Spring Words Sections

Spring 2024 Words Descriptions are below, listed in order of class time and then by professor last name.

MWF 11:30-12:30pm


Rights, Revolvers, and Reforms: Guns and Gun Culture in America

Jennifer Hubbert, Prof of Anthropology and Asian Studies

  • Core 120-01 – MWF 11:30am-12:30pm

This section is also taught MWF 1:50-2:50pm. Please see the description there (below).


Magic, Miracle and Wonder in the Pre-Modern World

Karen Gross, Prof of English

  • Core 120-02 – MWF 11:30am-12:30pm

Magic attributes to words the power to change reality: a spell or a curse can transform one thing into another. It frequently produces wonders that demand interpretation, with obscure intentions and deceptive surfaces: hence why stories involving magic often become self-referential, interrogating how texts and art make meaning. Magic also can be a metaphor for those mysterious private transformations we all experience but are baffled by, whether that be falling in love or discovering that we have indeed forgiven someone, not just in our words but in our hearts. Questions we may consider this semester include: Who was thought capable of using magic? To what ends or under what conditions might magic be used? Is magic unnatural or hyper-natural? How is a miracle different from magic? Is art a form of enchantment? Are there ethical or aesthetic principles inherent to wonders? How does magic help us grapple with difficult truths? Our readings may include Euripides’s Medea, Virgil’s Fourth Georgic, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, Sir Orfeo and the lays of Marie de France, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, saint’s lives and miracles, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. We may also read some modern critics and historians, such as Jane Bennett, Caroline Walker Bynum, and Marcel Mauss.

NB: While welcoming observations about how the past informs and departs from our present understanding, please note that there is no Harry Potter, Gandalf, or Sabrina in this course. Other than modern critics, our most recent reading dates to 1611.

MWF 1:50-2:50pm

Poetry as Philosophy

Philip Barron, Post-Doc Fellow Philosophy

  • Core 120-12 - MWF 1:50-2:50pm

Can poetry be philosophical? Can philosophy be poetic? Of course, the answer to both questions is “yes.” Why, then, did Plato try to put as much distance as possible between poetry and philosophy? Why are poetry and philosophy often seen as at odds with one another?

This course will survey certain important forms of philosophy and poetry and introduce you to some techniques for achieving critical appreciation of philosophical ideas, especially as they appear in the literary arts. “Critical appreciation” means having good reasons for liking what you like, thinking what you think, and defending your interpretation of a text.

Together, we will work to answer such questions as: what does a poem mean (and how does it accomplish its meaning)? What choices did the poet make in order to achieve the effects they intended? What motivates the philosopher to solve a puzzle in a particular way? Where does art come from?

Written assignments will be a mix of analytic (prose) and creative writing (poetry). Readings will include philosophical texts by Jorge Luis Borges, Hans Georg Gadamer, John Stuart Mill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Martin Heidegger, and Lao Tzu as well as poetry by Emily Dickinson, Lucille Clifton, Friedrich Hölderlin, Wallace Stevens, Robinson Jeffers, Ed Roberson, Robert Hass, Linda Gregerson, Octavio Paz, and Mary Robinson.

Singing in the Garden: Music and Culture in Italy during the Black Plague

Aaron Beck, James W. Rogers Prof of Music, Director of Musicology

  • Core 120-06 - MWF 1:50-2:50pm

This course examines music and art in Renaissance Italy. We will read portions of Boccaccio’s Decameron, a collection of 100 tales told during the time of the Black Plague in Florence around 1350. We listen to music from the period and investigate the gardens and countrysides of that time, which were filled with music making. The course also investigates art and architecture of the period, including works of Giotto and Lorenzetti in Florence and Siena. We will illuminate the ways music and art making contributed to a healthy and just society, and helped ward off the dreaded plague. Students will link the medieval period music and art to contemporary examples found in video games and popular music.


Boccaccio Decameron & Beck, Singing in the Garden: Music and Culture in the Tuscan Trecento

The Greatest American Novels: 2014-2023

Rachel Cole, Assoc Prof of English

  • Core 120-08 - MWF 1:50-2:50pm

Each November, five distinguished judges choose one novel or story collection as the winner of that year’s National Book Award for Fiction. Each panel of judges is free to set its own criteria for the award, and as such the list of winners through the years represents an evolving sense of what can and should count as the very best of American literature. In this course, we will read and study some of the novels that have won the National Book Award over the last ten years. As we read, we will try to answer three questions: What stories and characters, what questions and concerns, occupy the “best” American literature today? How consistent are these novels in their interests and preoccupations—do they converge in their understandings of what it means to be American in the second-third decades of the twenty-first century? Finally, to what extent do each of us recognize their questions and concerns as our own? Do these, publicly celebrated novels represent our own Americas—our cultures, our present moments, our worries and joys?

Texts: Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017); Sigrid Nunez, The Friend (2018); Susan Choi, Trust Exercise (2019); Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown (2020), and Tess Gunty, The Rabbit Hutch (2023).


Note: Several of these texts engage difficult topics, including racial violence, sexual violence, and suicide. If you find reading about and discussing such topics traumatic, this may not be the section for you. If you have any questions or would like to talk before selecting this section, please let me know—I would be happy to chat over email or on Zoom.

“Who Tells Your Story”: Words, Knowledge, and Power

Isabelle de Marte, Assoc Prof of French

  • Core 120-14 - MWF 1:50-2:50pm

“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” closes the narrative loop framing Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, An American Musical. Main character and founding father Alexander Hamilton’s nemesis, Aaron Burr, opens and ends the musical, emerging as the main narrator of Hamilton’s story and Miranda’s musical. As Burr’s words merge into those sung by the remainder of the cast, however, the audience is left to wonder who actually tells the story, and ponder the power of narratives: Who sees, who speaks, who writes, who publishes, and for whom? Against the backcloth of the 2022 Ray Warren Symposium on Race and Ethnic Studies on “Story-Telling”, asking these questions in the heart of an institution of higher education, where knowledge is concurrently passed down and examined critically, will help us co-create the foundations of our course around the varying ways in which historical, scientific, and literary narratives shape our lives. Branching out from Hamilton, we will discuss narratives from various times and places, amongst others, Genesis, the 1776 American Declaration of Independence and the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, rewritten in the feminine 1791 by a female playwright who had also set to the stage her highly controversial Slavery of Blacks in 1789. Meanwhile, looking at the “dark side” of Enlightenment Europe, we will also look at how the Encyclopédie movement emerged out of narratives of scientific progress while anchoring racial constructs in natural history. Class participants will get a chance to select some of the course readings.

The Stories that Bind Us

Kristin Fujie, Assoc Prof of English

  • Core 120-09 - 1:50-2:50pm

Society is held together by our need; we bind it together with legend, myth, coercion, fearing that without it we will be hurled into that void, within which, like the earth before the Word was spoken, the foundations of society are hidden. ~James Baldwin

In this course we will immerse ourselves in works of literature (novels, short stories, personal essays) that explore how stories bind us. In its most literal sense, to bind means to tie up, but also to tie together (e.g. binding a book); it can furthermore mean to bandage (a wound) or place under obligation. That stories can restrain and imprison, but also connect, unite, and heal, creates a paradox that lies at the heart of this class and the texts we’ll encounter. I think you’ll find our writers at once captivating and highly self-reflexive; they compel us to get caught up in their stories, and, simultaneously, to step back and reflect on how those stories work—how the narratives that their characters tell about themselves and each other bind them (and us!) in conflicted, transformative, and sometimes heart-breaking ways. Readings might include shorter works by Sandra Perkins Gilman, Leslie Marmon Silko, Jhumpa Lahiri, and James Baldwin. Longer works might include Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

I want students to know in advance that our readings could include difficult material related to domestic violence, sexual assault, racism, mental illness, and addiction. You are warmly encouraged to reach out to me with questions.

Exile and Belonging

Mo Healy, Assoc Prof of History

  • Core 120-16 - MWF 1:50-2:50pm

This semester we will study works that dramatize and theorize the condition of exile: enforced residence in a foreign land. In some texts the journey into exile is a metaphor; in others it is an escape, a physical ordeal, or a psychological odyssey. The experience of exile in turn raises questions about what it means to truly “belong” somewhere. Along the way, we will encounter authors who articulate the challenge of belonging and the drama of exile. We will pair classic texts of banishment and repatriation such as the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus, with contemporary texts from our modern world of borders, passports, and defined nationalities. Each author presents a different take on our theme of exile and belonging: Plato prefers death to exile from his beloved Athens, and Frederick Douglass asks what it takes for a slave to become free. We will read about Native American banishment from homelands as well as accounts of mass incarceration in the United States. Intimate, private experiences of exile and belonging feature in the girlhood memories of Marjane Satrapi, while contemporary stories of refugees uprooted from home on a global scale in the work of Viet Thanh Nguyen. Each of us brings to this class a personal sense of what it means to “belong” (or not); this can serve as a starting point for our exploration of others’ historical and modern experiences of exile.

Understanding Mass Incarceration in the U.S.

Reiko Hillyer, Assoc Prof of History

  • Core 120-13 - MWF 1:50-2:50pm

Starting in the early 1970s, the incarceration rate in the United States increased dramatically. Today, the United States incarcerates its residents at a rate five times the rate at which it incarcerated them for the first three quarters of the twentieth century. No other nation incarcerates such a large proportion of its population. This course explores: How did we get here? What counts as a crime? What is the purpose of prison? How does mass incarceration intersect with white supremacy, immigration, capitalism, gender, and democracy? What are the consequences of the high rate of incarceration in the United States? How have people, both inside and outside prison, resisted this development? How does incarceration shape the functioning of U.S. society as a whole? What is life like inside prison? What does prison abolition mean, and is it possible? The course will provide historical perspective—the premise being, it was not always this way—and we will also focus on contemporary issues, drawing upon journalism, social documentary film, art, and music as well as works of history. We will also have class visits from formerly incarcerated people.

Rights, Revolvers, and Reforms: Guns and Gun Culture in America

Jennifer Hubbert, Prof of Anthropology and Asian Studies

  • Core 120-01 – MWF 11:30am-12:30pm
  • Core 120-15 - MWF 1:50-2:50pm

There are approximately 400 million guns in the US, more guns than people: 40% of the world’s guns in a nation with 5% of its population. The US also has more gun-related deaths than any other comparably developed nation. And still, gun sales are rising. Over 4 million guns were purchased during the first few months of the pandemic alone, 40% of which were new gun owners. Of these new gun owners, 40% were women, 58% were Black, and many were politically left-of-center. And most of these new gun owners are buying firearms as an answer to feelings of insecurity.

What is the history of gun culture in the United States and how did it develop? What role did the gun play in the colonization of the West? Who benefits and who loses in contemporary interpretations of the Second Amendment’s “right of the people to have and bear arms?” How do ideas of gender, race, class, and sexuality formulate popular understandings of “good guys” and “bad guys” with guns? Through considering studies of history, law, public health, sociology, criminology, and journalism, this class will explore the historical roots, contemporary trends, political and social implications, and ideological dimensions of gun ownership and use in the United States.

The Art of War

Bob Mandel, Prof of and Marc Messina Chair of International Affairs

  • Core 120-07 – MWF 1:50-2:50pm

This course covers the historical, strategic, and moral dimensions of war in order to give entering students an understanding of the most important challenge faced by humankind. The central questions revolve around the nature, purpose, and limits of warfare. The approach has students study conceptual insights largely through reading about the actual experience of warfare, viewed through the eyes of participants or direct observers. The emphasis is on interdisciplinary readings interpreting patterns across culture and time. Views of diverse groups, both powerful and oppressed, are fully represented. Students ponder and analyze the fundamental controversies surrounding organized armed international violence throughout the ages.

Suspense / Horror / Paranoia

Michael Mirabile, Asst Prof w/Term of English

  • Core 120-10 – MWF 1:50-2:50pm

This course will be devoted to examining varieties of fear from a number of distinct but related perspectives: cultural, psychological, historical, and social. Special attention is given to how these fears correspond to genre categories in literature and film: namely, the thriller, the Gothic or horror story, and the conspiratorial narrative (often cited as an example of a general “paranoid style”). Does the mechanism of suspense change over time? Do objects of horror also change? Why do collective expressions of suspicion and paranoia undergo periodic renewals, such as during the Cold War era in the United States? Our goal in this course will be to look closely at shifts in perspective and at the contexts within which are found powerful inducements to anxiety. Our primary materials for analysis and discussion will be twentieth-century films and works of literature. Authors may include Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, and Richard Matheson. Film directors may include David Cronenberg, Jordan Peele, Steven Spielberg, and Ridley Scott.


So, You Think You’re Secular?

Paul Powers, Prof of Religious Studies

  • Core 120-04 - MWF 1:50-2:50pm

One definition of a secular person is someone whose life is shaped in almost every way by religion who pretends that this isn’t the case. This course will explore the very idea of not being religious, which today is apparently a real and growing possibility. Such a possibility, however, is arguable very new, with as-yet unknown implications. We will begin by exploring the very idea of irreligion as it emerged in Enlightenment rationalist critiques of religion—basically, the claim that religion consists primarily of a set of ideas about how the world works, and that these ideas are superseded by rational and scientific ideas. We will also see that there are other ways of understanding the nature and functions of religion than as “bad science.” Next, we will survey and assess several modern formulations of state secularism, the effort to detach religion from politics and create a religiously neutral state as a way to manage religiously diverse populations in an increasingly pluralistic and mobile world. Finally, we will consider a variety of “critical” perspectives, including efforts to question the effects of secularism on minority and vulnerable groups.


Will Pritchard, Assoc Prof of English

  • Core 120-11 – MWF 1:50-2:50pm

A satire is a work of imagination which makes an attack on some aspect of real life. Satirists use humorous exaggeration to ridicule and perhaps to reform the “knaves and fools” that populate the world. This class will examine satiric works in many genres (poem, novel, play, film, meme) and from many periods (ancient Rome, 18th-century Europe, 20th- and 21st-century UK and USA). We will also read some theoretical work on satire. Our main effort will be to identify and to meet the demands – intellectual, aesthetic and ethical demands – that these particular satiric texts make on us as readers, viewers and humans.

Warning: satire can be offensive, sometimes deliberately so. You will likely encounter within these works language and attitudes of which you disapprove.

Possible authors include Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, George Schuyler, Dorothy Parker, George Orwell, Larissa FastHorse and Bernadine Evaristo.