Academic Affairs

Course Description Archive 18 - 19

2018-2019 First Year Preceptorial Courses

Fall 2018

  • An Appetite for History: An Historical Look at Food and Society

    This class examines the historic relationship between food and society. We will focus on several major eras throughout history by observing how culture, religion, gender, economy, technology, morality, and historical events influenced and shaped the acquisition, preparation, and consumption of food. Both primary and secondary sources will be used to create context and allow us to investigate and sometimes re-create the diets of the past. Topics covered may include: Feasting and Fasting: How religion, health, and wealth affected the Medieval Diet; Slavery, Colonialism, and The New World: Exotic foods and how those were acquired during the 16th-18th centuries; Victorian Revolution: Industry, technology, and innovations in the 19th to early 20th centuries; Make Do or Do Without: Austerity, Rationing, Science and Nutrition during the Depression and World War II; A Women’s Place is in the Kitchen, or is it? Societal advances and the change in gendered domesticity after 1950.

  • Goodness, Happiness, and Truthi-ness

    In this course, we are going to look at the relation of goodness and happiness -- does being morally good make a person happy? Or could we be happier if we threw off the chains of moral constraints? We will examine how some philosophers, fiction writers, political theorists, religious traditions, and psychologists have seen the relation of goodness and happiness. At the end of the course, we will also turn to truth(-i-ness). Is there “real” “objective” truth? Or is everything a matter of social convention or personal choice?

  • Born to Be Good

    For thousands of years, philosophers and scientists have sought to understand the nature and origin of moral norms. The standard view has been that morality is acquired through learning and education. Recently, however, studies in developmental psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience have brought groundbreaking new data into the discussion, suggesting that we may have innate moral knowledge that allows us to discern what is good from what is bad. In this writing course, we will analyze how empirical studies, scientific theories, and philosophical arguments have attempted to reveal the origins of morality.

  • HUMAN / NATURE

    "The categories of “human,” “nature,” and “human nature” are, it is safe to say, extremely complex and interrelated. In this seminar, we will investigate various representations (literary, scientific, theoretical, religious, artistic) of the natural world, on the one hand, and on the “nature” of what it means to be a human being, on the other. While the natural world – the world “out there” – will be continuously set in contrast to the nature of humanity, we will also certainly be careful to explore in our readings and discussions the ways in which these ostensible opposites intersect and overlap. In effect, we will examine the ways that human nature and the natural world are always already deeply interconnected categories.

  • Collapse and Resilience: Lessons from the Past

    Part of the allure of studying the past is the spine-tingling realization that even the most advanced societies can fall apart -- sometimes with breathtaking rapidity. What does social collapse look like in the archaeological and written record, and why does it happen? Do societies really collapse, or simply change form? What value judgments do we make when we decide a society has "failed" or "succeeded"? What makes a society resilient, and how can we prepare ourselves for crisis? We address these questions by examining a series of case studies from time periods and places around the world, such as the Late Bronze Age Aegean, the Assyrian Empire, the Roman Empire, Norse Greenland, the Maya, the Pueblo peoples of Chaco Canyon, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). We also use these case studies to try to understand collapse in the world today -- from the decline of American cities, such as Detroit, to mass migrations stemming from violent conflict, as in the case of Syria. Throughout the course, we discuss how our understanding of social collapse in the past shapes the way we think about the strengths and vulnerabilities of our own society and the modern institutions we take for granted.

  • The Modern Quest for King Arthur: Visions of Camelot in the Twenty-First Century

    King Arthur has captured the Western imagination, despite possibly never having existed at all. According to the legend, Arthur emerged from the wreckage of the Roman Empire in the late fifth or early sixth century to lead the British defense against Germanic invaders, only to die (or maybe not!) in the noble but doomed endeavor. He appears in no written records until the early ninth century. From that point on, however, this once and future king features prominently in Western historical writings, literature, and visual art. According to Arthurian mythology, he will return in our hour of greatest need, but in a way, he never left. In this course, we will consider why his image has proven so durable and endlessly adaptable, particularly in the contexts of the Industrial Revolution, World War II, and the New Golden Age of Television.

  • Radical Thinkers

    This course surveys the works of some eloquent advocates of ideas that in one way or another challenge the foundations of traditional Western culture. We will begin with Machiavelli, who argues that the ethical principles of Christianity and Humanism are incompatible with effective political governance. We will read Rousseau, who argues that civilization has led not to progress but to the moral debasement of the human species; Karl Marx, who attacks capitalism and calls upon the poor to revolt and establish a communist society; Friedrich Nietzsche, who assaults (among other things) Judeo-Christian theology and ethics, rejects every form of metaphysics, and substitutes “perspectivism” for eternal truth; and Sigmund Freud, who argues that the price of order and civilization is the purposeful mutilation of our instinctual desire. We will also read the Marquis de Sade who challenged fundamental social mores in his philosophically grounded pornographic writings. We will then turn to our own time and look at McLuhan and Sontag, who were among the first to understand the transformative role of mass media, technology, photography and film, on our notions of what it means to be modern. We will conclude with Ta-Nehisi Coates, who offers a stinging indictment of the American Dream and of structural racism in contemporary America.

  • Media Accuracy, Credibility, Fairness, and Reliability

    According to a published report by The American Society of Newspaper Editors, “78 percent of U.S. adults believe there is bias in the news media.” In order to carry our social responsibilities, we ought to be able to think critically and evaluate the information we get through the media: Radio, TV, Internet, Movies, Books, Newspapers, and Magazines.

    This course will focus on an increased awareness of inaccuracies in the media and the tools to search for different opinions and perspectives. Students will critically reflect on increasingly complex social, political, and cultural issues, and will learn how to read between the lines and form their own independent opinion despite the proliferation of media outlets and PR tricks, including WMD (Weapons of Mass Distraction). As citizens and future leaders, we will be better equipped to protect great values such as democracy, civil liberties, peace and justice if we are well informed.

  • Feminist Refusals from Antiquity to Today

    Our class examines feminist forms of refusals, dissent, strike, interruption, disruption, protest and assembly as they are depicted in ancient texts to notice how these kinds of actions and narrative are re-interpreted today. We will look at several kinds/ways/sources of dissent and refusal in ancient literature, and as exemplified and represented in contemporary literature, film, and television that builds on ancient texts.

    Doing so, we build an archive of refusal in ancient texts that helps us see dissent and disruption today in literary and visual texts that we may not have otherwise recognized.

    Our readings begin with plays that show individual and collective ways women say “no.” Looking at these works and contemporary receptions of them, we see how female refusal is undermined by interpretations that depict women as crazy, monstrous, or too willful.

    Throughout the class we will also focus on how collectivities are formed, how dissent is mobilized and expressed collectively rather than just individually, and how political change is initiated and sustained.

  • Intersections: What does science have to do with anything?

    How would a chemist write his autobiography? Why would an MIT physicist write a book about a ghost? How does a journalist investigate the entire geological history of the United States? How do we learn about what science is, where it came from, and what it has to do with our lives? Why do some people not "believe" it? We will be investigating science from a wide variety of non-science perspectives and see what we find.

  • Unnatural Acts

    In this section of the preceptorial, we will explore the complex and elusive zone between nature and artifice. Our routes of access will be texts on a diverse set of themes: art, time, photography, history, and the human body. We will consider what it means to demarcate the boundary between "nature" and "art," and look at the ramifications of both respecting and defying it.

  • Constructing the Self

    Who are you, really? What makes you unique? What do you and all other humans have in common? How do you learn and form judgments? What makes you peaceful or violent, conservative or liberal, competitive or collaborative, truthful or deceitful? What is the nature of friendship, love, and loyalty? How does technology affect your sense of Self? This course will address these and many other questions by bringing together biology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, ethics, history, psychology, philosophy, religious studies, literature, art, and the latest findings in genetics, to explore the complexities of the Self. Students will watch movies and talks, as well as read about consciousness, free will, sexuality, and artificial intelligence.

  • The Rules of Madness

    You often feel sad -- do you suffer from depression? You are obsessed with not eating too much -- are you anorexic? You cannot concentrate -- do you have ADHD? In the last two centuries, moral flaws, existential difficulties, and idiosyncratic traits have regularly been reinterpreted as psychiatric diseases. But are these diseases real, and in what sense of "real"? Have they been discovered or invented? And how do we draw the line between the normal and the pathological? History shows that this line has been constantly redrawn under the influence of broad cultural changes, business decisions, or personal interests. After a brief survey of the history of psychiatry followed by a look at some big issues related to psychiatry, this course will focus on a select number of mental disorders and debate the proposition that they are historically constructed.

  • The Orwell Rules

    George Orwell, who spent a lifetime as a journalist as well as a novelist, gave six rules for writers, which amount to this: keep it precise and keep it short. It does not seem coincidental that he was also an advocate of freedom of speech, and that his rules only work for a writer committed to telling the truth. In this class, we will read work by Orwell, and three other writers who share his interest in the personal essay as a means of taking the measure of the culture: Joan Didion, James Baldwin, and Nat Hentoff. We will use their work and Orwell's advice as guides for your writing.

  • The Homeless Experience

    In this course we will explore the emergence of homelessness in contemporary society and its consequences to human life, well-being, and health. To do this, we will explore the lived experience of homelessness gleaned from observational studies and research on adolescents and adults primarily in the United States but also in other places around the globe. We will do this in an effort to understand the strategies homeless people historically employ to counter situations of alienation, isolation, and deprivation. We will also pay attention to understanding the history of homelessness both in the United States and abroad though representations of homelessness in contemporary literature, film, and culture. Juxtaposing contemporary assessments and portrayals of homeless people's lives allows us to disentangle fact from fiction and consequently build a more accurate assessment and understanding of this difficult human dilemma.

  • Stories of Resilience, Resistance, and Transformation

    This First-Year Preceptorial is structured around the idea that the power of literature rests in its transformative properties. Literature and other humanistic endeavors have the potential to change people and culture. Writers use stories to resist cultural ideas (such as the notion that whiteness is beautiful in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye) or bear witness to the atrocities committed by a government or regime (as is the case with survivors Chanrithy Him and Marjane Satrapi). Writers like Tim O’Brien use storytelling to heal a wounded self and help others do the same. Sometimes writers tell difficult stories to show the resiliency of the human spirit (e.g. Jeanette Walls), providing readers the essential ingredients for surviving suffering. Thus, we will be reading, discussing, and examining these stories of hurt, loss, and trauma, with the idea that literature can save us or, at the very least, point us in the right direction.

  • Constructing the Self

    Who are you, really? What makes you unique? What do you and all other humans have in common? How do you learn and form judgments? What makes you peaceful or violent, conservative or liberal, competitive or collaborative, truthful or deceitful? What is the nature of friendship, love, and loyalty? How does technology affect your sense of Self? This course will address these and many other questions by bringing together biology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, ethics, history, psychology, philosophy, religious studies, literature, art, and the latest findings in genetics, to explore the complexities of the Self. Students will watch movies and talks, as well as read about consciousness, free will, sexuality, and artificial intelligence.

Winter 2019

  • Arguing about God

    People have been arguing for millennia about whether God exists. The contemporary science-vs-religion debate, pitting the New Atheists against advocates of Intelligent Design, is just the latest iteration of this perennial controversy. In her 2010 genre-bending novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein explores these debates through her protagonist, Cass Seltzer, a psychologist of religion with his own theories about why belief in God persists despite the advances of science. Along the way Goldstein skewers New Atheism, ID, and traditional theism with equal verve. The course examines the various arguments and refutations put forward by Goldstein/Seltzer, as well as the alleged (ir)relevance of arguments to people's (dis)belief in God. It also considers whether the book, albeit a clever vehicle for Goldstein's own views, succeeds as a piece of literary fiction.

  • College: What is it Good For?!

    Why do colleges and universities exist and why do women and men seek them out? Do they exist to nurture our humanity, moral imagination, and ethical sensibilities? Are they businesses that sell student-customers the essential credentials for lucrative employment in an entrepreneurial economy? Are they institutions that protect and renew essential human qualities against the fads, fashions, and fanaticisms of any particular moment in time? Do they exist to provide a 'college experience' in which socializing, career networking, and extracurriculars are really more important than education? Are they the crucial rung on the ladder of social mobility? Do they exist to serve the public good or simply personal gain?

    We think this is a modern debate, but teachers, students, and citizens have wrestled with similar questions for centuries and they continue to decisively affect colleges and universities around the globe. We can say for certain that the founding principle of colleges and universities concerns education, to teach and learn certain 'ways of knowing'. So, they exist to educate, but precisely what kind of education, for what purpose, for whose benefit, and paid for by whom? This Preceptorial will debate questions like these. In doing so we will examine how individuals inside and outside colleges and universities have grappled with such questions, from historians and teachers to novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers. We will critically read 'texts' (broadly defined), discuss with each other the insights to be found in them, and develop sound evidence-based and aesthetically pleasing written arguments about their meaning and value. Why are you here?

  • Extinct!

    Every species that has lived, or will ever live, will go extinct. Extinction occurs at gradual rates throughout Earth history, but every once in a while there is an extreme event that causes a spike in the extinction rate. We call these events “mass extinctions” -- when 75% of all life goes extinct in a geological instant. Historically they are caused by natural disasters like glaciers, massive volcanic eruptions, or meteor impacts. But our current extinctions have a more unnatural cause: humans. Whether we call this a mass extinction or a biodiversity crisis does not matter; what matters is that we are causing extinction at rates far above what we have evidence for in the fossil record.

    To some extent, extinction is natural and inevitable -- though when extinctions are caused by humans, we tend to feel obligated to interfere. But should we try to prevent extinctions? Should we use genetic engineering to help endangered species adapt to our changing world? Should we bring extinct species back from the dead? Is it possible to preserve nature in a world with an ever-growing human population? Why do we even care if species go extinct? Should we let nature run its course? How much money should be invested in saving species from extinction when so many of our fellow humans live without basic necessities like clean water and enough food? This class will look at writings from scientists, journalists, and ethicists to investigate this topic. The class will tie in scientific concepts with the underlying philosophical and ethical questions. You will also gain experience reading, writing, and thinking scientifically, which is a benefit for all citizens of planet Earth!

  • Visions of Freedom — Self and Society

    One of the most cherished — and contested — ideas in American history is the ability to “make something of oneself.” Yet what does it mean to be an autonomous individual? Are we truly free to shape our own destiny, to pursue our own happiness and choose not just an occupation but also an identity? Or are there limits to such freedom? What is the proper relationship between the individual and community, the modern self and society, the global citizen and natural environment?

    In this seminar, we’ll listen closely to what other thinkers and writers have to say about what it means to be “free” — and we’ll develop our own ideas in response. We’ll explore the work of those who celebrate the concept of individual autonomy, alongside those who are critical of the idea. Course readings for the Winter 2019 term include the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence, alongside essays and longer works by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), and the twenty-first century non-fiction writer Andrew Forsthoefel. We will read Forsthoefel’s book Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time (2017) in its entirety. Other readings will include selections from Steve Hagen’s Buddhism Plain and Simple: The Practice of Being Aware, Right Now, Every Day (1997), and several short works of social, cultural, and political theory. The primary goal of this course is to develop your capacity to read carefully, think critically, and express yourself clearly. To this end, you’ll be encouraged to pursue your own interests — your own vision of freedom — within the larger framework of the course.

    “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Literature, Ethics, and Environment

    In this course we will consider and explore the intersections of human cultures and the environment, with an emphasis on the social and cultural dynamics of the environment and environmental action. Some questions we will consider: What are the ethical questions that we pose and wrestle with as we interact with and within our environment? What is the place of literature in community, literacy, and environmental activism? To what extent does place matter in our conceptions of what nature is? What are the connections between race, class, and environmental degradation and environmental activism? How do class and gender enter into the nexus of ethical considerations that shape our environment? What global perspectives might we consider when we make decisions about our local spaces?

    We will consider the concept of “nature” as we consider the concept of human culture. How does the language we use when writing about nature affect what we do in, for, and to nature?
    This course is collaborative in nature, and as such students should bring their interests, curiosities, and discoveries to add to the mix. A partial list of possible readings include those by Terry Tempest Williams, Barbara Kingsolver, Evelyn White, bell hooks, M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Luther Standing Bear, Running-Grass, Simon Ortiz, Ana Castillo,
    Wangari Maathai, possibly readings from Orion magazine.

  • Stories of the Body: Medicine in Literature

    Medicine is often considered the territory of science, but illness, dying, and healing are central to human experience, and from them come some of our most important stories. What similarities and differences arise in the ways we understand and discuss our bodies and our health? What themes and patterns emerge in narratives of illness, aging, death, and recovery? (How) do these stories differ when told by doctors, patients, or family members? Who has the authority to tell these stories? Who chooses or is forced to remain silent? And what does such literature teach us about human experience? In this class, we will explore literature in various modes and genres that attempts to map such experiences, and texts that engage critically with the intersection of humanities and medicine.

  • Bodies in the Water: Water as Resource, Threat, and Symbol

    Water is a fickle friend. We drink it, bathe in it, transport goods on it, and use it to irrigate our crops; but it can also drown us, poison us, flood our homes, and erode our land. In this course, we will explore how individuals and communities, past and present, negotiate relationships with this protean resource. We will ask questions such as: how does water function as a symbol in literary and visual arts? And what roles can it play in politics, religion, and economics? Our goal will be to hone our critical reading, writing, and speaking skills, while also developing a richer understanding of how we use, conserve, think about, and protect ourselves from the water around us.

  • What is a ‘Person’?

    We’ll examine notions including person, community, home, spirituality, and nature in African thought. The study of these concepts and their interrelations will help us understand how the (African) individual self is constructed in relation to shared memory, local beliefs, cultural practice, morality, and the sense of community. The course will also address relations between ‘periphery’ (the singular) and ‘center’ (the universal) to have a better understanding of cultural identity. We’ll discuss texts, films, and essays by various authors including Birago Diop, Camara Laye, Dani Kouyaté, Camara Sana, Terkenli Theano, Kwame Gyekye, Fatima Seedat, and Ahmadou Bamba, etc.

  • Constructing the Self

    Who are you, really? What makes you unique? What do you and all other humans have in common? How do you learn and form judgments? What makes you peaceful or violent, conservative or liberal, competitive or collaborative, truthful or deceitful? What is the nature of friendship, love, and loyalty? How does technology affect your sense of Self? This course will address these and many other questions by bringing together biology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, ethics, history, psychology, philosophy, religious studies, literature, art, and the latest findings in genetics, to explore the complexities of the Self. Students will watch movies and talks, as well as read about consciousness, free will, sexuality, and artificial intelligence.

  • A Revolutionary Impulse: Politics, Protest, and the Avant-Garde

    Perhaps the most famous piece of avant-garde art is Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, which was just a regular urinal displayed as art. This intentional transgression of the "normal" boundaries of art, literature, and film is at the heart of the avant-garde. But what exactly are these boundaries, how do they get established and what does it mean to transgress them? Over the course of the term, we will explore the transnational, interdisciplinary aims of the avant-garde, focusing on the avant-garde's rhetoric of shock, its pervasive DIY ethos, and its critical stance towards the culture industry.

  • Culture and Nation

    “Art allows us to dream the culture forward,” says performance artist Taylor Mac. Artists and authors have used their mediums not just “to hold the mirror up to nature” and reflect the society and nation they see, but to reshape it. Similarly, Friedrich Schiller writes in “The Stage as a Moral Institution” that art, quite literally, has the power to bring people together and constitute a new nation. In this preceptorial, we will examine the way artists have engaged with and shaped their (often fractured) societies, from the ancient world through the present moment. We will focus primarily on works of theatre and film as we examine works by authors and artists that may include Aeschylus, Plato, William Shakespeare, Aphra Behn, Friedrich Schiller, Alexis de Tocqueville, Georg Büchner, Laurence Olivier, Werner Herzog, Taylor Mac, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.

  • Arguing about God

    People have been arguing for millennia about whether God exists. The contemporary science-vs-religion debate, pitting the New Atheists against advocates of Intelligent Design, is just the latest iteration of this perennial controversy. In her 2010 genre-bending novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein explores these debates through her protagonist, Cass Seltzer, a psychologist of religion with his own theories about why belief in God persists despite the advances of science. Along the way Goldstein skewers New Atheism, ID, and traditional theism with equal verve. The course examines the various arguments and refutations put forward by Goldstein/Seltzer, as well as the alleged (ir)relevance of arguments to people's (dis)belief in God. It also considers whether the book, albeit a clever vehicle for Goldstein's own views, succeeds as a piece of literary fiction.

  • Evil

    What is evil? What are the different kinds of evil? Where does it come from? What motivates people to perform evil acts? What can we do about evil? Should the concept of evil be abandoned? This class is devoted to looking at a variety of perspectives on and approaches to understanding evil by considering such questions. We shall take a historical survey of texts of a variety of forms, such as Augustine's autobiography, philosophical treatises by Kant & Leibniz, novels by Voltaire & Dostoyevsky, and Arendt's journalism. Such works will be considered in the context of pivotal historical events, including the Lisbon earthquake & the holocaust. Finally, we shall consider recent studies of evil within institutions, including psychological work such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and Claudia Card's provocative analysis of the evils of marriage & motherhood.