Liberal Studies Seminars
Each year, Duke GLS offers a wide array of Liberal Studies (LS) Seminars developed exclusively for its students, including the GLS core course. Students in the program also can take graduate courses (500-level and higher) from across campus. For further details about course grades and requirements, see the Registration, Degree Requirements or Academic Policies pages.
INSTRUCTOR: Dean Bruno
is seminar considers the complicated and entangled relationships between humans and the environment in the American South. From the period of early Native American habitation to the present time, we will investigate how humans have imagined, interacted with, and transformed the landscapes we inhabit. And, in turn, how the environment has influenced various groups of people who have made claims of belonging to these particular physical places and cultural spaces.
Through a broad range of primary sources and readings, this course considers the connections between history, public policy, and politics. Main topics will include agricultural production, industrialization, militarization, resource extraction, infrastructure development, conservation, preservation, social movements, and climate adaptation.
We will engage with the following key questions: What is environmental history? Why does environmental history matter in American history? Are humans a part of nature, or do we live apart from nature? What stories do we tell about our relationship with nature, and which narratives remain unvoiced?
Click here to view a course preview video.
In this course we’ll explore how digital technologies are altering climate and acting toward its preservation. We’ll look at human-earth-technology relations and possible planetary futures. If the earth, the human, and technology are no longer separable, or even thinkable in isolation, we need models for reflecting critically about our physically-entangled global ecological systems.
The culminating assignment will be an interdisciplinary research project that integrates course readings and outside research to meaningfully reflect on the interrelation of climate, technology, and culture. Research and expertise come in many shapes in this class, so we’ll read across fields and formats. Projects can be individual or collaborative and can include such elements as community eco-partnerships, global social activism, multimedia reflections, speculative design projects, land-based art or performance, written reports, graphic narratives, manifestos, collective action, or digital products.
Click here to watch the course video.
In the 2008 documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, Chris Bell begins with the World Wide Wrestling Federation’s carnivalesque version of geopolitics, as Hulk Hogan battled The Iron Sheik during the 1984 season. Bell tells a story about his two brothers on steroids, but the film is also about how athleticism and militarism have been intertwined to confuse, amuse, and distract. Bell points out that the U.S. Congress spent more hours during 2005 investigating steroid use in Major League Baseball than on the response to Hurricane Katrina or on the Iraq War. We will consider myths of masculinity and war in the U.S., using film, historiography, podcasts, and readily available chapters and essays. Readings may include selections from War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War(John Dower); Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (Susan Faludi); and Black Sexual Politics (Patricia Hill Collins). Films may include Modern Times, High Noon, The Defiant Ones, The Fog of War, Friday Night Lights, Sorry to Bother You, and Get Out. Assignments include participation in discussion and 2-3 page close-reading papers on the reading or film for that week.
David Simon’s The Wire (HBO 2002-2008) is a graphic depiction of the war on drugs in postindustrial Baltimore. Hailed by adoring critics as “the best television series of all time,” the series’ depiction of inner city conditions has frequently been compared to Charles Dickens’ fictional depictions of early Victorian London. In fact Dickens gets top billing in many reviews: “Baltimore has found its Dickens” or “Dickens for the twenty first century” or “Running like the Dickens”. Or, as the New York Times reviewer actually said out loud: “If Charles Dickens was alive today, he would watch The Wire, unless, that is, he was already writing for it.”1 This course interrogates The Wire‘s Dickensian credentials, with respect to Dickens’s most popular novel, Oliver Twist (1837-8). Despite, or perhaps because, of the considerable distance between their geographical and temporal settings as well as genre, their juxtaposition provides a revealing vantage point from which to scrutinize the Victorian past as well as the present. The journey of Dickens’s parish boy to and through Victorian London, his capture and eventual escape from Fagin’s gang, is echoed in the struggles of The Wire‘s young corner boys. That said, the differences between each text’s “way of seeing” crime and the city are at least as instructive as their obvious parallels. We will locate these fictional tales of two cities in their respective historical contexts. Early Victorian London and postindustrial Baltimore make useful bookends for a survey of the modern city’s evolution from its emergence during the world’s first industrial revolution to its near collapse in globalization’s economic wake. How do urban crime, policing and punishment change over the course of the last two centuries? How have perceptions of urban crime changed over time? What does each text imply about the relationship between crime, individual morality and social inequality? And most important of all, how does each text teach us to “see” the urban poor “see through” law and order discourses about crime, criminality and poverty.
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, edited by Fred Kaplan (Norton Critical Edition 1993)
“This Norton Critical Edition of a Dickens favorite reprints the 1846 text, the last edition of the novel substantially revised by Dickens and the one that most clearly reflects his authorial intentions.” Please note that our reading assignments include supporting material gathered in this edition, such as reviews of Oliver Twist and information about the historical context, which you won’t find in other editions of the novel.
Khalil Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard UP 2010)
Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America (Liveright, 2017)
The Wire (HBO 2002-2008)
The Wire is available on closed reserve in the Lilly Library. It is also available on HBO’s streaming service. There are 63 episodes. Each season engages the theme of crime in the city from a different institutional location:
Season One: Drugs (organized crime, policing)
Season two: Docks (organized labor, ethnicity, globalization)
Season Three: City Hall (political corruption)
Season Four: Schools (public education, childhood on the streets)
Season Five: Journalism (includes episode “The Dickensian Aspect”)
In this seminar, students will read sections from Amy Laura Hall’s current manuscript project on masculinity and mainstream evangelicalism in the U.S. They will compose weekly close readings on relevant primary materials, from Hollywood movies to sermons to architectural plans to parachurch websites. The course will be reading intensive and require a significant amount of research. Please note that enrollment is limited to 10 students.
Recent reckonings with race remind us that as Faulkner famously put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This course engages the history of inequality from the vantage point of the family, one of the most influential sites at which the past is imprinted on the future. The family plays a key role in the intergenerational transfer of wealth as well as the transmission of identities and values from which difference is culturally constructed. The study of family history is itself an important site at which historic inequalities are reproduced as well as contested. Genealogy as embraced in the United States during the second half of the 19th century advanced deeply racialized claims to national belonging and respectability that have had enduring consequences. In organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, founded in 1890, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894, elite white women used genealogical descent to recast legitimate political authority and citizenship itself in terms that reinforced the political hegemony of White Anglo Saxon native born Protestant men over their foreign-born and formerly enslaved counterparts.
Family history is no longer the preserve of leisured patrician whites. The expansion and desegregation of public education and archives alike, along with the digitization of source material, sophisticated search engines and powerful data bases have made it possible to learn a lot more about all sorts of people than simply the ancestral lineages of the 1%. There is now an impressive body of scholarship devoted to locating the histories of particular families in deeply researched historical contexts, resulting in more detailed understandings of how privilege and opportunity have been preserved as well as challenged at specific times and places. There are still vast inequalities in preservation and access to source material, but the insights being gleaned from more critical approaches to family history are many and profound. And the transformative potential of family reckonings with inequality is even more transformative when the family in question is one’s own.
We will be reading scholarly accounts of race-making and resistance at the local level.
Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction
We will also sample scholarly accounts of race-making or resistance in their own or other’s family history.
Edward Ball, Slaves in the family
Kendra Taira Field, Growing up with the country
Christine Steeler, “Critical Family History: An Introduction” special issue Genealogy 4/2 (2020) 64. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy4020064 [MDPI Scholarly Open Access Publishing]
Diane Kenaston, Geneaology and Anti-Racism: A Resource for White People
Students will research their own family history utilizing the burgeoning digital source base available on-line.
Christine Steeler, “Critical Family History: An Introduction” special issue Genealogy 4/2 (2020) 64. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy4020064 [MDPI Scholarly Open Access Publishing] and https://www.christinesleeter.org/critical-family-history
Diane Kenaston, Geneaology and Anti-Racism: A Resource for White People
Our Black Ancestry: https://ourblackancestry.com/
Coming to the Table: genealogy guide https://comingtothetable.org/project/genealogy-support/
And/or students will conduct research on race relations in a particular neighborhood, town, or county to which they have some personal connection.
Students will submit 1-2 page reactions to scholarly readings on the designated Sakai forum 2 days before class meets and respond to their classmates’ posts the following day.
Students will create a blog on which to record their local/family research findings. For inspiration see Robyn Smith, Reclaiming Kin, Kay Strickland, Shoots, Roots and Leaves
 Requiem for a Nun (NY: Random House, 1951), p. 92.
Instructor: Rachael Murphey, PhD
The primary goal of this course is to unpack the dense intersection of race and the adoption and foster care systems in the United States. We will do this by studying the policies and practices of domestic transracial and international or inter country adoption and foster care. We will critically interrogate issues of power and privilege among and between individuals as well as sovereign nations and we will learn from all members of the adoption triad (birth/first parents, adoptees, and adopting parents). We will consider academic research, novels, documentaries and feature films. We will also have presentations from the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina, social workers, Guardian Ad Litems, adult transracial and intercountry adoptees, and adoptive parents from Orange and Durham county.
Additional goals for this course include sustained opportunities to engage in debate and discussion, as well as opportunities to research, write persuasively, and present your findings to a larger, non-academic audience.
Course Learning Objectives
After completing this course students will be able to:
- Identify and explain the historical and systematic factors that fuel adoption and foster care in the U.S. and abroad, including major events, leaders and legislation.
- Understand how the US child welfare system functions, under what authority, and the major provisions that guide and fund it.
- Identify and explain the ethical issues and conflicts in the history and current policies and practice of intercountry/transnational adoption between the U.S. and Africa, China, Latin America, and Russia.
- Identify and critically interrogate how concepts of race, adoption, and foster care are represented through popular culture (television, social media, movies, etc.) in the U.S. and abroad.
- Identify and explain how race is understood as a factor of analysis in foster care and adoption placement in Durham and Orange County, North Carolina.
Students will be introduced to strategies for conducting documentary fieldwork and archival research with a variety of tools and mediums, including photography, film/video, audio, narrative writing, and poetry. A major focus will be on identifying and analyzing the ethical and aesthetic considerations related to representing and exhibiting the lives and stories of others, and/or ourselves.
We will plumb the depths and range of documentary expression with assigned materials that include thought pieces (reflections written by practitioners on process, context, dilemmas, and/or mistakes), reviews/critiques, as well actual documentaries. All assigned materials—readings and links to podcasts and videos—will be made available on Sakai.
We will begin our exploration by considering why documentary stories are important, what makes a compelling story, and how various media forms are employed by documentary artists. Subsequently, our discussions will address questions fundamental to any documentary form concerning issues such as point of view, representation, reciprocity, truth, editing, and ethics. Hands- on activities, interspersed throughout the semester, will allow students to engage with documentary forms and questions.
Students will propose, research, and carry-out a creative documentary project for the course, which will be work-shopped during class sessions. Possible outcomes could include a podcast, photo series, video piece, drawings, or narrative non-fiction essay.
Equipment is not provided, but students will be advised about a range of readily-available tools (smart phones and apps) and low or no-cost approaches that could be used. No previous experience or technical skills required; project formats are flexible.
The following are major pedagogical goals for the course:
- Identify and address the complexities involved in representing others.
- Contextualize documentary work historically and comparatively.
- Understand the present-day call from BIPOC documentarians for accountability and culture shift in the documentary field
- Learn about documentary studies at Duke University.
- Engage with a variety of genres of documentary work.
- Identify biases within—as well as voices and themes traditionally missing from—the documentary field.
- Synthesize knowledge from readings, screenings, and speakers.
- Reflect on how documentary practices inform and inspire social change.
- Imagine new uses and forms of documentary work based on an understanding of the evolution of documentary forms.
- Understand major ethical dilemmas involved in doing and exhibiting documentary work.
Click here to watch a course preview video.
Satire is all around us, from internet memes and fake websites to sketch comedy, political cartoons and movies. Rewriting our social or political realities from a different angle can – if done well – be wickedly funny. It is a real pleasure to see truths punctured and assumptions set askew.
In this class, we will explore what satire is and how it works. This will include asking questions such as:
- How does satire work in your personal value system? Is anything beyond the pale? Who and what are proper targets for satire?
- Satire can be seen as the “spoonful of sugar” that lowers our resistance to the “medicine” of social or political critique. But in making that critique more palatable, does satire end up functioning as a sort of pressure release valve that undermines any real social change?
- What is satire’s relationship to truth? During the era of Trump, behaviors previously seen as deplorable have been normalized. How can satire compete with reality in an age of postmodern “truthiness”?
In this class we will try to answer such questions by exploring both classic (e.g. Dickens, Twain) and contemporary works of satire (e.g. Get Out, Parks & Rec, The Daily Show, SNL, Ask a Slave). Exactly how that works we will figure out as we go along. A good deal of the course material will be student-generated, as students share and discuss their own favorite examples of satire – with the option of creating and sharing satire of your own as well.
Watch a course preview.
This class will establish some of the foundations and histories of human rights, then take an in-depth look at the challenges that face us as a world community. This includes using a human rights lens to think about refugees and asylum-seekers; climate change; genetic engineering; privacy; the right to truth; and international humanitarian law. This class is interdisciplinary and discussion-based. We will be examining real-life cases from around the world and including the United States. Readings will include materials prepared by philosophers, historians, activists, lawyers, documentarians, anthropologists, and journalists, among others.
Students will prepare one midterm paper and a final presentation on an issue chosen in consultation with the instructor. Since this is a seminar, attendance and participation are mandatory.
The development and initial offering of this new course in the Fall of 2020 was supported through the generosity of GLS alumna Lottie Applewhite.
Robin Kirk is the Faculty Co-Chair of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute and is a founding member of the Pauli Murray Project, an initiative of the center that seeks to use the legacy of this Durham daughter to examine the region’s past of slavery, segregation and continuing economic inequality. An author and human rights advocate, Kirk is a lecturer in the Department of Cultural Anthropology and directs the Human Rights Certificate. Kirk has written three books, including More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia (Public Affairs) and The Monkey’s Paw: New Chronicles from Peru (University of Massachusetts Press). She is a co-editor of The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University) and co edits Duke University Press’s “World Readers” series. An essayist and award-winning poet, she has published widely on issues as diverse as the Andes, torture, the politics of memory, family life and pop culture. Her essay on Belfast, “City of Walls,” is included in the Best American Travel Writing anthology of 2012 (Mariner Books). Kirk authored, co-authored and edited over twelve reports for Human Rights Watch, all available on-line. In the 1980s, Kirk reported for U.S. media from Peru, where she covered the war between the government and the Shining Path. She continues to write for US media, and has been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Sojourners, The American Scholar, the Raleigh News and Observer, the Boston Globe, the Durham Herald Sun and other media.