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.

2019-2020 Courses

Religion

First-Year Studies: The Buddhist Philosophy of Emptiness

Open , FYS—Year

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

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The Buddhist Tradition in India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia

Open , Lecture—Fall

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

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The Buddhist Tradition in East Asia

Open , Lecture—Spring

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

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The Qur’an and Its Interpretation

Open , Seminar—Year

To watch a Muslim kiss the Qur’an is to recognize that this is not a “book” in the ordinary sense of the word. There is an art to reciting its verses and an art to its calligraphy. The uncovering of its meanings has been variously understood by Muslims to be a matter of common sense, diligent scholarship, or profound inspiration. In this seminar, we will begin by studying the style and content of the Qur’an. Some of the themes that may be discussed are the nature and function of humans and supernatural beings, free will and determinism, the structure of this and other worlds, God’s attributes of mercy and wrath, gender and family relations, other religions, and the legitimate use of violence. We will also look at the types of literature that developed in response to the Qur’an in texts ranging from the entertaining stories of the prophets, to scholastic theological and philosophical analysis, to poetic mystical insights. Also included will be contemporary writings, written by Muslims, that mine the riches of the classical heritage of Qur’anic exegesis while grappling with the difficulties of dealing with a text that originated in seventh-century Arabia.

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The Emergence of Christianity

Open , Seminar—Year

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

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American Religious Mythmaking: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Open , Seminar—Fall

In this course, we will explore some of the religious narratives and images that Americans have repurposed and modified to make sense of their peoplehood and their place in the world. By exploring iconic events, images, institutions, texts, and artifacts—from the “city on a hill” to Fiddler on the Roof—we will see how religious narratives have informed interpretations of the American past, layering ancient stories of conquest, redemption, and rebirth onto memories of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. We will discuss putative Viking explorers in medieval Minnesota to UFOs, comic-book superheroes, and mythic creatures in the landscape while wrestling with myths such as Manifest Destiny, streets of gold, and national innocence. We will also consider whether the notion of American religious freedom itself has mythic dimensions.

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Storytelling and Spirituality in Classical Islam

Open , Seminar—Fall

One of the greatest rock songs of all time, “Layla,” was written by Eric Clapton after he read the story of the star-crossed lovers Layla and Majnun. This tale of a Bedouin poet, who went mad after he was cut off from his beloved, circulated widely in Arabic sources for hundreds of years before being expanded into a long narrative poem in Persian by Nizami in the 12th century. By this point in time, telling compelling stories had become a means by which Sufi writers (the mystics of Islam) described their particular vision of being Muslim—which was that of the pitfalls, despairing moments, and ecstasies of the spiritual quest and search for closeness to the divine Beloved. Layla and Majnun were just one of several couples in allegorical stories that were understood as teaching vehicles for disciples on the path. On the opposite end of the plot spectrum, there is Ibn Tufyal’s famous story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, a mystical-philosophical work in Arabic also written in the 12th century. That story describes an abandoned baby growing up on a desert island, raised first by a deer and then by his own devices as he slowly discovers the nature of the human-divine relationship. Other classical works dispensed with this format of the singular narrative, opting instead for nesting stories within stories and mixing animal stories with stories about humans. We will look at examples of those literary techniques in translations of Farid ad-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds, Jalal ad-Din Rumi’s Mathnawi, and The Thousand and One Nights. What is common to all of the works that we will be reading in this class is the way in which storytelling here is rooted in a deeper dimension that explores the human potential for more refined behavior and ethics, as well as for higher spiritual states.

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Readings in the Hebrew Bible: The Wisdom Tradition

Open , Seminar—Fall

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

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Religious Mavericks and Radicals

Open , Seminar—Spring

Is religion meant to protect the status quo or to challenge it? This course examines individuals and groups that have experimented with ideas and practices that are designed to upend established paradigms and institutions in nonviolent ways. On the individual level, this might involve spiritual training along the lines of “crazy wisdom,” which is intended to destabilize the ordinary ways in which one views oneself and reality. It might also entail the adoption of monastic-like disciplines that stand in stark contrast to the materialist preoccupations of ordinary life. On the societal and political levels, religious innovators have created communities and movements that challenge the mainstream interpretations of their respective traditions or the norms of their societies. What distinguishes these individuals and groups is their strong commitment to ideas and practices that require fundamental and profound changes in individual, social, and political behaviors. These commitments are usually not considered a reinterpretation of scriptures and earlier teachings but, rather, a rediscovery of their most crucial elements. Whether flouting society’s conventions through holy madness or alternative communitarian practices—or contesting them through new theologies and political activism—these practices are understood as a type of spiritual work. Examples of this phenomenon will be taken from a variety of religious traditions and movements.

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Introduction to Ancient Greek Religion and Society

Open , Seminar—Spring

Few people dispute the enormous impact that the Ancient Greeks have had on Western Culture—and even on the modern world in general. This seminar will introduce the interested student to this culture mainly through reading salient primary texts in English translation. Our interest will range broadly. Along with some background reading, we will be discussing mythology (Hesiod), epic hymns and poetry (Homer), history (Herodotus), politics, religion, and philosophy. By the end of the seminar, students should have a basic understanding of the cultural contribution of the Ancient Greeks, as well as a basic timeline of their history through the Hellenistic age.

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Jewish Autobiography

Open , Seminar—Spring

Autobiography is among the most contentious literary/historical genres, compromised by the fallibility of memory and the human tendency towards self-fashioning yet unique in its insights into history as a lived experience. This course employs personal narratives as windows onto the Jewish transition to modernity. We begin with narratives by “traditional” Jewish men and women, including the mystic Hayyim Vital and the successful businesswoman Gluckel of Hameln. We then proceed to the wrenching accounts of early detractors from tradition—like Solomon Maimon, Ezekiel Kotik, and Pauline Wengeroff—and writings by Jewish leaders of modern political movements such as Zionism, Jewish socialism, communism, orthodoxy, and ultra-orthodoxy. We conclude with individual perspectives on the Holocaust through the eyes of victims, bystanders, and perpetrators; insights into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from each side; and American Jewish feminist, queer, and transgender self-narratives.

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Religion, Healing, and Medicine in the United States

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

Science and religion are often thought to be opposites. Yet, in making sense of liminal experiences like pregnancy and childbirth, trauma, or death, many people draw on both scientific and religious discourses at once. Most religions include approaches to suffering and healing, described in images as different as a balm in Gilead or a balancing of complementary forces. Some might even argue that religion itself is, at root, a kind of medicine. Meanwhile, modern medicine has found uses for religious teaching and practice that skeptics might find surprising, integrating things like acupuncture, healing prayer, and mindfulness meditation into the prevention and treatment of disease—sometimes with measurable effects. What challenges and contributions does religion bring to the problem of caring for the human body?

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The Holocaust

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

The Holocaust raises fundamental questions about the nature of our civilization. How was it that a policy of genocide could be planned, initiated, and carried out against Jews, Roma (Gypsies), leftists, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other groups by Germany, a country that had produced many of the greatest thinkers and artists the world has seen? In this course, we will attempt to explain how these events took place, beginning with the evolution of anti-Semitic ideology and violence. At the same time, we will look at how victims, especially Jews, chose to live out their last years and respond through art, diary-writing, spiritual practices, physical resistance, evasion, and more. Finally, we will attempt to come to grips with the crucial but neglected phenomenon of bystanders—non-Jews who stood by while their neighbors were methodically annihilated. We shall inevitably be compelled to make moral judgments; but these judgments will be of value only if they are based on an understanding of the various actors’ perspectives during this dark chapter of European history.

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How Things Talk

Open , Lecture—Spring

A long-standing tradition within Western thought has conceptualized language as a system of signs clearly separate from material reality and aimed at enabling the transmission of information. The divide between the intangible realm of language and the material domain of things has dominated scholarship across several disciplines, leaking into common sense. This lecture course questions this deeply entrenched divide and suggests that, in order to understand our contemporary moment, we need to bring into the same analytical field both the linguistic and the material. The course readings provide an introduction to anthropology’s theories and methods through an investigation of how words and things mediate and enable human experience, creating the complex semiotic landscapes that we inhabit. Throughout the semester, students will be introduced to a series of theoretical and ethnographic readings aimed at illustrating the blurred boundaries between words and things, subjects and objects, signs and referents, artworks and artifacts, gifts and commodities, alienable and inalienable possessions. On the one hand, the course will challenge the classic language-world divide that has dominated both academic scholarship and popular common sense. Contrary to the view that language is exclusively a system of symbols that stand for and allow speaking about the world, a series of theoretical readings, practical exercises, and ethnographic case studies will reveal the materiality and performativity of language. Through this journey, language will appear as a material entity and as a form of action endowed with the power to shape the world. On the other hand, the course will dialogue with the emerging cross-disciplinary interest in materiality to invert the longstanding exploration of how people make things and generate a new reflection on how things make people. Contrary to the deeply entrenched opposition between subjects and objects, a selection of essays drawn from recent material culture studies will show how things mediate social relations and how inanimate objects may, in fact, be endowed with a form of agency.

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Archaeology and the Bible

Open , Seminar—Spring

With the advent of early archaeological excavation in the Near East, biblical studies entered upon a new modern phase in which the criticism of scriptural revelation was no longer simply a matter of faith or theology. With the new discoveries at Nimrud just before the middle of the 19th century, the Assyrians and the other great powers of ancient Mesopotamia mentioned in Old Testament narratives suddenly became a visible reality, demonstrating that biblical narratives could now be evaluated or corroborated empirically against hard, material evidence. In due course, pioneering archaeologists also turned their attention to the Holy Land to pursue this new agenda. Since then, the convergence of archaeology and modern professional criticism of the Old Testament has increasingly enabled us to reconstruct the reality behind the biblical narratives. The course will explore this process, focusing primarily on the material culture of the ancient Levant—beginning in the Bronze Age with the Canaanites, the emergence and subsequent development of the Iron Age Israelite kingdom, its destruction, the Babylonian Captivity, the eventual return of the Jews under Persian rule, and the re-emergence from Hellenistic Greek domination of a Judaean kingdom under the Hasmoneans. Although focused largely on archaeological or material remains, the course will also make ample use of biblical and historical texts or sources to investigate the intersection of archaeology, culture, and religion.

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Sacrifice

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

This seminar explores themes of sacrifice in classical Indian and Western traditions. After exploring case studies from ancient India and Greece, we analyze survivals of classical sacrifice in contemporary literature and cinema. Sacrificial practices bridge religious, political, and economic aspects of culture. The sacrifice of a scapegoat channels violence and legitimizes acts of killing or destruction in order to serve social interests of surrogacy and catharsis. As sacrament, sacrifice represents transformational mystery. As ceremonial exchange, it facilitates negotiations of status, observance of boundaries, and the redistribution of goods. In specific cultural settings, sacrifice functions as celebration, as a manifestation of goodwill, as insurance, and/or as a source of communion. Seminar topics include: offerings, gift exchange, fasting and feasting, the warrior ethic, victimization and martyrdom, bloodletting and scarification, asceticism, and renunciation. The seminar addresses the politics of sacrifice and scapegoating through critical inquiry and case studies of the targeting of ethnic scapegoats, sati (widow murder/suicide), court and prison rituals, gender bullying, and charity—including service tourism. Primary texts include Hindu myths and rites, selected Greek tragedies, Akedah paintings, the Roman Catholic Eucharist liturgy, and selected contemporary short stories and films. Readings are drawn from anthropology, literature, comparative religions, and cultural studies.

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Hindu Iconography and Ritual

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

This seminar explores symbols, signs, images, and icons associated with Hindu rituals and mythology. After an introduction to semiotics, we study diverse Hindu festivals, including: 1) observances based on lunar and solar calendars, 2) life-cycle sacraments, and 3) occasional ceremonies that occur due to special circumstances. Occasional ceremonies range from personal healing rites to communal rituals performed for relief from droughts, floods, famines, and epidemics. By examining popular festivals, feasts, and fasts, we analyze the multisensory modes of expression used in Hindu observances. Music, chants, and recitations coincide with mandala designs, scroll paintings, dance, and dramas to signify the message of each ceremony. Because Hindu myths and rites are so numerous and elaborate, students gain an understanding that is helpful in analyzing festivals and ceremonial practices cross-culturally. Readings and viewings are drawn from anthropology, comparative religions, and cultural studies.

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First-Year Studies: The Disreputable 16th Century

Open , FYS—Year

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

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Romanticism and Its Consequences in English-Language Poetry

Open , Seminar—Year

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

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Odyssey/Hamlet/Ulysses

Open , Seminar—Spring

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

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Slavery: A Literary History

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course aims to provide a long view of literary representations and responses to slavery and the slave trade in the Americas, from William Shakespeare to Toni Morrison. Expressing the conflicted public conscience—and perhaps the collective unconscious—of a nation, literature registers vividly the human costs (and profits) and dehumanizing consequences of a social practice whose legacy still haunts and implicates us. We will study some of the major texts that stage the central crises in human relations, social institutions, and human identity provoked by slavery, considering in particular how those texts represent the perverse dynamics and identifications of the master-slave relationship; the systematic assaults on family, identity, and community developed and practiced in slave-owning cultures; modes of resistance, survival, and subversion cultivated by slave communities and individuals in order to preserve their humanity and reclaim their liberty; and retrospective constructions of, and meditations on, slavery and its historical consequences. Since literary structure and style are not only representational but also are means of subversion, resistance, and reclamation, we will do a lot of close reading. Readings will be drawn from the works of William Shakespeare, Aimé Cesaire, Aphra Behn, Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and Edward P. Jones. Conference work may entail more extended work in any of these writers or literary modes or other writers engaged in the representation and interrogation of slavery; may be developed around a major theme or topic; and may include background study in history, philosophy, geography, politics, or theory.

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First-Year Studies: The Origins of Philosophy

Open , FYS—Year

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

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Introduction to Social Theory: Philosophical Tools for Critical Social Analysis

Open , Lecture—Year

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

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Existentialism

Open , Lecture—Spring

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

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

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

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

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

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Our World, Other Worlds

Open , Seminar—Year

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

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