Freshman Seminars

Freshman Seminars can offer an excellent introduction to the Arts & Humanities. A liberal arts education thrives when there is ample opportunity for contact with faculty and discussion in small groups. Freshman Seminars offer precisely these conditions. If you are curious about a certain department or program, check and see if any of the faculty members are teaching a Freshman Seminar. Many Freshman Seminars are taught by leading experts in the field, offering students a remarkable chance to jumpstart work in an area of interest.

Below are the Freshman Seminars being taught by faculty members in the Arts & Humanities this year.

Student in class

Fall 2020

Asian America

Freshman Seminar 70Y: Asian America 

Diana L. Eck (South Asian Studies and Study of Religion)

How "Asian" is America today? This seminar explores the Asian dimensions of American society, with special attention to religion, ideas, and culture from the first encounters of Thoreau and Emerson with texts and ideas of the "Orient" to the saturation of modern America with the holistic cultures of yoga, tai chi, and mind-body medicine. We will look at the histories of immigrant communities from India, China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam and new forms of religious and cultural life they brought with them–Hindus and Sikhs, Buddhists of many lineages, as well as Asian Christian communities. How has Asia reshaped the collective identity of the United States?

Asian American Literature

Freshman Seminar 64E: Asian American Literature
Catherine H. Nguyen (History & Literature)

What is Asian American literature? In the recent decade, Asian American literature has been increasingly visible with the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer and with more and more Asian American-authored works on the New York Times best sellers list. Asian American literature engages with the experiences of Asian immigration to the United States, articulates the hardships of resettlement and assimilation, and critiques racism and the model minority. We will read a wide selection of Asian American literature to explore the history of Asians in America as well as study the experiences of different groups: Chinese American lives in Chinatown, Japanese American accounts of WWII internment, Vietnamese American narratives of war and boat refugees, and the Filipino and South Asian diasporas. We will consider the future of Asian American literature and read diasporic, transnational, and global works of cultural productions.

Back to the Future: How the Past Imagined the Cities of Tomorrow

Freshman Seminar 62Y: Back to the Future: How the Past Imagined the Cities of Tomorrow
Bruno M. Carvalho (Romance Languages & Literatures)

What will the cities of tomorrow be like? How did people in the past imagine our cities would be like? Our ability to foretell the future, it turns out, has a mostly poor record so far. And yet, predictions, visions and expectations can teach us a lot about how people make sense of their world. Since the 1800s we have seen a boom in urbanization, as well as in utopian and dystopian depictions of cities. In fact, we can think of modernity in terms of competing views about the future. Throughout the 20th century, for example, many envisioned flying vehicles. Some vied for segregated cities, others for diverse communities. Today, with climate change, labor precarity, and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic setting in, it often seems as if a dire destiny is inevitable. To some, it is as if the future, not the past, is already fixed. Others invite us to make radical changes. Most tend to assume that the future will be very different from the past. But some cultures think differently, and we will also consider alternative conceptions of time. As we reflect on our current moment, we will investigate multiple urban visions in design, literature and film, asking: How do expectations about the future shape the present? How did unrealized projects impact the built environment? Can fiction and the arts stretch the limits of the thinkable? How might futures imagined in the past help to address our urban and environmental challenges?

Bob Dylan

Freshman Seminar 37U: Bob Dylan 
Richard Thomas (Classics)

“’Twas a dark day in Dallas.” So begins the nearly 17-minute song Bob Dylan delivered on March 27, 2020, a gift to a world in the grip of Covid-19. With its Shakespearean title “Murder Most Foul” is, in part, about the assassination of JFK, and about the music that he and many of us have been listening to across the decades since that day. This seminar will examine Dylan as a musical, literary, and general cultural phenomenon, in the context of high and popular culture of the last 60 years, but also in the context of the much more long-lived poetic, literary, artistic and musical cultures of which he has played so demonstrably a leading role. Dylan has been at the center of popular culture ever since he arrived in New York City on 24 January 1961, from Hibbing MN, by way of Minneapolis, Madison and Chicago; and the longevity of his art defies the validity of the very term popular culture. The seminar will trace the evolution of his songs and lyrics from its early folk, blues, rock and roll, gospel, and protest roots, through the transition from acoustic to electric, also through the many evolutions, reinventions, and innovations that followed—and that continue to emerge. We will also focus on Dylan’s frustrations of audience expectation, from the anger evoked by his apparent abandonment of the serious protest and static urban folk traditions, to his apparent embracing of Christianity, to his change in musical arrangement in performance, to attacks focused on Dylan’s “plagiarism” which show a lack of understanding of the vital and original literary process of intertextuality. The seminar will also explore the multiple versions of many of Dylan’s songs that show him to be not unlike an oral poet in his ability to re-perform and recreate through performance, in the process often transforming utterly the original lyrics and meanings of his own songs. Attention will be given to the ways in which Dylan’s career builds up through periods of evolution and experimentation to productions that can only be called “classics” from a diachronic perspective, among others, Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966), Blood on the Tracks (1975), “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (2006), Tempest (2012), and the bootleg and outtakes from the 1990s to the astonishing Telltale Signs (2008) and the highly revealing The Cutting Edge (2015) and More Blood More Tracks (2018). The seminar will also consider Dylan’s role in film, particularly the brilliant commercial failure, Masked and Anonymous, from 2003, a work of high allegorical import. We will also look at Todd Haynes’ insightful 2007 movie, I’m Not There, which captures the essence of some of Dylan’s persona creation, even though it initially met with bafflement from many critics. We will also read Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1, itself a work of genius, a sprawling Dylan prose song posing as an autobiography.

Build a Modern Art Exhibition - Dig up Harvard’s Archives

Freshman Seminar 63U: Build a Modern Art Exhibition - Dig up Harvard’s Archives
Felipe Pereda (History of Art & Architecture)

The making of an exhibition entails a thorough process of investigation. We will need to find the works of art, document them and construct an argument that will be brought to life at a museum gallery. The goal of this seminar is to give you the chance to participate in the research and design of this exhibition, that focuses on the work of a major figure of Spanish and Filipino art of the 20th century, Fernando Zóbel (1926-1984), programmed at the Prado Museum, Madrid. A Harvard Graduate (1949) whose love for painting and collecting mandated his life, Zóbel saw and cultivated art as a universal language without frontiers. Harvard's archives hold hundreds of Zóbel's letters, drawings, paintings and even his class note-books that will guide us into the fascinating life of a modern artist while allowing you to channel the role of a curator.

Prerequisites: Some knowledge of Spanish will be useful but is not required. Zóbel was bilingual, Spanish/English and expressed himself in both languages.

California in the 60’s

Freshman Seminar 30M: California in the 60’s
Kate van Orden (Music)

This seminar examines American youth culture in the "long" 1960s through the lens of music in California. A range of popular and art music will be considered, from San Francisco psychedelia, L.A. rock-n-roll, surf rock, outlaw country, funk, and the ballads of singer-songwriters to the early minimalism of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and John Adams. Much of our attention will be concentrated on a few spectacularly influential albums: The Doors (the group’s debut album, 1967), Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow (1967), an album definitive of the Summer of Love, Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand! (1969), and the self-titled Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969), an album that turned the tide of pop music away from blues-based rock-n-roll toward acoustic guitars, folk elements, and singing in harmony. Our musical “texts” for the class will be sound recordings, so you will not have to read scores. Come with open ears, an open mind, and a desire to learn from listening. In addition to studying musical genres, performance styles, and the effects of technology (radio, recording, electric instruments), the seminar will delve into the social movements in which music played a crucial role: the Civil Rights Movement, protests against the Vietnam War, the ecology movement, gay liberation, and feminism.

CIA Operations in the Global Cold War

Freshman Seminar BWX: CIA Operations in the Global Cold War
Beatrice T. Wayne (History & Literature)

What was the secret side of US foreign policy during the global Cold War? This seminar uses empirically grounded readings from across the Americas, Africa and Asia to understand the impact of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) covert operations on governments, organizations, and ordinary citizens living across the globe. We will examine memoirs, declassified documents and congressional hearings to understand the rationale behind the CIA's actions, and engage with popular culture produced about the CIA to understand how coverage and representations of the CIA have reflected and clashed with the realities of their operations. As this seminar is deeply engaged with understanding the response of global populations affected by this arm of U.S. foreign policy, we will analyze the literature, poetry, films, and various forms of cultural production from those who experienced the fallout of CIA covert actions in their regions. This seminar will focus on methods as well as ideas, exploring the challenges and restrictions inherent in studying an organization that is all about keeping secrets. Students will get hands-on experience with working to declassify documents from the U.S. State Department. The seminar encourages students to ask new questions about the way they see themselves, their fellow citizens, and their responsibilities to the wider global community.

Community Building and Social Justice

Freshman Seminar 63O: Community Building and Social Justice through Music
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 social distancing and remote 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 suffering 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. We will experiment with a wide range of pieces designed for musicians and non-musicians alike by composers such as Pauline Oliveros, Yoko Ono and Alvin Lucier, 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.

Prerequisites: While no prior specific musical experience is required for the seminar or for our various community participants, what is required is curiosity, openness and enthusiasm about how and why music brings people together.

Complexity in Works of Art: Ulysses and Hamlet

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

Note: There may be interviews for selected applicants. The instructor may contact selected applicants by email to schedule the interview.

Death and Immortality

Freshman Seminar 30Q: Death and Immortality
Cheryl K. Chen (Philosophy)

In this seminar, we will discuss philosophical questions about death and immortality. What is death? Is there a moral difference between “brain death” and the irreversible loss of consciousness? Is the classification of a person as dead a moral judgment, or is it an entirely scientific matter? Is death a misfortune to the person who dies? How can death be a misfortune if you are no longer around to experience that misfortune? Is it possible to survive after death? What does it mean for you to survive after your death? Is there such a thing as an immaterial soul distinct from your body? Is immortality something you should want in the first place? Even if you do not live forever, is it nevertheless important that humanity continues to exist after your death? By discussing these questions about death, we will hopefully gain insight about the importance and meaning of life.

Death: Its Nature and Significance

Freshman Seminar 60S: Death: Its Nature and Significance
Jeffrey Behrends (Philosophy)

Here's a hard truth: you are going to die. That's nothing against you, of course. I'm going to die, too, and so is everyone else—it's just the way of things for creatures like us. Yet, despite the central role that death plays in our existence, it seems to remain deeply mysterious in a number of ways. It is difficult even to say precisely what death is—is it a mere biological phenomenon? If so, is there any sense to be made of the idea that I might continue to exist after my death, perhaps as a soul? Or is death instead final, in the sense that it causes me to cease existing altogether? Beyond these kinds of questions about death's nature, there are also questions about death's significance or value: Is death bad for the person who dies? If they go out of existence, how could it be bad—things can't be good or bad for us if we don't exist, it seems! Is it better to die at a certain age or time than some other? What should I think about my future death—should I fear it? Would it be better for us if we were immortal? In this class, we'll examine important philosophical work that responds to each of these questions, and more.

Exploring the Infinite

Freshman Seminar 23C: Exploring the Infinite
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.

Happiness and Different Ways of Life

Freshman Seminar 63X: Happiness and Different Ways of Life
Susanna Rinard (Philosophy)

What is happiness, and what can we learn from different ways of life about what conduces to human happiness? In this seminar we begin with an overview of thought in philosophy and contemporary science about the nature of happiness (our guide: Sissela Bok’s book Exploring Happiness). We then consider a few different ways of life. First, we look at modern-day Buddhist approaches to the search for happiness (our guide: Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness). This will provide a context in which we can consider to what extent internal conditions—your mental habits, your attitude, your overall outlook—are determinants of happiness. Then we turn to a study of the lifestyles of prehistoric humans, and consider their approaches to child-rearing, dispute resolution, and more (our guide: Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday). Looking at these radically different cultures will prompt us to consider whether our modern society could benefit from re-adopting some aspects of these ways of life. Finally, we look at the conditions of poor women in India, and what we can learn from them about justice and quality of life (our guide: Martha Nussbaum’s Women and Human Development). We will consider both the devastating effects of oppression and certain kinds of material poverty, as well as the ways in which people can nonetheless flourish in difficult circumstances. Throughout the course we will see what can be learned by combining abstract philosophical reflection on happiness with attention to the details of the actual lives of human beings at different places and times.

History, Nationalism, and the World: the Case of Korea

Freshman Seminar 43W: History, Nationalism, and the World:  the Case of Korea
Sun Joo Kim (East Asian Languages & Civilizations)

This seminar will explore the quandary that faces all historians:  To what extent is the understanding of past episodes influenced by current politics and to what extent is current politics influenced by people’s understanding of the past?  In the study of Korean history, this question is particularly sharp since the postcolonial division of Korea into North and South has thrust the memory of past events into current political discussions as well as scholarly debates.  The seminar will investigate selected events in Korean history to map the interaction between historical writing and politics:  the origins of Korea; Korean territory and the Korean people; cultural contacts with China and Japan and indigenization; social and regional marginalization and discrimination; Confucian transformation of Chosŏn Korea and its legacy in contemporary Korean culture; the legacy of pre-World War II Japanese occupation; and the contending history of popular movements and religion.  Why have some historians pictured Korea as a Japanese colony, a miniature replica of China, or a local variant of Chinese civilization?  Why have other historians emphasized certain periods and aspects of Korean history while ignoring others?  How have historians described Korea’s relationships to China, Japan, and the rest of the world?  Has the perception of Korea as a marginalized people and region influenced how its history has been described?  Are there any connections between popular traditions and movements and this historical and scholarly discussion?  Reading (all in English) will include translated primary documents as well as political and historical studies.  Students are required to write five short critical essays in addition to weekly Web posting.

Note:  All readings will be in English.

Language and Prehistory

Freshman Seminar 34X: Language and Prehistory
Jay H. Jasanoff (Linguistics)

It was discovered around 1800 that the major languages of Europe, along with the ancient languages of India and Iran, were descended from an unattested parent, formerly known as “Aryan” or “Indo-Germanic,” but today usually called Proto-Indo-European. The identification of the Indo-European family raised many questions, some purely linguistic (e.g., what was Proto-Indo-European like; was it grammatically complex or “primitive”?), and some more far-reaching (e.g., who were the speakers of Proto-Indo-European; why did Indo-European languages spread so widely?). Questions of the first type eventually led to the birth of the academic field of historical linguistics. Questions of the second type, however, led many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century intellectuals to posit a genetically and culturally superior Aryan “race.” This idea is now universally rejected, but evidence from language still figures importantly in specula­tion about the remote past. Recent debates about the origins of “Western civilization,” for example, center on the alleged presence of Egyptian elements in Greek, while theories about the settlement of the Americas sometimes cite supposed linguistic connections between the New World and other continents. This seminar, after surveying the basic elements of historical linguistics, will explore the use and misuse of such methods. What, if anything, does the fact that languages are related tell us about their speakers? How can we distinguish genuine cases of language contact or “influence” from the kinds of resemblances that come about through pure chance? Answers to questions like these will be sought through case studies, with readings chosen to illustrate and contrast scholarly and unscholarly approaches. The work for the course will consist of readings, four or five short problem sets, and a final project with both written and oral components.

Language: The Origins of Meaning

Freshman Seminar 61Q: Language: The Origins of Meaning
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.

Prerequisites: An interest in language and mind, and no fear of formal methods or the desire to overcome such fear.

Literature of Epidemics and Pandemics: Exposing Injustice

Freshman Seminar 64C: Literature of Epidemics and Pandemics: Exposing Injustice
Karen L. Thornber (Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages & Civilizations)

Whether you live in the United States, Asia, or anywhere in-between, in an isolated rural community, a booming megacity, or anywhere in-between, your life has been affected and even transformed by Covid-19. This disease not only has killed hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. It also has left millions if not billions unemployed, further exacerbating all manner of injustices and inequalities. Already, creative narratives on the pandemic are exposing the many ways our societies are failing our most vulnerable. These narratives are also providing guidance for the future. Putting our own experiences living through a pandemic into broader historical and cultural perspective, in this seminar we read a selection of acclaimed novels, short stories, drama, and poetry from around the world (Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe) and from classical times to the present on a range of epidemics and pandemics. This literature on epidemics and pandemics has played a large role in documenting historical injustices and inequalities on the one hand, and on the other, imagining and inspiring future transformations. We will be most concerned with what these narratives tell us about our (in)capacities as individuals, communities, and societies to tackle injustice and inequality, and what vision these narratives can provide us as we continue to live through and one day emerge from Covid-19. Class discussion and secondary readings provide the necessary historical, cultural, and literary contexts for these primary texts. In-class presentations and final projects offer students opportunities to engage more deeply with their local communities.

Prerequisites: The only prerequisite for this seminar is a desire to read a range of thrilling, provocative works from around the world that tackle some of the most significant problems that have faced and continue to face societies. No non-English language expertise required, but students who can read a novel in the original language are encouraged to do so.

Memory Wars: Cultural Trauma and the Power of Literature

­­Freshman Seminar 63L: Memory Wars: Cultural Trauma and the Power of Literature
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 full-blown memory wars. 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.

Narrative Negotiations

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


Freshman Seminar 63P: Nietzsche
Jay M. Harris (Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations)

­­In his autobiography, Friedrich Nietzsche included a chapter entitled, “Why I Write Such Good Books.” While he won’t win any prizes for humility, he accurately anticipated the judgment of history: he did write some amazing books. In them, Nietzsche addresses some of the big questions of human existence in an elusive style that continues to resonate with—and confound—many. Indeed, he has allegedly influenced numerous philosophical schools, among them existentialism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction. More interestingly, he has been considered a promoter of anarchism, fascism, libertarianism, liberal democracy, and (incredibly) socialism. Nietzsche has always been of special interest to young people who have often appreciated the irreverence and freshness of his thought, as well as the often very high literary quality of his writing. In this seminar, we explore Nietzsche's moral and political philosophy with emphasis on the themes he develops in his best-known and most accessible work, The Genealogy of Morality. Here he asks fundamental questions regarding how we came to a moral system rooted in self-denial and chastity (among other things).  However, we also read several other of Nietzsche’s works, and do so chronologically, all the while being guided by his autobiographical reflections on these books. The other works include The Birth of Tragedy, The Gay Science, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Prerequisites: The seminar presupposes no previous exposure to Nietzsche or philosophy. The purpose is to get a sense of philosophical questions by engaging with one rather irreverent thinker.

Reading the Novella: Form and Suspense in Short Fiction

Freshman Seminar 61U: Reading the Novella: Form and Suspense in Short Fiction
Jonathan H. 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.

Reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace

Freshman Seminar 37P: Reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace
Julie A. Buckler (Slavic Languages & Literatures and Comparative Literature)

Leo Tolstoy's massive masterwork War and Peace (1865-69) is a magnificent work of art by a world-class writer tackling life’s “big questions.” It is also a great read!  Over the course of a semester, we will give this nineteenth-century novel the time and attention it deserves.  We will read War and Peace closely, while comparing two different English-language translations, exploring cultural and historical context, artistic biography, historiography, the novel as a literary form, literary language, issues in translation, interpretive paradigms, and potential new ways of reading. We will trace the changing interpretative approaches to War and Peace from the 1860s to the present. How does the pacing of the novel relate to nineteenth-century reading and publishing practices?  To nineteenth-century conceptions of time, space, narrative, and genre?  What are the problematic distinctions between history and literature that the novel raises?  We will also consider the significance of the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) in Russian history and the broader pan-European cultural legacy of this period, including literature, art, and architecture.

Shadow Economies in U.S. History

Freshman Seminar 63ZShadow Economies in U.S. History
Devin McGeehan Muchmore (History & Literature)

Have you ever received cash for babysitting? Or used a friend’s HBO password? Or lied about your age to access a webpage? Although terms like “informal sector” and “black market” might seem to imply marginality, economic activities that evade or contravene legal regulation are part of everyday life. As you will learn in this seminar, this is hardly a recent development. Spanning the late-colonial period to the present, this seminar samples histories of controversial and shadow economies in the territory now known as the United States. We will examine a range of case studies, including counterfeit currency, enslaved human beings, commodity futures, animals, blood, and sex. In each case, we will analyze how the changing legal and moral boundaries around the licit market (separating it from the black or grey market) have been drawn and negotiated, and what the effects of those boundaries on the organization and valuation of illicit commodities and markets have been.

The American West: History & Myth

Freshman Seminar 63Y: The American West: History & Myth
Christopher Clements (History & Literature)

Lil Nas X reinvented a Western aesthetic with his 2019 hit, Old Town Road:

I got the horses in the back / Horse tack is attached /
Hat is matte black / Got the boots that’s black to match.

The 20-year-old Georgia rapper joined a parade of artists, authors, scholars, and citizens who have blended the imagined and the historical into something entirely its own. This seminar traces how he and others, in the present and in the past, have engaged in similar kinds of reimagining while also attempting to uncover the material history of what we think of as the American West. The West has long been a site of conflict and violence, yet many insist that we see it as a land of adventure and opportunity. How did we arrive at this peculiar dichotomy? What is the American West, and what does its flexibility as a cultural concept teach us about America itself? How did a place vastly peopled by diverse communities and nations become imagined as an open and untouched expanse? How do the worldviews and experiences of a diverse array of Indigenous peoples complicate this mythology and the idea of the “American” West? We will consider the West’s portrayal in various mediums—historical documents, film, fiction, photography, painting, music, and more—and develop diverse analytical skills and interdisciplinary methods for answering these questions.

The Grail Quest of Marcel Proust

Freshman Seminar 60K: The Grail Quest of Marcel Proust
Virginie Greene (Romance Languages & Literatures)

We will read Chrétien de Troyes’ Tale of the Grail, the most ancient known Grail story (c. 1190) and large excerpts of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I propose to read as a Grail quest, involving a young ignorant hero discovering the world and seeking something else than money, fame, and love (but also money, fame, and love). Through comparing a medieval and a modern text we will reflect on the passing of time, modernity and memory, reality and fiction, romance and novel. We will focus on the visual aspects of both stories, whose heroes share a contemplative/voyeuristic temper. The Tale of the Grail has generated an immense corpus of images from thirteenth-century illuminated manuscripts to the 1895 Edwin Austin Abbey wall paintings at the Boston Public Library and Grail films (1975 Monty Python Holy Grail, 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc.). In Search of Lost Time has been called a “cathedral work,” that is, like a Gothic cathedral, a space of eclectic visions. Real and fictional paintings illuminate the novel like a medieval manuscript. All members of the seminar will be invited to share their experiences of reading, viewing, and writing.

Prerequisites: No previous knowledge of the Middle Ages, Proust or French is necessary. Texts will be available in English and French.

What is a Classic?

Freshman Seminar 63R: What is a Classic?
Rachel Love (Classics)

The question of what makes certain works ‘classics’ has plagued readers ever since they had more than one book to choose from. When faced with more works of literature and art than one could consume in a single lifetime, the label ‘classic’ provides readers with a narrowed selection that is guaranteed to be worth the time and effort to engage with, that is vital to participation within an intellectual community. Classical literature, classical art, classical music—all suggest art forms that are fundamental, elevated, perhaps even elite… but why? And who gets to decide what qualifies as ‘classical’, especially when those who constitute today’s intellectual communities are increasingly heterogenous and have greater access to an impossibly vast, impossibly diverse trove of global artistic production? In this seminar, we are going to read ‘The Classics’—defined within universities as the study of literature from ancient Greece and Rome—in order to open up larger questions about the nature, purpose, and consequence of labelling certain works, aesthetics, and ideas ‘classical’. We will read selections from a broad sampling of written works that survive from antiquity, learning firsthand what it means to read a classic. At the same time, we will be reading, watching, and listening to a diverse array of media that explain, criticize, and reimagine the role of classical literature and ideas in today’s world.

Prerequisites: There are no prerequisites for this class. All readings are in English, and no knowledge of Latin or Greek is expected.

What Is Beauty?

Freshman Seminar 35E: What Is Beauty?
Francesco Erspamer (Romance Languages & Literatures)

Of the three fundamental concepts of Western civilization—truth, goodness, and beauty—beauty is the only one that does not demand loyalty or consistency. One moment we are entirely absorbed by a person or an object, the next moment we find it insignificant. Beauty does not promise or imply the possibility of verification, not even in a distant future—there will be no comprehensive research and no day of reckoning to finally prove that Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are in fact beautiful. But perhaps this is precisely the reason why we need beauty, and why it is worth studying: it teaches the contingency of values and the revocability of absolutes; it is a most effective training for tolerance and innovation. Selections from Plato, Kant, and other Western classics of aesthetics will be discussed in the first part of the seminar. In the second part we will explore the representation of beauty in literature, art, opera, cinema, and design, with examples mostly taken from the culture of a country, Italy, that successfully self-fashioned itself as the land of beauty. Topics will include the Renaissance “invention” of art, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and Benetton’s advertising campaigns.

Zombies and Spirits, Ghosts and Ghouls

Freshman Seminar 62U: Zombies and Spirits, Ghosts and Ghouls: Interactions between the Living and the Dead
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 2021

Animation—Getting Your Hands on Time

Freshman Seminar 33O: Animation—Getting Your Hands on Time
Ruth S. Lingford (Art, Film & Visual Studies)

Students in this practice-based seminar will experiment with a variety of animation techniques to gain new perspectives on time. Using drawing, we will break down time into frames, understanding movement as both a liquid flow and a sequence of distinct infinitesimals. Using pixilation, a technique from the beginning of cinema, we will analyze and deconstruct human movement, then reassemble it for magical effect. Using strata-cut animation, we will attempt to think of time as a solid, and to visualize the progression of time in terms of volume and shape. Using editing software, we will explore cinematic constructions of time though the use of cutting and juxtaposition. Each session will include screenings, discussion and practical work. There will be practice-based assignments each week. Each student will have the opportunity to make a film of around one minute, using an animation technique of their choice. Or they may decide to collaborate with others to make a longer piece.

Prerequisites: No previous experience of drawing or animation is required.

Cartoons, Folklore, and Mythology

Freshman Seminar 61F: Cartoons, Folklore, and Mythology
Joseph Nagy (Celtic Languages & Literatures)

The creators of cinematic (and later TV) animation have perennially turned to traditional oral and literary tales about fantastic heroes, villains, tricksters, and settings for their story material. In the world of the animated “short” and feature-length film, myths, epics, legends, and folktales could come to life in a highly stylized, kinetic, and visually arresting way. Cartooning created a pathway for traditional stories to live on in the consciousness of twentieth-century viewers, and also for these old tales to be adapted to changing times. Hence animation offers not only an influential modern commentary on the folklore and mythology of the past but also a contemporary mythology of its own, deeply meaningful to adults and children alike. In this freshman seminar, students are invited to take what might be considered mere entertainment very seriously, closely reading texts of traditional stories in tandem with critically viewing animation that draws its inspiration from those stories. For a final assignment, each student will be called upon to choose some animation (a short or a clip from a feature-length film) to share with the rest of the seminar, to provide some background for it, and to lead a discussion of the animation in light of what else we will have seen, learned, and said. While the instructor’s contribution to the seminar will primarily focus on animation from 1900 to 1960, students when choosing which sample of animation to share will be welcome to present later or contemporary examples of the cartooning art—including perhaps even their own.

Copycat China?

­­Freshman Seminar 63K: Copycat China?
Thomas P. Kelly (East Asian Languages & Civilizations)

In our age of deception, China is widely blamed for a failure to respect intellectual property. These attacks are not new: Chinese makers have long been condemned for flooding the market with cheap knockoffs, forgeries, and counterfeit brands. Challenging such stereotypes, this seminar explores ideas of copying in Chinese art and literature from ancient times to the present day. We will uncover a surprising history of forgeries, hoaxes, swindles, and scams, questioning what is meant by “originality.” In doing so, we will also investigate the role of forgeries in shaping Western misconceptions about Chinese culture. From the Terracotta Army and medieval Buddhist spells to Mao’s Golden Mangoes and “Shanzhai Harry Potter,” the seminar asks what makes something a “fake.” What is the relationship between forgery and invention? How have piracy and plagiarism influenced cultural innovation? What makes someone a skillful faker? Giving you hands-on experience in the Harvard Art Museums and the Harvard-Yenching Library, we will learn what it takes to authenticate works of art and spot forgeries. Readings and class discussions will question what we think we know about China, creativity, and the timeless art of “faking it.”

Note: No knowledge of Chinese required. All readings are in English.

Literal Looking: What We See in Art

Freshman Seminar 31Q: Literal Looking: What We See in Art
Peter J. Burgard (Germanic Languages & Literatures)

What do we really see when we look at a work of art? If we have little experience, we may not get far beyond discerning the theme and ascertaining whether the work is an accurate representation of reality (in the case of representational art); confronted with abstract art, seeing the work may result primarily in confusion or frustrated musing over what the point is. If we have too much experience—the seminar will address what "too much experience" might be and how literal looking relates to it—we may see the work as a function of historical, religious, aesthetic, mythological, and other concerns, or we may get caught in the web of a work's iconography. Either way, our too little or too great experience can prevent us from seeing what is there. This seminar is an exercise in seeing what is actually there in a series of great works of art, in moving beyond too much mystification yet staying this side of too much sophistication, an exercise in evaluating composition and representation as they present themselves to the viewer directly and without context. We will spend most of our time looking and talking about what we think we see, what we actually see, and how it informs interpretation, but we will also read short texts where professionally encumbered lookers (i.e., experts) tell us what we should see, so that we can compare the two and explore the degree to which literal looking aids or is aided by contextually informed looking. Works by Raphael, Caravaggio, Bernini, Velázquez, Turner, Renoir, Sargent, Kandinsky, Bauhaus, Warhol.

Water Rights in the Americas

Freshman Seminar 64D: Water Rights in the Americas
James V. Mestaz (History & Literature)

Water is life, but is it a human right? Water use is a contentious issue globally because we rely on water for nearly every productive activity, but it is often scarce and not distributed equally. In this seminar, we will examine the social and physical shape of water in a modern and historical context to better understand the persistence and escalation of struggles over water access both locally and globally. While all bodies of water deserve mention, civilizations have most often relied on rivers to act as veins pumping fresh water like life blood. This seminar discusses popular and scholarly understandings of water issues, paying particular attention to the Boston area and then extending to other populations in the Americas, from South America through Canada. We begin by exploring the importance of Boston’s waterways, and from there we examine global water policies, learning how marginalized groups have made use of water justice strategies to defend their identity, material wealth, and health. We will then come full circle by analyzing community activism on such local waterways as the Mystic River, and you will design your own proposal to protect our local waterways.

Work: An Audio/Visual Exploration

Freshman Seminar 38X: Work: An Audio/Visual Exploration
Robb Moss (Art, Film & Visual Studies)

What is work? Something we do to earn a living? Is rehabbing from a sports injury work? Raising your children? Mowing the lawn? Does intellectual work have the same quality as physical labor? What do we mean when we refer to a painting as a "work of art," or a certain kind of person as "a piece of work?" This course will explore the nature of work through audio and video recordings, film screenings, readings and journal writing. Central to the idea of the class is that, through its filmmaking efforts, students will get off campus and explore the larger community of Cambridge. Issues of class, race, storytelling and abstraction will also be explored.

Note: No previous production experience is necessary to take this class, and the class can be considered a gateway course for admission into the Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies.

Surviving Your First Year at Harvard: Lessons of Resiliency

Freshman Seminar 63S: Surviving Your First Year at Harvard: Lessons of Resiliency From Mexican Artist Frida Kahlo
María Luisa Parra-Velasco (Romance Languages & Literatures)

Are you trying to discover your passion in life? Is love a concern of yours? Do you often think about your appearance, and what others might think of you? Is a strong sense of community important to you? Do you fantasize about (better) Mexican food at Annenberg? Are you looking for opportunities to express your creativity? If any of these questions resonate with you, then this seminar is for you. This seminar will explore ways to tackle these and other questions by learning about the Mexican global icon Frida Kahlo. Born in Mexico City at the beginning of the twentieth century, Frida was a bright, complex, unapologetic and creative woman. She built strength and resiliency from a very young age in the face of polio and a terrible accident that incapacitated her from her teen years until her death at 47. Despite these hardships, Frida never forgot to enjoy life and to love both men and women. She was always in solidarity with those in need, and through her art she gave voice to the voiceless: women, indigenous communities, and the disabled. As we learn about Frida’s journey, we will travel in time through Mexico’s complicated social history and Mexico’s rich and creative popular culture which includes fashion, cuisine and music. We will discover the hidden gems of Mexican art within Boston and Harvard Museums. Finally, this seminar hopes to be an open door to explore the vast field of the Humanities and art making.

Note: The pre-requisite for this seminar is to be curious, inquisitive, and creative. No background in the arts is necessary.

Vegetal Humanities

­­Freshman Seminar 63W: Vegetal Humanities
Carrie Lambert-Beatty (History of Art & Architecture and of Art, Film, & Visual Studies)

A paradigm is changing. In Western culture, plant life tends to be green background for the more interesting lives of animals. Senseless, immobile, and silent, plants—99% of the planet’s biomass—are resources for human use or enjoyment, if not enemies that civilization must beat back.  But in the last decade—and in the context of climate crisis—this model has been under pressure: from the voices of indigenous knowledge-keepers and activists; from scientific findings in plant communication, sensation, and (arguably) intelligence; and from artists and writers, dancers and filmmakers who show us a vegetal realm at once more familiar and more alien than you may have imagined. This seminar invites you to try out a botanically-based cultural sensibility. How does plant-awareness affect your sense of time and experience of space? What happens to core concepts of the arts and humanities—subjectivity, perception, ethics, and the human condition itself—when you think them vegetally?  How does recent art change cultural understanding of plants? And how does plant-thinking affect the experience of art? Readings in philosophy, literature, and anthropology of plants; case studies in contemporary art, film, and design. You’ll also learn from direct observation of vegetal lives; from experts at Harvard’s unique botanical institutions; and from your own research into a single plant species’ natural and cultural history.

Prerequisites: No prior art or botanical knowledge is expected. However, students with backgrounds in agriculture, ecology, horticulture, or botany are especially welcome.

Video: The Medium of Everyday Life

Freshman Seminar 63V: Video: The Medium of Everyday Life

Karthik Pandian (Art, Film & Visual Studies)

Video is fast becoming the medium of everyday life. We use it to communicate, learn, entertain, inform, and express ourselves. At the same time, we are often used by it - manipulated, programmed, influenced, distracted, fooled. In this production seminar, we will explore the medium of video by putting works of contemporary art into dialog with memes, viral videos, and other social media from the present moment. Artists whose work we will look at represent a broad range of backgrounds and experiences, motivating us to consider how video engages questions of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Over the course of the term, students will create a series of videos inspired by these discussions, drawing on technical workshops introducing the basics of shooting, editing, and publishing videos.  

Note: No experience with video production is necessary and all materials will be provided with no cost to the student.

War in Fiction and Film

Freshman Seminar 62P: War in Fiction and Film
Justin M. Weir (Slavic Languages & Literatures and Comparative Literature)

War has always been one of the most important subjects of art and literature, but in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, public ideas about war and military service have been formed increasingly by film and other visual media. In this seminar we will consider the different ways war has been depicted in literature and in films. We will spend some time identifying the conventions and clichés of the genre, and we will have occasion to discuss depictions of war in news coverage, documentaries, and video games. But we will mainly be reading and viewing several masterpieces—including novels and stories by Leo Tolstoy, Isaac Babel, Ernest Hemingway, Svetlana Alexievich, Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O’Brien, Wallace Terry, and Phil Klay, and films by directors Jean Renoir, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Stephen Spielberg, Terrence Malick, Kathryn Bigelow, and Spike Lee. In our discussions, we will reflect on how these largely fictional narratives of war have shaped our understanding of culture, politics, and history.

Prerequisites: None. The seminar is designed for a general audience. Literary and/or media studies backgrounds are not required, nor is the material presented in a way that requires any special knowledge of military history. All texts originally written or filmed in languages other than English will be provided in translation or with subtitles.

What Is Avant-Garde?

­­Freshman Seminar 63T: What Is Avant-Garde?
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.