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Humanities Signature Courses

Signature Humanities Courses are faculty-taught courses in the Humanities or humanistic Social Sciences that afford students unique and memorable learning experiences, exemplary of humanistic inquiry. Designed as lecture courses, they allow students to sample the best that the various humanistic disciplines and fields have to offer. While open to majors and minors, they are aimed at students across the College and are ideal as general electives.

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Spring 2019 Signature Courses

Instructor: Agnes Callard

Description: 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.

Instructor: Robert Bird

Description: The ancient and multivalent image of the underground has crystallized over the last two centuries to denote sites of disaffection from—and strategies of resistance to—dominant social, political and cultural systems. We will trace the development of this metaphor from the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s and the French Resistance during World War II to the Weather Underground in the 1960s-1970s, while also considering it as a literary and artistic concept, from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Ellison’s Invisible Man to Chris Marker’s film La Jetée and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Alongside with such literary and cinematic tales, drawing theoretical guidance from refuseniks from Henry David Thoreau to Guy Debord, this course investigates how countercultural spaces become—or fail to become—sites of political resistance, and also how dissenting ideologies give rise to countercultural spaces. We ask about the relation between social deviance (the failure to meet social norms, whether willingly or unwittingly) and political resistance, especially in the conditions of late capitalism and neo-colonialism, when countercultural literature, film and music (rock, punk, hip-hop, DIY aesthetics etc.) get absorbed into—and coopted by—the hegemonic socio-economic system. In closing we will also consider contemporary forms of dissidence—from Pussy Riot to Black Lives Matter—that rely both on the vulnerability of individual bodies and global communication networks.

Instructor: Susanne Paulus

Description: "The first man on moon", "the first Thanksgiving," or "the first kiss"--our society is still fascinated and remembers the exact moment something happened for the first time. The history of the Ancient Near East, especially the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), is quite rich of such "firsts in history." From the moment, writing is discovered there is an abundance of textual record, covering the first documents about politics, law, and economics. The first private documents allow us a glimpse into what living and dying were like more than 5,000 years ago.
This course will explore what the cultural conditions of those innovations were, how innovations transform societies, and why it matters to study ancient civilizations. By discovering primary sources (in English translation), the fascination of reading those texts for the "first" time will be experienced. Visits at the Oriental Institute Museum will link textual record and object-based inquiry.

Instructor: Kathleen Belew

Description: This Gateway course takes a reverse approach to the study of history, defining issues relevant to the current moment--some determined by the students--and exploring the long stories required to understand the present. We might examine the election of 2016, social movements, climate change, debt, gun ownership, statelessness, and other issues. Each topic will occupy one week of the course. Students will learn historical thinking skills, critical reading, and argumentation, and will complete a final assignment geared towards providing historical context for an ongoing debate in the public sphere.

Instructor: Berthold Hoeckner

Description: This course shifts our critical attention from watching movies to listening to them. Amid a strong emphasis on cinema—ranging from musical accompaniment during the silent era to sound in experimental films; or from classical Hollywood underscoring to Bollywood musical numbers—we will consider the soundtrack of moving pictures within a growing variety of audiovisual media, including television, music videos, and computer games. Interactive lectures (Mondays and Wednesdays) and discussion sections (Fridays) combine a historical overview with transhistorical perspectives. Supplemented by screenings and readings, the course will address a variety issues and topics: aesthetic and psychological (such as representation, narration, affect); cultural and political (such as race, ethnicity, propaganda); social and economic (such as technology, production, dissemination).

Instructor: Ada Palmer

Description: This course will consider Florence, Rome, and the Italian city-states in the age of plagues and cathedrals, Dante and Machiavelli, Medici and Borgia (1250–1600), with a focus on literature, philosophy, primary sources, the revival of antiquity, and the papacy's entanglement with pan-European politics. We will examine humanism, patronage, politics, corruption, assassination, feuds, art, music, magic, censorship, education, science, heresy, and the roots of the Reformation. Writing assignments focus on higher-level writing skills, with a creative writing component linked to our in-class live-action-role-played (LARP) reenactment of a Renaissance papal election.

Instructor: Clifford Ando

Description: Myth is essential to how humans make sense of the world: our foundational stories explain the nature of the world; they justify and explore social and sexual difference; they teach and test the limits of human agency. The course will survey contexts and uses of myth-making in the ancient Mediterranean world. We will also explore the many traditions of critique and anxiety about myth-making, among philosophers, literary critics and religious authorities.

Instructor: Julie Orlemanski

Description: The medieval period is often thought of as the era just before the idea of race emerged – before the Atlantic slave trade, before European colonialism, before scientific racism. At the same time, the Middle Ages have been crucial to modern phenomena of racialized nationalism and ideologies of whiteness. In recent years, medievalists have studied and debated race’s significance. Acknowledging the complex and urgent status of medieval race today, this course examines some of the stories, images, ideas, and institutions of medieval England. We will test how race helps us think about the articulation and operationalization of human difference between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, especially with respect to Jews, Saracens (a term created by Christians to refer to Arabs and Muslims of varying ethnicities), and the so called “monstrous races” who were thought to populate the far reaches of the world. We’ll ask – How did geography, religion, and history come to be corporealized, or understood as legible on the body? How did the essentialization of differences between groups act to satisfy desires, or seemingly to solve intellectual and ideological difficulties? How does “thinking with race” in medieval England throw new light on race and racism today? Readings will be both in
Middle English and modern English translation. No previous experience with medieval literature is expected.

Instructor: Timothy Harrison

Description: Consciousness is an historical achievement. As a phenomenon, consciousness probably came into being somewhere deep in evolutionary time. Yet as a concept consciousness is relatively new: the European notion of consciousness emerges only in the late seventeenth century. This course draws on the resources of literature, history, philosophy, and psychology to examine how the concept of consciousness came to possess the explanatory dominance it currently holds. We will begin by acquiring a sense of what consciousness currently means in philosophy and psychology, paying particular attention to how the Western concept differs from similar ideas in such traditions as Buddhism. After examining the pre-history of consciousness by reading such authors as William Shakespeare, we will then turn to two historical moments that were central to the concept’s development. First, we will train our attention on the interplay between philosophy and literature in the late seventeenth century, reading texts by René Descartes, John Milton, Thomas Traherne, and John Locke. Second, we will focus on how, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the psychology of William James contributed to the development of “stream of consciousness” techniques in the novels of Henry James and Virginia Woolf. In this course, we will stress the historical contingency of this concept—consciousness has a birthdate—in order to determine the nature of a consequence that follows from this fact: the extent to which current uses of this concept are still shaped and constrained by the historical circumstances that conditioned its appearance and development.

Instructor: Larry Norman

Description: Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles helped shape European culture and history from the Baroque era through the French Revolution, and it continues to animate contemporary international culture. How does this astounding assemblage of architecture, visual arts, landscaping, performance spaces and political arenas reveal transformations in cultural tastes and power arrangements over the centuries? How do literature and art alternately support and subvert absolutist power and state propaganda? To respond we will range across media, from the bitingly satiric comedies and provocative tragedies of the 17th century (Molière, Racine), through royal edicts regulating colonial slavery and first-hand accounts of the 1789 Women's March on Versailles that upended the monarchy, and finally to cinematic depictions (from Jean Renoir to Sophia Coppola) and experimental palace installations by the world's leading contemporary artists (Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor, etc.). While this course will broadly introduce major themes of French and European culture and history of the early-modern and modern periods, students are also encouraged to pursue in-depth projects in their own areas of interest, from history and political philosophy to the visual arts, theater and performance, and literature.

Instructor: Philip Bohlman

Description: Each May since 1956, popular musicians and fans from Europe—and increasingly from around the world—gather in a European metropolis to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), a competitive spectacle in which musicians from one nation compete against those of others. Organized, funded, and broadcast by the European Broadcasting Union, the largest conglomerate of national radio and television networks in the world, the ESC is extensively participatory, creating its own communities of fans, musicians, musical producers, and ordinary citizens, who join together at all levels of society to interact with the politics and historical narratives of Europe. From the moment of heightened Cold War conflict at the birth of the ESC in 1956 to the refugee crisis and the rise of right-wing nationalism in the present, the ESC has generated public discourse that not only reflects European and global politics, but provides a conduit for local and national citizenries to respond and shape such public discourse about gender and sexuality.

The participatory core of the ESC also shapes this Signature Course, “The Eurovision Song Contest.” The weekly work for the course draws students from across the College into the counterpoint of history and politics with aesthetics and popular culture. Each week will be divided into two parts, the first dedicated to reading and discussion of texts about European history and politics from World War II to the present, the second to interaction with music in the many ways that students with and without musical backgrounds will deepen their experiences in the humanities. The course takes place during the height of Eurovision season, with the annual Grand Prix on May 18th providing a very significant focal point for the course. Students will experience the ESC through close readings of individual songs and growing familiarity with individual nations. The final project is participatory, with the students working together to stage a Eurovision Song Contest of their own creation in the Logan Center Performance Penthouse. Through performance students will create their own spectacle, finding and performing their own roles, whether political activist, journalist, television and media technician, singer-songwriter, or performer.

Instructor: John Wee

Description: Taking as its central theme the cultural situatedness of the earliest systems of mathematics and astronomy-from their origins in ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq, c. 3400 BCE) until the Common Era (CE)-this course explores topics in mathematical language and script, metrology, geometry and topology, music theory, definitions of time, models of stars and planets, medical astrology, and pan-astronomical hermeneutics in literature and an ancient board game. Pushing against boundaries separating the humanities and social and physical sciences, students discover how histories of science and mathematics could be decisively shaped not merely by sensory experience or axiomatic definition, but also by ideas and imagery derived from the cultures, societies, and aesthetics of their day. 

Instructor: Alison James

Description: This introductory-level course takes as its point of departure Marcel Proust's conceptualization of memory as the foundation both for the self and for literature. For Proust, literary style conveys the singularity of an individual vision while rescuing experience from the contingencies of time. Literature, identity, and memory are inseparable. Later writers will follow Proust's lead in defining literature as an art of memory; but they develop this art in different ways, whether by inventing new forms of life-writing or attempting to revive, via fiction, a lived connection to history. How does memory serve as the foundation of individual or collective identities? How does fiction imagine and give form to memory, and how does literature serve as a medium for cultural memory? How do literary works register the intermittence of memory, its failings and distortions, its fragility as well as its attachment to bodies and places? We will tackle these questions through close analysis of a range of texts. In addition to Proust, authors studied may include Yourcenar, Perec, Modiano, Roubaud, and Ernaux.

Instructor: Christopher Wild

Description: The Protestant Reformation began with a carefully orchestrated media event, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg. Concurrently, he resorted to the still new medium of print to disseminate more widely his scathing critique of the Catholic Church's use of indulgences to communicate God's grace. This was only the beginning of Luther's sweeping attack on the Church's role as the sole mediator of salvation. No religious medium or communicational practice remained unquestioned, resulting in their comprehensive reform. Soon other reformers joined in, pushing the critique even further by questioning the need and validity of all religious mediation. Approaching the Protestant Reformation as a reform of religious media, this lecture course will give particular attention to the congenial alliance between Martin Luther's religious message and the emerging technology of the printing press, the role of Scripture in legitimating Protestant theologies of communication, controversies around particular religious media like images or the eucharist, and the role of direct inspiration in radical reformers. This course will be taught in lecture format.

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