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 Winter 2018


Nietszche: Culture, Critique, Self-Transcendence
David Wellbery

This course is conceived as 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: (1) Culture: Nietzsche’s thought on the anthropological roots and the expressive forms of human meaning-making. (2) Critique: Nietzsche’s critique of moralism, religion, and the vacuous character of much modern culture. (3) Self-Transcendence: Nietzsche’s account of 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 and in this sense the course may be thought of as a pathway to the Humanities. 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. (SIGN 26013, GRMN 25120), TR 3:30-4:50PM

History of Skepticism
Ada Palmer

Before we ask what is true or false, we must ask how we can know what is true or false. This course examines the vital role doubt and philosophical skepticism have played in the Western intellectual tradition, from pre-Socratic Greece through the Enlightenment, with a focus on how Criteria of Truth—what kinds of arguments are considered legitimate sources of certainty—have changed over time. The course will examine dialog between skeptical and dogmatic thinkers, and how many of the most fertile systems in the history of philosophy have been hybrid systems which divided the world into things which can be known, and things which cannot. The course will touch on the history of atheism, heresy and free thought, on fideism and skeptical religion, and will examine how the Scientific Method is itself a form of philosophical skepticism. Primary source readings will include Plato, Sextus Empiricus, Lucretius, Ockham, Pierre Bayle, Montaigne, Descartes, Francis Bacon, Hobbes, Voltaire, Diderot, and others. (SIGN 26011, HIST 29516, CLCV 28517, HIPS 29516 etc.), T 2:00-4:50PM

American Deaf Community: Language, Culture, and Society
Diane Brentari

This course will focus on the Deaf community that uses American Sign Language (ASL) as a lens into the disciplines of linguistics, psychology, and cultural studies, and how the use of ASL contributes to individual identity and identity within society.  In addition to these disciplinary foci, topics of Deaf literature and art forms will figure in the discussion and readings, which come from a variety of sources and include seminal works in the field from historical and contemporary perspectives. (SIGN 26018, LING 26030), TR 12:30-1:50PM

Language of Deception and Humor
Jason Riggle

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. (SIGN 26030, LING 23920), TR 12:30-1:50PM

The Discovery of Egypt in the Age of European Enlightenment and its Aftermath
Nadine Moeller

The interests by Europeans in Egypt extends back to the 17th century and was fueled by the mysteries of the Orient and seeking to understand the birth of civilization. By the late 18th century interests in Egypt, particularly by the French and British, had evolved considerably and were motivated by a diverse number of factors (political, colonial, economic, scientific). However, it was Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign to Egypt in 1798 that took the first initiative to explore this distant land from a scientific point of view through the involvement of a group of French scientists who were tasked to document and analyze all aspects of this fascinating country and its past. This course will investigate the intellectual, political and socio-economic background of Europe’s discovery of Egypt within the framework of the Age of Enlightenment and the following transformative years of the birth of a new scientific discipline called Egyptology which also greatly influenced European archaeology. The aim for the students is to explore the reasoning, pre-conceptions and attitudes of the first explorers and scientists travelling to Egypt and the ensuing aftermath of ‘Egyptomania’ in Europe. (SIGN 26032, NEHC 20060), TR 3:30-4:50PM

The History of Iraq in the 20th Century
Orit Bashkin

This class surveys the modern history of Iraq. It will consider the state’s changing relationships with the British Empire and will reflect on the ways in which colonized Iraqi elites responded to and appropriated the Western civilizing mission. The course will likewise focus on disciplinary institutions that emerged during colonial and postcolonial periods, and will try to investigate how they changed over time. In particular, we will examine such institutions as the Iraqi educational system, the modern Iraqi army and the Baath party. The class will also look at the various sectarian, agrarian and tribal communities of modern Iraq, and will analyze some of the interactions between these groups and the national Iraqi elites.  We will finally consider the role global capitalism played in modern Iraqi history, and especially the ways in which technologies related to the production and selling of oil both shaped and were shaped by the Iraqi socio-economic realities. Our last classes will be dedicated to exploring Iraqi American relations since 2003. (SIGN 26028, NEHC 26151), MW 5:30-6:50PM

Mesopotamian Law
Martha Roth

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 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). (SIGN 26022, NEHC 30019), TR 3:30-4:50PM

Media and Power in the Age of Putin and Trump
William Nickell

Over the past 200 years, various political and cultural regimes of Russia have systematically exploited the gap between experience and representation to create their own mediated worlds--from the tight censorship of the imperial and Soviet periods to the propaganda of the Soviet period and the recent use of media simulacra for strategic geopolitical advantage. During this same period state control of media has been used to seclude Russia from the advancement of liberalism, market economics, individual rights, modernist art, Freud, Existentialism, and, more recently, Western discourses of inclusion, sustainability, and identity. Examining this history, it is sometimes difficult to discern whether the architects of Russian culture have been hopelessly backward or shrewd phenomenologists, keenly aware of the relativity of experience and of their ability to shape it. This course will explore the worlds that these practices produce, with an emphasis on Russia's recent confrontations with Western culture and power, and including various practices of subversion of media control, such as illegal printing and circulation. Texts for the course will draw from print, sound, and visual media, and fields of analysis will include aesthetics, cultural history, and media theory. (SIGN 26029, REES 25603), MW 4:30-5:50PM

The Underground: Alienation, Mobilization, Resistance
Robert Bird

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. (SIGN 26012, REES 26068), TR 11:00-12:20PM

Psychoanalytic Theory: Freud & Lacan
Françoise Meltzer

This course is an introduction to psychoanalytic theory, from the works of the two most influential figures in the field. We’ll read seminal texts by both Freud and Lacan, and look as well at how those works have influenced the Humanities and philosophy— specifically, we’ll consider brief passages by  Derrida, Kristeva, Kofman and Zizek.  Starting with Freud, the idea is to make students feel “at home” in the fascinating world of psychoanalysis and its assumptions.  (SIGN 26033, CMLT 25551), TR 2:00-3:20PM

Richer & 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), TR 2:00-3:20PM



Courses for Spring 2018

Roman Law
Clifford Ando

The course will treat several problems arising in the historical development of Roman law: the history of procedure; the rise and accommodation of multiple sources of law, including the emperor; the dispersal of the Roman community from the environs of Rome to the wider Mediterranean world; and developments in the law of persons. We will discuss problems like the relationship between religion and law from the archaic city to the Christian empire, and between the law of Rome and the legal systems of its subject communities. (SIGN 26017, CLCV 25808), TR 12:30-1:50PM

Theater About Theater
John Muse

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 will 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, Maeterlinck, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, Genet, Peter Weiss, Handke, Levine, and Baker; and through theoretical work by Abel, Puchner, Hornby, Sofer, Fuchs, and others. (SIGN 26020, ENGL 24412), Lecture: TR 2:00-3:20PM

Grimm's Fairy Tales and the Construction of Childhood
Christopher Wild

This course will study fairy tales within the broader context of the history of childhood and practices of education and socialization.  Therefore, we will address issues such as the varying historical conceptions of the child, and the role of adults – parents and pedagogues – in the shaping of fairy tales for the instruction of children.  In addition to our main focus on the socializing forces directed at children we will explore different interpretive approaches, including those that place fairy tales against the backdrop of folklore, of literary history, of psychoanalysis, of the history of gender roles. While we will consider fairy tales drawn from a number of different national traditions and historical periods, we will concentrate on the German context and in particular on Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s contribution to this genre.  In order to reflect on the specific mediality of fairy tales, we will examine the evolution of specific tale types and trace their history from oral traditions through print to film.  Last but not least, we will have to consider the potential strategies for reinterpreting and rewriting a genre that continues to shape the cultural imaginary today. Readings and discussions in English (German texts will be available in the original). (SIGN 26025, GRMN 25413), TR 9:30-10:50AM

Arab America
Ghenwa Hayek

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 recent Executive Order by the Trump Administration (1/2017). Texts in this class would include readings from the early twentieth century New York-based Pen Association, and writing by post-1967 literary figures as Halim Barakat in addition to novels by Arab-American writers Rabi‘ Alameddine, Mohja Kahf and Randa Jabbar, poetry by Naomi Shihab Nye, Samuel Hazo, and Suheir Hammad, and more recent writing by Egyptian authors Miral al-Tahawy and Ala’ al-Aswany and Iraqi Inaam Kashashi, as well as films by Cherien Dabis, and Nicole Ballivian. Theoretical readings will include a number of key articles from prominent journals such as Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, and readings from such texts as Akram Khater’s Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender and the Middle Class in Lebanon 1870-1920, Ghassan Hage’s writing on diaspora, Carol Fadda-Conrey’s Contemporary Arab-American Literature, and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. If possible, we will take a field trip to the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, MI. (NEHC 30921, SIGN 26026), TR 2:00-3:20PM

Listening to Movies
Berthold Hoeckner

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). (SIGN 26021, MUSI 20918), MWF 11:30-12:20PM

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), TR 9:00-10:20AM

Malynne Sternstein

“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. (SIGN 26027, FNDL 25300), TR 12:30-1:50PM

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)


Not Offered in 2017-2018

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)

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)

History of the Present
Kathleen Belew

This 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. This lecture course is an elective open to non-majors and to first- and second-year students, although upper-year students and History majors and minors are welcome. No previous history course work is required. (SIGN 26019, HIST 14204)