Freshman Seminars

Student reading textbook in class

In this section, we have highlighted freshman seminars that are taught by faculty in the Division of Arts & Humanities. First-year students have until 6 pm EST on August 22 to apply for a fall seminar. Visit the website of the Freshman Seminar Program for further information!

A&H Freshman Seminars 2021-22

Fall 2021

Aliens, Artificial Intelligence, and Apocalypse: Ancient Mythology and Contemporary Film (Freshman Seminar 63F)

Charles Stang (Harvard Divinity School)

Are you anxious about the dangers of technological innovation, especially artificial intelligence, the possibility of alien life and its intentions, the threat of environmental devastation, and other apocalyptic futures? You’re not alone: contemporary filmmakers are constantly exploring these themes. What may surprise you, however, is that these filmmakers are increasingly turning to ancient mythology as a resource for thinking through these anxieties. From Bladerunner to Westworld, from The Matrix to the Alien franchise, we see more and more films picking up one particular ancient mythology from the ancient Mediterranean world and adapting it to contemporary anxieties about aliens, artificial intelligence, and the apocalypse. According to this mythology, the world we inhabit is believed to have been created by a malevolent or ignorant god, and governed by its deputies. This mythology emerges, then, as a critique of the created order and the powers that be, and imagines forms of resistance and liberation, including how to seek out the true god, who is higher than the creator and its deputies. This seminar examines this distinctive mythology’s sudden resurgence in the world of film (and increasingly, in television), especially in science fiction and fantasy. The aim of this seminar is to equip students with the texts and tools to see this ancient mythology at work in our contemporary culture.

Complexity in Works of Art: Ulysses and Hamlet (Freshman Seminar 33X)

Philip J. Fisher (English)

Is the complexity, the imperfection, the difficulty of interpretation, the unresolved meaning found in certain great and lasting works of literary art a result of technical experimentation? Or is the source of this extreme complexity psychological, metaphysical, or spiritual? Does it result from limits within language, or from language's fit to thought and perception? Do the inherited forms found in literature permit only certain variations within experience to reach lucidity? Is there a distinction in literature between what can be said and what can be read? The members of the seminar will investigate the limits literature faces in giving an account of mind, everyday experience, thought, memory, full character, and situation in time. The seminar will make use of a classic case of difficulty, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and a modern work of unusual complexity and resistance to both interpretation and to simple comfortable reading, Joyce's Ulysses. Reading in exhaustive depth these two works will suggest the range of meanings for terms like complexity, resistance, openness of meaning, and experimentation within form.

Digging Egypt's Past: Harvard and Egyptian Archaeology (Freshman Seminar 30G)

Peter De Manuelian (Anthropology and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations)

Mysterious pyramids, colossal royal statues, tiny gold jewelry, decorated tomb chapels, temples, settlements, fortresses, and hieroglyphic inscriptions. This was the excavation legacy in Egypt and Sudan of Egyptologist George Reisner (1867–1942). His remarkable career revolutionized archaeological method, as he directed the Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Expedition, putting Harvard Egyptology on the world stage, amidst British control of Egyptian politics, French control of Egyptian antiquities, and Egyptian yearning for independence. This course explores modern archaeology and Egyptology, colonialism, Harvard and MFA history, and artifact repatriation. In addition, Reisner failed to escape some of the racist impulses of his era, and we must assess those too. Students will access unpublished archival documents at Harvard and elsewhere, and will research important expedition sites, staff members and momentous discoveries.

Exploring the Infinite (Freshman Seminar 23C)

W. Hugh Woodin (Mathematics and Philosophy)

Infinity captivates the imagination. A child stands between two mirrors and sees herself reflected over and over again, smaller and smaller, trailing off to infinity. Does it go on forever? Does anything go on forever? Does life go on forever? Does time go on forever? Does the universe go on forever? Is there anything that we can be certain goes on forever? It would seem that the counting numbers go on forever, since given any number on can always add one. But is that the extent of forever? Or are there numbers that go beyond that? Are there higher and higher levels of infinity? And, if so, does the totality of all of these levels of infinity itself constitute the highest, most ultimate, level of infinity, the absolutely infinite? In this seminar we will focus on the mathematical infinite. We will start with the so-called "paradoxes of the infinite," paradoxes that have led some to the conclusion that the concept of infinity is incoherent. We will see, however, that what these paradoxes ultimately show is that the infinite is just quite different than the finite and that by being very careful we can sharpen the concept of infinity so that these paradoxes are transformed into surprising discoveries. We will follow the historical development, starting with the work of Cantor at the end of the nineteenth century, and proceeding up to the present. The study of the infinite has blossomed into a beautiful branch of mathematics. We will get a glimpse of this subject, and the many levels of infinity, and we will see that the infinite is even more magnificent than one might ever have imagined.

Faith and Fiction in American History (Freshman Seminar 60H)

David Holland (Harvard Divinity School)

This seminar uses key literary works to explore some of the most difficult and demanding questions in the religious history of the United States: Does God have a special relationship with the United States? Is sin an individual responsibility or a social flaw? Why has American religion been so frequently concerned with sexuality? How has religion shaped racial identities and tensions? How does it inform domestic relationships? How do non-Christian immigrants find a place and a voice in a nation with deeply entrenched Christian traditions?  To explore these and other areas of concern, we bore into the faith-inflected cultures of American history through the imagined narratives of some of its most celebrated writers, including the likes of Catharine Sedgwick, Harriet Wilson, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Rudolfo Anaya, Pearl Abraham, Ayad Akhtar, and Marilynne Robinson.  I will offer mini-lectures to contextualize these works in their historical moment.  We will read some scholarly work to sharpen our tools of analysis, but mostly we will read and talk about the novels themselves.  The seminar aims to be both analytically rigorous and aesthetically rewarding.

Fascism Past/Present/(Future) (Freshman Seminar 62O)

Jeffrey Schnapp (Romance Languages & Literatures and Comparative Literature)

This seminar provides an in-depth introduction to fascism, its intellectual and political roots, its critique of liberal democracy and socialism, and the traces fascism has left on the contemporary cultural-political scene from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National to the American alt-right to populist insurgencies like Trumpism. It begins with readings from key fascist thinkers and theorists, before surveying a series of domains where artists, writers, architects, film-makers, and engineers sought to interpret and embody the “fascist revolution” not just in Italy but worldwide. Among the figures considered are mystical nationalists like Gabriele D’Annunzio; Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder and leader of the Futurist movement; the American poet Ezra Pound, author of the Cantos, one of the masterpieces of 20th century American poetry; Leni Riefenstahl, the film director of classic documentaries such as Olympia and Triumph of the Will; the architects Marcello Piacentini and Adolf Speer, the former Italy’s leading designer of public monuments and buildings during the Mussolini era, the latter Hitler’s preferred architect; and the engineer Gaetano Ciocca, creator of everything from Corporativist pig farms to mass-produced worker housing to mass sports stadia. Seminar themes will include: fascism vs. nazism; collectivism vs. individualism; radical right attitudes towards technology and industrialization; and examinations of the convergences and divergences between mid-20th century fascisms and the sub-cultures of today’s alt-right. The capstone project for the semester will involve an original research project focused on a contemporary alt-right group.

Fun With Writing (Freshman Seminar 64Q)

Philip Howze (Theater, Dance & Media)

Writing can be fun. By “writing”, we don’t only mean the act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to computer keys to type. Writing is the ancient, conscious act of choosing words or texts or images and composing them in such a way to create an intended effect. Yes, writing is an intentional process… but not one which has to be necessarily painstaking. What if, first and foremost, writing was fun? This is the question we’ll explore and enact, while also getting to know our fellow classmates, in this generative, art-making seminar. Weekly, we’ll create both individually and together, engaging writing across a variety of forms­­­­—from gaming to publicity to food—to reacquaint ourselves with the joys of what it might mean to craft words creatively, theatrically, and collaboratively.

Harvard’s Greatest Hits: The Most Important, Rarest, and Most Valuable Books in Houghton Library (Freshman Seminar 62J)

David Stern (Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and Comparative Literature)

Have you ever fantasized of turning the pages of a Gutenberg Bible with your own fingers?   Or a medieval illustrated Book of Hours?  Or touching a papyrus fragment of Homer?  Or a First Folio edition of Shakespeare?  Or seeing close-up Copernicus’ diagram of the heliocentric universe?   The Houghton Library of Harvard University is one of the world’s greatest repositories of ancient scrolls, papyrus codices, illuminated manuscripts on parchment and paper, early printed books, rare books published since the sixteenth century down until today, and stunning prints and other types of graphic art. In this freshman seminar, we will utilize Houghton’s extraordinary holdings to study first-hand the history of the book in the West as a material artifact from its beginnings in the ancient Near East down to the present day. Each week we will focus upon a cluster of books.   Before class, students will be asked to examine selected books in Houghton’s Reading Room as well as online.   During class-time, we will study the books again as a group. Visiting experts will demonstrate how to unroll a papyrus codex, the technology involved in creating a codex and printing on a hand-pulled press, and the techniques modern conservators use to preserve manuscripts and books. You will emerge from this seminar with a heightened understanding of what a rich thing a book is, and so much more than just a text. And you will have seen and studied close-up some of the most visually spectacular and culturally significant books in all Western history. 

History, Nationalism, and the World: The Case of Korea (Freshman Seminar 43W)

Sun Joo Kim (East Asian Languages & Civilizations)

The colonialism and postcolonial division of Korea into North and South thrust the memory of past events into current political discussions as well as scholarly debates. This seminar investigates selected events in Korean history to map the interaction between historical writing and politics and to address questions such as why historians have emphasized certain periods and aspects of Korean history while ignoring others.

Islam vs. Image?: Visual Representations in Islamic Art (Freshman Seminar 63J)

David Roxburgh (History of Art & Architecture)

Is Islam against images? For reasons that are perplexing and hard to pinpoint, this notion appears to have been promoted by ideas about Islamic doctrine and an endemic hostility toward images which has only been magnified after recent years of religious extremism and terrorism. These include the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, and the Charlie Hebdo mass shooting in Paris 2015 over the cartoons representing the Prophet Muhammad. And yet there is ample evidence of making and using images across the time and space of Islam. The stereotype of Islam’s antipathy toward paintings and drawings, etc., has fostered the understanding that calligraphy and geometry flourished because of figuration’s illicitness. These ideas and assertions are misleading and incomplete. The Seminar is an opportunity for personal reflection and to study the issues at stake in questions about the values, forms, and functions of images and examines a broad variety of images produced throughout the Islamic lands from 600–1900. Each week focuses on a selected case study that together span diverse subject matters, mediums, functions, and contexts, and invite thought about a spectrum of modes of representation. We will learn that the condition of images in Islam is as diverse and complex as the religion itself which cannot be reduced to a unified or monolithic expression, to a singular system of belief.

Language: The Origins of Meaning (Freshman Seminar 61Q)

Gennaro Chierchia (Linguistics)

How do languages work? Why are they so distinctly human in the natural world? Is language a creation of our intelligence, i.e. we speak, because we are smart, or the other way around? Birds produce sophisticated songs. Do bird songs mean anything? They do, in some way. They serve, for example, as predator warnings or mating calls. Humans too, like birds, can produce music. But for effective day to day communication (or, say, to develop a scientific theory, etc.), we need languages with words and sentences, i.e. the kind of languages which is unique to our species. Do all languages, in spite of looking so diverse, share a common structure? For example, in English words fall into categories: cat is a noun, meow is a verb. Do all languages have nouns and verbs? A fairly recent turning point in addressing these fundamental questions has been to view language as a computational device. This is enabling us to build effective models of how languages are structured so as to empower us with the ability to create meaning; which, in turn, is shedding light, more and more, on who we are. The seminar will explore how natural languages come to create meaning and invite participants to develop their own linguistic analyses through modern logical and computational tools.

Major English and American Poets: Human Predicaments and Resolutions (Freshman Seminar 62I)

Neil Rudenstine (English)

This seminar will concentrate on poems that reveal or dramatize difficult human predicaments and individual responses to them. In the first week, for instance, we will discuss Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”; John Donne’s “Canonization”; Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: and T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.

In each case, the goal will be to characterize the nature of the speaker’s dilemma, and the complex process of reaching a response to it.

During the first few weeks, we will concentrate on this theme in the work of five important 20th and 21st century poets: W. B. Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Robert Frost, and Sylvia Plath. Afterward, we will reach into the past to study grouped poems (one set of 5-7 per week) by writers from the 16th century to the present: Thomas Wyatt; Shakespeare; John Donne; Milton; John Keats; Emily Dickinson; Matthew Arnold; Wallace Stevens; W.H. Auden; Philip Larkin; Jorie Graham, and Louise Gluck.

Memory Wars: Cultural Trauma and the Power of Literature (Freshman Seminar 63L)

Nicole A. Suetterlin (Germanic Languages & Literatures)

How do we respond to a traumatic event? Denial, acceptance, blame, reconciliation—there are many stances we can take toward a harmful act we have suffered or committed in the past. When entire populations have suffered or perpetrated crimes against humanity, the question of how to deal with this traumatic past can spark a full-blown memory war – such as the one currently raging in the U.S. over Confederate monuments. In this seminar, we explore how the catastrophic events of World War II, slavery, and apartheid affect the way we think and act as individuals, groups and citizens today. What power do literature and the arts have in bringing peace to a society at war with its past? Our diverse spectrum of materials includes: acclaimed American, German, and South African writers such as Toni Morrison, Paul Celan, and Sindiwe Magona; human rights philosopher Hannah Arendt; comedian Trevor Noah; and civil rights lawyer and Harvard Law School graduate Bryan Stevenson, who has been fighting racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system for the past three decades. Topics include: literature about the Holocaust, slavery, and apartheid; Germany’s and South Africa’s recent “ethical turn” in memory culture; reconciliation and reparation; mass incarceration; punitive vs. restorative justice; social justice.

Migratory Identities (Freshman Seminar 64O)

David Damrosch (Comparative Literature)

The world is being reshaped by waves of migration, as millions of people seek new social and economic opportunities, often fleeing war, political or religious oppression, or environmental degradation. Writers and filmmakers too have often migrated or gone into exile, and a wide range of modern and contemporary writing probes the losses and gains that minority populations have experienced after arriving as “strangers in a strange land.” This seminar will take up a series of compelling works by migrant artists who take migrancy as their theme, from Derek Walcott and James Baldwin in the 1940s and 1950s to Salman Rushdie, Marjane Satrapi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the 1990s and 2000s. Each week’s primary works are paired with an interview or essay by or about the writer or film maker. We begin with writers who look back at colonial situations in the Caribbean, Africa, and Indochina; then we’ll look at immigrants’ experience within metropolitan centers, and we’ll end with works that probe the ongoing connection of people to the places they’ve never really left behind.

Music And Community (Freshman Seminar 63O)

Claire Chase (Music)

Why do people come together to make new music? How does the act of making music build community and engender positive, even transformative, social change? How have musicians adapted and responded to the new realities of remote creation and collaboration in the era of COVID-19, and how have musical communities come together to fight for social justice during this time? How might societies of the future be impacted by these new modes of gathering, sounding, organizing and making music? And how might we as a musical community be of service to a changing world? We will explore these questions in a hands-on, exploratory environment by becoming our own musical community as a class over the course of the semester. We will study graphic and open-form scores and varied types of musical notation (written and oral), and we will build our own musical instruments (electronic and acoustic). We will also invite members of our growing Harvard community to join us in music-making events in a variety of venues online and offline. Small group work as well as collaborations that extend beyond our unit will be explored, including the collective creation of a sound art piece called Digital Sanctuaries, developed through weekly sound walks on campus. We will experiment with a wide range of pieces designed for musicians and non-musicians alike by 20th and 21st century composers, including several new works written expressly for our class, and we will learn about the intersection of music and community from guest lecturers in the fields of social justice, visual art, literature and integrated technologies.

Muslim Voices in Contemporary World Literatures (Freshman Seminar 37Y)

Ali Asani (Study of Religion)

What do Muslims think of acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam, the mixing of religion with politics, the rights of women, the "West''? This seminar investigates the viewpoints of prominent Muslim writers on these and other "hot button'' issues as reflected in novels, short stories and poetry from different parts of the world. Explores a range of issues facing Muslim communities in various parts of the world by examining the impact of colonialism, nationalism, globalization and politicization of Islam on the search for a modern Islamic identity. Readings of Muslim authors from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Europe and America.

Narrative Negotiations: How do Readers and Writers Decide on What are the Most Important Voices and Values Represented in a Narrative? (Freshman Seminar 63N)

Homi K. Bhabha (English and Comparative Literature)

Narrative Negotiations explores narrative “voice” in a wide range of literary and cultural texts. Narrative voice is a lively dialogue between the author and the reader as they engage in the experience of determining the value and veracity of the narrative: whose story is it anyway? The writer creates the imaginative universe of character, plot, emotions and ideas—she seems to be holding all the cards; but it is the reader who rolls the dice as she draws on her human experience and moral values to question the principles and priorities of the storyteller. The game of narrative becomes deadly serious when storytelling confronts issues of colonialism, slavery, racial profiling and gender discrimination. Is the right to narrative restricted to those who have suffered the injustices of exclusion? What is my responsibility as a storyteller—or a reader—if I am a witness to violence, or an advocate against injustice, but my life-story is one of privilege, protection and security? What is the role of the politics of identity or cultural appropriation in determining whose story is it anyway? Throughout the seminar students will be encouraged to draw on their own histories, memories and literary experiences as the enter into the world of the prescribed readings. For the final assessment I hope students will choose critical and creative ways of telling their own stories, or the stories of others who have captured their imaginations. Seminar participants will be required to come to each class with two questions that pose issues or problems based on the texts that are important for them, and may prove to be significant for their colleagues. I will invite members of the group to pose their questions and start a discussion.

Our Borders, Our Lives: Creating, Dismantling, Rebuilding Borders through Art, Literature, and Film (Freshman Seminar 64H)

Katie Daily (English)

We are surrounded by borders, and to understand them is to explore how they’re drawn, why they’re constructed (and deconstructed), and who can pass through them. This seminar will invite you to open up our ordinary understanding of borders to discover an extraordinary variety of perspectives and media.

This semester, we will think deeply and critically about borders and movement in order to better understand our individual positions as global citizens. We’ll consider borders in our personal lives through social media and how people curate their online worlds. We will briefly study maps so that you can construct your own, considering your own borders. We’ll visit a Harvard museum to discover how frames are both constraining and liberating. We’ll examine fiction and film, attuning to the conditions of border migration and how people move. We’ll sightsee in our lives and the spaces around us to begin understanding borders and movement in twenty-first century America. Through all of this exploration, we will discover the many lenses that can be used in order to grapple with the complicated nature of American borders while working to understand our own positionality in the world around us.

The Art and Craft of Acting (Freshman Seminar 35N)

Remo F. Airaldi (Theater, Dance & Media)

We’ve all watched a great performance and wondered, “How did that actor do that?” Acting is undoubtedly the most popular, most widely experienced of the performing arts, and yet, in many ways, it remains a mystery. This seminar will give students an opportunity to demystify the art of acting by introducing them to the basic tools of the trade—they will learn about the craft of acting by actually “doing” it. It will provide an introduction to acting by combining elements of a discussion seminar with exercises, improvisations and performance activities. Improvisation will be used to improve group/ensemble dynamics, to minimize habitual behaviors, and to develop characters. Students will explore a range of acting techniques designed to give students greater access to their creativity, imagination and emotional life. The aim will be to improve skills that are essential to the acting process, like concentration, focus, relaxation, observation, listening, collaboration and so on. Students will attend and critique theatrical productions on ZOOM. Material from these productions will be used by students in in-class performance activities.

The Creative Work of Translating (Freshman Seminar 36G)

Stephanie Sandler (Slavic Languages & Literatures)

Translation makes culture possible. Individual writers and thinkers draw sustenance and stimulation from works created outside their own cultures, and artists working in one format get ideas from those working in entirely different media. Translation between languages and between art forms will center our seminar’s work. Taking a broad view of translation as a mental activity, we will study poems, fiction, film, photography, film, and music. We will stretch our own imaginative capacities by transposing material across media and genres, creating homophonic translations, and translating between languages. We will work individually as well as collaboratively. We will read a small amount translation theory, and some reflections by working translators. We will invite into our classroom a practicing poet, artist, and translator or two, attend poetry readings and lectures at Harvard. The only requirement is some knowledge of a language besides English—and a readiness to play with languages, art forms, and texts. Readings from Anna Akhmatova, Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Brodsky, Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, Forrest Gander, Susan Howe, Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Nabokov, Sappho, W. G. Sebald, Wang Wei, and Sor Juana; music by John Adams and David Grubbs. Films to include Despair, Chekhovian Motifs and The Golem.

Note: The seminar will require some knowledge of one language besides English. There will be at least one required field trip to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The Holocaust in History, Literature, and Film (Freshman Seminar 49G)

Kevin Madigan (Harvard Divinity School)

This seminar will approach the Nazi persecution of European Jewry from several disciplinary perspectives.  Initially the seminar will explore the topic historically.  In these weeks, the seminar will use a variety of historical materials dealing with the history of European anti-semitism, German history from Bismarck to the accession of Hitler, the evolution of anti-Jewish persecution in the Third Reich, and the history of the Holocaust itself.  Sources to be used will include primary sources produced by the German government 1933-1945, by Jewish victims-to-be or survivors, documentary films, and secondary interpretations.  The aims of this part of the seminar will be to understand the basic background to and narrative of the Holocaust, to introduce freshmen to the use of primary historical sources, and to familiarize them with some of the major historiographical debates.  Then the members of the seminar will ponder religious and theological reactions to the Holocaust.  Here the seminar will use literary and cinematic resources as well as discursive theological ones.  The seminar will also consider the historical question of the role played by the Protestant and Catholic churches and theologies in the Holocaust.  The seminar will conclude with an assessment of the role played by the Holocaust in today’s world, specifically in the United States.  Throughout the seminar, participants will use various literary and cinematographic sources and test their limits in helping to understand and to represent the Holocaust.

The Juggler of Notre Dame (Freshman Seminar 64L)

Jan Ziolkowski (Classics)

In the thirteenth century a French poet composed a remarkable poem about a professional performer who suffered multiple bouts of deep despair before achieving miraculous redemption. The story, after modest success in the European Middle Ages, disappeared until the end of the nineteenth century. Then it scored a hit when adapted by a French Nobel prizewinner as a short story. In the early twentieth century it enjoyed a second vogue worldwide as a smash opera. A media-savvy Scottish-American diva propelled this musical form to even greater fame in the US than it had achieved in Europe. It became a staple of highbrow culture, before passing into radio, television, and film. But later it vanished, except in children’s literature.

This seminar follows all the main stages in the life (and death?) of this narrative. Doing so will enable consideration of the nature of story. Did an actual person and event lie behind the verse? How do the surviving medieval texts relate to lost oral versions? Why did the tale fade away in the early modern period? Why did it attract so much attention for nearly a hundred years before slipping again into obscurity?

Students will engage with manuscripts and books, poetry and prose, music and art, radio and television, and elite and mass culture, while grappling not only with the European Middle Ages but also with what was made of them in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly in the US.

The Migrant Experience: Migration Through Visual Culture (Freshman Seminar 64K)

Raquel Vega-Duran (Romance Languages & Literatures)

Humans have been on the move since the beginnings of their existence, and their migrations have been sparked by curiosity, the search for food, imperial desires, hopes of economic betterment, flight from natural disasters, wars, and more. If migration has always been part of human life, why have countries perceived migration as something new and threatening for centuries? Images of emigrants departing their homelands; large numbers of suitcases arranged in line or piles to be transported to boats and trains; migrants crossing borders—from rivers and deserts, to fences and customs; immigrants arrested in detention centers; and neighborhoods with names of emigrants’ countries of origin, have been documented with images for decades. This seminar will focus on the ways visual culture helps us to understand the complexity of migration in the world today. Students will learn how to “read” a wide variety of media forms and spaces—films, documentaries, photographs, graphic novels, graffiti, maps, installations, and museums—and will get a comprehensive understanding of major issues in contemporary global migration. We will look at how visual culture follows the stages of a diversity of migrants’ journeys from different angles; and we will examine concepts such as belonging, hospitality, home, otherness, identity, identification, citizenship, border and borderland, difference, hybridity, third space, cultural translation, race, biopolitics, globalization, and more.

The Symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich (Freshman Seminar 63C)

Anne Shreffler (Music)

The symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) are just as relevant and controversial today as they were during the composer's lifetime. Shostakovich's fifteen symphonies span his entire creative life; starting with his First Symphony, which made the 19-year old composer famous overnight, and ending with his Fifteenth, completed four years before his death. As a public genre, the symphony was the perfect vehicle for Shostakovich to react to his tumultuous times and explore the human psyche. The ups and downs of Soviet politics and culture indelibly shaped Shostakovich's career: the innovative fervor after the Russian Revolution, Stalinism ("Socialist Realism" and the Terror), the Second World War, the post-Stalin "Thaw" after 1956, all the way to the height of the Cold War. Shostakovich was at times encouraged and supported by the Soviet regime, and at other times, reprimanded and punished severely. But Soviet audiences always treasured his work because they heard in it deeply felt emotions that could not be publicly acknowledged. Today's audiences react just as strongly, for different reasons. In the seminar, we will listen closely to all fifteen of Shostakovich's symphonies, learning about their musical features and the political contexts in which they were born and received. We will focus on three main themes: 1) composing in a totalitarian state, 2) how music can be said to "narrate," and 3) the orchestra as sound world.

Troy: From Homer to Hollywood (Freshman Seminar 64J)

Margaret Andrews (Classics)

What really happened when Helen ran off, Achilles got angry, and the Greeks came bearing gifts? This course will explore the Trojan War through the archaeology, art, and mythology of the site of Troy itself, as well as through popular imaginings of the Trojan War made by cultures ever since. The first half of the course will focus on the historical events surrounding the "Trojan War" at the end of the second millennium B.C.E. We will study the site of Troy and the cities of the opposing Greeks, as well as the evidence for contact, cooperation, and conflict between the Greeks and Trojans. We will also delve into the mysterious character of Troy’s original excavator and see how archaeology at Troy has progressed from using mining carts then to ground-penetrating radar now. In the second half of the course, we will see how the narrative and mythology of the "Trojan War" were adapted and used by later civilizations—from Classical Greece to 21st-century America. As a part of our studies in these weeks, the class will visit the new Homer gallery in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and examine actual ancient objects. Over the course of the entire semester, students will learn to evaluate the expression and reception of origin narratives through different media and within different cultures and to appreciate how ideas and memories are altered and reshaped within varying political and cultural contexts.

What is Avant-Garde? (Freshman Seminar 63T)

Nariman Skakov (Slavic Languages & Literatures)

Avant-garde art sometimes seems to make a complete break from the art that precedes it. The very name, ‘avant-garde’ (from French, literally ‘advance guard’) carries military connotations that suggest a total, violent break with the past. Our seminar will look at another side of this radical change, asking whether the avant-garde might also be playful, rather than violent, making possible an interplay between invention and convention? And what is the afterlife of the avant-garde? How did its legacy inform aesthetic innovation in a later period? We will try to answer these questions by studying a small set of textual and visual artifacts from the long twentieth century, cutting across different continents and political formations. We will begin with Italian and Russian Futurism and their convoluted relationship with Fascist and Communist ideologies. We contrast these historical examples with later work, like that of Samuel Beckett and Andy Warhol. We will consider films by Sergei Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard, ending with David Lynch’s radical displacement of the reigning ideology of Hollywood in his 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive. This nearly century-long framework will allow us to investigate a range of artistic, social, and political mobilizations of the term ‘avant-garde’. We will be doing short readings and working through them together in class, helping students learn how to read theoretical texts as well as read novellas and watch films in the light of theory.

What’s Wrong with American Journalism? (Freshman Seminar 64M)                

Morgan Day Frank (History & Literature)

“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war,” media baron William Randolph Hearst supposedly declared in 1897, pushing America towards war with Spain. Although in many respects Hearst’s infamous “yellow journalism” can be understood to anticipate the media’s worst present-day excesses -- an early example of “fake news” -- in other respects Hearst’s grand proclamations can be seen as an expression of the media’s most noble ambition: its desire to shape public opinion. This seminar will explore key moments in the history of American journalism to better understand the role journalism plays in the contemporary US. For instance, we will compare political discourse in colonial America to political discourse as it’s currently practiced on Twitter. We will read abolitionist newspapers before the Civil War and investigative “muckraking” reporting at the turn of the twentieth century and consider how political and exposé journalism function today. Across these case studies students will learn about American journalism’s greatest ideals, as well as its persistent failure to live up to these ideals. When did newspapers become objective? Have newspapers ever been objective? Should newspapers even aspire to objectivity? What’s wrong with American journalism? Assignments for the class include weekly responses, a presentation, and two papers.

Zombies and Spirits, Ghosts and Ghouls: Interactions between the Living and the Dead (Freshman Seminar 62U)

Shaye J. D. Cohen (Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations)

Virtually all the cultures and religions of the world, from ancient to contemporary times, have teachings and rituals about death. In this seminar we will deal with a subset of this very large topic, namely, the relationship of the living and the dead. The dead are often depicted as still‐living in some way and still in communication with us and our world. Are they friendly or hostile? Beneficent or malevolent? Think “undead” and “zombie” versus “saint” and “angel.” In this seminar we will look at some of the myriad ways that religions and cultures conceive of the relationship of the living with the dead. We the living care for the dying and the dead, and hope that the dead will care for us, but how this works exactly is the subject of much speculation. American secular culture, at least in its cinematic expression, has a vigorous belief in the afterlife, especially in having denizens of the afterlife, in the form of zombies, ghosts, and poltergeists, intrude on the world of the living. In our seminar we will survey this rich set of themes as expressed in literature, art, music, cinema, and philosophy.

Spring 2022

Comics and Graphic Novels (Freshman Seminar 60C)

Stephanie Burt (English)

Comics and graphic novels, or sequential art, are one of the world’s great storytelling media: we’re going to learn how to read them, how to talk about how they get made and how they work, how to understand—and how to enjoy— some of the kinds of comics and graphic novels (that is, some of the genres) that make up the history of this medium in the modern English-speaking world. That history has three strands, which cross and re-cross, but which need to be understood independently, and we will see all three: short-form strip comics, designed for newspapers beginning in the 1890s and now flourishing on the Web; action-adventure and superhero comics, invented in the late 1930s, transformed in the 1960s and again in the 1980s, usually created by teams, and important to popular culture today; and a third strand beginning with “underground” or “alternative” comics or comix (with an x) in the 1960s and evolving into long form graphic novels, often created by single writer-artists, today.  That history comes with visual references, which you will learn to recognize; comics also comes with its own set of theoretical terms, which you’ll learn to use. Comics today share a medium (pictures and usually words in sequence) but belong to several genres: we’ll learn how to talk about them, and how they’ve evolved.You’ll get the chance to make comics, and to figure out how creators collaborate, advocate, distribute, and sometimes even earn a living from the comics they make, but the course will focus on existing comics, from McCay to Bechdel, from Kirby to Ms. Marvel— as events in culture and as works of art.

Drawing Lessons (Freshman Seminar 64G)

Margaret Morgan Grasselli (History of Art & Architecture)

This seminar, taught directly from original drawings in the collections of the Harvard Art Museums, explores a broad range of topics associated with the materials, functions, preservation, collecting, exhibiting, and cataloguing of European and American drawings from the fifteenth century through the nineteenth century.  Emphasis will be placed on close, in-person examination of the drawings, supplemented by pertinent reading assignments. Discussions will encompass a number of subjects associated with the study and understanding of drawings as creative tools, cultural and social records, means of personal expression, and finished art objects. Assignments involve reading, writing, and working directly with the drawings. Both oral and written work will center on the creation of a virtual exhibition of drawings from the Harvard collections, with each student responsible for selecting, researching, and writing catalog entries and exhibition labels for three drawings. 

Food for Thought: Culinary Culture in Spain and Beyond (Freshman Seminar 32M)

Johanna Damgaard Liander (Romance Languages & Literatures)

The French have said that the history of a nation depends on what they eat. Yet in the case of Spain, it’s clearly the reverse. What Spain has eaten has been a consequence of the country’s vast -and often turbulent- history. Invasions, expansions, exile and immigration have created and continue to create the cuisine and culture, which will be our focus in this seminar. Likewise, we will consider Spain’s culinary exchange with Latin America, with specific reference to Argentina, Peru and the Caribbean. From don Quijote’s rudimentary repas, to Almodóvar’s gazpacho, we’ll conclude at the tables of the globalized metropolis. We will first consider food and identity, then food, its rituals and traditions. We will examine Spain from the Middle Ages until the present, the history and regions of the peninsula, and the culinary consequences of transatlantic voyages. We will also consider the repercussions of Europeans arriving in the 19th century, and those of the many closer, traumatic events of the 20th century, and beyond. The readings, all in English, are by novelists, historians, chefs, food critics, sociologists, poets, cartoonists and travel writers over the span of ten centuries. The films and videos are more recent, and will have subtitles. No previous knowledge of Spanish language, or travel to any of the countries mentioned, is required. Neither do prospective students need extensive cooking skills. The only pre-requisite is curiosity about what, why, and how the people of Spain and Latin America have eaten throughout their history, and how this reflects identity and culture of these lands.

Looking for Clues: Ancient and Medieval Art @ Harvard (Freshman Seminar 64I)

Eurydice Georganteli (History of Art & Architecture)

Objects are essential primary sources for the study of the past. They are imbued with tales of their makers, of societies in which they took shape, of customs and beliefs that lent them meaning, and of routes that facilitated their dissemination. In this interdisciplinary and highly interactive Freshman Seminar, participants will hone the art of looking through the close-up study and discussion of ancient and medieval ceramics, textiles, and metalwork from the world-class collections of the Harvard Art Museums, the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Art-making at the Harvard Ceramics Program will further help us associate these museum objects, detached from their geographical, historical, and archaeological context, with imagery, feelings, and the life of ancient and medieval craftsmen.

Ceramics, textiles, and metalwork circulated throughout millennia along routes of trade, warfare, diplomacy, and pilgrimage, transcending linguistic, religious, and cultural borders. The materials and the techniques used in their creation reveal the economic resources, technological know-how, and political agendas of their makers. The reception, appreciation, life and afterlife of these objects shed light on the societies that consumed and treasured them. Looking for Clues. Ancient and Medieval Art @ Harvard is intended for students interested in Classics, History, Art History, Archaeology, Folklore and Mythology, Comparative Literature, Political Science, Economics, and the Study of World Religions. Handling sessions, group discussions, art-making, and a research paper on a choice object or a group of objects from the Harvard Collections offer students a sense of immediacy and appreciation of world cultures.

Reading the Novella: Form and Suspense in Short Fiction (Freshman Seminar 61U)

Jonathan Bolton (Slavic Languages & Literatures)

Short enough to read in a single sitting, but more complex and absorbing than short stories, novellas give us some of our most intense reading experiences. Indeed, many of the enduring classics of world literature, from Melville’s Benito Cereno to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilich, take advantage of the novella's compression and acceleration of plot––features that are also suited to horror, mystery, and other forms of “genre” fiction. In this seminar, we will read some of the great masters of the novella form, including Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Alice Munro, Katherine Anne Porter, and James Joyce, as well as other examples from around the world, including Eastern Europe, China, and Japan. Readings of 50-125 pages a week (all of it in English) will allow us to work closely with some classics of modern fiction, going down to the level of word choice and sentence structure, but we’ll also consider the way authors build and sustain suspense, the different forms of narrative resolution, and other questions of plotting and structure. We will also talk about how to get the most out of your weekly reading experiences—I’ll ask you to set aside solitary time for your reading each week and, as far as possible, to read each novella in just one or two sittings. You'll keep a reading journal, including 2-3 pages of unstructured writing each week; a number of short papers, including creative assignments, will help you understand the choices made by authors as they shape their stories for this most demanding and exciting of fictional forms.

Religion, Neuroscience, and the Human Mind (Freshman Seminar 63E)

David Lamberth (Harvard Divinity School)

More than 150 years after Darwin’s epochal account of evolution, over 85% of the world’s 7 billion people are still religious, and the percentage is growing.  What does religion do for human beings? What does an evolutionary and biologically informed understanding of the mind and brain lead us to think about where religion fits in human life? Harvard’s first psychologist, William James, engaged these questions in the late nineteenth century, bringing the cutting edge of empirical psychology to the philosophy of religion. Today these same questions animate the field of neuroscience, where researchers are showing how affectivity, emotions, and our evolutionary past come together to form the “self” philosophers have long thought to be primarily “rational.” This seminar brings together the thought of James, writing at the turn of the twentieth century, with the work of contemporary neuroscientist Antonio Damasio to ask what kinds of beings we are, how our minds function, and what religion contributes to human individual and societal experience? The seminar takes up the philosophy of belief, affect, and emotion, and touches on the biology of the brain and homeostasis. We conclude by assessing contemporary views of religion from evolutionary psychology (Boyer, Atran) and cultural anthropology (Geertz, Luhrmann, Asad) in light of James’s and Damasio’s models of the human mind.

The Life Project (Freshman Seminar 30X)

Carrie Lambert-Beatty (History of Art & Architecture and Art, Film, and Visual Studies)

What happens when contemporary artists treat their everyday lives as artistic material, "sculpting" their eating, sleeping, or living habits and reporting on the process? What kind of art is this? In the era of reality TV, personal informatics, and "challenge literature" have such projects gone mainstream? How do they relate to the "life projects" of ascetics, experimental subjects, or the mentally ill?

Who Will Write Our History? Truth, Justice, and Public Memorials (Freshman Seminar 64N)

Kathryn Brackney (History & Literature)

When protesters in support of Black Lives Matter toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into Bristol Harbour last summer, their actions represented the latest move in a remarkable shift in global memory culture: For nearly a century, victims and opponents of genocide, political persecution, and imperial exploitation have made increasingly successful demands for space in the public sphere to tell their stories and make claims for justice and reparations. The efforts of multiple interest groups and advocates—from grassroots organizations led by survivors to legal proceedings launched by officials in governments and international organizations—have troubled the old adage that it’s the victors who own the past. Our seminar will explore how various stakeholders have reshaped the ways that communities encounter histories of violence in public space. In so doing, we’ll track how the definition of what counts as a monument and who is worthy of remembrance have shifted dramatically over the last 100 years around the globe. In each seminar meeting, we will compare primary materials that raise foundational questions about history and its memorialization, including monument designs, personal testimonies, trial transcripts, photography, and archival objects from museum collections.