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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 2021 Signature Courses

Instructor: Ghenwa Hayek

Description: In this course, we will read a variety of texts that imagine or represent the Arab experience of exile to and diaspora within the United States, focusing on the ways that these texts re-construct and imagine the key dialectic of home/diasporic space, specifically within the framework of the complicated and dynamic relationship between the Arab world and the United States. Throughout the quarter, the readings would enable us to engage with several key concepts related to the Arab (and broader) immigrant experience in the US, including race, memory and nostalgia, language, and second-generational post-memory, as well as the role of the immigrant community in forming the 'homeland's' vision of itself. We would begin with a historical overview of emigration from the Arabic-speaking world, beginning with the vast emigration of Lebanese and Syrians from Mount Lebanon and Syria in the mid-nineteenth century, but will pay particular attention to moments in which this identity has been or become particularly fraught, for example, following such events as the 1967 war, the 9/11 attacks, or the Executive Order by the Trump Administration (1/2017).

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: Laurie Zoloth

Description: This is a lecture and discussion class that will explore how a variety of philosophic and religious thinkers approach the issues and problems of modern dilemmas in medicine and science in a field called bioethics. We will consider a general argument for your consideration: that the arguments and the practices from faith traditions and from philosophy offer significant contributions that underlie policies and practices in bioethics.

We will use a case-based method to study how different traditions describe and defend differences in moral choices in contemporary bioethics. This class is based on the understanding that case narratives serve as another core text for the discipline of bioethics and that complex ethical issues are best considered by a careful examination of the competing theories as work themselves out in specific cases. We will examine both classic cases that have shaped our understanding of the field of bioethics and cases that are newly emerging, including the case of research done at our University. Through these cases, we will ask how religious traditions both collide and cohere over such topics as embryo research, health care reform, terminal illness, issues in epidemics and public health, and our central research question, synthetic biology research.

This class will also explore how the discipline of bioethics has emerged to reflect upon such dilemmas, with particular attention to the role that theology and philosophy have played in such reflection.

Instructor: Olga Solovieva

Description: Why are films constantly remade and adapted from culture to culture across differences of time and space? What is at stake? What is gained and what is lost in cinematic remakes and adaptations? And how do cultural, historical and narrative conventions transform the adapted stories? Focusing on Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic adaptations of literary works, for example Ran, based on Shakespeare, or Hakuchi, based on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot; and on remakes of Kurosawa’s own films, such as Sergio Leone's “spaghetti” Western A Fistful of Dollars, Georg Lucas's Star Wars episode "Phantom Menace" and Sturges' Western The Magnificent Seven, we will discuss how originals relate to remakes and how films transform their literary counterparts. The course is an introduction to the cinema of Akira Kurosawa and its international afterlife as well as to the problems of intercultural adaptation. 

Instructor: Tim Harrison

Description: What is consciousness? What is it like to be conscious? This course answers these questions by examining the emergence and development of consciousness as a concept. As a phenomenon, consciousness probably came into being deep in evolutionary time. Yet as a concept consciousness is relatively new: the European notion of consciousness emerges in the late seventeenth century. This course draws on literature, history, philosophy, and psychology to examine how the concept of consciousness came to possess its explanatory dominance. We will start by acquiring a sense of what consciousness now means in philosophy, biology, neuroscience, and fiction, paying particular attention to how the concept differs from similar ideas in ancient Indian philosophy. We will then turn to two important historical moments. First, we will examine 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 relates to the “stream of consciousness” techniques in the work of Virginia Woolf. This course stresses historical contingency—consciousness has a birthdate—in order to explore a consequence that follows from this fact: the extent to which current uses of this concept are still shaped by the historical circumstances that conditioned its emergence.

Instructor: Ada Palmer

Description: Florence, Rome, and the Italian city-states in the age of plagues and cathedrals, Petrarch 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.

Instructor: Jennifer Wild

Description: Media practices and discourses evoking war or violence are common today, such as the “weaponization” of social media; “cyber warfare” and attacks; “online battlefields;” “guerilla” media tactics; “The Great Meme War” and “Infowars.com,” to name a few. In relationship with terms suggesting that we live in an age of “post-truth” dominated by “fake news” or “fact-challenged” journalism, the media wars of today may seem unique to the twenty-first century. But in fact, the history of the use of media to either combat or spread ideas dates back centuries to the earliest phases of mass media and communication. In this class, we will proceed historically, broadly conceiving of media to include print and visual, cultural, and artistic forms, cinema, television, and the internet. While we will explore how media have historically been used to construct or counter dominant systems of representation, we will also discuss how different media forms function formally, learning to analyze how they construct discourses of truth as texts (documentary; propaganda). This class will also function as a contemporary research laboratory where students will be asked to track, evaluate, and theorize contemporary or historical media that are taking part in a so-called “media war.”

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Instructor: Malynne Sternstein

Description: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, Lolita: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate, to tap at three on the teeth.” Popular as Nabokov’s “all-American” novel is, it is rarely discussed beyond its psychosexual profile. This intensive text-centered and discussion-based course attempts to supersede the univocal obsession with the novel’s pedophiliac plot as such by concerning itself above all with the novel’s language: language as failure, as mania, and as conjuration.

Instructor: Martha Feldman

Description: Over the course of the last 120 years, opera and cinema have been sounded and seen together again and again. Where opera is commonly associated with extravagant performance and production, cinema is popularly associated with realism. Yet their encounter not only proves these assumptions wrong but produces some extraordinary third kinds--media hybrids. It also produces some extraordinary love affairs. Thomas Edison wanted a film of his to be “a grand opera,” and Federico Fellini and Woody Allen wanted opera to saturate their films. Thinking about these mutual attractions, “Opera across Media” explores different operatic and cinematic repertories as well as other media forms. Among films to be studied are Pabst’s Threepenny Opera (1931), Visconti’s Senso (1954), Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann (1951), Zeffirelli’s La traviata (1981), DeMille’s Carmen (1915), Losey’s Don Giovanni (1979), Bergman’s The Magic Flute (1975), and Fellini’s E la nave va (1983). No prior background in music performance, theory, or notation is needed. Students may write papers based on their own skills and interests relevant to the course. Required work includes attendance at all screenings and classes; weekly postings on Canvas about readings and viewings; attendances at a Met HD broadcast and a Lyric Opera live opera; a short “think piece” midway through the course; and a final term paper of 8-10 pages.

Instructor: Dan Arnold

Description: The idea that “religion” and “science” are often fundamentally at odds is familiar, indeed perhaps among the orienting ideas of modernity. Attending to some historically important approaches to the endlessly vexed question of how best to think about religion and science in light of one another, this class will consider such questions as whether the problems seem different if we ask not about religion and _science_, but rather about religion and _nature_.

  • View syllabus [forthcoming]

Instructor: Tyler Williams

Description: What is a ‘sense’? How do we attune, coordinate, and interpret our senses and the information that we receive through them? How do we structure and shape the world around us for and through the senses? We will address these questions by diving into the multi-sensory worlds of South Asia—a region that includes the present states of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka—and learning how peoples of the region have theorized and employed the senses to understand and shape their aesthetic, social, and religious worlds. We will taste spices, smell fragrances, listen to music and street sounds, ‘visit’ temples, mosques, and museums, read literary, philosophical, and religious texts, and view works of visual and sculptural art in order to better understand which aspects of sensory experience are indeed ‘universal’ and which are conditioned by history and culture.

Instructor: Judith Zeitlin

Description: 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 Chinese, Japanese, and Korean tales and films. Issues to be explored include: 1) the relationship between the supernatural, gender, and sexuality; 2) the confrontation of death and mortality; 3) collective anxieties over the loss of the historical past; 4) the visualization (and exorcism) of ghosts through performance; and 5) responses to ecological and political trauma.

Instructor: Chris Kennedy

Description: "Alternative facts'' and "fake news'' have fueled growing concerns that we are entering a "post-truth'' society. But what exactly is truth, and why should we care about it? We will address this question over the course of this quarter by examining contemporary views on the role of truth in meaning and communication; challenges to these views from uncertainty and subjectivity; arguments for and against different conceptions of truth; expressions of skepticism about the value of truth; different categories of non-truth (lies vs. b.s.); and how all of these issues bear on the relation between truth, belief, and decision making. Along the way, we will consider whether our claims to know certain things are always limited because they come from a particular perspective, and what value (if any) truth contributes to the well-lived life.

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