Religion

Religious traditions identify themselves with, and draw sustenance from, the texts that they hold sacred. In Sarah Lawrence College religion courses, those texts command and hold our attention. As students explore the sacred text of a particular religion—whether studying Buddhism, early Christianity, or the origins of Islam—they gain insight into the social and historical context of its creation. Using critical, hermeneutical, and intellectual historical approaches, students enter into the writings in such depth as to touch what might be the foundation of that religion. In addition, work with contemporary texts (such as those by religious activists on the internet) gives students insight into what most moves and motivates religious groups today. The College’s religion courses provide an important complement to courses in Asian studies and history.

2020-2021 Courses

Religion

First-Year Studies: Islam

Open, FYS—Year

This course will provide a comprehensive introduction to the foundational texts of Islam, the historical development of different Muslim cultures, and the contemporary issues that animate Islam’s ever-evolving manifestations. We will begin with the Qur’an, a book whose juxtaposition of narrative fragments, apocalyptic imagery, divine voice, and sociopolitical themes conveyed in rhymed Arabic prose has both entranced and confounded readers. We will look at the historical roots of the “isms” used today to describe the orientations of Sunnism, Shi‘ism, Sufism, and Salafism. Looking beyond the Middle East, where only about 20 percent of the current global population of Muslims reside, we will examine how migrating people, concepts, texts, and practices both transform and are transformed by existing traditions in different geographical locations. Contemporary preoccupations—such as the status of women in Islam and the relationship between Islam and violence—will be examined from a variety of perspectives, illustrating the intricacies of Muslim and non-Muslim acts of interpretation and their relationship to power and authority. During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences. In the spring, we will meet weekly or every other week, depending on students’ needs and the progress of their conference projects.

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First-Year Studies: The Emergence of Christianity

Open, FYS—Year

Perhaps no one has not heard the name of a seemingly obscure carpenter’s son executed by the Romans around 33 CE. Why? The religion that we call Christianity shaped the Western world for at least 1,500 years. In this course, we will study the origins of that tradition. As we study those origins, 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 sources will be supplemented by other primary materials. Excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic literature, as well as other Hellenistic texts from that period provide the cultural backdrop in which Christianity has its roots. We will learn about the spread of the new movement of “Christians,” as they were called by their detractors in Antioch, from its roots in the Holy Land into the greater Greco-Roman world. How did that 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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First-Year Studies: Judaism, From Religion to Radicalism

Open, FYS—Year

Judaism since the biblical age has defied easy categorization, oscillating between religion and ethnicity and taking on political aspects. Our understanding of Judaism is complicated by the very nature of diasporic existence, which involves resisting or appropriating features of the dominant culture. We begin with the Bible and the Talmud and proceed through texts produced by traditionalist movements that challenged and, at times, displaced normative Jewish practice, including Kabbalah, messianism, and Hasidism. We proceed to movements that were more “modern” in their orientation, like Haskalah, Reform Judaism, Hebrew and Yiddish literature, and Zionism; and we will discuss the pioneering Jewish role in phenomena like psychoanalysis, musical theatre, and Hollywood. We conclude with manifestations of Jewish radicalism like socialism, communism, anarchism, and American counterculture.

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The Buddhist Tradition in India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia

Open, Lecture—Spring

This introductory 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 Mahayana 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 will be accompanied by copious audio-visual materials.

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The Hebrew Bible

Open, Seminar—Year

The Hebrew Bible stands at the foundation of Western culture. Its stories permeate our literature, our art—indeed, our sense of identity. Its ideas inform our laws, have given birth to our revolutions and social movements, and have thereby made most of our social institutions possible (as well as the movements to remove them). What is this book? How was it written? Who wrote it? Who preserved it for us? Why has all or part of this body of literature been considered holy to the practitioners of both Judaism and Christianity? Four thousand years ago, various groups from small tribe-wandering nomads would get together and tell stories. Those stories were not preserved on stone tombs but in the hearts and memories of the people to whom the stories belonged. We will read the collection of traditions in a book called Genesis and compare those stories with other texts (written in mud and stone), such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Babylonian Creation Epic, which were contemporary with biblical traditions. We will read the biblical epic of liberation, Exodus; the historical books that weave theology into a history of a nation; and the oracles of the great Hebrew Prophets of Israel—those reformers, judges, priests, mystics, and poets to whom modern culture owes its grasp of justice. We will trace the social, intellectual, and political history of the people formed by those traditions from the Late Bronze Age until the Roman Age.

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Religion in Contemporary Japan

Open, Seminar—Fall

This course is an examination of religious beliefs, practices, and institutions in Japanese society today, covering all of the major religious traditions and movements in contemporary Japan: Shinto, the various schools of Buddhism, Shugendo, Christianity, and the so-called New Religions that have flourished in the postwar period. Issues of historical development are touched on but only as an aid to understanding the current religious scene. The approach is thematic, with a focus on elements of Japanese religiosity that recur in different traditions, such as ancestor worship, beliefs in fate and karma, festivals, pilgrimages, the sanctification of natural phenomena, taboos against impurities, exorcisms, and rites of purification. Extensive use will be made in class of a variety of audio-visual materials, including animated films, documentaries, and amateur videos of ritual performances. The aim of the course is to provide insights into the intellectual, ethical, aesthetic, and spiritual wellsprings of contemporary Japanese culture at large, not simply to familiarize students with the basics of Japanese religion narrowly conceived. Prior study or experience of things Japanese (language, literature, history, etc.) is desirable but not required.

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The Hasidic Movement

Open, Seminar—Fall

Hasidism, a popular mystical movement founded in Eastern Europe that continues to flourish in centers in both Israel and America, has been romanticized as revolution and reviled as reaction. This class begins with the transformative ideas of Hasidism’s founder, Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (1700-60), a kabbalistic healer who reconceived the entire Jewish mystical tradition in a way that sanctified daily life and revitalized ritual. We trace the crystallization of Hasidic wisdom in tales and mystical discourses, observe the rise of its charismatic leaders (rebbes), and analyze burgeoning dynasties like Lubavitch, Bratslav, Ruzhyn, Ger, and Satmar. Throughout the course, we confront the movement’s controversial stances toward gender, sexuality, humanism, and secular education; however, we also attempt to understand Hasidism’s emergence as a culture of joyful resistance in the face of “civilizing” initiatives of empires and nation-states, collective violence and genocide, and Zionist and American conformist agendas. We conclude with a look at the way Hasidic communities of today are responding to contemporary challenges like the coronavirus pandemic.

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Chan and Zen Buddhism

Open, Seminar—Fall

This course is an in-depth, historical examination of the philosophy, mythology, literature, institutional arrangements, religious practices, art, and architecture associated with this most famous and widely misunderstood school of East Asian Buddhism. The Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism arose in China as the result of a cross-cultural exchange of epic proportions: the gradual intrusion into China of an alien set of religious ideas, values, and practices—those belonging to Indian Buddhism—between the first and the eighth centuries of the Common Era and the subsequent efforts of some 20 generations of Chinese Buddhists to defend, adapt, domesticate, and finally make the foreign religion entirely their own. Chan became the most “Chinese” school of Buddhism by defining itself in terms of indigenous concepts of clan genealogy; by exalting members of its spiritual lineage as native-born buddhas; and by allowing those buddhas to speak in the vernacular, using a mode of rhetoric that was heavily influenced by the Confucian and Daoist traditions. The course begins by outlining Indian Buddhist doctrines and practices that were imported into China and by summarizing the indigenous cultural milieu that was initially quite hostile to the alien religion. We will then explore the various compromises and adaptations of Indian Buddhist teachings, practices, and institutions that took shape within the Chan tradition and enabled it to emerge in the Song dynasty (960-1278) as the predominant school of Chinese Buddhism. Background knowledge of East Asian history, languages, or religions is desirable but not required.

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Religion and Power: Islam, Christianity, and the United States

Open, Seminar—Fall

Theology, whether it is acknowledged or publicly noted, has often played a significant role in the political life of the United States. Religious arguments and positions have provided the theoretical underpinnings for institutions such as slavery and incarceration and policies in the areas of immigration, foreign relations, and military interventions. In this course, we will focus on the intersection of Christian and Muslim theologies in America from the early republic to the Trump era. Some of the topics to be explored are the religious justifications used for owning slaves and creating barriers to citizenship, the religious/nationalist ideologies of black Muslims and white supremacists, the phenomenon of apocalyptic reasoning, American religious positions on the state of Israel, and white evangelical support for President Trump. Although the number of Americans identifying themselves as having a religious affiliation has been dropping steadily over the last decade, the influence of religion on American politics has not.

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Zen Buddhism in Japan and America

Open, Seminar—Spring

The American fascination with Zen Buddhism began during the postwar occupation of Japan and took off during the 1950s, when Jack Kerouac and other members the “beat generation” styled themselves as freewheeling Zen “dharma bums.” In the 1960s, the Zen writings of D. T. Suzuki became popular and introduced the possibility of satori, or spiritual “enlightenment,” which seemed to fit right in with the “turn on, tune in, drop out” philosophy of the hippie movement and its use of psychedelic drugs. From the 1970s, Zen centers sprang up across the United States and Europe, giving people who were serious about gaining satori a taste of the rigors of Japanese-style Zen monastic training with its long hours of zazen (sitting meditation) and emphasis on ascetic endurance. Karate and other martial arts dojo opened in neighborhoods everywhere, and anyone who trains in one is likely to hear something about the deep historical connection between Zen and Bushido (the “way of the warrior”) in Japan. Meanwhile, Zen has also became known in the West for its refined aesthetic sense, as represented in the “Zen arts” of the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, landscape gardening, and Noh theatre. The project of this course is to pull back the curtain of these Western images of Zen and to look behind them to see what Zen Buddhism in Japan has really been like from the time of its initial importation from China in the Kamakura period (1185-1333) down to the present. It may be surprising to learn, for example, that Zen was instrumental in introducing Confucian-style ancestor worship to Japan and that, even today, the main occupation of Zen monks is the performance of funerals and memorial services for ancestral spirits. Zen monasteries were, indeed, built and patronized by samurai rulers right down to the advent of the Meiji period in 1868, when Japan began a headlong rush to adopt many elements of Western technology and culture; but what attracted samurai to the religion was largely the elite Chinese culture that samurai conveyed, not any warrior spirit of fearlessness in the face of death. Ironically, much of what Americans think of as “Zen” was invented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the Zen Buddhist priesthood in Japan struggled to make itself relevant in the modern scientific age of colonialism and militarism. The notions that Zen dispenses with religious superstition and empty ritual, for example, and that it is a kind of spirituality that can be practiced in the midst of everyday life no matter what a person’s occupation, were formulated in Japan by Zen monks and lay practitioners who had been deeply influenced by Western cultural norms such as rationality and individualistic self-help. Similarly, the idea that Zen training could toughen up soldiers to fight for the empire dated from a time when the samurai class had been dissolved and the country was busy conscripting into the military all the sons of farmers and merchants. In the postwar period, the theme of “Zen and Bushido” was conveniently muted, while “Zen and the arts” was promoted both within Japan and abroad. This course explores these and other aspects of the history and current status of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Some background knowledge of the Buddhist tradition is desirable but not mandatory.

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Jewish Mysticism From Antiquity to the Present

Open, Seminar—Spring

This course traces the path of Jewish mystical study, practice, and wisdom. Beginning with the Hebrew Bible, we proceed through early Jewish mystical magic, divination, and ascents. We then delve into the erotically-charged Kabbalah, focusing on The Zohar (Book of Splendor) and proceeding to the 16th-century Safed (Tzefat) mystical schools and the mass messianic eruption around Shabbetai Tzvi. Next, we explore varied manifestations of East European Jewish popular Kabbalah, Golem literature, and Hasidism. We conclude with contemporary manifestations of Kabbalah and Hasidism in America and Israel. Throughout the course, we will reflect on issues like gender, sexuality, messianism, magic, and resistance rituals.

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Contemporary Muslim Novels and Creative Nonfiction

Open, Seminar—Spring

In current global circumstances, Islam is all too frequently represented solely in terms of political and militant ideologies. For those who wish to dig deeper, there are the rich and varied traditions of classical religious scholarship and jurisprudence. But to look at Islam through these lenses alone is to miss alternate sensibilities that are just as important in providing the material from which many Muslims construct their identities. In 1988, the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz became the first Muslim writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although Mahfouz was one of the first to adopt the format of the novel, in recent years many new writers emerging from Muslim majority and minority areas around the world have found broad audiences. Their works embrace, resist, reject, transmute, and/or show nostalgia for the beliefs and practices with which the authors grew up or have adopted. As natives, immigrants, third culture, or converts, some of the writers to be explored here have actively promoted themselves as Muslim writers while others question this label or view it as only one signifier of many. The writings that have been selected will be ones that deal substantially with issues of Muslim identity. All of them were either written in English or have been translated into English.

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Art and Society in the Lands of Islam

Open, Lecture—Fall

This course will explore the architecture and visual arts of societies in which Islam is a strong political, cultural, or social presence. We will follow the history of some of these societies through the development of their arts and architecture, using case studies to explore their diverse artistic languages from the advent of Islam through the contemporary world. We will begin with an introduction to the history surrounding the advent of Islam and the birth of arts and architecture that respond to the needs of the new Islamic community. We will proceed to follow the developments of diverse artistic and architectural languages of expression as Islam spreads to the Mediterranean and to Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, exploring the ways in which arts can help define and express identities for people living in multi-confessional societies. We will then draw this exploration into the present day, in which global economics, immigration, and politics draw the architecture and artistic attitudes of Islam into the global contemporary discourse. Our work will include introductions to some of the theoretical discourses that have emerged concerning cultural representation and exchange and appropriation in art and architecture. One of our allied goals will be to learn to read works of art and to understand how an artistic expression that resists representation can connect with its audience. And throughout this course, we will ask: Can there be an Islamic art?

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Art, Religion, and Identity: Christians Jews and Muslims in the Arts of Medieval Spain

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

As an intermediate course, some of the things that would qualify you to enroll for this course would be having previously taken a course in medieval art or Islamic art, having taken a course in medieval or Islamic history or civilization, or having the ability to conduct research in Spanish. You are also welcome during interviews to make a case for other skills or background that you feel might qualify you.

How can we read peoples’ sense of identity in the arts? How do religious identities interact with national, regional, and cultural identities? Is European identity necessarily Christian? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in this seminar. From 711 to 1492, the Iberian Peninsula was home to a number of kingdoms with constantly transforming demographics, cities marked by religious pluralism, and kaleidoscopic political alliances between political and religious groups. Opposing forces rarely aligned simply with religious affiliation in medieval Spain. If documents give us a biased and incomplete picture of the relationship between and among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, the arts can provide a different kind of testimony to these rich and complex histories that continue to have an impact on our lives today.

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Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: Chinese Religion in Daily Life

Open, Seminar—Year

This course will look at the rise and unfolding of China’s major religious traditions—Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and popular (folk) religion—and seeks to place them within a broader historical, social, and cultural context. In doing so, we will take a two-pronged approach. The first approach will involve the close reading of texts that were foundational in each of the traditions. Topics to be explored will include: notions of the Dao (Tao) and the ways in which it might be attained by individuals, families, and communities; the essence of the mind, human nature, and the emotions and the ways in which they interact in behavior; and practices of inner self-cultivation and social engagement. The second approach will be to explore the specific religious practices associated with each of the traditions (e.g., ancestor worship, exorcisms, community worship, and prayers), the origins and transformation of popular religious festivals (including New Years, All Souls Day, and Hell), and the rise and spread of deity cults (including Guanyin, Mazu, and City Gods). This will involve a different set of texts, including ritual and liturgical texts, temple records and regulations, “how-to” manuals for specific practices, miracle tales, temple performance pieces, government documents, legal cases, diaries, and journals. In bringing these two approaches together, we will consider the ways in which religious traditions and practices both shaped and were shaped by social, cultural, economic, and political institutions.

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‘In an Antique Land’: An Introduction to Middle Eastern Studies

Open, Large seminar—Fall

This will be a 25-student course, with one lecture and one seminar a week, in addition to small-group work.

This course is designed as a broad overview of the cultures, religions, history, and politics of the region typically referred to as the “Middle East”—one of the most complex and least well-understood areas in the world today. Rather than viewing the Middle East as a unified whole—and in sharp contrast to prevailing Western media images of the Middle East as hyperpoliticized, overly ideological, or inherently violent—the course adopts a multilayered, bottom-up approach in order to emphasize the region’s fundamental underlying social and cultural diversity. Topics to be covered in this course include: the origins and spread of Islam and “Islamicate” civilization; an overview of the region’s major ethnic and linguistic groups, including Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, among others; the evolution of Middle Eastern empires and their political structures and institutions; the varied geographies of the Middle East (ranging from empty deserts to storied metropolises); the dynamic impact of key forces of modernity (such as capitalism, globalization, and nationalism) across the region; gender and the status of women and the family in the Middle East; and the consequences of various 20th-century wars and conflicts (ethnic, sectarian, revolutionary) for Middle Eastern history and politics. 

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Realisms: Currents and Crosscurrents in 19th-Century European Thought

Open, Seminar—Fall

The term “realism” enjoyed an unprecedented vogue in 19th-century Europe. All manner of doctrines and ideologies prided themselves on their “realistic” understanding of the human predicament and the structure of the universe while disdaining rival doctrines as captive to illusions and prejudices. Students in this course will read and discuss texts illustrating influential forms of 19th-century European realism in philosophy, ethics, and politics. They will also consider realism in literature and painting. We will try to identify what exactly “realism” meant to each of these philosophical and artistic tendencies and to discover why 19th-century Europeans found the concept of “realism” so irresistible. Since the schools of thought to be investigated often conceived “reality” in diametrically opposed ways, the course will provide an introduction to a number of the most significant intellectual debates of the 19th century. Thinkers to be discussed include Malthus, Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Weber, and Freud; creative artists include Turgenev, Strindberg, Courbet, Manet, and Degas.

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First-Year Studies: Mythology in Literature

Open, FYS—Year

In this course, we will define myths, broadly, as recurring narrative energy fields of great intensity and durability that supply cultures and persons with universal patterns by which to reflect on their origins and destinies. We will consider ways in which writers, primarily in Western literary traditions, have used certain mythic patterns—odysseys in the first term and metamorphoses in the second term—to explore their questions and concerns about the operations of the cosmos and the psyche, history, and morality. Those patterns provide both archetypal structures for the articulation of plot and tropes for the implication of meaning in literary texts. We will proceed chronologically through texts from ancient, through medieval and Renaissance, to Romantic and contemporary periods. Tracking the same narrative pattern through this sequence of literary periods will provide us with insights into the way in which literature represents changing understandings of the way the world is structured and the way that the human mind and human culture engage with it. During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences. In the spring, we will meet weekly or every other week, depending on students’ needs and the progress of their conference projects.

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Reading High Romantic Poetry (Blake to Keats)

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

This course focuses on the interpretation and appreciation of the most influential lyric poetry written in English in the tumultuous decades between the French Revolution and the Great Reform Bill of 1832. Over the course of two generations, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats invented a new kind of autobiographical poem that largely internalized the myths that they had inherited from literary and religious traditions. The poet’s inward, subjective experience became the inescapable subject of the poem—a legacy that continues to this day. We will be exploring ways in which the English Romantic poets responded to the political impasse of their historical moment and created poems out of their arguments with themselves, as well as their arguments with one another. Our preeminent goal will be to appreciate each poem’s unique contribution to the language.

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

Open, Small Lecture—Spring

As the capitalistic and predatory model aggressively promoted by the United States continues to reveal itself as a major threat for biodiversity and the environment in general, it is vital to explore and understand the concept of “nature” at the core of the Western tradition and how it was shaped over the course of more than 2,000 years. This course will create a series of bridges between and among the history of literature, philosophy, and science, with implications for many other disciplines. Most importantly, we will discuss the Western and Judeo-Christian concept of nature in the context of race and ethnicity in America today by confronting it with works and arguments developed by black, indigenous, Latine, and Asian American authors. Among many themes, we will study how antiquity came to develop a concept of “physis,” so different from our modern understanding of physics, but also shaped our aesthetic eye with the creation of the pastoral genre and the idea of agreeable and tamed landscapes or set a model for a utilitarian relationship to nature with Hesiod and Vergil’s agricultural treaties. We will also analyze specific places, such as the forest in medieval chivalric romances and American “wilderness” fictions, or chaotic landscapes admired and imagined by the Romantics, or the sea as depicted in Melville’s Moby Dick. The 17th-century scientific revolution and its mathematical and mechanistic approach to nature will lead us to discuss with Descartes the concept of animality in parallel with contemporary philosophers such as Deleuze and Guattari, who make use of models like the burrow or territoriality imported from the animal realm. Going into a completely different direction, we will question the characteristics of a Judeo-Christian conception of the world, organized around a remote and immaterial god, in direct opposition to a more organic understanding of nature as a “motherly” and immanent figure with all of the reservations that such a figure implies. These are some of the questions that we will explore, and the focus of our discussions will be to bring new voices in order to deconstruct the Eurocentric concept of “nature.”

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Epic Vision and Tradition

Open, Seminar—Year

The epic is a monumental literary form that is an index to the depth and richness of a culture and the ultimate test of a tale-teller’s creative power. Encyclopedic in its inclusiveness, epic reflects a culture’s origins and projects its destiny, giving definitive form to its vital mythology and problematically asserting and questioning its formative values. This course on the emergence and development of the epic genre, from its oral origins to its modern and postmodern manifestations, will be organized around four central purposes. First, we will study the major structural, stylistic, and thematic features of each epic. Second, we will consider the cultural significance of the epic as the collective or heroic memory of a people. Third, we will examine how each bard weaves an inspired, yet troubled, image of visionary selfhood into the cultural and historical themes of the poem. Fourth, we will notice how the epic form changes shape under changing cultural and historical circumstances and measure the degree to which the influence of epic tradition becomes a resource for literary and cultural power.

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Imagining War

Open, Seminar—Year

This is an interdisciplinary course.

War is one of the great themes in European literature. The greatest works of Greco-Roman antiquity are meditations on war; and as an organizing metaphor, war pervades our attempts to represent politics, economics and sexuality. Efforts to comprehend war were the genesis of the disciplines of history and political science; and the disaster of the Peloponnesian War forms the critical, if concealed, background to first great works of Western philosophy. We’ll begin the first semester with readings from the Iliad, Thucydides, Plato, and Augustine and go on to study the Aeneid, Machiavelli, Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy, and Hobbes. In the second semester, we’ll look at the origins of political economy, among other things a discipline that sought to transcend the military metaphor; at Marxism, which remilitarized the language of political economy; at Byron’s mock epic, Don Juan; and at two 19th-century novelists, Stendhal and Tolstoy—one of whom described war directly, and the other used it as an organizing metaphor for erotic, economic, and political life. We’ll conclude with a look at some 20th-century literary, artistic, historical, and critical attempts to represent war with an allegedly unprecedented accuracy.

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Emersonian Quartet: Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens

Sophomore and above, Seminar—Spring

In an 1842 lecture, titled “The Poet,” Emerson complained that no American had yet emerged who could answer the legacy of Western literary tradition with original energy and native genius. Whitman would later remark that he had been “simmering, simmering, simmering” until Emerson’s injunctions brought him “to a boil.” The outcome was his sublime, democratic, homoerotic poetic sequence, “Song of Myself” (the “greatest piece of wit and wisdom yet produced by an American,” as Emerson immediately recognized). In unique but related ways, Dickinson, Frost, and Stevens also answered Emerson’s call. Like Whitman at the end of “Song of Myself,” their most inventive poems seem always out in front of us, waiting for us to arrive. We will do our best to catch up: to conceptualize and paraphrase their tropes while acknowledging the inevitable failure of merely discursive language to transmit a poem. Our central task will be to interpret and appreciate the poetry we encounter through close, imaginative reading, informed speculation, and an understanding of historical contexts.

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The Music of Russia

Open, 3-credit seminar—Spring

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

This course will survey the great contributions to Western music by Russian composers, 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, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Gubaidulina. We will end the course with a look at of some of the emigré composers—such as Stravinsky, who composed his most Russian works for non-Russian audiences.

 

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Spinoza’s Ethics: A Philosopher’s Guide to Life

Open, Lecture—Spring

In this lecture course, we will study the Ethics: the magnum opus of the great Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza (1633-1672). German philosopher Jacobi once wrote that “Spinoza is the only philosopher who had the courage to take philosophy seriously; if we want to be philosophers, we can only be Spinozists.” Even if Jacobi’s statement is exaggerated, it is certainly true that studying Spinoza will make us better philosophers. But Spinoza promises much more. He claims that those who follow the guide of the Ethics become freer, wiser and, above all, happier. The Ethics is a notoriously difficult and enigmatic text, which consists entirely of geometrical proofs—even concerning psychological, moral, and theological matters. Yet, it has become famous among philosophers and poets alike for its exceptional beauty. Among the questions the book tackles are: What determines our desires, and in what ways can or should we control them? In what ways can we be free, and in what ways are our behaviors and desires predetermined? In what ways can we be unique, and in what ways are we an inherent part of a greater whole? As we will learn, Spinoza argued that God and Nature are synonyms and that, to achieve an eternal and blissful life, we do not need to die and go to heaven. We do not even need to change the world or ourselves. All we need is to understand the way things are. There are two options for taking this course: for three or five credits. The three-credit option means attending the lectures and doing the relevant readings and assignments. The five-credit option includes, in addition to the lectures, a group conference component in which we will discuss films and literary works that help illustrate and apply Spinoza’s Ethics

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Discipline and Sexuality: Reading Michel Foucault

Sophomore and above, Seminar—Fall

In this reading seminar, we will focus on two of Michael Foucault’s books: Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) and The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: The Will to Knowledge (1976). Foucault is one of the most influential philosophers and historians of the second half of the 20th century, famous for developing Nietzsche’s thesis that knowledge is not a progressive quest for objective truth but, rather, a historical construct produced in the service of sociopolitical power structures. The texts that we will read mark a transition in Foucault’s conception of power, from seeing it as a mechanism of control (incarceration and punishment but also disciplining, education, and surveillance) to seeing it as a mechanism of producing pleasure (through practices, regulation, and inhibitions of sexuality, as well as its transgressions). Foucault’s is an extremely original mind, which has the capacity to change our understanding of our history, our culture, our upbringing, and ourselves in the deepest and least-expected ways. When it works (and much of it depends on our own commitment to the reading process), his writing can liberate us from bonds and preconceptions that we never even knew we had. This will be a guided reading and discussion-centered seminar, with weekly reading responses. It is reserved for sophomores and above, with preference to those who’ve had experience reading philosophy in class, in conference, or independently. The reason for this is not that we need much background in philosophy to understand Foucault but, instead, that we need the capacity and enthusiasm for actively and independently participating in a rigorous process of reading and discussing a philosophical text. For the conference component of the class—unless you have a well-defined and executable alternative in mind, which we agree upon in advance—each student will conduct an independent study with me of one philosophical text of their choice from a list of options.

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Nietzsche: The Philosophical Personality

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

What is my personality? What kind of personality is it? Do I have control over my personality? Is it something I am, or is it something I do? We will reflect on these questions with philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche as our guide. In one of his aphorisms, Nietzsche argued that the most important thing one can do is “give style” to his/her character. But what is “style” in this sense, and how does one “give” or develop it? In this course, Nietzsche will be our guide not only in terms of his ideas but also in terms of his example: his own “personality.” This does not simply mean his biography but, rather, his personality as it comes across and develops through his writing and his art. The course is, therefore, titled “philosophical personality”—the personality of a thinker and author. To this end, we will begin from Nietzsche’s earliest forays as a writer: his studies of Homer and Pre-Socratic philosophy and his groundbreaking theses on Greek tragedy. We will conclude by reading one of Nietzsche’s latest texts, his intellectual autobiography, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is. Conference work should engage the guiding question of the course—What is personality, and how does it develop?—through a prism of the student’s choice: work/s of literature, art, psychology, or philosophy.

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Veiled Lives: Women and Resistance in the Muslim World

Open, Seminar—Fall

This course is designed to enable participants to better understand the complexities, nuances, ambiguities, and contradictions that surround our understanding of the lives of women in those places designated as the “Muslim” world. Our examination will not be based on a comprehensive historical accounting of women’s lives in the geographical spaces under scrutiny. Instead, it will be informed by central guiding questions, including the following: What are the different conceptual frameworks that inform our perceptions of women in the Muslim world? What politics and histories are embedded in different “ways of seeing”? What are the various discursive and material forces that inform women’s lives in the places under scrutiny, and how do they serve to restrict women and simultaneously provide openings for women’s resistance to their oppression? We will analyze the debates surrounding the origins of women’s subordination in the Muslim world; consider the harem and the veil, both as representational devices and embodied spaces; examine the multiple modalities through and in which women’s lives are lived out (historically and socially); and examine the shifting and dynamic constitution of their existence. In order to do so, the course will take into consideration colonialism, modernity, and postcoloniality in relationship to women’s ability to carve out their own histories. For our analysis, we will draw upon ethnographic and visual materials, colonial and literary writings, sociological texts, films (including documentaries), and (auto)biographies. For conference, possible topics include an analysis of women’s movements in a particular place or in multiple spaces, the roles of the state and the law and their impact on women, representation of women and Islam in the media and in colonial writing; and women’s writing and voice(s). The course will be of interest to students who wish to pursue studies of gender and sexuality, colonialism and postcoloniality, media and Islamic studies, law and society, studies of the global south and diaspora studies, as well as writing, film, and media studies.

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Forms of Culture in the Information Age: Spanish for Advanced Beginners

Open, Seminar—Year

Course taught entirely in Spanish. All students should take the placement test prior to registration.

This course is designed for students who have taken Spanish before but need to review the essentials of grammar and develop effective communicative skills at a post-elementary level. The course will start with a thorough review of the basics of Spanish morphology and syntax. Vocabulary building will take place through an intensive program of readings that will include the study and analysis of poems, lyrics of songs, newspaper articles, short stories, and adapted novellas. The linguistic exploration of those materials will be complemented by the active exploitation of musical compositions, excerpts of scripts, and the viewing of films, as well as selected episodes of TV series. All forms and manifestations of culture originated all over the Spanish–speaking world—fashion, art, film, music, photography, theatre, science, politics, comics, video games, gastronomy, etc.—will be the objects of our attention. These and other forms of cultural expression will be incorporated into the course of study, as long as Spanish is their vehicle of expression. The syllabus will be complemented by contributions from students, who will be encouraged to locate materials suitable to be jointly exploited by the class as a whole. Weekly conversation sessions with the language assistant are a fundamental part of this course. Students will complete guided conference projects in small groups and also have access to individual meetings to address specific grammar topics.

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The Episode: A Course in Connections

Open, Seminar—Spring

This will be a course in the episode, a flexible way of putting together content—fictional or nonfictional—in this world or another. The episodes that we know best are streamed online. We also read them, often without noticing their form. They are different from chapters or short stories. We will start by introducing each other to our favorites. Then we will do enough exercises to catch ourselves doing something right and continue until we have six episodes that connect, not necessarily conventionally. These will be supported and critiqued in small groups, while weekly exercises get presented to everyone. This course is a sneaky way to get people to write and revise something long over time. Students can write fiction or nonfiction, for adults or children, and include poetry, songs, or drawings in their work. 

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Ecopoetry

Open, Seminar—Year

In this poetry class—a yearlong school of poetry and the living world—we will consider the great organism Gaia, of which we are a part. We will read and write poems every week. We will ask questions: When did we begin to think of nature as apart from us? Why did we begin to speak of the animals as if we are not also animals? What are the stories and myths that have determined our attitude toward what we are and what we believe? We will read some of these stories and myths (myths of creation; Eden, the lost garden). We will read the long and rich tradition of poetry addressing itself to this subject, from the early indigenous peoples through the Zen monks and Wordsworth and right up through Gary Snyder to utterly contemporary poets writing right now. We will read books and articles that teach us about the other animals and living entities that we call plants and trees and planets and galaxies. Each student will research an aspect of the living world and teach the rest of us what they have learned. And we will write poems that incorporate that knowledge. We will read books of poems but also watch films, take field trips, and meet with each other outside of class in weekly poetry dates. By the end of the class, my hope is that each of us will have a greater understanding of the great organism that we call Earth and will create a collection of poems that engage the questions that our class raises: What is time? What is death? What is Eden? Where is the garden now? Who are the other organisms? How have we, as a species, affected the other organisms? How have we affected the oceans, the Earth, the air? How can poetry address the planetary emergency? Required for this class: intellectual curiosity, empathy, and a willingness to observe the world, to pay attention, and to write poetry that matters. This is a class for experienced writers, as well as for those who want to give writing poetry a try. All are welcome.

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