What We Offer

Courses and concentrations in the Arts & Humanities at Harvard are designed to help you understand the world and make the most of it. They approach knowledge through a distinctive emphasis on meaning. Whereas many approaches to knowledge focus on mechanical forms of causality or manipulation, the Arts & Humanities never lose sight of the radically perplexing conditions of human existence.

 

What makes for human wellbeing?

How have certain stories shaped and interpreted human experience?

What is our responsibility to other species?

How have people used art to promote justice?

What questions should we ask of new technologies before we adopt them?


 

Dance Class Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University

 

In the Arts & Humanities, we pursue fundamental questions and foster practical capacities for grappling with them.

 

Outside of the Arts & Humanities, problems are often treated as self-evident. Such matters as inconvenience, uncertainty, restraint, suffering, or delay are deemed by definition to be obstacles to human fulfillment. In the Arts & Humanities, we unsettle such assumptions, probing deeply into the question of what constitutes a problem and why. The practical benefits of this questioning are many. Students of the Arts & Humanities have a broader view of the world and how its meanings come to be. They understand the power of stories and images to shape human lives.

 

Today, some people think that we have no time for arm-chair philosophizing or the contemplation of works of art. They have it exactly backward. What we have no time for is the unreflective assumption that every new gadget or convenience will make the world better. That assumption has led us into a climate crisis and a society beset with surveillance and fake news. The study of the Arts & Humanities, with its emphasis on fundamental questions of meaning and modes of human experience, has never been more vital.

 

To give you a sense of the fascinating subjects and materials you can study, we have highlighted here a few of the courses that reflect the diversity and creativity of thought in the Arts & Humanities. They are but a fraction of the curricular pathways on offer, but can help spark your own thinking about how the courses you choose form a narrative of interconnected and interdisciplinary study in the liberal arts.

East Asian Studies 152: Tea in Japan/America

East Asian Studies 152: Tea in Japan/America

Melissa McCormick  (East Asian Languages & Civilizations) FALL

 

This course examines the history, culture, and practice of the Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu) and its reception in the United States. What began as a ritualized preparation of tea had developed into a wide-ranging cultural practice by the medieval period, the study of which opens onto issues of Japanese aesthetics, political history, and philosophy. The course takes advantage of the rich resources in the Boston area that pertain directly to the early phase of “teaism” in America, while exploring later 20th-century and contemporary examples of art and architecture related to tea.

 

The Professor Says ...

“In addition to seminar discussion, we’ll meet in Harvard’s own tea room to study the discipline of chanoyu practice. Students will learn how to prepare and drink tea, keep a tea diary, and design their own virtual tea room. Even the smallest tea rooms, through their design, materials, dimensions, setting, and curated contents, encapsulate worldviews. We’ll study examples from history and consider the space as a vehicle for creative expression today.”

 

English 172DL: Literature of Displacement

English 172LD: Literature of Displacement

Jesse McCarthy (English) FALL

 

In this seminar we will read novels, essays, and memoirs that contribute to a “literature of displacement,” including works by Joseph Conrad, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, James Baldwin, Tayeb Salih, Valeria Luiselli, and W.G. Sebald. We will ask how these works respond to the trials and rewards of belonging to, or being alienated from, cultures and communities; how history and loss imprint us with identity but also disrupt it; what we learn from encountering other places and perspectives.

 

The Professor Says ...

“Where are you from, and what does it mean? It seems a simple question and yet the answer, (even if you have never traveled further than the end of the block), is infinitely complicated and often confounding. This class will use literature and film as a prism to shed light on people displaced: by force, as immigrants, through alienation, as vagabonds, outcasts, and wanderers in a diverse range of novels, memoirs, and films from the mid-19th century to the present.” 

Engish 185E: The Essay: History and Practice

English 185E: The Essay: History and Practice

James Woods (English) FALL

 

The essay is at present one of the most productive and fertile of literary forms. It is practiced as memoir, reportage, diary, criticism, and sometimes all four at once. This class will study the history of the essay around common themes: death, detail, sentiment, race, gender, photography, the city, witness, and so on. In addition to writing about essays, students will also be encouraged to write their own creative essays: we will study the history of the form, and practice the form itself.

 

Students Say ...

  • “If you're nervous about taking literature classes due to lack of exposure to the material or lack of familiarity with the modes of thinking required, take this course. Professor Wood is a welcoming and understanding teacher who will help you feel comfortable working with some difficult but marvelous texts.”

  • “The range of authors and subjects we covered was exceptional. It was great to engage texts from Montaigne and Cadogan all in one class. I also really liked the thematic grouping of texts for each week.”

  • “James is an incredible lecturer. He once said in class, "I don't want to enlighten the text, I want to embroider it." That's what's amazing about Prof. Wood. He doesn't pretend to seismically shift your perspective on literature; at the end of the day, you are still alone with a book in your hands, likely not a genius. But he shows you where to look so that you can unlock genius!”

Freshman Seminar 62W: Music from Earth

Freshman Seminar 62W: Music from Earth

Alexander Rehding (Music) FALL

 

In 1977, NASA shot a mixtape into outer space. The “Golden Record,” as it is known, is aboard the Voyager spacecraft, now outside the solar system on its way into the unknown. It contains a selection of music from all over the world, environmental sounds, images, and greetings in 55 human languages. What would happen if someone found the Golden Record at the other end? What does “listening” mean in this vast context? (Do aliens have ears?) How do we represent human culture to other unknown civilizations?

 

The Professor says ...

“Space. The final frontier. Our mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no music lover has gone before.”

 

Freshman Seminar 63D: Ancient Greek Tragedy for the 21st Century

Freshman Seminar 63D: Ancient Greek Tragedy for the 21st Century 

Naomi Weiss (The Classics) FALL

 

In Athens in the fifth century BCE, thousands would gather at the theater to see the latest plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, which grappled with pressing issues of the day. In this course we will read and watch a selection of Greek tragedies alongside some of their most recent reincarnations, many created by women, people of color, and non-Western artists. We will consider how these ancient plays, produced by and mostly for Athenian men, resonate so powerfully with a diverse range of twenty-first-century audiences.

 

The Professor Says ...

“Why does Game of Thrones refer to Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis? Why is a play about post-apartheid South Africa based on Aeschylus’ Oresteia? Why is Sophocles’ Philoctetes used to address PTSD among war veterans? Greek tragedy may be 2500 years old, but it’s everywhere in modern culture. We’ll try to understand why it’s still so popular and why it still affects us so deeply.”

 

Freshman Seminar 63I: The First Americans: Portraits of Indigenous Power and Diplomacy

Freshman Seminar 63I: The First Americans: Portraits of Indigenous Power and Diplomacy 

Shawon Kinew (History of Art & Architecture) FALL

 

Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is home to 25 oil portraits of indigenous American leaders painted in the first half of the 19th century by the American artist Henry Inman. They represent some of the most fascinating political leaders of the time—chiefs, spiritual leaders, and diplomats, who all traveled to Washington, D.C. to negotiate with the U.S. government on behalf of their tribal nations. Through the close examination of these artworks in person, this seminar will focus on the stories, histories, and teachings communicated by these portraits and their sitters.

 

The Faculty Says ...

"A great work of art should have the force to dissolve the centuries that separate you. I study art because the past and the intangible, the lives and experiences we think are forever gone, are made present in these private audiences between person and artwork."

 

Islamic Civilizations 145B: Introduction to Islamic Philosophy and Theology: The Modern Period (19th and 20th centuries) 

Islamic Civilizations 145B: Introduction to Islamic Philosophy and Theology: The Modern Period (19th and 20th centuries) 

Khaled El-Rouayheb (Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations) FALL

 

This course explores the thought of some of the major Islamic philosophers and theologians in the 19th and 20th centuries: Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad Iqbal, Said Nursi, Abu l-Ala Maududi, Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati, Murtaza Mutahheri, and AbdolKarim Soroush.

 

Students Say ...

 

  • “Prof. R's lectures are the biggest reason to take this course. The effort he puts into organizing his lectures, explaining the readings and then showing us ways to critically think about the text is what INSTRUCTION is all about. Even though Prof. R is a legend, he still takes care to explain things to people completely new to the field.”

  • “I highly recommend that you consider taking this course if you have an interest in 19th and 20th-century intellectual history and/or Islamic thought. Many students take the course to understand the continuation of Islamic medieval philosophy but I think that there is something to gain for students from a whole host of disciplines.”

  • “Professor El-Rouayheb is a truly dedicated intellectual, both to educating his students and to continuously testing his own premises. His love for the materials and humor in his teachings impart him with an inescapable charisma which can enthrall even through the longest of lectures. His classes come alive through discussions with students which he entertains with brio and his openness to a multitude of positions leads him to encourage students in pushing the limits of their thought.”

Philosophy 8: Self and World: An Introduction to Early Modern Philosophy

Philosophy 8: Self and World: An Introduction to Early Modern Philosophy 

Alison Simmons (Philosophy) SPRING

 

An introduction to some of the major topics and figures of 17th- and 18th-century Western philosophy, and to the skills of close reading, argument construction, and clear writing. The course will focus on such metaphysical and epistemological topics as the natures of mind, body and self, the equality of the sexes, the existence of the external world and God, the nature and limits of human knowledge, and the changing relationship between science and philosophy.

Students Say ...

  • “Personally, Phil 8 has encouraged me to think and discuss philosophy more in my free time, which has enriched my life. Overall, reading philosophers and writing about them can get challenging, but the experience will transform the way you think and the way you view the world.”

  • “This is the best class I've taken at Harvard, and I have no philosophy background. Professor Simmons is truly incredible and at every lecture she says something that makes all of the work worthwhile. The section leaders are incredibly fascinating, engaged, helpful people who will make your writing A LOT stronger. Sometimes I felt like I could physically feel my writing improving. If you are even remotely interested, take the class.”

  • “This is what a Harvard course is supposed to be like. This course made me decide to study philosophy. Everything from the materials to the assignments to the teaching is absolutely top-notch. Difficult, not because it has a h

Philosophy 129: Kant’s First Critique

Philosophy 129: Kant’s First Critique 

Samantha Matherne (Philosophy) FALL

 

In this course, we will work through Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87). In analyzing this text, we will explore the account of metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind that Kant defends. More specifically, we will address the negative aspects of his project, including his criticisms of rationalism and empiricism. We will also examine his positive views regarding the nature of the mind, experience, and reality, as well as the foundations of mathematics and natural science.

 

Students say ...

 

  • “Anyone concentrating in Philosophy absolutely should take this class and anyone else who's interested in the humanities should strongly consider it as well. Reading Kant is not only an immensely intellectually transformative experience but also opens so many other doors for people interested in many different fields.”

  • “If you are at all interested in Kant, take this class! Professor Matherne is an incredible lecturer and generates unending enthusiasm. Her expertise is unparalleled and she's so well-equipped to answer any question you throw her way, in or outside of lecture. Between Kant's genius and Professor Matherne's incredible teaching, this is a must-take!”

Spanish 113: Cultural and Political Myth-Making: Eva Perón, Che Guevara, Simón Bolívar and La Malinche

Spanish 146: Cultural and Political Myth-Making: Eva Perón, Che Guevara, Simón Bolívar and La Malinche (Taught in Spanish)

Diana Sorensen (Romance Languages & Literatures) FALL

 

Political power rests on concrete factors involved in the administration of public resources and the implementation of governmental policies. But it cannot be fully understood without examining cultural strategies of self-presentation and the ways in which social groups respond to them. Myth-making is intrinsic to politics, and we will trace its workings in a few Latin American cases.

Students say ...

 

  • “This was an absolutely amazing course. The figures we studied, the texts we read, and the films/photographs we analyzed were all incredible.”

  • “Prof. Sorensen has so much enthusiasm for teaching and for the material. She expects a lot of her students, but she is clearly passionate and cares about her students. The reading material was interesting, and discussions were often stimulating. Prof. Sorensen encouraged lots of participation and made the classroom a comfortable environment to practice our Spanish.”

  • “You make progress quickly with languages in a challenging environment, and I learned a lot. Several of my friends who are fluent Spanish speakers said they'd noticed a major improvement in my fluency, and for the first time I feel comfortable having conversations in Spanish with native-speaking strangers.”

Spanish 146: Tropical Fantasies: The Hispanic Caribbean and Haiti in Contemporary Literature

Spanish 146: Tropical Fantasies: The Hispanic Caribbean and Haiti in Contemporary Literature

Lorgia García Peña (Romance Languages & Literatures) SPRING

 

The Caribbean has long been portrayed as an exotic region of the world. This course proposes an analysis of the different myths and fantasies that have been created about the Caribbean and of the historical and cultural realities surrounding these myths. Through a close reading of literary, artistic, critical, and historical texts we will examine topics such as: race, ethnic, and gender identity constructions; the rise of the plantation economy; and the emergence of modern nations.

Students say ...

 

  • “The class will change the way you view the Caribbean and its relation to the U.S. It is a powerful paradigm shifting experience that will impact you even if you are already familiar with the topic and the region.”
  • “This class is spectacular. Professor García-Peña is very well versed in all of the material she teaches. The literature is engaging and the historical overview she offers is very helpful and important. Most importantly, this class forces you to engage with preconceived notions of what the Caribbean is. The class does a great job of forcing the students to break down popular imaginations of the Caribbean and leads us through discussions that deal with the more unsavory parts of Latin American history. It's an incredible class, definitely take it!”
  • “Taking a class with Professor García-Peña is a must. There was never a dull moment in this course. The class discussions always felt so valuable and made me question my own role in perpetuating inequity and the destructive consumption of the Caribbean. Profe makes the class feel like a family, albeit a family that pushes its members to continually defend and re-evaluate their perspectives. The texts we read are absolutely groundbreaking and we even get to speak with some of the authors! Take this class – I promise it will be one of the best things you do on this campus.”

 

Theater, Dance & Media 165H: Playwriting: Intersecting Americas

Theater, Dance & Media 165H: Playwriting: Intersecting Americas

Phillip Howze (Theater, Dance & Media) SPRING

 

As Lin-Manuel Miranda reminds us in Hamilton: "History is happening." This playwriting workshop will examine what is happening and what has happened. We'll engage texts and non-texts, theater-making, and live arts through the geographic lens of the Americas and the framework of singular periods in our modern social history (e.g. early AIDS-era, the Black Lives Matter movement, and more). Together we'll create and collaborate, distending our understanding of what a personal writing practice might mean in the contemporary world.

Students say ...

 

  • “Professor Howze is truly brilliant. He is kind and compassionate and will push you to think critically about theatre, and art in general. This is an amazing class, as is his fall class. Definitely take it!”
  •  “We read a diverse variety of texts and were introduced to really experimental, contemporary modes of theatre. I've been taught to place a lot of weight on the creative process and what goes into the making of art, which is fantastic. We also watched two shows and had so many cool performers come speak to us in class!”
  • “Be ready to let go of all of your preconceptions and just explore creatively. Be ready and willing to play and to not know.”