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Fall 2020 Honors Seminars

HONS 1810W-56
“Existential Literature”
TR 1:10 – 2:25 pm
Professor Mark Schoenfield
Department of English
AXLE: Humanities & the Creative Arts (HCA)
      “It is one thing to describe man’s anguish and despair; it is quite another to provide an adequate philosophical and psychological analysis of these feelings and to suggest a solution which does not merely dismiss the protest as adolescent and mistaken” — Hazel Barnes, Humanistic Existentialism
      “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose/Nothing ain’t worth nothing but it’s free…” — Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee

Existentialism has been variously identified as a philosophy, literary movement, psychology, and political agent (most often on the left, but across the political spectrum). In this course, we will examine how works of the classical existentialists—Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus—express concerns about the modern condition, especially with regard to the dynamic of freedom, social responsibility, and the construction of identity and selfhood. We will consider the themes that emerge from these works, with a particular emphasis on how problems of space—the crowd, emptiness, movement across distance, absences—configure much of how they constitute consciousness. As we follow how existential thought diffuses into popular culture, in both novels and movies, we will think about how they intersect with questions of environment and the condition of the self within a social world constructed through consumption, gender, national allegiances, and economic and technological contingencies. Directed in part by our own interests and in part by these author’s obsessions, we will conclude the course with various options for presentations and projects.


HONS 1810W-71
“Early Modern Theories of the Passions”
TR 2:35 – 3:50 pm
Professor Emanuele Costa
Department of Philosophy
AXLE: Humanities & the Creative Arts (HCA)

What does it mean to “feel” anger? Does reasoning help us gain control of our fear? How do we rely on sympathy to create community? Were the Beatles right, and “all we need is love”? The dawn of the Modern age was the laboratory in which many Western conceptions of emotions and the mind-body connection were developed. Through the lens of the Early Modern age (roughly 1500-1800), this course examines psychological theories of passions and actions. Students will be introduced to the views and methods of inquiry prominent in this period, interacting with issues of permanent philosophical importance within a historical context. Coursework will highlight paradigmatic figures of the era such as Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, and Hobbes, while also engaging with authors from both the French and the American Revolution.


HONS 1820W-36
“Religion and Climate Change”
TR 9:35 – 10:50 am
Professor Anand Taneja
Department of Religious Studies
AXLE: Perspectives (P)
      “The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.” — Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement

The writer Amitav Ghosh links the inadequacy of our response to a failure of our imagination: our extant categories of thought and imagination are inadequate to come to terms with the challenges—epistemological, ontological, and practical— posed by climate change. How did we come to this crisis of culture? What role does religion—a central facet of the human imagination, of how we conceive of the world and our place in it—play in this crisis? And does religion—broadly conceived—offer us ways of thinking (and acting) other-wise in response to unfolding planetary catastrophe?

This course will cover three broad narrative and conceptual arcs. In the first, we will look at how the construction of the category of “religion”, and the study of comparative religion, were integral to the exercise of power. Secondly, we will study the ways in which global warming has affected critical social theory. Finally, we will read recent ethnographies centrally concerned with the entangling of human and more-than-human worlds.


HONS 1830W-36
“Learning in the Wild”
TR 9:35 – 10:50 am
Professor Rogers Hall
Department of Teaching and Learning
AXLE: Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS)

People learn all over the place these days, and not only in university seminars like this one. Our seminar explores research on “learning in the wild” starting in response to anthropologist Clifford Geertz’ (1983) call for an “outdoor psychology” of knowledge, how people create it, and what they do with it. We will contrast learning to do vernacular or everyday things with learning about academic subject matters (STEM, social sciences, and the humanities). Readings will support our own learning about how to participate in what are called “citizen science” projects, which challenge us to reconsider the vernacular/academic divide. This honors seminar fulfills a writing requirement (W status).


HONS 1840W-35
“Race & Democracy in the USA”
MWF 11:10 am – 12 pm
Professor Lucius Outlaw
Department of History
AXLE: US History & Culture (US)

Description coming soon.


HONS 1850W-27
“Nanoscience and Nanotechnology”
TR 11 am – 12:15 pm
Professor Sokrates Pantelides
Department of Physics
AXLE: Math and Natural Sciences (MNS)

The words nanoscience and nanotechnology have become commonplace, but for the average lay person they are rather mysterious. Lay persons also hear that semiconductors have to do with modern technology (electronics, computers, lasers, LEDs, cell phones), but they don’t know what semiconductors really are. Students in the College of Arts and Sciences don’t have many opportunities to learn about technology. This class is designed for students with no background in science and does not rely on any math. We sit around a conference table and talk, go over things as needed. General conversational lectures with slides and often with demos will take the class on a journey to demystify the connection between materials and technology; what semiconductors are and how they became the backbone of the modern technology juggernaut; how “nano” entered the picture about 20 years ago; and what is the new miracle of graphene (pictured: image of carbon atoms making up a monolayer of graphene, taken with an electron microscope). The journey will include virtual excursions to the Washington world of politics and research funding agencies, to social and economic issues, to medicine, space exploration, and future frontiers. We will have guest lecturers and field trips to labs where nano-stuff is made and “clean rooms” where you need to be “hooded” (photo). A list of topics, culled from the above, will be provided for students to choose from and research (or you can suggest another choice), and finally present to the class for discussion. You will also research and present on a “nano” start-up company of your choice. Guidelines on how to make the best presentations will be given. Examples of topics: Nanomedicine, e.g., using nanoparticles to treat different kinds of cancer or for drug delivery, the relentless miniaturization of electronics in the last 60 years, replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs (the science, economics, the explosion of lighting options), nanoparticles for catalytic converters in cars or for cosmetics, two-dimensional materials and their potential for new applications, brain-computer interfaces (BCIFs), etc. For more info, send an email to


HONS 1860W-23
“Don Quixote and Experimental Fiction”
TR 1:10 – 2:25 pm
Professor of the Humanities Ed Friedman
Department of Spanish & Portuguese and Comparative Literature
AXLE: International Cultures (INT)

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, when Cervantes published Don Quixote in two parts (1605, 1615), the novel was not only new but was in the process of inventing itself. Cervantes breaks away from the idealism of chivalric, pastoral, and sentimental romance, as he helps to develop narrative realism. At the same time, he moves in an entirely different direction, by calling attention to the process of composition. Don Quixote announces itself as a “true history,” but its fictional devices clearly show through. Spanish society is on display, but so are the literary forms of the day, to be acknowledged and often satirized. Don Quixote is, thus, a novel and a theory of the novel, brilliantly comic but profound, as well. It serves as a type of template for future works and, accordingly, for future experiments, as texts engage with other texts and challenge tradition. The term metafiction is often used to classify this type of self-conscious or self-referential writing. Don Quixote will be the centerpiece of the seminar, along with other examples of experimental fiction (eight short stories, four novels, one play, and two films).


HONS 1860W-24
“Pandemics in World Literature”
TR 11:00 am – 12:15 pm
Professor Benigno Trigo
Department of Spanish & Portuguese
AXLE: International Cultures (INT)

A pandemic is a widespread epidemic. The word comes from the Greek Pandemos, meaning “of all the people.” COVID-19 is a pandemic disease because it has spread around the globe. It has affected virtually everybody on earth. What happens when a disease is so widespread that it makes us feel that nobody is safe, that it will contaminate everyone eventually? Does the experience make us more aware of our shared mortality? Does it make us take stock of our vulnerable condition? Does it change our perspective? Do we look differently at ourselves and at others? Does it challenge our illusions of personal invincibility and collective superiority? These are very old questions that writers the world over have addressed in literature. In this course, we will read examples from the literature of Pandemics with these questions in mind. We will explore their elaboration, in fiction, of the connection between our shared vulnerable bodies and the illusion of our personal or collective invulnerability. We will explore, again, the lessons that pandemic diseases, like COVID-19, teach us, with a view to develop a different ethical relation to our world and to others.


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