Academic Stories

New Autumn 2021 classes engage students in political movements, environmentalism and more

Four new courses challenged students’ critical thinking in a wide variety of interdisciplinary topics

From engaging with Baruch Spinoza’s political philosophy to study breaks at Jackson Park, several new University of Chicago College classes provided unique opportunities for undergraduate students to pursue new areas of study this past autumn.

Below, explore what inspired faculty members to design four of these new classes, what each of them covered and what students gained from them.

17th Century Political Philosophy: Hobbes and Spinoza

How relevant are ancient political philosophers in conversation with our modern conceptions of government? More than you might think.

Daniel Moerner
Daniel Moerner

This fall in a class called 17th Century Political Philosophy: Hobbes and Spinoza, College students explored the political ideologies of two major philosophers and strove to discover how these ideas are – or sometimes are not – employed by modern governments.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Daniel Moerner, who referred to 17th century political philosophy as his “bread and butter,” recently conceptualized this class after reading Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics. The book was written by political philosopher and Yale-NUS College professor Sandra Leonie Field in August 2020. It compares Hobbes and Spinoza’s ideas of power, and discusses whether either of them are right.

Hobbes was a 17th century English philosopher best known for his description of social contract theory, and Spinoza was an Enlightenment thinker prominent for his work in the same century, during the Dutch Golden Age. Both wrote during times of political crisis.

“Each thinker emphasized the role for the passions in human action, and developed a political philosophy which appears to emphasize the absolute sovereignty of the state,” Moerner said.

The class primarily focused on Hobbes and Spinoza’s works, as well as excerpts from Potentia. It also covered the works of some lesser known philosophers, like Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob, and more current thinkers. Along with readings and discussions, students had the chance to expand their knowledge of political philosophy in a refreshing way by comparing these philosophers’ ideas to modern democracies today.

Jim Royal, a third-year student, said he enjoyed how the class introduced competing notions of what a state should be, and encouraged students to consider how to best run a society in light of the ideas of Hobbes and Spinoza.

Although Royal said modern governments differ greatly from the ideas of Hobbes or Spinoza, he said he believes that their philosophical frameworks are useful benchmarks when evaluating how to govern a society.

"Potentia is all about popular movements, and it tries to explore the question of what Hobbes and Spinoza would think about them,” Prof. Moerner said. “Considering the citizen-driven nature of political movements going on around us, it felt very topical to include in the course."

Prof. Moerner said he hopes to continue teaching this course in the future because the class challenges students’ perspectives and offers a space for meaningful and productive dialogue about political philosophies.

“Political questions touch on everyone's lives, and the students have been respectful and engaged in our conversations,” he said.

From Chekhov to Chernobyl: Russian Literature of Environmental Catastrophe

Having come to the College this past fall from Johns Hopkins University (JHU), Assistant Professor Anne Eakin Moss was excited to meld her passions for Russian literature and cinema with the problem of anthropogenic climate change.

Anne Eakin Moss
Anne Eakin Moss

Inspired by Amitav Ghosh’s “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable,” Eakin Moss created “From Chekhov to Chernobyl” to explore environmental degradation and its aftermath in 20th century Russia and the Soviet Union.

Eakin Moss said one great impetus for designing the course was thinking about the relationship between invisible risk and the environment. She argues that it is imperative for people to attune themselves constructively to the often invisible risks of the modernized world (radiation, viruses, global warming). These types of calculations mimic those of the characters in the primary texts students read, including Svetlana Alexievich’s “Voices from Chernobyl” and Anton Chekhov’s “Sakhalin Island.”

Fourth-year Public Policy Major and Environmental and Urban Studies minor Eugen Craciunescu discovered the class through a course catalog and was instantly hooked.

“In an autocratic state like the Soviet Union, this power was often weaponized to create an ethic of unrelenting industrial progress for the sake of socialist utopia, with little to no regard for people or the environment,” he said. “In class, we explored how authors navigated an often repressive academic environment through subversive literature that challenged these hegemonic narratives and re-centered life itself.”

One of his favorite memories from the class was reading Mikhail Zoshchenko’s short story, “Bees and People,” which was written as a metaphor for Soviet progress. Craciunescu was reminded of his late great-grandfather, who was a beekeeper in his spare time and constantly touted the miracle effects of raw honey.

“After talking with Professor Eakin Moss about this, she took it upon herself to bring raw honey to class to share with all of us,” he said. “These little thoughtful gestures were what really made the class so memorable for me, and I definitely recommend everyone to consider taking this class in the future.”

At the end of the quarter, Eakin Moss took her students on a study break hike to Wooded Island in Jackson Park. She said the forested area gave them an embodied experience of the stories they read, which were set in Siberia.

In teaching this class, she said she hopes students will leave with a further understanding of humans’ relationship to the natural world.

“I hope not that [my students] descend into a feeling of despair about the future, but can think about critical ways to see those relationships afresh and try to remake them,” said Eakin Moss.

The course was piloted at JHU last spring and adapted to fit the UChicago curriculum.

Modern Love

Modern Love, taught by UChicago PhD student Korey Williams, explored erotic love’s genre and form, and how what writer Audre Lorde called "our deepest and nonrational knowledge” is portrayed through literature.

Korey Williams
Korey Williams

Williams first taught a similar course called “Erotics of Knowledge” while at Cornell. When he proposed the course at UChicago, he said he hoped this class would serve as a broad discussion of erotics, gender, race, sexuality and love.

In this seminar course, students analyzed weekly readings and discussed literature written about erotic love, such as Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and many more.

Williams, who is studying Affect Theory and Black Studies in his UChicago PhD program, said that making the course a space for free and open discussion led to a number of interesting conversations. For example, one conversation about the hypersexualization of women led to a discussion on current celebrities and the intersection of sexual liberation and capitalism.

A particularly memorable assignment from the class, Williams said, was the students’ midterm paper, a staged dialogue between a fictional and nonfictional character from the class’s course materials. It led to unconventional juxtapositions of different writers and critical analyses on their differing ideas. Williams said this assignment was a valuable exercise in “predicting what these authors’ motivations and ideas look like beyond the bounds of their texts.”

“Classes were oriented around very casual discussions and the ways in which we personally engaged with the texts,” third-year student Selma Chab said. “We discussed our personal definitions of love and freely shared our opinions on the characters and themes of the texts in a refreshing way.”

Modern Love provided students the opportunity to explore and engage with love as a concept, something Williams believes is particularly necessary during difficult times.

“The pandemic has been a difficult time with many challenges. With Modern Love, I wanted to provide a possible respite from that,” he said.

Williams said he hopes to continue teaching Modern Love in the future. He considers it to be a “living, breathing course” that is continuously relevant in providing students a chance to explore love and its implications in our society and culture.

Religion: Cosmos, Conscience, and Community

Seeking an outlet to address questions about religion in a deep and systemic way, nine faculty members from the UChicago Divinity School came together to conceptualize a new course that fulfills the undergraduate Social Science Core requirement.

Alireza Doostdar
Alireza Doostdar

The result of this year-long collaborative process was “Religion: Cosmos, Conscience, and Community,” a three-quarter sequence that gets students thinking about religion not just as an object of social scientific research, but also as a critical resource and conversation partner for social theory.

Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and the Anthropology of Religion Alireza Doostdar has been teaching at UChicago since 2012 and played an integral role in developing the course. Born a year before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Doostdar’s formative years were shaped by cultural upheaval and political differences, which influenced his academic interests in religion being used as a vehicle for revolutionaries to establish global justice.

The first quarter of the sequence explored how religious traditions around the globe have articulated the nature of knowledge, organized social realities and theorized individual and collective identities. The class offered in Winter Quarter focuses on power relations and concepts of suffering and evil, while the class in the Spring will examine themes of justice, community, the future, hope and despair.

By offering this course, Doostdar and his team hope to familiarize students with influential religious texts from around the world, help them engage with their major themes and put these questions in conversation with modern day thinkers, including Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Dorothy Day and more.

Wheel of life
The wheel of life pictured above demonstrates the themes of Doostdar's course, and how religion and society interact. (Courtesy of Alireza Doostdar)

Having always been interested in the role religion plays in both the public sphere and in her own personal life, second-year Fundamentals major Olivia Gross said she thought this class would provide a way to explore both curiosities.

Gross said students were open from the beginning to sharing the role religion played in their own lives, which added value and intimacy to the small class.

“I learned more than I ever could have hoped about a variety of belief systems from not only the texts we explored, but additionally from my peers in the class,” said Gross.

In future years, Doostdar and his colleagues hope to implement class trips to the Smart Museum, as well as a podcast-making assignment. The team is also in the process of developing a series of high-quality video lectures for public viewing made by faculty at the Divinity School, with support from the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the Divinity School.