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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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Winter 2022 Signature Courses

    Instructor: James Osborne

    Description: 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 built? This course explores famous monuments from around the world to answer these questions through the lens of archaeology, architecture, and art history.

    Instructor: Hervé Reculeau

    Description: This course offers a critical introduction to the study of the relationship between human societies and their environment, with a specific focus on situations of rapid climatic change (RCC) in early historical periods. Students will be invited to reflect on discourses about climate and its influence on human societies from Herodotus to the IPCC; on notions such as environmental or social determinism, possibilism and reductionism, societal collapse and resilience; and on recent academic trends at the crossroads of Humanities, Social Sciences and Environmental Studies. Alternating lectures (Tu) and discussion sessions (Th), the first half of the quarter introduces the notion of "climate," from its origins in Classical Greece to the present, and how this concept has been (and still is) used to define human groups and their history; it also offers an overview of the theories and methods that shape our current understanding of climate change and its effect on societies (past and present). The second half of the quarter is devoted to case studies, with a specific focus on the Ancient Near East (from prehistory to the first millennium BCE). Students will be asked to present the readings and participate in classroom discussions; write an article summary; and conduct a personal research (midterm annotated bibliography and research proposal; final essay) on a topic of their choice, which needs not be limited to the Ancient Near East.

    Instructor: Jason Riggle

    Description: In this course we will examine the language of deception and humor from a variety of perspectives: historical, developmental, neurological, and cross-cultural and in a variety of contexts: fiction, advertising, politics, courtship, and everyday conversation. We will focus on the (linguistic) knowledge and skills that underlie the use of humor and deception and on what sorts of things they are used to communicate.

    Instructor: Thomas Christensen

    Description: The history of the American Musical in the 20th century is paradoxical.   While the genre is one often denigrated as staging lyric utopias of romance and adventure allowing audiences to escape depressing quotidian realities, many musicals did seek to engage some of the most pressing social issues of their day.  In this course, we will look at—and listen closely to--four differing musicals, studying their creative origins, while also analyzing their complex social meanings and reception as revealed through the story, music, lyrics, staging, dance, and film adaptations. Musicals to be covered:  Oklahoma! (1943), West Side Story (1957), Follies (1971), and Hamilton (2016).   We will attend a live performance of the new Broadway production of Oklahoma!  at the CBIC Theater on January 18.

    Instructor: Martha Roth

    Description: Ancient Mesopotamia--the home of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians who wrote in cuneiform script on durable clay tablets--was the locus of many of history's firsts. No development, however, may be as important as the formations of legal systems and legal principles revealed in contracts, trial records, and law collections (codes), among which The Laws of Hammurabi (r. 1792-1750 BC) stands as most important for understanding the subsequent legal practice and thought of Mesopotamia's cultural heirs in the Middle East and Europe until today. This course will explore the rich source materials of the Laws and relevant judicial and administration documents (all in English translations) to investigate topics of legal, social, and economic practice, including family formation and dissolution, crime and punishment (sympathetic or talionic eye for an eye, pecuniary, corporal), and procedure (contracts, trials, ordeals).

    Instructor: David Wellbery

    Description: This course is conceived as a pathway to the Humanities and an introduction to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). A range of Nietzsche's work will be considered, but the focus will be on three themes to which Nietzsche recurred throughout his writing career: Culture: Nietzsche's thought on the anthropological roots and the expressive forms of human meaning-making: Apollo/Dionysus; Gesture; Music; Metaphor Critique: the vacuous character of modern culture; romanticism, decadence, nihilism. Self-Transcendence: individual self-realization and freedom. The selection of these themes is motivated by the fact that they may be considered as fundamental dimensions of humanistic inquiry. Students will develop a sound understanding of a writer whose intellectual influence continues to grow, but at the same time they will become acquainted with such core concepts of humanistic/interpretive inquiry as form, expression, ideology, genealogy, discourse, self-fashioning, individuality, and value.

    Instructor: Richard Rosengarten

    Description: The decision of a person to present in written form the story of her or his life - and through that, what they take to be their selfhood - has spawned a literary tradition with an abiding and distinctive presence in religion. This course explores the phenomena of specifically religious autobiography as variations on the form of "confession," tracing its roots in early Christianity (Paul and Augustine), and juxtaposing these expressions with readings in a range of authors who adapt the classic articulations of "confession" to their specific selves and contexts: examples will include Teresa of Avila's "mystical" confession, the "confession" of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Frederick Douglass' "(anti) slave religion," Mahatma Gandhi's "non-violent resistance," and Maggie Nelson's "transition". The course will conclude by studying the adoption of the confessional mode in the graphic novel, which introduces explicitly visual representations of selfhood and carries forward the genre's general spirit of exceptionalism and overt non-conformity.

    Instructor: John Muse

    Description: This course is a transhistorical study of changing ideas about representation, explored through the lens of early modern and twentieth-century plays that foreground theatrical form. Every play frames time and space and in the process singles out a portion of life for consideration. The plays we'll consider this term call conspicuous attention to the frame itself, to the materials and capacities of theater. What happens when plays comment on their own activity? Why might they do so? Why has theatrical self-consciousness emerged more strongly in particular historical periods? What might such plays teach us about the nature of art, and about the nature of life? To what extent can we distinguish between art and life? We'll explore these and other questions through plays by Marlowe, Kyd, Shakespeare, Pirandello, Beckett, Genet, Stoppard, Nwandu, and Young Jean Lee; and through theoretical work by Puchner, Hornby, Sofer, Fuchs, and others.

    Instructor: Benjamin Saltzman

    Description: Seeing hell for oneself, watching the torture of a saint, looking at illustrations of violence: these profoundly terrible experiences, narrated and drawn, shaped the way medieval readers took in the world around them, its violence, its suffering, its preponderance of evils. But how exactly does literature allow readers to witness and process such horrors? How is the observation of violence transformed by art? What is unique about the medieval experience of these artistic and literary forms of mediation? What can they teach us about our own contemporary cultural encounters with the sights and stories of atrocity? By exploring questions like these, this course will consider the didactic, religious, and epistemological functions of witnessing in a variety of early medieval texts such as illustrated copies of Prudentius's Psychomachia (in which the Virtues engage in a gruesome battle against the Vices), the Apocalypse of Paul (in which Paul sees hell and lives to tell about it), early medieval law codes, the Life of St. Margaret, the Old English Genesis, and the heroic poem Judith. These medieval texts will be read alongside thinkers like Giorgio Agamben, W.J.T. Mitchell, and Susan Sontag, whose work on images of atrocity in the modern world will both inform our critical examination of the Middle Ages while opening up the possibility for rethinking literature and art in relation to contemporary experiences of violence.

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