College Signature Courses

Signature Courses are intended to introduce College students to exciting themes, ideas, and materials in the humanities and social sciences, and afford unique and memorable learning experiences, exemplary of humanistic inquiry.

They are designed as gateway courses that open up fields and disciplines for further exploration. Thus, Signature Courses have no prerequisites and are open to all College students. While they are conceived as general elective courses, they may count towards departmental major and minor requirements.


Courses for Autumn 2017

The First Great Transformation: The Economies of the Ancient World
Alain Bresson

This class examines the determinants of economic growth in the ancient world. It covers various cultural areas (especially Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome and China) from ca. 3000 BCE to c. 500 CE. By contrast with the modern world, ancient cultures have long been supposed to be doomed to stagnation and routine. The goal of this class is to revisit the old paradigm with a fresh methodology, which combines a rigorous economic approach and a special attention to specific cultural achievements. We will assess the factors that indeed weighed against positive growth, but we will also discover that far from being immobile the cultures of the ancient world constantly invented new forms of social and economic organization. This was indeed a world where periods of positive growth were followed by periods of brutal decline. But if envisaged on the longue durée, this was a period of decisive achievements, which provided the basis for the future accomplishments of the Early Modern and Modern world.  (SIGN 26015, CLCV 20517), TR, 2:00-03:20.

Censorship from the Inquisition to the Present
Ada Palmer, with Stuart McManus

Collaborative research seminar on the history of censorship and information control, with a focus on the history of books and information technologies. The class will meet in Special Collections, and students will work with the professor to prepare an exhibit, The History of Censorship, to be held in the Special Collections exhibit space in spring. Students will work with rare books and archival materials, design exhibit cases, write exhibit labels, and contribute to the exhibit catalog. Half the course will focus on censorship in early modern Europe, including the Inquisition, the spread of the printing press, and clandestine literature in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Special focus on the effects of censorship on classical literature, both newly rediscovered works like Lucretius and lost books of Plato, and authors like Pliny the Elder and Seneca who had been available in the Middle Ages but became newly controversial in the Renaissance. The other half of the course will look at modern and contemporary censorship issues, from wartime censorship, to the censorship comic books, to digital rights management, to free speech on our own campus. Students may choose whether to focus their own research and exhibit cases on classical, early modern, modern, or contemporary censorship.  (SIGN 26010, HIST 25421), TR, 3:30-04:50.

The Nuclear Age
Nelson, Debbie, et al.

Seventy-five years ago a group of scientists launched the first sustained nuclear chain reaction, commonly known as CP-1, at the University of Chicago under Stagg Field. This course will be part of the commemoration and reflection taking place across the University this fall. Its goal will be to explore the ensuing Nuclear Age from different disciplinary perspectives by organizing a ring-lecture. Each week’s lecture, delivered by faculty from fields across the university (for instance, Physics, Biomedicine, Anthropology, and English), will be followed by a discussion section to synthesize and integrate not only the material from the weekly lectures, but the many events happening at the University this fall. CP-1 was not only a scientific achievement of the highest magnitude, but also a civilization-changing event that remains at the boundary of the thinkable.  (SIGN 26031, BPRO 26030, ENGL 26030), TR, 12:30-01:50

Code Making-Code Breaking
Kennedy, Christopher

This course investigates the nature and use of codes and ciphers: what they are, how they are constructed and solved, and the significant roles they have played throughout history. We will begin by looking at the development of writing, the most basic tool for encoding thought and experience, and at the techniques for deciphering it.  We will then turn to a deeper examination of the ideas and methods of cryptography and cryptanalysis, and their role in concealing and revealing information in different areas of humanistic inquiry, including literature, religion and philosophy. Finally, we will turn to the role of code making and code breaking in contemporary society, with particular focus on the development of computation and computational theories of intelligence and the relation between encryption, privacy and freedom of information in a democratic society.  (SIGN 26002, LING 26040), TR, 11:00-12:20.


Courses for Spring 2017

Big:  Monumental Buildings and Sculptures in the Past and Present
James Osborne

Why are so many societies – including our own – obsessed with building monumental things like pyramids and palaces? What do we learn about cultures past and present from the monuments they create? This course explores famous monuments from around the world to answer these questions through the lens of archaeology, architecture, and art history.  (SIGN 26000, NEHC 20085)

Self-Creation as a Philosophical and Literary Problem
Agnes Callard

Can we choose who to be?  We tend to feel that we have some ability to influence the kind of people we will become; but the phenomenon of ‘self-creation’ is fraught with paradox: creation ex nihilo, vicious circularity, infinite regress.  In this class, we will read philosophical texts addressing these paradoxes against novels offering illustrations of self-creation. (SIGN 26001, PHIL 21834)

Christopher Kennedy

Alternative facts" and "fake news" have fueled growing concerns that we are entring a "post-truth" society. But what exactly is truth, and why should we care about it? We will address this question by examining the role of a truth convention in meaning and communication and the ways in which it can be exploited, criticisms of the value of truth and their appeal, expressions of skepticism about "objective" truth, truth paradoxes and their significance, and what value (if any) truth contributes to the well-lived life. (SIGN 26007 LING 26020)

Science and Aesthetics in the 18th-21st Centuries
Robert Richards

Science and art seem antithetic, but they are related at several levels. We’ll examine four ways in which science and aesthetics interact since the Renaissance. First, science has been the subject of artistic representation, in painting and photography, in poetry and novels.  Second, science has been used to explain how art affects its audience. Third, aesthetic means have been used to convey scientific conceptions. Finally, philosophers have stepped back to consider the relationship between scientific knowing and aesthetic comprehension. Much of the discussion of this latter will focus on how images represent, for instance how do Picasso’s non-realistic paintings represent a subject?  In this course, we will consider all of these relationships. (SIGN 26003 HIST 25506)

Richer and Poorer: Income Inequality
Elaine Hadley

We hear about it in the news on a daily basis: increasing income or wealth inequality. Data suggests a rapidly growing divergence between those earners at the bottom and those at the top, especially within the US and the UK but between countries, as well.  This course seeks to place that current concern in conversation with a range of moments in nineteenth and twentieth century literary history when literature and economics converged on questions of inequality.  We will ask: Is it a problem?  Is it the right problem? What does the literary text have to offer to this discussion? We will read literary texts by Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells, Richard Wright, Carolyn Steedman, Aravind Adiga, and smatterings from economic and political texts by John Stuart Mill,  R.H. Tawney, Thorsten Veblen, Karl Marx, Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, and Amartya Sen. (SIGN 26004 ENGL 26250)

Introduction to the Middle East
Fred Donner

This course offers an overview of the region's rich cultural, religious, political, and historical legacies, stretching back six millennia. It addresses and provides background helpful for understanding recent developments in the Middle East, and insight into the area's stunning cultural diversity and dynamism, including its music and literature. (SIGN 26005, NEHC 10101)

Traditional East Asian Literature: Ghosts and the Fantastic
Judith Zeitlin

What is a ghost? How and why are ghosts represented in particular forms in a particular culture at particular historical moments and how do these change as stories travel between cultures? This course will explore the complex meanings, both literal and figurative, of ghosts and the fantastic in traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean tales, plays, and films . Issues to be explored include: the relationship between the supernatural, gender, and sexuality; the confrontation of death and mortality;  collective anxieties over the loss of the historical past;  and the visualization (and exorcism) of ghosts through performance. (SIGN 26006, EALC 10600)

Japanese History Through Film and Other Texts
James Ketelaar

Time, history, and representation: a close reading of films produced in and about Japan coupled with primary and secondary materials on theories of time, images, and national history will highlight the historicity and history of both film and Japan. No knowledge of Japanese is required. (SIGN 26008, HIST 24601)

Making and Meaning in the American Musical
Thomas Christensen

In this signature course, we will look—and listen—closely to four different American Musicals from the 20th century, studying their creative origins, while also analyzing their complex social meanings as revealed through the story, music, lyrics, staging, and dance.  Musicals to be covered:  Show Boat (1927), Oklahoma! (1943), My Fair Lady (1953), and Company (1970). A visit to the Lyric Opera production of My Fair Lady is planned. (SIGN 26009, MUSI 24417)