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Course Descriptions

Fall Semester 2015

Osama bin Laden and Global Jihad
Professor Jeff Kenney
This FYS will focus on Osama bin Laden (OBL) and the emergence of global jihadism in the geopolitics of the Middle East. OBL--the man and the image--will serve as a prism through which we can explore: 1) the rise of Islamism, both moderate and radical, in the Muslim world; 2) the transformation of Islamist militancy within nationalist contexts to a more global reach, culminating in 9/11; 3) the impact of Western foreign policy on the region; and 4) the continuing spread of jihadist ideals and actions, including the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). We will examine these themes with the goal of understanding the religio-political challenges facing modern Muslim societies and the way these challenges have been shaped by and come to influence global politics and culture.

Ruin and Re-begetting
Professor Andrea Sununu
Our study of the imagery of ruin and re-begetting will allow us to explore a triple theme--creation, destruction, and re-creation--and to consider how language conveys the human attempt to counter fragmentation, chaos, or oblivion.  Reading works by Tolstoy, Woolf, Plato, Shakespeare, Kingsolver, Faulkner, Dickinson, and many others, we will explore the longing to triumph over transience, destruction, and death.  It is the hope that throughout the semester, students will find words that matter--not only in texts they will read, but also in their own writing.  Accordingly, it is the hope that the course will help students develop control over language, so that they may, by expressing ideas clearly, concisely, and elegantly, take pleasure in their own creations.

Reflections on Photography
Professor Marnie McInnes
This seminar focuses on the nature and uses of the photograph, paying particular attention to the Photobook—a relatively new, hybrid kind of book, in which a collection of photographs is bound together in a fixed sequence, just as a book of poems might be.  How do we read a book of photographs, and how do our reading strategies resemble those we use when we read a poems, essays, or works of fiction?  How do words (in the form of titles, captions, dates, or surrounding text) shape our reception of a photograph and the meanings we attach to it?  How do words and images interact?

We will read several (very wonderful) theoretical studies of the photograph, including  Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, the book that gives our seminar its title; Susan Sontag’s study of war photography called Regarding the Pain of Others; Geoff Dyer’s sketches of famous photographers in The Ongoing Moment; and other key essays on the history and cultural relevance of the photograph.  Primary readings for the course will include enticing anthologies of photographs along with single-author books by photographers such as Susan Meiselas, Gregory Crewdson, Diane Arbus, Duane Michaels, and others.  Students will write personal and critical essays about photographs and will assemble a Photobook anthology of their own.

Why? The Quest for Meaning
Professor James Wells
“Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question,” wrote Albert Camus, the Nobel Prize winning Algerian author. In this course Ancient Greek and Roman writers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Lucretius launch the exploration of that fundamental question. That exploration, the quest for meaning, hinges upon the inescapable questions that these artists and philosophers pose again and again: What is a good life? What is happiness? What is the relationship between life’s worth and the meaning of life? Our work in this course will include attention to the monumental texts we read, discussion of those texts and of our responses to their provocations, and reflection.

Emancipation on Film: Slavery, History, Hollywood
HONR 300Aa:  Humanities
Professor David Gellman
How should we imagine the end of chattel slavery in the English-speaking Atlantic? From the British Parliament to America’s Civil War battlefields, filmmakers have mined a vast historical landscape for compelling narratives. Telling the stories of shipboard rebels, soldiers, plantation workers, judges, and presidents requires grappling with monumental themes—race, freedom, slavery-- while keeping the camera tightly focused on discrete human beings. Taken together, the titles of the films screened in the course express the challenge of blending the personal, the political, and the philosophical problem of dramatizing emancipation: 12 Years a Slave, Amazing Grace, Belle, Lincoln, Amistad, Glory. 

Historians have developed a variety of sophisticated ways of understanding the complex story of how slaves broke the chains of bondage and how two nations responsible for the slavery of millions repudiated a monstrously profitable institution. To study their work is to encounter some of the discipline’s best minds grappling with an institution fundamental to shaping the modern world. This course puts filmmakers, historians, and historical documents into conversation with one another. We will test how movies might enhance our understanding of emancipation, while intensively interrogating the choices directors and screenwriters make when they work with historical materials.
The course will have three interlinked parts. First, we will analyze all six films, analyzing them mostly on their own terms with the aid of brief supplementary readings. Next, we will spend several weeks revisiting the themes and historical terrain covered in each film through a more sustained use of traditional historical materials such as books, articles, and documents. Finally, students will present the fruits of semester-long research projects in which each member of the seminar reverse engineers a brief scene selected from among our films. Student research will amplify a major goal of the entire course: to analyze the origins and interpretive consequences of the choices we make when retelling emancipation stories. At the semester’s conclusion, the history of emancipation, vexed and triumphant, will help us to more clearly imagine our own times.

Gender and Morality
HONR 300Ab: Humanities
Professor Christopher Wells
From the Victorian ideology of the "Angel in the House" to Carol Gilligan's study of the differences between men's and women's moral voices In a Different Voice, the modern Western world has a lengthy history of assigning different moral modes to men and women.  This interdisciplinary course will evaluate the basis for arguments that morality comes in gendered flavors.  Students will also explore the cultural history of gendered notions about morality through readings in moral philosophy, literature, and moral psychology.  The key question for the course will be not just whether it makes sense to think about morality in gendered terms, but also what it means for our current ideas about morality that this division appears to continue to be deeply rooted in Western culture.  That is, we will investigate the ways in which a gendered understanding of moral issues continues to shape, and perhaps limit, our moral thinking.   Other issues for discussion will include the relationship between greatness and goodness, and the advantages and disadvantages of communitarian ethics.

Evolution and Human Nature
HONR 300Ba: Science
Professor Kevin Moore
The Philosopher Daniel Dennett once called evolution “the single best idea anyone ever had.” If this claim has any merit, then surely evolutionary perspectives can shed light on important questions about human nature in general, and issues like cooperation, aggression, sex and gender, aesthetics, emotion, cognition, moral judgments, and environmental concerns in particular. We will look at current and historical attempts to develop scientific accounts of human nature, and examine their strengths, weaknesses, and motivations.  The course offers an opportunity to explore how the “single best idea anyone ever had” can be applied human nature and important contemporary concerns.

Ethics, Cures, and Cancer Care
HONR 300Bb: Science
Professor Pascal Lafontant
In Ethics, Cures, and Cancer Care, we will develop an understanding of the history of Cancer and how it has evolved from thousands years ago when it was first recognized to our current time. We will explore the ethical dimensions of cancer research, clinical studies, therapies, and end of life care from the perspectives of patients, physicians, researchers and writers. We will read from The Emperor of all Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee among other texts.

Roman Emperors
HONR 300C:  Social Science
Professor Jinyu Liu
Using Roman emperors as case studies, this course explores issues concerning the exercise of power and theory of rulership in the context of empire. Based on close reading of Roman sources including biographies of the Roman Emperors, legal rulings, inscriptions, and so on as well as modern scholarly sources, the central issues to examine in this course include but are not limited to: What factors impacted the way the Roman emperors were portrayed in the Roman sources? From what sources did the legitimacy and power of the Roman Emperor derive? What constraints – moral, legal, political, cultural, financial, and so on – conditioned the Roman Emperor’s power and the manner by which he exercised his power? How did the Romans approach the issue of imperial rule and local “autonomy”? How crucial was the role of Roman Emperor for the identity formations in the Empire? When the Roman Empire transitioned into a Christian world, in what ways did the functions and desired virtues of emperors change?