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Spring 2019 Humanities Core section special topics and descriptions

This page only lists special topics for Humanities Core courses.

For all other Liberal Arts courses, meeting times, locations, and registration, log into SIS.

Important dates, as well as the catalog descriptions of recurring Liberal Arts courses and program requirements, can be found in Academic Calendar & Resources.

Humanities Core II: Research Methods (PY.260.216)

Section 01 — Comedy, Ancient and Modern
Patrick Roney

This course will introduce students to the basics of writing a research paper through the study of comic literature. Comedy has formed one of the dominant modes of drama and literature from its beginnings. Comedy has earned the reputation of being a “low” or “vulgar” form of both drama and literature in several senses. On the one hand, it stages themes that are considered either ignoble or obscene, and on the other, it deals with characters and events that are considered common both in terms of social class and culture. The persistence of comedy as a response to so-called “high” art and literature, and its critical function vis-à-vis the social mores, class distinctions, aesthetic values, and cultural ideals of its time will be our focus. Students will not only read a wide variety of comic literature, which may include Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Moliere, Cervantes, Douglas Adams, and Kurt Vonnegut, but will in addition pick out one author whose comic work they will study in more detail as the topic for their research paper.

Section 02 — Identity, Sex, and Death in Modernist Fiction
Robert Carson

Innovative literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave expression to vibrant, controversial views on human nature and its transformation in modernity. The texts we will read pose questions about what forms of community (e.g., race and empire) ought to prevail in the world, what kinds of erotic desire make for a free and worthwhile culture, and how mortality can give meaning to life in a secular era. We will work together on short, focused research and writing assignments for each text. At the same time, students will choose their own topic and develop a longer paper over the whole semester, sharing their progress with the class in periodic workshops. Texts may include: Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray; Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis; Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness; Nella Larsen, Passing; Kate Chopin, The Awakening.

Sections 03 and 07 — Great Texts in Philosophy
Oliver Thorndike

This class is an Introduction to Western Philosophy. Topics include: epistemology, moral philosophy, and aesthetics. We begin with the origins of Western Philosophy in Ancient Greece: Hesiod, Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and the nomos/phusis debate. In this context, we’ll look at Plato’s reasons for censoring the arts and Aristotle’s response to it. Subsequently, we move on to Early Modern Philosophy and its discussion of external world skepticism, various proofs of God’s existence, the problem of free will, and personal identity. We’ll continue our path through the history of great philosophical texts to modernity: Nietzsche and Kundera. Finally, we’ll look into the neurological basis of music perception, and close the semester by discussing current trends in artificial intelligence and how it affects and will affect our lives. Whenever possible, we’ll look into how any of these topics have been picked up in the arts. If there is any specific topic you would like to discuss, please email me over the break or bring it up in week 1 so we can build it into the syllabus!

Sections 04 and 06 — Local Histories
Andrea Westcot

This course invites students to examine and interpret local spaces from their perspective as students and artists. In this inquiry-based course, students will research, document, and present their understandings of the past and present of Peabody, its neighbors, and its neighborhood. The course will emphasize interdisciplinary research methods, curation of sources, and understanding of multiple perspectives. Students will develop and write arguments, which they will present in both written and multimodal forms. ​

Section 05 — The Souls of Black Folk: The early political thought of W. E. B. Du Bois
Adam Culver

This course will provide an introduction to the basics of writing a research paper and the practice of political theory through an intensive study of W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Equal parts historical study, sociological investigation, and cultural analysis, Souls exemplifies the type of interdisciplinary and multidimensional approach employed by political theorists in their efforts to make sense of the fundamental conditions, contours, and characteristics of political life in modern societies. Among the topics explored in this course are: the metaphysical nature of races, the relationship between gender, class, and race, the sources of community and identification, the multifaceted relationship between culture, religion, and politics, the role of theory and history is relation to politics, and the relationship between individuality and community. In addition to examining these issues, one of the primary objectives of this course is to ensure that students acquire competency in academic research and writing. To that end, students will select a research topic related to course themes, find source materials, and complete a formal academic research paper (15–18 pages).

Humanities Core IV: Art, Culture, and Society (PY.260.360)

Section 01 — The Avant-garde, Past and Present
Patrick Roney

The impact of the Avant-garde on modern art is immeasurable, and its presence is as strong as ever. This course will be both a survey of Avant-garde art since its inception in the mid to late 19th century, and a critical-philosophical study of the theory of the Avant-garde. Art forms will include poetry and literature, music, photography, film, painting, sculpture and dance. Our aim is to develop a working understanding of the various theories and questions surrounding the Avant-garde both as a movement and with regard to specific art forms. Students in this course will be asked to pair a particular art form with an attempt to develop a working theory that relates the avant-garde not only to the traditions of art, but to its social, political, historical and commercial contexts.

Section 02 — The Nobel Prize in Literature
Robert Carson

In this course, we will ask—and answer—three questions about the Nobel Prize in Literature: What is at stake in evaluating works of literature? What has been the role of the Nobel Prize, and prizes generally, in the formation of the public’s reading preferences? How do debates about who “deserves” the Nobel reflect larger social and political conflicts? Our texts will include a sampling of works by Nobel laureates from the early 20th century to the present, recent scholarly work about the Nobel Prize and the prize system, and public arguments about some of the most controversial winners—and non-winners. (This course does not assume past coursework in literature, but it does assume students’ independent motivation to read challenging texts at a faster rate than in Core I and II.)

Section 03 — Philosophy of Art: E.T.A. Hoffmann, Richard Wagner, Eduard Hanslick
Oliver Thorndike

The goal of the class is to better understand the social, political, and philosophical context of 19th Century Germany/Austria and how three artists/intellectuals responded to it in their works: E.T.A. Hoffmann, Richard Wagner, and Eduard Hanslick.

  • E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776–1822) was a Romantic intellectual who wrote fiction, philosophical treatise on art; he was a playwright, composer, and music critic, and has had a tremendous influence on artists and intellectuals in the 19th Century: Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” are perhaps the most well-known examples. But he also inspired Schumann’s “Kreislerianer,” shares various themes with Wagner, and is one of the major influences for the young Brahms.
  • Richard Wagner (1813–1883) is well known as a composer. Perhaps not so well known are Wagner’s theoretical writings on art. Wagner’s practical and intellectual ambitions are inextricably interconnected with his musical work. Yet, despite the fact that Wagner’s art has absorbed political and philosophical ideas, his music seems to relate to the audience on its own terms. We’ll look at three of his operas in more detail: Die Walküre, Meistersinger, and Parsifal.
  • Eduard Hanslick (1825–1904) was one of the most influential art critics in Vienna, a close friend of Brahms, and intellectual opponent of Wagner. His short treatise “On the Musically Beautiful” can be seen as the philosophical backbone of the famous debate between Wagnerians and Brahmsians, but is also worth reading on its own because it helps us reflect on what value the arts have.
Sections 04 and 05 — Race and Power in American Cinema
Adam Culver

This course will examine changing norms of racial representation in American cinema from The Birth of a Nation (1915), Casablanca (1942), and Home of the Brave (1949) to Selma (2014), Get Out (2017), and Sorry to Bother You (2018). We will analyze specific representations of racial identity and difference in film and will consider those images in relation to the operations of the film industry and to specific moments in US history when “race relations,” international politics, economic factors, legal policy, and social rights movements informed cinematic representations of race. Although this course begins with the silent film and Classical Hollywood eras and ends with recent black-directed films, it is not intended to plot out either a complete or a linear history of race in American cinema. Instead, we will focus on exploring how representations of racial difference function as allegories for different visions of American social and political life. This means that we will be analyzing film as a social practice that creates meanings for its makers and audience, meanings that inform both everyday practices and deliberations over many of the most important issues and debates in American society. Through this analysis we will also have occasion to examine race’s complex and ever-shifting relationship to class, gender, and sexuality in both cinema and American politics more generally. The goal is to gain a better appreciation for how the stories films tell us shape our personal and collective identities and inform our understanding of political life. To help us accomplish this, we will carefully read James Baldwin’s late work of film criticism, The Devil Finds Work.