Fall 2019 Honors Seminars
Ruin and Re-begetting
HONR 101A: First Year Seminar
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 Plato, Shakespeare, Donne, Woolf, Faulkner, Kingsolver, and others, we will explore the longing to triumph over transience, destruction, and death. I hope that throughout this semester you will find that words matter--not only in the texts you read, but also in your own writing--and that as you hone an argument and polish your prose, you will take pleasure in your own creations.
Mind in Motion--Cognition Across Contexts
HONR 101B: First Year Seminar
Humans are amazing learners but obviously have major limitations in how effectively we acquire new knowledge and skills and how competently we apply them to new situations. In this course, we will examine knowledge and skills transfer from a broad variety of perspectives, e.g., what are the most efficient strategies for learning according to cognitive science, to what extent do qualities like curiosity, passion, and critical thinking apply across contexts in our lives, how do cognition and emotion compete and cooperate to produce our decisions and behaviors, can human learning and machine learning be effectively synthesized in a world suffused with AI, and should higher education and work cultures evolve in certain ways to better accommodate human strengths and weaknesses?
The Making of the Modern Mind
HONR 101C: First Year Seminar
The medieval world was filled with witches, angels, and absolute rulers who justified their authority through religion. Superstition and irrationality reigned supreme. The modern world, by way of contrast, looks to science, evidence, and reason to explain the natural world that surrounds us and to fashion our approach to the pressing political questions of the day, or so, until recently, we liked to think. The seventeenth century was the fulcrum marking the change from the medieval to the modern world view, a century where all previous beliefs were challenged and the groundwork laid for their eventual displacement by new touchstones which would become the centerpiece of the Western worldview—superstition, irrationality, and reliance on religion replaced with skepticism, empiricism, and the reliance on reason.
Through a close reading of the seminal works of seventeenth-century political theorists, scientists, and philosophers, thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, we will study the new intellectual approach to the world that they created. What characteristics did these thinkers share in their works? How did they challenge the norms and beliefs of their day? What ideas in their seventeenth-century writings can we find in our own intellectual lives?
After reading these foundational works, we will then read contemporary case studies that question how much the thought processes which we think are foundational to the modern Western world view actually guide us in our thinking. Do we really assess all the evidence and make our conclusions from the facts alone, whether in science or politics? How do we actually decide what to believe? Are we really so different, mentally, from medieval thinkers?
Cultures in Motion: Sacred Journeys and Stories, Afar and Astray
HONR 101D: First Year Seminar
Pilgrimage is a mode of inquiry and a metaphor for the many quests we undertake, whether they are journeys of emotion, faith, learning, physical pursuit or simply the experience of life itself. In this course, we will embark on a number of simultaneous journeys. Together we will: explore cultural dimensions of “pilgrimage” as a rich example of individual and corporate activity (unpacking, along the way, classical religious studies concepts like ritual, myth, authority, charisma, tradition, and experience); travel across the social sciences, looking at, in turn, political, anthropological, sociological, and psychological aspects of pilgrimage as we encounter specific examples (case studies) that include (at a minimum) the two pilgrimage routes on UNESCO's World Heritage List (Camino de Santiago de Compostela; Kumano Kodo); wander with other pilgrims as we consider and compare literary accounts of pilgrims from diverse times, places, and cultures; traverse through intersections of pilgrimage and critical categories of race, ethnicity, gender, and class; consider the embodied, kinesiological elements of the journey itself; and, finally, follow the paths that lead to recent considerations of cyber pilgrimage, studies of authenticity, presence and meaning-making in online/virtual pilgrimage experiences.
Interdisciplinary AREA Seminars
Existential Literature (or, Zen and the Art of Existentialism)
HONR 300A: Humanities
“The freedom of the spirit, o tense emptiness, depends on ruling out any point of support.” --Edmond Jabès
Imagine what the world would look like if all points of support were taken away from you, if you had nothing absolute to fall back on, nothing stable to stand on. How would you respond? Would your reaction be fear or relief? Would this emptiness prod you to act or to feel as though action were futile?
Existentialism is concerned with these questions. It is a way of thinking, a mindset, a positioning, a shared belief that the world has no absolutes, that we create our own meaning. In this course, we are using the term “existentialism” broadly to include those who pre-dated the philosophical movement (historically, this movement is associated most closely with continental Europe during the war years—emerging just after WWI and reaching its heyday in the period preceding, during, and following WWII) and those who are influenced by this movement. We will also be drawing on Zen Buddhism and Taoism to provide a comparative perspective. All of the material that we will be encountering in this class centers on the concrete business of living in a fragile world, a world that no longer seems to have answers. In this class, we will be sorting out what binds these ways of thinking together, what sets them apart, and how they can be applied to this current moment.
Evolution and Human Nature
HONR 300B: Natural Science
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 to human nature and important contemporary concerns.
Medicine and Morality
HONR 300Bb or HONR 300Cb: Natural Science or Social Science
Recent advances in medical science have contributed to rapidly expanding human control over natural processes. While it is vital that we understand scientific advances, it is just as important to grapple with the implications and problems these new advances have brought with them. We will look at how bioethicists and clinical ethicists attempt to reach moral and ethical solutions through the use of case studies, discourse, and life narratives.
Legacy of the Northern Ireland Conflict
HONR 300C: Social Science
This course examines the historical, political, and social issues concerning Northern Ireland’s quest for peace. Beginning with the partition of Ireland in 1922, the northern six counties of Ireland, or the country of Northern Ireland, has been embroiled in conflict. During the period known as the “Troubles,” from 1969 through 1998, over 3600 people lost their lives because of sectarian violence. In 1994, the paramilitary organizations called for a ceasefire that eventually led to the 1998 Good Friday Belfast Agreement. Still, 21 years after the Agreement’s ratification, some would argue that the peace process has still not been fully realized. This course considers the long-lasting effects of violent conflict on communities and individuals and how those effects may or may not be transformed.