EXPOS 20: Expository Writing

From HODP Wiki
Expository Writing
Course Head Multiple preceptors
Semester Fall Spring
Last run Spring 2020
Fulfills Expository Writing Requirement


In order to enroll in EXPOS 20, students must either successfully pass a writing exam taken the summer before their first year, or they must complete EXPOS 10.

Course format

Assignments and exams

EXPOS 20 assignments are meant to cover the scope of argumentative writing assignments that a student might receive while at Harvard. They include:

  • Taking a stance in a debate
  • Interpreting another work through an lens
  • Synthesizing arguments in a research paper

Course descriptions

The following course descriptions from Spring 2020 are taken from the EXPOS 20 website.

1984: Orwell's World and Ours

  • Preceptor: Cole, Matthew
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 12:00PM-1:15PM, 1:30PM-2:45PM, CGIS Knafel K107

When George Orwell wrote 1984, the year that gave the book its title and setting lay 35 years ahead. Today, it is 35 years in the past, and yet Orwell’s prophecies seem more relevant than ever. In 2017, when a Trump spokesperson debuted the concept of “alternative facts” to an incredulous public, 1984 raced to the top of the best-seller charts. In 2013, the book saw resurgence of popularity following revelations of a secret mass surveillance program that allowed the NSA to gather the data of American citizens. Even if you’ve never read the book you’ve probably heard – maybe even used – some of its iconic phrases: Big Brother, Thought Police, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, or 2+2=5. Orwell invented all of this because he wanted to give his readers a handle on what was happening in the world. He feared that a new species of totalitarian governments wielding new forms of power – power over the body, the mind, and perhaps even reality itself – would come to dominate and dehumanize their citizens, and he believed that only a conscious choice to prevent this would redeem the future. Much has changed since then, including the fall of the totalitarian regimes that inspired the novel, and yet it seems we still cannot put Orwell’s premonitions behind us.

In this course, we will shed light on the enduring significance of 1984 by investigating the novel from three different angles. In the first unit, we will grapple with the text itself, close-reading key passages from the novel and using them to explore the underappreciated nuances of Orwell’s masterpiece. In the second unit, we will look at the text in its historical context, drawing evidence from Orwell’s essays, journalism, and letters to add depth and sophistication to our analysis. In the third unit, we will consider whether and to what extent Orwell’s novel still illuminates our future. Students will pursue independent research on key Orwellian themes such as authoritarianism, post-truth, and surveillance, in order to see how the arguments of contemporary scholars and thought leaders have updated Orwell’s insights for the twenty-first century. During this time, the class will also collaborate on a video time capsule to transmit our own predictions, hopes, and fears to the Harvard students of the future.

The Art of Shock

  • Preceptor: Chapman, Alison
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 3:00PM-4:15PM, Sever Hall 104

From Michelangelo’s fleshly angels on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel through to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), art has never shied away from representing difficult subject matter – or from courting controversy. In the twentieth century, some critics even argued that art is only effective when it jolts us out of our customary ways of relating to the world, or when it makes explicit the structures of violence and oppression that operate invisibly. This course will begin by exploring works of art and literature by Michelangelo, Edouard Manet, and Charles Baudelaire that were considered transgressive in their time but which have since been incorporated into the canon of art history. Is an artwork deemed shocking because of its own intrinsic qualities, or because of the norms and values of its viewing culture? How did these creations and their controversies shape or redirect the course of art history? In our second unit, we will study some contemporary artists who understand “shock” to be an integral part of their aesthetic projects. In looking at Damien Hirst’s pickled animal installations, or Tracey Emin’s own stained mattress set in the middle of the Tate Gallery, or Kara Walker’s provocative 75-foot-long sphinx made out of sugar, why do these artists want their audience to feel such alarm and unease? We will consider these artworks alongside readings by feminist critics, philosophers, and art theorists who defend art even at its most outrageous extremes. Can shock motivate moral or ethical reasoning? Is shock a particularly political feeling? And why are images or representations of the body so central to this genre of art? The third unit will investigate how institutions – like museums, the media, and even universities like Harvard – play a role in either canonizing transgressive art or else fanning the flames of public outrage. Students will have the opportunity to visit the Harvard Art Museum as they work on their final, individual research papers.

Buddhism, Mindfulness, & the Practical Mind

  • Preceptor: Vierba, Ezer
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 10:30AM-11:45AM, 12:00PM-1:15PM, Emerson Hall 307

Today, mindfulness is touted as a panacea, the secret to happiness and health, superb sex and unparalleled productivity. The hype is not entirely new, however. For decades, ostensibly Buddhist ideas have been tossed around in the West as recipes for success in just about any art or craft. But what hides behind this craze? Can Buddhist teachings offer us tools with which to achieve our goals, or are we corrupting Buddhism by applying it in such a way? What have artists and practitioners thought of the use of meditative tools, and how have they integrated Buddhist terms like “bare awareness” and “emptiness” into their work?

In order to answer such questions, we will start the course with a reading of the Satipatṭhāna Sutta, the Buddha’s instructions on mindfulness mediation. A close reading the text in our first unit will give us a glimpse of the ancient Buddhist practice, its complexity and richness. As we move into our second unit, we will read the text that first gave the West the idea that Buddhism can allow us to “hit the mark” without trying to do so, Eugen Herrigel’s bestselling 1948 book, Zen in the Art of Archery. Using Edward Said’s classic work, Orientalism, we will ask if Herrigel was romanticizing Zen Buddhism, and if he was, what the consequences of such a romanticization have for Japan and the West. In our last unit, we will read the work of Chögyam Trungpa, one of the most charismatic masters to have taught in the West. His lectures inDharma Art will provide us a glimpse into the way Buddhist religious-artistic practices have influenced contemporary artists in the West. By looking at Trungpa’s Tibetan “crazy wisdom,” we will try to understand what Buddhist ideas of self/not-self mean, and why artists have taken such avid interest in them.

As we read these texts, we will also practice mindfulness meditation, as well as various other forms of Buddhist meditation. In doing so, we will think about these meditations both practically and critically, at the same time as we refine our analytical understanding of Buddhist ideas.

Class & Culture

  • Preceptor: Herron, James
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/TH 12:00PM-1:15PM, Mem Hall 303

It is commonplace to note that in the United States many people identify as “middle class” even though our society is marked by deep, persistent, and increasing class inequality. Such self-identification, however, can obscure the complex and often contradictory ways in which we experience social class in our everyday lives. This course explores the cultural dimensions of social class in the U.S. from an ethnographic perspective, focusing on the everyday lives and cultures of ordinary Americans. We will consider questions such as the following. What is it like to be a working class person in a society heavily invested in ideas of individual advancement and meritocracy? How do professionals (the “upper-middle” class) define themselves and how do they view those above and below them in the class structure? What role does elite education play in the creation and reproduction of class inequality? How does social class shape people’s values, political views, and tastes? In our first unit we will compare two important ethnographic studies of working class Americans — Michèle Lamont’s classic The Dignity of Working Men and Jennifer Silva’s more recent Coming Up Short — in order to gain some understanding of how working class people have responded to the relative decline in their living standards over the past 20 years. In the second unit we will read selections from Armstrong and Hamilton’s Paying for the Party in order to analyze the role of higher education in shaping the class trajectories of students from working-, middle-, and upper-class backgrounds. For the third unit students will devise their own research project concerning the roles and self-conceptions of elites. For inspiration, we’ll read selections of Shamus Khan’s Privilege, which examines life at an elite New England boarding school, and Karen Ho’s Liquidated, which analyzes the ideologies and identities of Wall Street financiers.

Culture in Play

  • Preceptor: Martin, Richard
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 12:00PM-1:15PM, Mem Hall 303

Common phrases such as “I was just playing” or “it’s only a game” suggest that play is less than serious. Play is often associated with childhood and distinct from the productivity of work. Yet, even for adults, such activities often entail considerable commitments, including substantial expenditures of time and money: the average gamer spends over seven hours a week on video games; baseball player Mike Trout recently signed a $430 million contract. Likewise, play has been shown to have real-world effects: studies have suggested Barbie dolls affect body image, and that the television show Sesame Street impacts educational achievement. Thus, despite common assumptions about its frivolity, play is of social, economic, political, and symbolic import. In this course, we explore what forms of play reveal about the cultures and peoples who take part in them, analyzing how everyday practices involving toys, games, and sports might illuminate broader social phenomena. First, we take inspiration from Roland Barthes’s insight that toys are “meant to create users, not creators.” We infer the cultural significance of objects from our own childhoods using anthropological methods of “thick description,” a form of interpretation attentive to context and meaning. Next, we turn to play on Harvard’s campus. Students choose an extracurricular activity and examine it using social scientific techniques; drawing on this data, they advance arguments that apply or test theories advanced by influential scholars, such as Theodor Adorno and D.W. Winnicott. Finally, students turn to independently chosen topics, selecting issues of national significance and conducting research in order to make original contributions to scholarship. Sample topics might include gender and sports, the politics of video games, the marketing of toys, recess in schools, fandom, virtual realities, and live action role play.

Eating Culture

  • Preceptor: Fu, Janling
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/Th 9:00AM-10:15Am, 10:30AM-11:45AM, CGIS Knafel K107
  • "Food . . . is not art. . . . A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn't going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take inventory of your soul." So William Deresciewicz, in an opinion piece for the New York Times, dismisses our society's rising fascination with food over the last few decades, from the explosion of cookbooks, food blogs, and bestselling histories of cod, salt, and sugar, to the glut of cooking shows, many featuring contestants dueling in gladiatorial kitchens. Like the ancient Romans, we have become obsessed with food. But is Deresciewicz right to say that food won’t give us insight into ourselves? Is it not possible that by examining what scholars and commentators call “foodways”— the various forces involved in how different cultures produce, buy, sell, and consume food—we learn much about ourselves and the world? In this course we will be guided by the maxim of famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, “food is good to think,” as we contemplate various foodways from a number of illuminating perspectives. In our first unit we delve into what makes food "disgusting" or "natural.” How do we categorize edible material as polluting or pure? What even counts as food in different societies? In our second unit, we explore what we can learn about food and culture by looking at successful cooking shows produced in different countries, for instance, Top Chef, Iron Chef, and The Great British Bake Off. What do these shows as cultural artifacts tell us about the values that are celebrated or perpetuated through food? Our third unit will consider global trends of commodities, economics, and food ethics. For this unit students will conduct a research of food practice centered in some way on Annenberg. Can we define what a dining hall does, or should do? How has the ritual and practice of dining changed over time at Harvard? Along the way, we will read classic works, from theories of food by anthropologists Mary Douglas, Jack Goody, and Michael Dietler, to ideas about food as a medium for relationships between people, including the relationships that make up a vast food economy of farms, factories, supermarkets, and our tables, as seen in the writing of novelists, essayists, and food journalists as diverse as Marcel Proust, David Foster Wallace, Wendell Berry, M.F. K. Fisher, and Michael Pollan.

Ecological Crisis: Witnessing and Planning in the Age of Climate Change

  • Preceptor: Strub, Spencer
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/TH 1:30PM-2:45PM, 3:00PM-4:15PM, Sever 112
  • Engaged Scholarship Course

The news just keeps getting worse. Over the past few months, swathes of Australia, California, Amazonia, and even the Arctic have burned. Jakarta flooded; so did parts of Pakistan, India, and Iowa. In Massachusetts, 2019 brought a respite from the past years’ disasters––Boston and its suburbs experienced two “hundred-year floods” in quick succession in winter 2018––but on the other hand, this winter has been a little too warm for comfort. Against this steady drumbeat of local calamities, our shared global crisis continues to unfold: international agreements are abrogated or ignored, global greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise, and geophysical “tipping points” keep getting crossed. It’s hard not to despair.

This course will ask you to move beyond despair. We will think seriously about the hard questions climate change poses: how should governments and peoples prepare for, and adapt to, a changing climate? How do we stave off the worst-case scenarios, and how should we mete out responsibility for the damage that’s already certain to occur? How might our society––our politics, our culture, our sense of justice and our narratives of ourselves––transform as climate change continues to unfold? And how can we mobilize people and governments to fight climate change?

While these questions are usually left to activists, planners, and climate scientists, in this class, you will begin to answer them using the tools of the humanities. We begin in Unit 1 by exploring how writers have tried to represent climate change and its effects, looking back over decades of science writing and journalism to see what works, and what doesn’t, in climate communication. In the second unit, we turn to questions of ethics and politics. We’ll weigh Aldo Leopold’s foundational “Land Ethic”¬––which calls for a society that respects an “ecological conscience”––against more recent works that advocate radical social transformation, technological solutionism, and despairing withdrawal respectively. Our third unit looks much closer to home: we’ll study Boston’s plans for climate change mitigation and adaptation, visit at-risk sites in the city, and consider how other communities could learn from what Boston does right and gets wrong, sharing what we find with local community organizations. Across each of these units, we will repeatedly return to the intersection of climate change with race, class, and environmental injustice.

Engaged Scholarship Requirements and Capstone Project This course is part of the Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship. That means you’ll be asked to attend events outside of normal class meeting times, including a self-directed observation of a community meeting in Cambridge and a site visit in Boston. While these outside activities will be conducted according to your own schedule, they are part of the course content and are not optional.

You will also complete a capstone project with your fellow students. The end product will be shared with our community partners in 350 Mass. That means you’ll get to experiment with communicating to the public about climate change, but it also means that you’ll do a little more research, writing, and speaking than is standard in Expos classes.

The Femme Fatale

  • Preceptor: Mitchell, Lindsay
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/TH 12:00PM-1:15PM, 1:30PM-2:45PM, CGIS Knafel k109

The femme fatale—the attractive, seductive woman who brings about the downfall of men—has fascinated us through the ages, from Biblical figures like Eve and Delilah, to historical women such as Cleopatra and Wallis Simpson, to the media personas of modern pop stars like Cardi B and Miley Cyrus. In the classic femme fatale narrative, the woman’s dangerous actions empower her, but she also must submit to the fact that her empowerment renders her a villain. Might this contradiction in the femme fatale’s character reflect tensions in our own evolving understanding of gender? How can the femme fatale character help us untangle the real-world gender problems that modern women and men face?

This course will begin to explore these and other related questions by studying accounts of femme fatales in literature and film. In our first unit, we’ll explore 1920s and 1930s pulp fiction as a source of the modern fatale archetype, with special focus on James M. Cain’s noir novella Double Indemnity. In our second unit, we’ll move forward to the post-feminist movement 1990s and examine two films featuring teenage femme fatales, comparing Gil Junger’s Ten Things I Hate About You to Alexander Payne’s Election, both released in 1999. Finally, in our third unit, students will research a modern-day femme fatale, either real or fictional, and argue why the modern version is recognizable as a femme fatale, but also represents some evolution of, or twist on, the classic archetype. Here students will be challenged not only to apply broad theories and ideas from the course, but also to reach a greater understanding of why some modern women seem so dangerous.

Genetics & Bioethics

  • Preceptor: Raymer, Emilie
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 1:30PM-2:45PM, 3:00PM-4:15PM, Emerson Hall 106

When researchers at the National Institutes of Health announced in June 2000 that they had successfully sequenced the human genome, President Bill Clinton asserted that “with this profound new knowledge, mankind is on the verge of gaining immense, new power to heal.” Since 2000, scientists have developed DNA-risk tests, stem-cell therapies, and precise gene-editing techniques. Yet, despite the potential benefits of these breakthroughs, some have expressed concerns about the bioethical consequences of these new technologies. Critics have voiced fears that scientists are “playing God” and have expressed apprehensions that those who can afford new gene-editing technologies may produce “designer babies” while those who cannot will continue to suffer from heritable diseases. In this course, we will explore how to balance the medical advantages of genetic technologies with their potential disadvantages. For the first essay, we will analyze “The Case Against Perfection” by Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, who emphasizes the dangers of genetic enhancements. For the second essay, we will explore claims that new genetic techniques could create a contemporary eugenics movement. For the third and final essay, students will examine both the positive and negative consequences of a genetic technology of their choice and decide how to establish bioethical guidelines to direct its use. Possible topics could include human germline editing, pharmacogenomics, stem-cell therapy, cosmetic enhancements, cloning, or CRISPR-CaS, a new gene-editing technique. The course will culminate with a capstone project, and students will prepare a short talk about the social and biomedical ramifications of a selected genetic technology.

Green Spaces, Urban Places*

  • Preceptor: Case, Sarah
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 1:30PM-2:45PM, 3:00PM-4:15PM Sever Hall 112
  • Engaged Scholarship Course

From Boston Common to the Charles River Basin, Boston boasts many beautiful green spaces. Closer to home, the leafy lawns of Harvard Yard provide a respite in a busy urban environment. With over half of the world’s population living in cities, urban green space is more important than ever. The value of public parks to those fortunate enough to live near them is considerable, whether the reduction of the negative effects of climate change, improved public health, or ample opportunities for residents to connect with and appreciate the power of the natural world. But as cities boom and prices skyrocket, access to spaces like parks is increasingly expensive and exclusionary. This course will consider a series of related questions: What exactly are the benefits of resources like public parks and rivers? Should urban green space be considered a right of every citizen? Has access to green space in cities become a privilege of the elite? We will explore these questions, thinking about why access to green space matters in an increasingly urbanized world.

There will be two outside-of-class activities students will be asked to attend at specific times, and for which they should plan to keep their schedules open:

  • Friday March 6, 1-4pm – A discussion with Ryan Woods, Commissioner, Boston

Department of Parks and Recreation and visit to Boston Common

  • Tuesday, May 5, 3-5 p.m. – A capstone fair in the Bok Center’s Learning Lab

Humans, Nature, & the Environment

  • Preceptor: Greenup, Martin
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 9:00AM-10:15AM, 10:30AM-11:45AM Mem Hall 302

Deforestation, overpopulation, pesticide use, toxic oceans, endangered species, global warming. How are we to make sense of the many environmental problems facing the Earth today? Although the sciences provide a factual account of environmental threats and ways of countering them, scientific facts seem not to be enough, since artists, writers, filmmakers, and even scientists find themselves turning again and again to their imaginations to respond to the environmental predicaments of industrial society. They may be doing what English Romantic poet Percy Shelley powerfully described 200 years ago as an essentially human and creative impulse: “to imagine that which we know.” How, then, have creative minds imagined – in essays, books, and movies – the very idea of nature, the place of humans in it, and their power to change the environment? In this course, we will consider both the possibilities and the problems that writers and filmmakers have imagined about human interactions with the natural world. We begin with the nineteenth century, when Romantic writers were urgently contemplating the meaning of nature in an age of increasing industrialization. In the first unit we interpret “Walking” (1862), the naturalist Henry David Thoreau’s seminal nature essay that imaginatively explores the concept of wildness. In the second unit we will critically compare the literary approaches of two popular books by scientists – Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), and James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia (2006). Through shocking critiques that draw upon the power of the imagination, both writers, in different ways, have tried to inform the public of the harm being done to nature in the hope that this harm can be averted. And in the final unit we will examine the techniques of documentary movies about relationships between humans and animals – Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005) in which the filmmaker takes issue with the self-proclaimed environmentalist Timothy Treadwell who strove to protect bears in the Alaskan wilderness, and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013) in which she delivers a brilliant polemic against the Sea World corporation and its treatment of captive killer whales.

Journey to Mars

  • Preceptor: Rossoukh, Ramyar
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/TH 9:00AM-10:15AM, 10:30AM-11:45AM, CGIS Knafel K108

Evoking President Kennedy’s famous speech to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, on October 11, 2016, President Obama called for the United States to launch humans to Mars by 2030 and to one day settle there. The quest to achieve this goal has dominated recent headlines from NASA’s landing of the Curiosity Rover to Hollywood’s renewed fascination with the red planet. Mars has become the next great frontier in human conquest and exploration. Why Mars? What is at stake in our efforts to reach Mars? What does it say about life here on Earth? Over the semester, we will look at a range of scholarly literature on Mars as well as films, science fiction, and virtual reality simulations to examine some possible futures in which humans have colonized outer space and become a multi-planetary species. Our launch will be a close analysis of the film The Martian to discover key themes and topics in media representations of Mars. We will next chart a path through Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles to explore connections between science, technology, and art in our imagination of human life and the experience of difference on Mars. The course will conclude with a broader inquiry of Mars as the next frontier of human entrepreneurship that critically engages with the science and ethics of proposed future Mars missions (Mars One, SpaceX, UAE’s Mars 2117, among others). Students will write a final research paper on a topic of their choice that builds on course readings, activities, and discussion.

Laugh Riots

  • Preceptor: Richardson, Kip
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/TH 3:00PM-4:15PM, Mem Hall 303

We are living in an apparent golden age of humor. Judging solely by the number of viral comedians, late-night shows, humor books, parody websites, and meme generators, the genre is thriving. Yet critics, both liberal and conservative, have raised substantive concerns about this explosion of political and social satirical content, questioning its corrosiveness, its persuasive efficacy, even its ability to truly hold powerful interests accountable. Indeed, some have begun to doubt the potency of political satire at all, victim to the surreality and self-parody of modern political life. This course will ask students to weigh in on these questions about the value and viability of social and political humor. In Unit 1, students will consider when, if ever, do jokes go “too far”? Using the global controversy over the satirical caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad drawn by Western cartoonists, students will think critically about whether offensive humor serves or undermines the greater social good. In Unit 2, we turn to the burgeoning world of political satire television, most notably The Daily Show but also its many imitators. Such shows have been routinely lauded by commentators as a pillar of civics education, but there are reasons to doubt such rosy estimations. Using both theoretical and empirical sources, students will ask whether such shows really do inform and engage the public, or whether instead they oversimplify and encourage apathy toward the political sphere. Finally, in Unit 3, students will be tasked with exploring the social worlds created by various humor practices, examining either how a historical case study of humor reflects its cultural zeitgeist (e.g., anti-Chinese immigration satire from the 1880s) or surveying the social scientific research on a specific issue within contemporary humor studies (e.g., how sexist humor affects the workplace).

Modern Love

  • Preceptor: Doherty, Maggie
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 10:30AM-11:45AM, Barker 211

“Reader, I married him.” As this famous line from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyrereminds us, writers have long been preoccupied with matters of the heart. Courtship plots are everywhere, from the novels of Jane Austen to the “rom-coms” of the 1980s and 1990s to essays you can find every Sunday in the “Styles” section of the New York Times. For centuries, marriage was primarily an economic relationship, and love outside of marriage ended in humiliation or even death. But what happens when society expands the options for living and loving? What happens to the courtship plot when women choose not to be wives, or when people who once couldn’t marry now can? When couples are as likely to meet through Tinder as they are through mutual friends? In this course, we’ll explore what courtship plots can tell us about changing concepts of gender, sexuality, family, and freedom. We’ll start with fiction by Edith Wharton, one of the American literature’s keenest social observers (and, incidentally, one of the inspirations for the TV show Gossip Girl). By closely reading her accounts of love and marriage in New York’s high society at the turn of the twentieth century, we’ll ask what stories about eligible bachelors and old maids can tell us about a society’s values and beliefs. In our second unit, we’ll turn to more recent courtship plots that trouble traditional conceptions of romance, marriage, and the family. Our texts will include the story “Brokeback Mountain” (and scenes from the Oscar-winning film), short fiction from Pulitzer-prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, and the viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person.” Using feminist theory, queer theory, literary criticism, and recent sociologies of dating, we’ll examine what new romantic possibilities—and problems—exist for couples today. Finally, in our third unit, students will pick a modern love story of their choosing—a novel, a memoir, a film—and, drawing on the work of critics and scholars, make an argument about what this story shows us about our society’s sexual mores.

“Noncombatants”: The Home Front in Total War

  • Preceptor: Monaghan, Shannon
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/TH 10:30AM-11:45AM, 12:00PM-1:15PM, Sever Hall 211

While it is perceived today as one of the greatest aberrations in human society, warfare has also been one of the most common experiences in human history. Yet popular conceptions of the history of warfare are often limited to the myth of completely separated soldiers and civilians. This has not, historically, been so: there is a reason that we call the “home front” a front. We begin by looking at the idea of “total war” within the context of several modern case studies. We will question and examine the roles of women and children, as agents and as targets, in these conflicts. We then move to thinking about the memory and meaning of war through the art and memoirs of the great German printmaker and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz and the intellectual polymath (and French Resistance member) Marguerite Duras. What do the histories and stories that we tell about war, about resistance and about patriotism, particularly stories told by those not in uniform, add to the national and cultural understanding of a conflict? In the final unit, students will choose their own historical research subject from a variety of options. They might investigate conflicts and wars ranging from the recent (the “forever wars” of Iraq and Afghanistan) to the nineteenth century (the U.S. Civil War); from the modern and industrial (the Second World War) to the guerrilla, civil, and anti-imperial (the Spanish Civil War and the Algerian War of Independence). Further research options include different types of participants in conflict (from forcibly recruited child soldiers to anti-war activism) and different ways to pressure an enemy (food policy and blockade). Students will analyze the conflict in their chosen subject through the lens of the unexpected agent in modern warfare: the woman and/or the child. Throughout the course, we will ask what it means to be a “soldier” or a “civilian” in modern conflict, pondering the nature of the distinction.

Philosophical Films

  • Preceptor: Roth, Ben
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/TH 3:00PM-4:15PM, Sever Hall 104

How should society be organized? What should individuals do when they disagree with the reigning order? Protest? Revolt? Withdraw? Our class will approach these perennial philosophical questions though a number of recent films. At the beginning of the semester, we will watch Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, Jordan Peele's Us, and Ruben Östlund's The Square, which in very different settings—a frozen post-apocalyptic world, an African-American family’s vacation house, and a contemporary art museum—offer critiques of the stratification of wealth and opportunity between haves and have-nots. As students develop their interpretations of one of these films in their first paper, we will also learn the basic vocabulary of cinematography and editing. Then, in the middle of the semester, we will watch two documentaries: in Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley investigates her family's secrets, while in The Act of Killing the filmmakers interview perpetrators of mass killings in Indonesia, who openly admit to and recreate their brutal actions. After reading Nietzsche’s “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life,” students will put his provocative claims about the importance of forgetting in conversation with one of these films in order to consider the role of memory in relation to how organize our lives and societies. Finally, at the end of the semester, we will read some short theoretical selections about the relationship between philosophy and film, attuning students to larger issues as they write a research paper about a philosophical film or filmmaker of their choice, such as Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Stalker, Claire Denis, Spike Lee, Akira Kurosawa, David Lynch, or Terrence Malick, among many other possibilities.

Privacy & Surveillance

  • Preceptor: Sinnott, Gillian
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/TH 9:00AM-10:15AM, 10:30AM-11:45AM, Sever Hall 302

Most of us are vaguely aware that our online activities are extensively monitored by corporations in search of profits and that the government may be watching or listening to some of our communications in the name of national security. It is easy to decry this state of affairs as Orwellian, or, on the other hand, to reassure ourselves that surveillance only harms those with something to hide. In this course we will seek to move beyond these simplistic responses by considering the rights underlying privacy claims and by closely examining how surveillance operates in practice. In the first unit, we will explore the powerful, but surprisingly elusive, concept of privacy. Are we concerned only about the possibility that information gathered about us will be abused? Or is there something more fundamentally troubling in the government reading people's emails, or in corporations having records of our internet browsing histories? In the second unit, we will consider government surveillance, specifically the National Security Agency’s power to monitor the content of calls and emails originating from non-American citizens who are outside the United States. Do these non-citizens have any privacy rights vis-à-vis the U.S. government? Are there adequate legal protections for American citizens whose communications—both dangerous and innocent—are swept up in surveillance that is targeted at foreigners? In the final unit we will turn to the issue of privacy rights against corporations. Do we have a right to be forgotten online, or should truthful information about private citizens be available via internet search engines indefinitely? Can internet users be regarded as having given meaningful consent to privacy agreements that they have not read and would in any case likely not fully understand? For this unit, students will write a research paper about the appropriate limits on the power that private entities have over our online lives.

The Psychology of Success & Failure

  • Preceptor: Galindo, Julia
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 9:00AM-10:15AM, 10:30AM-11:45AM, Art Museums 600

Who gets ahead in America? Why do some succeed while others fail? Given knowledge of someone’s background or personal characteristics, can we predict if she will become successful? How do we account for the influence of various complex factors, including personality, family, and community? In this course, we will examine questions of success, failure, achievement, and identity viewed through the lens of current theories in psychology. We will begin by examining individual-level, person-centered theories of success with readings on grit, the growth mindset, and multipotentiality. Next, we will read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success alongside a longitudinal, ethnographic study of 12 American children and a seminal treatise on the role of race in the American classroom. As part of our broader inquiry into the environmental factors that impact success, we will explore how race, class, and familial wealth and resources affect children’s lived experiences of childhood and, later, their chances of successfully getting into college. In the final unit of the course, students will answer the question, “What does it take to be successful at Harvard?” Students will select their own pop-science book on a self-help topic like willpower, motivation, happiness, or creativity, research the relevant academic literature, and create a written proposal with an accompanying short presentation to disseminate their findings. Throughout the course, we will use psychological theory to motivate questions and answers about human behavior in a society where the demand for success can be tantalizingly high and the fear of failure devastatingly relentless.

Religious Pluralism in The United States

  • Preceptor: Betz, Jacob

We're told the United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the world, possessing a dizzying array of religious beliefs and behavior. And, despite predictions to the contrary, levels of religious belief remain high, as evidenced by controversies involving travel restrictions and religious property, as well as recent Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage, contraception, and commercial religious activity. But how do people—including nonbelievers—experience this religious multiplicity? How are these vast religious differences negotiated socially, culturally, politically, and legally? Moving beyond theological debates, this course will explore the broad concept of lived religion in the United States through readings in fiction, law, history, and sociology.

In this course, you’ll write three essays, each of increasing complexity. In Unit 1, you’ll write an argumentative essay using a single source: Ayad Akhtar’s play, Disgraced. In Unit 2, we’ll tackle constitutional question of religious establishment. You’ll read a selection of opinions by legal theorists which you’ll deploy in an essay articulating your own position. In Unit 3, you’ll research a topic of your own choosing, pose an analytical question, and write a substantial paper using both primary and secondary sources.

Representing Childhood

  • Preceptor: Zaitseva, Lusia
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/TH 12:00PM-1:15PM, 1:30PM-2:45PM CGIS Knafel K107

The French modernist poet Charles Baudelaire famously called genius “childhood rediscovered at will,” and painters and writers of the 20th century looked to childhood for inspiration in their works. Their interest in childhood speaks to the prevalent attitude that children have curiosity, joy, and authenticity that are often lost after the transition to adulthood. But this understanding of childhood wasn’t always the case, nor is our current view of childhood so one-sided. On the contrary, historians have argued that prior to the 17th century children were often seen as faulty adults, and Christian doctrine considered them born into sin. Moreover, today, many argue that not all young people get to partake equally of notions of childhood innocence, as some childhoods are valued more highly than others. There also exists a contradiction in our cultural attitude toward children: to call someone “childlike” might be a compliment and “childish,” critique, and furthermore the perception of how grown men and women partake of children’s qualities differs. As these two words suggest, we can’t seem to decide if childhood is a state to be cherished and preserved at all costs or a condition to be overcome. In this course, we’ll take as our starting point the idea that much of what we think constitutes childhood today is actually a historical construction. As such, we see, children are particularly liable to be spoken for and about. But how much do adults really understand childhood and children? And what do their ideas about both categories say about them?

Sexism & Politics*

  • Preceptor: Saha, Sparsha
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/TH 9:00AM-10:15AM, 10:30AM-11:45AM, CGIS Knafel
  • Engaged Scholarship Course

The “Engaged Scholarship” components of this course include multiple mandatory activities outside of regular class hours.

Today, the United States Congress is 19.4% female. That statistic trails the world average of 23.3%, with Nordic, European, sub- Saharan African, and Asian countries achieving better gender balance in national legislatures than the U.S. Some scholars contend that when women run, they are no more likely to win or lose compared to their male counterparts, though they are simply less likely to run in the first place. Other scholars identify a strong correlation between voting and sexist attitudes, notably in the 2016 U.S. election. But the puzzle persists: what accounts for the persistently low levels of female political representation in American politics, particularly since the United States boasts some of the highest levels of female participation in the labor market, especially in executive positions? Our course explores this question as it examines how prejudicial attitudes about women manifest themselves in American political life and society. In Unit 1, we begin by examining the popular argument that women should have more political representation because they would be better political leaders. In this unit, you will also have a chance to engage in the Harvard community by interviewing peers, neighbors, and other members of Harvard Square to get a sense of beliefs about women in politics. In Unit 2, we turn our attention to recent case studies, including Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to investigate how gender stereotypes may or may not have played a role in the outcomes of their political races. Finally, in Unit 3, you will contribute to the scholarship in this field, by researching the phenomenon that Massachusetts lags behind other states when it comes to female political representation at the state and gubernatorial level. We will partner with the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus (www.mwpc.org) to help them address this problem at the state level by writing a policy paper with recommendations that draw on your research into this issue.

Society & The Witch

  • Preceptor: Martin, Richard
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 1:30PM-2:45PM, Mem Hall 303

Riding broomsticks and dancing in the woods at night, witches are often imagined to be outside society. But in these representations may be keys to understanding social norms, norms that get articulated through the witch’s very violation of them. In this seminar, we ask what discourses about witches tell us about the societies that produce them. We begin by examining anthropologists’ depictions of witchcraft among people who come to find magic believable: how do we understand the seemingly irrational idea that magic is real? Closely considering evidence from classic ethnographic accounts, we critically examine other scholars’ answers to questions such as this one by thinking across competing approaches to the study of magic. Next, we analyze the film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and the television sitcom Bewitched, bringing these pop-cultural phenomena into conversation with Mary Douglas’s treatise on Purity and Danger, Pierre Bourdieu’s critique of Masculine Domination, and Umberto Eco’s ruminations on interpreting serials. For the research paper, each student chooses an example of witchcraft on which to conduct independent research. Sample topics include postmodern fairy tales like Frozen and Maleficent, Broadway musicals like Into the Woods and Wicked, historical witch-hunts and contemporary occult practices. What unites our diverse inquiries is a common interest in the social significance of this seemingly marginal figure: the witch.

Telling Her Story: Narrative, Media, & #MeToo

  • Preceptor: Gold, Alexandra
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/Th 10:30AM-11:45AM, 12PM-1:15PM, Emerson Hall 106
  • Note: This Expos course requires participation in some activities outside of normal class hours.

In a powerful essay, the late writer and activist Audre Lorde suggested, “Where the words of women are crying to be heard we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.” Lorde is not alone in asking us to pay attention to and take responsibility for women’s stories; for centuries scholars and activists alike have championed the words of women, including women of color and queer women, whose stories have routinely gone untold or unheard. Yet if this issue has always been pressing, the call to heed women’s stories seems especially urgent at a moment when such stories have come to dominate the cultural landscape and public consciousness – from news accounts to popular shows, literature to social media. This course responds to this moment by examining how women’s stories are narrated across a variety of media and exploring what impact the sharing of them can have. Our first unit will focus on short stories by contemporary women authors Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jenny Zhang that raise questions about the body, family, love, and society. Our second unit then turns to television, studying Hulu’s 2017 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Informed by readings in critical feminist theory, we’ll consider how the show probes the troubling connections between gender, authority, power, and image. Finally, our third unit engages visual and performance art alongside movements like #MeToo and #SayHerName, offering students an opportunity to pursue independent research projects that explore the relations between art, activism, and social media.

Truth Claims in a Post-Truth World

  • Preceptor: Tejblum, Julia
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 12:00PM-1:15PM, 1:30PM-2:45PM, Sever Hall 201

We often describe an idea or phrase as having “the ring of truth,” but what does truth sound like? And what happens when politicians, news organizations, and advertising agencies learn to reproduce or mimic that sound? This course addresses recent claims that we are living in a “post-truth world,” and considers the fate of argument in a world in which truth is subjective, and fact divided into mainstream and alternative forms. Is it possible to draw clear lines between fact and fiction, truth and lies? And if, as Oprah Winfrey has insisted, there is value in the transformative power of “speaking your truth,” what does this mean for debate and the project of seeking a truth that exists beyond our personal experience? In our first unit, we’ll consider the methods we use to distinguish fact from fiction as we examine fictional and philosophical texts by Tim O’Brien, J.L. Austin, and others that seek to distinguish (or blur the lines) between truth and fiction. In the second unit, we’ll engage with texts from both sides of heated debates that challenge the idea of “expertise”—including climate-change and vaccination as we explore how social media platforms shape our relationship to the truth and to argument. Our final unit will take us where the quest for truth reaches its extremes: the conspiracy theory. We’ll look at the complex anatomy of conspiracy theories from the world-wide (the moon landing “hoax” and “crisis actors,” among others) to the local (Harvard-based conspiracies), and students will have an opportunity to interview peers and local members of the community as they conduct their research.

The Underworld

  • Preceptor: Scheffler, Adam
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 12:00PM-1:15PM, 1:30PM-2:45PM, CGIS S003 / CGIS K109

Hell is popular. In fact, it’s been doing much better than heaven. It’s practically a literary consensus that Dante’s best book is his Inferno not Purgatorio or Paradiso, and that Milton, a Christian believer, got so carried away in describing Satan and hell that he ended up being “of the Devil’s party without knowing it” (Blake). And the world today may be more secular than in past generations, but hell is doing just fine. Harvard presents its own interesting case: Currier House’s annual “Heaven and Hell” party has situated “Hell” in a room that can hold about 500 people whereas “Heaven” can fit only about 50. (This past year heaven was eliminated entirely.) But what are the components of hell – what archetypes or depictions of hell and the underworld helped to cement their importance in culture? And why is hell so alive in secular culture? Why do those people who don’t believe that hell is real want to keep imagining it again and again (in Supernatural, in South Park, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.)? In our first unit, we will examine famous underworld themes and archetypes as we look at short excerpts from Gilgamesh, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Jonathan Edwards, the story of Persephone, and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. In our second unit, we’ll consider how these themes and archetypes are taken up by recent secular texts such as a Stephen King short story, the film Pan’s Labyrinth, and a New Yorker article by Harvard Professor Danielle Allen about her cousin’s experience in the American prison system. Finally, in our third unit, students will select and research a contemporary depiction of hell, and make an argument about how that hell works as a metaphor for a real-world issue or fear (such as the sleaziness of Hollywood, or bickering families, or mental illness, or the vastness of outer space). Throughout, we will try to better understand the curious attraction of hell, and why its 4,000-year-old story shows no sign of ending.


  • Preceptor: Brown, Collier
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 9:00AM-10:15AM, CGIS Knafel K107

The impenetrable wilderness of The Revenant, the diseased streets of Children of Men, the trash heap cities of Wall-E—these are the wastelands that fascinate our pop culture. On the screen, they come to life as horrifying alternate universes and dead civilizations—the very fates we must avoid at all costs. And yet wastelands are not exclusively the stuff of science fiction. In this course, we will grapple with both imaginary and actual wastelands. We will begin with short stories by Jack London, Thomas King, and Octavia Butler. From the icy wilds of the Yukon to the borderlands of Native American exile, these writers question the way wastelands have been imagined, especially in North America, over the past century. Next, we will turn to real wastelands—to the garbage dumps and arid landscapes where nothing grows. We will ask what these places reveal about their inhabitants, their struggles, and their achievements. Finally, students will research a wasteland of their own choosing—anything from the mega slums of Mumbai to the sprawl of Boston's unused rooftops. Along the way, we will investigate how wastelands form and evolve, and how people adapt to them. Are wastelands actually the places we should avoid at all costs, or are they the places we can no longer afford to ignore?

What is Health?

  • Preceptor: Wittenberg, Eve
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/TH 10:30AM-11:45AM, Sever Hall 304

Health care is on everyone’s minds these days: polls show it is among voters’ top priorities when considering candidates, it dominates headlines, and elected officials wrestle with options to improve our insurance system. Underlying all this talk is a fundamental goal of health—yet what in fact does this term mean? What does it mean to be healthy? What are we trying to achieve with our health system or with health insurance? How would we know if we’ve done a good or bad job? These are the questions that challenge practitioners of medicine, public health, and health policy. To be “healthy” may be living very long, having healthy behaviors, or being happy; it could be a combination of all of these, and it could be different for different people. Understanding what we mean when we talk about health is important to every facet of the health system and to everyone who interacts with it, so we know what we are collectively and individually aiming for and whether it is achieved.

This course will explore what health is, what it means to be healthy or not healthy, and how we can improve people’s health. The emphasis will be on writing from a science and social science perspective, highlighting the distinctions with writing in the humanities. It is an “active-learning” seminar, which means we will use in-class exercises and frequent assignments to build writing skills: you will write, critique others’ writing, talk about writing, read writing aloud, draw diagrams of arguments—all sorts of varied exercises to understand, develop, and improve your own writing style. Unit 1 will focus on the definition of health to form a basis for the semester, including the World Health Organization’s definition and case examples of people who we may or may not consider healthy (for instance, would Stephen Hawking have been considered healthy?). Unit 2 will look at health policies, specifically focusing on childhood obesity prevention. We will read conflicting views of obesity as a medical condition or a descriptor of body size, and grapple with a situation where science points in different directions. Unit 3 will introduce research papers, and you will write on an individually-chosen topic around improving college students’ health. You will learn to use the Harvard library system and resources to write a final paper. The materials for the course will consist of scientific articles (mainly in medicine and public health), online health data sources, commentaries and editorials, videos/TED talks, and a few newspaper articles and websites. Some classes will be held at Harvard’s Global Health Education and Learning Incubator to use verbal and visual exercises to clarify concepts, practice articulating ideas, and develop a focus for writing.

Whose Boston?

  • Preceptor: Brown, Willa
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/Th 1:30PM-2:45PM, 3:00PM -4:15PM, Sever Hall 211
  • Engaged Scholarship Course

Each year over three million visitors walk Boston’s Freedom Trail, learning a curated story of how this country came to be. But whose story is it? This engaged scholarship course will leave the Yard in order to think about how the stories we tell shape the city we live in. In the wake of the riots in Charlottesville over the removal of a statue dedicated to Robert E. Lee, Americans are embroiled in a debate long familiar to historians: what do our monuments say about who we are? Maybe more importantly: how do those messages change the way we interact with each other? This course will explore these questions in the context of the city you have come to live in for the next four years. We will begin by critically examining the story visitors and residents learn when they walk the Freedom Trail—whose stories are told? What do those narratives say about what this city is? We will be part of the debate about what it means to be represented (or not) on the city landscape. This course will teach you to see the cityscape as a book to be read—a book whose meaning you can shape. After examining these questions, we will make our own decisions about what stories need to be told: the course will culminate in creating a digital map and our own walking tour presented to the public.

This course will require an out-of-class workshop in April (date TBD) and participation in the capstone public tour on Saturday, May 4th

Why Shakespeare?

  • Preceptor: Wilson, Jeff
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/TH 9:00AM-10:15AM, 10:30AM-11:45AM, CGIS South S003

Shakespeare, we have all been told, is extremely important. You might agree or disagree with this pronouncement, but do you know why Shakespeare matters to so many people? Why does every high school in America assign Shakespeare? Why did the world erupt with jubilation on his 450th birthday in April 2014? Why did the British government pay $2.4 million to have Shakespeare translated into Mandarin? Does Shakespeare deserve this fuss, or is he really overrated? In this section, Shakespeare lovers and haters alike are invited to consider the question of Shakespeare’s popularity by looking into the relationship between his methods of artistic creation and the values of the modern world. We'll begin with the most famous artwork of the past millennium, Hamlet, about a young scholar (like you) who finds the injustice of the world overwhelming (like you?). Then we’ll turn to Much Ado About Nothing—a precursor to the modern rom coms where two people who can’t stand each other end up falling in love—in conversation with two additional texts: (1) Jeffrey Hall’s The Five Flirting Styles, a sociological theory and, at times, a how-to manual, and (2) the Public Theater’s summer 2019 production of Much Ado, which featured an all-Black cast under a Stacey Abrams 2020 banner. Finally, we’ll ask, “Why Shakespeare?” and entertain answers ranging from the skeptical (Shakespeare is a dead, white male that other dead, white males have used to promote the values of dead, white males) to the euphoric (Shakespeare is universal; Shakespeare invented the human).

Wizards and Wild Things

  • Preceptor: Barber, David
  • Offered: Spring 2020, T/Th 1:30-2:45 p.m

Once upon a time, there was no Harry Potter. Once upon a time, there was no such thing as children’s literature. When and if children learned to read, they read what grown-ups read. How then did writing for children as we now know it come of age? Why does the genre have such an enduring hold on our cultural imagination, even as it continues to provoke sharp debate over its greater purpose and value? Are classic children’s books like The Wizard of Oz, The Wind in the Willows, and The Cat in the Hat instructive or subversive, didactic or liberating? In this course we’ll examine selections from three centuries of popular prose and verse written expressly for and about children as we investigate how this eclectic canon reflects evolving ideas about childhood, changing views about educating and enchanting young readers, and persistent disputes over what and how children should learn from books. In Unit 1 we’ll survey landmark works in English for children from the Puritan through the Victorian eras, including The New England Primer, Grimms’ Tales, and Alice in Wonderland, as we consider what these texts tell us about the origin and evolution of the genre. In Unit 2 we’ll examine works by touchstone authors for younger readers including Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Rudyard Kipling, E. B. White, C. S. Lewis, Maurice Sendak, and others, drawing on the critical perspectives of thinkers such as John Locke, Bruno Bettelheim, Alison Lurie, and Marina Warner to assess arguments about the essential function of imaginative literature from infancy through adolescence. In the final unit, students will conduct their own research to place a major children’s author of their choice in a relevant cultural and historical context.

Work: Culture, Power, & Control

  • Preceptor: Meyer, Rachel
  • Offered: Spring 2020, M/W 12:00PM-1:15PM, CGIS Knafel k109

This course explores the structure and experience of work in the contemporary political economy with an eye toward both its liberating and oppressive potential. We will take up enduring sociological questions with respect to power, control, autonomy, surveillance and self-determination on the job. How do different forms of work affect our life circumstances, personalities, and connections to each other? In the first unit we will examine corporate culture and how it affects the experience of professional work. Does a strong corporate culture enhance professional autonomy or management’s power? Does it facilitate or undermine community? In unit two we explore the crucial issue of workers’ control over their own labor and the concept of alienation. We examine accounts of deskilling, the separation of mental and manual labor, and the consequences of these processes for workers’ experience on the job. To what extent does alienation occur in offices versus factories versus service counters? For the final unit we will critically engage in a debate about the development of “flexible” labor and the ways in which workers’ connections to employers, occupations, and locations have become more fluid and transitory. We will explore what flexibility means in a variety of contexts and ask: does flexibility lead to liberation or loss of identity? Does it bring self-fulfillment or insecurity? What does flexibility mean for tech workers in Silicon Valley and bankers on Wall Street? Our texts consist of case studies and ethnographic accounts representing a variety of workplaces along with readings from prominent social theorists who in different ways seek to elucidate the conditions of work under modern capitalism.