Past Courses

Fall 2016

Till Death Do Us Part (or Not): Exploring Marriage

Professors: Mira Balberg (Religious Studies), Barbara Newman (English), and Amy Stanley (History)

Marriage is not only one of the oldest institutions of human civilization. It is also a quintessential meeting place of tradition and innovation, human and divine, reality and fantasy, freedom and obligation, individual and society. In the practices surrounding marriage, the tensions and complexities that underlie human experience in different times and places come to the fore in poignant and fascinating ways. Because history, law, religion, literature, politics, anthropology, sociology, and art all intersect in marriage, this topic can serve as an ideal gateway to the humanities.

Our class, team-taught by a historian of early modern Japan, a scholar of medieval European literature, and an expert in ancient Mediterranean religions, will achieve two central goals. First, it will acquaint students with an exciting assortment of cultural works from many times and places and help them acquire tools for close reading and analysis. Second, the class seeks to foster a critical, historical, and contextual approach to marriage by focusing on an institution that is often represented as “timeless” or “universal,” while systematically revealing its incessant permutations and inherent diversity. Among the topics we will discuss are wedding ceremonies, legal and financial aspects of marriage, alternatives to marriage (such as celibacy and polygamy), mythical and theological dimensions of marriage, divorce, same-sex marriage, and more. Field trips may include a play at the Steppenwolf Theatre and a performance at the Lyric Opera. A panel of clergy will discuss contemporary wedding arrangements in different religions, as well as secular ceremonies.

Winter 2017

The Avant-Garde in the World

Professors: Harris Feinsod (English), Susan Manning (Theatre, Performance Studies and English), and Alejandra Uslenghi (Spanish & Portuguese)

From 1900 to 1968, a series of artistic movements in performance, visual art, and literature shook readers and audiences around the world. These movements went by many names in many places, but they were united as part of a transnational "Avant-Garde.” Expressive artists such as Loie Fuller, Blaise Cendrars, William Carlos Williams and Diego Rivera all asked: how could the dancer’s body, the painter’s brush, or the poet’s language represent the dizzying new sensations and technologies of modern life in an increasingly interconnected world? This course introduces students to the history of avant-garde movements across Europe and the Americas. We’ll begin with the exhibitions and experiments in Europe before World War I, and follow the avant-garde’s migrations from Paris and New York to Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, and Mexico City, where avant-garde artists sought to participate in the revolutionary movements of the 1930s. We’ll conclude by examining how writers, film-makers and artists from World War II to the 1960s renewed avant-garde practices, often in the service of radical social movements, even as powerful institutions (such as the CIA) tried to coopt their objectives. Our outlook will be restlessly “transnational” and “interdisciplinary,” and in order to learn about the vibrant legacies and continuations of the avant-garde, we will take field trips to several exciting Chicago-area performances, museums and archives.


Fall 2015

The Measure of All Things: Numbers, Space, and the Humanities

Professors: Wendy N. Espeland (Sociology), Jules Law (English), and Claudia E. Swan (Art History)

In the popular view, the sciences are the domain of "quantitative" reasoning and the humanities are the realm of "qualitative" thought. Yet numbers and space have from time immemorial played an inescapable and essential role in the arts and in humanistic thinking. In forms as elevated as art and philosophy, and as prosaic as accounting and standardized tests, we know and express ourselves through numbers. In this course we will investigate the human fascination with making, using, and contemplating numbers, and together we will consider the unexpected role of art, literature, and social thought in the "measure" we make of our world.

Our materials will be as varied and as fascinating as the arts of measurement themselves: novels, paintings, plays, philosophical texts, film, historiography, sociology, and political science. Some questions we will ponder: How does measurement structure and condition our experience of the world, of artworks, and of human relations? Is artistic beauty mathematically derived? Are values necessarily quantifiable? How do passions and the market interact? This course brings together a wide range of fascinating materials central to the humanities and offers a new perspective on the ways in which those experiences are structured and evaluated. The course will also include field trips to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Field Museum of Natural History

Winter 2016

Genocide and Renewal: Native Peoples of the Americas

Professors: Forrest Hylton (History), Laura León Llerena (Spanish & Portuguese), and Mary Weismantel (Anthropology)

In this class, we will use Native American history to explore some big questions:  What is genocide, and did one happen in the Americas in 1492 and thereafter?  What enduring truths can be found in the landscape of the Americas, and what are the scholarly methods that can help us learn to read them?  How do myth, literature, and art help a people recover from devastating trauma, violence, and loss?  What does it mean to be an American today, and how is that identity shaped by Native Americans, past and present?


Fall 2014

The Measure of All Things: Numbers, Space, and the Humanities

Professors: Wendy N. Espeland (Sociology), Jules Law (English), and Claudia E. Swan (Art History)

In the popular view, the sciences are the domain of "quantitative" reasoning and the humanities are the realm of "qualitative" thought. Yet numbers and space have from time immemorial played an inescapable and essential role in the arts and in humanistic thinking. In forms as elevated as art and philosophy, and as prosaic as accounting and standardized tests, we know and express ourselves through numbers. In this course we will investigate the human fascination with making, using, and contemplating numbers, and together we will consider the unexpected role of art, literature, and social thought in the "measure" we make of our world.

Our materials will be as varied and as fascinating as the arts of measurement themselves: novels, paintings, plays, philosophical texts, film, historiography, sociology, and political science. Some questions we will ponder: How does measurement structure and condition our experience of the world, of artworks, and of human relations? Is artistic beauty mathematically derived? Are values necessarily quantifiable? How do passions and the market interact? This course brings together a wide range of fascinating materials central to the humanities and offers a new perspective on the ways in which those experiences are structured and evaluated. The course will also include field trips to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Field Museum of Natural History.

Winter 2015

"Crossing Borders"

Professors: John Alba Cutler (English), Emily Maguire (Spanish & Portuguese), and Geraldo Cadava (History)

Borders can seem so natural that we take them for granted. Nations seem always to have existed in their current forms, as if geopolitical boundaries were a feature of the earth's topography. Other kinds of borders can appear equally natural, such as the divisions between races or sexes, or different genres of literature and art. Yet as lines that demarcate boundaries between two or more groups (or ideas), borders simultaneously divide and conjoin. This course will examine the historical and social construction of various kinds of borders—geopolitical, sexual, racial—and how those borders are continuously transgressed. When do borders become oppressive? What does it mean to cross a border? And what strategies have individuals and groups employed to blur or erase borders altogether?

Through literature, art, film, and primary historical documents, we will show how borders come into being through complex and hotly contested histories. We will examine the historical formation and maintenance of geopolitical borders around the world: the US and Mexico, North and South Korea, Israel and Palestine, and Haiti and the Dominican Republic. We will also examine the nature of sexual and racial boundaries, and how individuals and groups attempt either to maintain or transgress those boundaries. Finally, we will explore how current trends in technology and globalization are changing the very nature of borders.


Fall 2013

"Global Orients"

Instructors: Hannah Feldman (Art History), Rebecca Johnson (English), and Jessica Winegar (Anthropology)

As Edward Said famously theorized, the Orient was "almost a European invention," and our class is dedicated to exploring its invention and reinvention in art, literature, film, and media as tied to particular moments in the changing geopolitical relationship of the Middle East with the West—including its eighteenth-century apparition as an imperial competitor, its nineteenth and twentieth-century existence as a colonial holding, and its post-WWII emergence as a region of strategic importance to the United States, and of geopolitical importance to the global oil market. We will end with recent political events: the terrorist attack of 2001, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the "global war on terror," and the continuing popular uprisings that make up the "Arab Spring." The course will explore how throughout this history various forms of cultural production have recast the relationship between the Orient and the Occident, and thus shed new light on geopolitical events. Our study begins with the modern emergence and transformation of the idea of the Orient in European and American imaginations, from its roots in 18th century novels and contemporaneous orientalist histories and paintings, through 19th century ethnographic studies and stage productions, universal expositions, and 20th and 21st century film, television, and contemporary art. At the same time, we will look at art, literature, film, and cultural productions produced by people living in or from the Middle East, and explore the ways that they countered or engaged with these representations through travel narratives and diplomatic correspondence, novels, films, art, graphic novels, television serials, and street art.

Winter 2014

"Moral Drama, Melodrama: The Origins of Popular Culture"

Instructors: Sarah Maza (History), Susan Phillips (English), and Julia Stern (English)

On the screen, on the stage, in the sports arena, heroes and villains enjoy almost instant recognition, whether because of their costumes, their exaggerated gestures and facial expressions, or the tell-tale musical phrases that accompany them.  And while those visual and aural cues are far from the halos and white steeds or twirled mustaches and black hats of the past, they are immediately identifiable nonetheless.  Popular culture defines and is defined by moral polarities, as good and evil repeatedly battle one another in all manner of popular entertainment.  But what are the origins of these exaggerated representations of good and evil?  And what do they convey about a society’s attitudes toward justice, patriotism, gender difference, racial inequity, class conflict, and political dissent?