that specialize in the processing of color, object identity, or spatial layout and movement; “touch” encompasses a complex system of responses to different types of contact with the largest sensory organ—the skin; and “hearing” includes aspects of perception that are thought to be quintessentially human—music and language. Many other sensations are not covered by the standard five: for example, the senses of balance, of body position (proprioception) and ownership, feelings of pain arising from within the body, and feelings of heat or cold. Perceptual psychologists have suggested that the total count is closer to 17 than five. We will investigate all of these senses, their interactions with each other, and their intimate relationships with human emotion, memory, and imagination. Some of the questions that we will address are: Why are smells such potent memory triggers? What can visual art tell us about how the brain works and vice versa? Why is a caregiver’s touch so vital for psychological development? Why do foods that taste sublime to some people evoke feelings of disgust in others? Do humans have a poor sense of smell (and have the effects of COVID-19 changed our views of its importance)? Why does the word “feeling” refer to both bodily sensations and emotions? What makes a song “catchy” or “sticky”? Can humans learn to echolocate like bats? What is the role of body perception in mindfulness meditation? This is a good course for artists who like to think about science and for scientists with a feeling for art. This is a collaborative course, with small-group meetings held weekly in addition to the individual conference meetings held every other week. The main small-group, collaborative activity is a sensory lab where students will have the opportunity to explore their own sensory perceptions in a systematic way, investigating how they relate to language, memory, and emotion. Other group activities include mindful movement and other meditation practices for stress relief and emotional regulation, as well as occasional museum visits if these can be done safely.

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Art and Visual Perception

Open, Large seminar—Spring

Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. —John Berger

Psychologists and neuroscientists have long been interested in measuring and explaining the phenomena of visual perception. In this course, we will study how the visual brain encodes basic aspects of perception—such as color, form, depth, motion, shape, and space—and how they are organized into coherent percepts or gestalts. Our main goal will be to explore how the study of visual neuroscience and art can inform each other. One of our guides in these explorations will be the groundbreaking gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who was a pioneer in the psychology of art. The more recent and equally innovative text by the neuroscientist Eric Kandel, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, will provide our entry into the subject of neuroaesthetics. Throughout our visual journey, we will seek connections between perceptual phenomena and what is known about brain processing of visual information. This is a course for people who enjoy reflecting on why we see things as we do. It should hold particular interest for students of the visual arts who are curious about scientific explanations of the phenomena that they explore in their art, as well as students of the brain who want to study an application of visual neuroscience. In this large seminar, you will meet weekly in small groups (five-to-seven students) to design a collaborative conference work that curates an in-depth perceptual museum tour. Individual conference meetings will be held only twice over the course of the semester.

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Readings in Christian Mysticism: Late Antiquity

Open, Seminar—Year

This course will focus on the intersection of Jewish theology and Greco-Roman philosophy in the early Christian texts commonly seen to contain “mystical elements.” We will define these elements as texts that have to do with the desire on the part of the reader to “know,” experience, or “be with” God and with the author’s attempt to properly demarcate the boundaries within which those desires can be fulfilled. Christian mysticism is perhaps best thought of as erotic theology—theology that involves the desire for God. Recognizing this, we must also acknowledge that inherent to this theology is a profound paradox. What is desired must be conceived. It must be held in the grasp of one’s understanding in order to be attained. While this is fine for an orange, or even for wealth and power, it is much more problematic when the object of desire is God, the creator of the universe. Theologians in the early church developed a language of desire and specific sets of practices involving one’s lifestyle and prayer in order to resolve this paradox and fulfill their desire. They began to ponder this paradox with a synthesis of a biblical theology of divine revelation (i.e., the revelation of God as preserved in the biblical canon, symbolized in both the revelation of YHWH on Mt. Sinai and in the incarnation of the divine logos as Jesus of Nazareth) and Platonic expression of a desire for the ultimate good, truth, or beauty. In order to better grasp these ideas, we will be reading parts of the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels and will contemplate the anthropology of desire set forth by Plato in The Symposium and his Phaedrus. Educated in the Hellenistic world, the early church fathers took these ideas for granted and attempted to find common ground with their Christian inheritance. We will study the phenomenon of Gnostic Christianity, an early attempt at synthesis of biblical material and Greek philosophy. We will then move on to encounter the great early Christian writers like Origen and Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Psuedo-Dionysius, and Ambrose of Milan. We will conclude our study with a lengthy look at what, for Western culture, is the seminal work of Augustine of Hippo.

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Theories of Agency and Action in Science Studies

Open, Lecture—Fall

This course surveys a rich historical debate in science, technology, and society studies on the nature of agency—or the motivation behind, and responsibility for, action. The lecture course begins with an exploration of the nature of scientific fact, including how discoveries are made and how they become accepted in society. We will pay special attention to the concepts of co-production, the idea that humans and technologies work together, and situated action, the reality that actions are rooted in social context, to study how technologies become central to social interaction. This grounding theory will lay a foundation for students to consider an ongoing debate on the distinction between human and nonhuman action. The course culminates with an exploration of three contemporary discussions on the nature of agency with respect to automated weapons systems, assistive technologies for people with disabilities, and the use of algorithms to order social life. For each topic, we will consider how technologies influence social interaction and who or what is responsible when things go wrong. In group conference, students will practice analyzing how technologies shape social interaction through a series of “object readings,” short analyses of a single technological object. These assignments are designed to prepare students for a final group analysis of a technology of their choice.

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Measuring Difference: Constructing Race, Gender, and Ability

Open, Seminar—Spring

In this seminar, we will explore the sociology of classification, a subfield that critiques the ways in which society measures differences like race, gender, ability, and other social categories that communicate social worth. Three questions guide our inquiry: How does society construct and understand categories of difference? How do people experience and resist categories of social difference in themselves? How does social difference shape institutions like the family, education, employment, and government? Each week, students will engage a selection of texts that put theory, substantive research on social categories, and critical responses to them in conversation with one another. For a final class project, students will explore one area of social difference through individual and group writing assignments. Those assignments will provide training in documentary analysis, a qualitative method often used in historical and ethnographic research. Students will leave the course with the ability to identify areas of social difference, the practices through which these are produced, and a systematic critique of the ways in which measurement creates inequality in the social world.

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Lineages of Utopia

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Spring

Utopias have existed in human history for centuries. Guided by a critique of the world as constituted, utopias have been vehicles for both imagining and constructing a different socio-spatial order. In this seminar, we will examine the materialization of utopias in physical space and the logic(s) that informed them. Rather than dealing simply with the abstract ideas behind utopian thinking, we will examine a diversity of socio-spatial formations—both as a critique of the present state of existence and as a practice rooted in a radically divergent notion of the future. It is the contention of this course that utopias, rather than being solely imaginary, are deeply historical and informed by existing social conditions. With the objective of analyzing utopias as materialized practices, we will look at different kinds of utopian communities, ranging from millenarian movements, to socialist, anarchist and countercultural experiments, to the Occupy Wall Street movement. We will also examine architectural and aesthetic utopias which, like their more explicitly movement-based counterparts, attempt to visualize and rethink space—which remains an essential utopian preoccupation. Our foray into these various utopian designs is meant to get us to interrogate the impulses undergirding these practices instead of an approach that dwells primarily on their sustainability over time. We will attempt to understand the traces that these various experiments have bequeathed us regarding activism, social transformation, and the potential for a more just world. Participants in this seminar will be encouraged to address our living relationship with utopia by asking how we might, both individually and collectively, work to create, experience, or perform utopia without ascribing a totalizing vision to it. Student projects might take the form of a close examination of specific utopian practices or be based on creative projects and/or fictional utopias frequently encountered in science-fiction novels and film. Particular activist movements—such as Black Lives Matter, LGNTQ+ activism, and feminist movements—can also be seen as ways of visualizing futures that depart from the historical present, out of which such movements emerge and in which they are embedded. As such, these, too, have a vision of the future that is at odds with the present and will provide fertile ground for conference work. Finally, while the course will not specifically address the vexed relationship between utopias and dystopia, an examination of the latter remains yet another possible line of inquiry for student projects.

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First-Year Studies: Two Lenses on Writing

Open, FYS—Year

The first semester of this FYS course will be focused on words and pictures, with its central lens on stories: how to find them, tell them, and make your listener, viewer, or reader come along with you. The course includes adding a visual element, photography, drawing, paste-ups, collage, animations, anime. We will read and then make a few of the following: a collective graphic novel, some children's books, adult books with pictures, illuminated manuscripts, comics. Your conference work will be a finished version of a project of your choice. The second semester of the course will be a class in episodes: pieces of a continuing story that follow a thread but may have different leading characters in each episode; or a frame, with many peoples' stories inside; or movement from one time, place, and set of characters to another. We will bring in and discuss episodes that we love in books, TV, podcasts. We will do exercises until we come upon something that engages us and then start our conference work, which will involve six episodes, more or less. In both semesters, we will have an extra meeting every other week to discuss whatever comes up: paper writing, social issues, food, procrastination. These sessions may be led by the professor, outside speakers, or a rotating group of students.

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Nonfiction Workshop: Cultural Criticism

Open, Seminar—Fall

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. —Walter Benjamin

In this writing workshop, we will deepen our understanding of how to read, analyze, and articulate the world around us. Each week, we will read and discuss a text that locates and articulates ruptures and contradictions in the culture, works that provide new problems or solutions. Texts that we may read include the work of Walter Benjamin, Mark Fisher, Kristin Ross, Sigmund Freud (from Civilization and Its Discontents), and Alenka Zupancic. In addition, each week we will also workshop students’ drafts of works in progress. The final project for this course is a 10-12 page work of cultural criticism, a work of writing that may be focused on any aspect of contemporary society.

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Experiments With Truth: Nonfiction Writing From the Edges

Open, 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; 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, and 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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