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.
This is a class about how modernist artists represent the inner life of their characters. It is a class on the techniques—often radical—deployed to display hidden subjectivity even as these artists put before us an available public world. The representation of subjectivity was a central feature of the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. Thus, modernism may be viewed as an extension via techniques not before seen of Romantic preoccupations. We will be reading across literary genres—drama (Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard), fiction (Hemingway’s Nick Adams short stories and Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying), poetry (Wallace Stevens), and the avant-garde film-maker Michelangelo Antonioni's L’Avventura and Blowup. As time allows, James Joyce’s short story, The Dead.
Requirements: 4 short essays; faithful and prompt attendance. No final exam.
The Arctic and the Amazon are only recently explored, mapped, and affected by the economic, social, and ecological forces associated with modernity. They have many things in common, including an often inaccurate treatment in popular literature and films, sensitive environments disproportionately affected by global change, recent penetration of even the most remote regions by highways and seaways; new interest by outside economic actors in resource development, and small groups of indigenous people trying to obtain decision-making authority and protect traditional cultures and people/land relationships.
The course will interrogate how several disciplines deal with the past, present, and future of these important mega-regions, including history, literature, anthropology, political economy and economics, ecology and conservative biology, and public policy studies.
- Heroic exploration narratives—not that long ago—Theodore Roosevelt in River of Doubt; Arctic exploration narratives of Fritjob Nansen, accounts of the Franklin expedition, George DeLong’s Jeanette expedition and others;
- Literary works with a strong sense of place. For example, David Gramm’s The Lost City of Z or Kim Leine’s Prophets of the Eternal Fjord (18th century Greenland);
- Relatively small numbers of scattered indigenous groups that are struggling for sovereignty over land and resources and to hold on to traditional ways of life;
- historical encounters between indigenous people and Europeans; Canadian Film Board film Pangnirtung; exploitation of rubber tappers;
- groups exhibiting agency rather than victimhood (Kayapo and Xingu; Choci Mendes and rubber tappers; Arctic Native Claims Settlement Act; Matthew Coon Come and the James Bay Cree); links with national and international environmental groups;
4. Potential for mineral development (oil and gas, metals); water and dams in Amazonia; agriculture and forest plantations; fisheries in Arctic seas and Amazonian rivers;
5. Biodiversity—extremely high in Amazonia; extremely low in Arctic. Concentration of nutrients (in vegetation in Amazon) in waters and under the ice in Arctic. Emblematic life forms—the polar bear and the jaguar;
6. Multiple nations involved—six in Amazon basin; six in Arctic. Scores of subnational governments and stakeholders;
7. Historically colonial relationship to outside authority—core and periphery; decolonialization;
8. Relation of local groups to national and international NGOs in seeking to confirm or protect management and use rights;
9. Role of tourism/ecotourism as both a threat to the environment and a possible income source for local people;
10. Designation and management of protected areas; type of areas and implementation experience;
11. Present and future impacts of climate change—warming and ice melt in Arctic; drought and fire in Amazon; impacts on local people; impacts on world climate system; policy alternatives.
Evolution provides the framework on which the science of biology rests, and is central to research in agriculture, medicine, ecology, conservation, and even psychology. The modern science of evolution began with publication of Charles Darwin’s landmark book, On the Origin of Species, in 1859, and has grown in importance as the scientific foundation of biology ever since. Moreover, evolutionary ideas pervade virtually all realms of human experience. In this course we address the following issues and questions, among others. What is evolution? How did Darwin introduce the modern science of evolution? What sorts of evolutionary ideas existed before Darwin? What is the relationship between evolutionary biology and various religious beliefs (including but not limited to modern “creationism”)? What is the biological (i.e., evolutionary) basis of human races? How do evolutionary ideas impact the practice of medicine … agriculture? What is the relationship between biological and cultural evolution? How does our evolutionary history/heritage (i.e., baggage) impact human behavior? Did human morality evolve? Why is evolution so controversial, especially in the United States? This course includes readings and discussions about the scientific study of evolution, but is intended for those without substantial scientific background! We will discuss what the scientific study of evolution entails, but we focus much of the course on how evolutionary ideas impact everyday life.
The course adopts a discussion format, based mainly on the readings, but also on selected videos that I will ask you to view during some weeks before class. Evaluations will be based on discussion engagement, several short essays assigned during the semester, and on a term paper. Term paper topics are quite flexible, of your choosing so you can research and write about a topic of particular interest to you. The papers could be primarily biological in nature, or on just about any topic – sociological, historical, religious, etc. – that connects in some way to evolutionary thought.
In ancient times, midwives traditionally worked with families from ‘womb to tomb,’ bringing in new life and laying out the dead. They saw living and dying as opposing aspects of the same cycle. The two were of equal importance, as two passages through the same door: one coming in, the other going out. Midwives were as intimately involved in every manifestation of death as they were in those of life. Midwives traditionally supported and taught the dying, and cradled the corpse as well as the infant, each to its own particular new life.--Carol Leonard
We often think of birth and death as “natural” events that take place outside of any politics or ideology. This class argues that the processes of birth and death are managed by several competing institutions, and that most of the practices overlook what have been thought of as traditionally women’s roles. These institutions—science, medicine, and religion—do not intend to usurp women’s work; they are simply fulfilling their mandate: goals of progress, cleanliness, and modernity, inadvertently (?) hide the power of these institutions from public view. Thus, at the beginning of the 21st century, we know very little about what actually happens during these two important life events, birth and death.
Nowhere is this dilemma more salient than in the questions of birth and maternal-infant health. Despite the fact that prenatal care and birth are well covered by public and private funds, the United States ranks among the lowest of industrialized nations in terms of mother/child health. Lack of adequate prenatal care, coupled with overuse of medical interventions, have doubled the rate of maternal death over the last 20 years. In the face of these problems, many health care professionals are turning to a midwifery model of care in order to try to reduce maternal death and increase infant health. The first section of the course covers the changes in birth practices over the last sixty years. Once we moved to a hospital setting, it became much harder for birth practitioners to view birth as something “normal.” In this section we will review the many reasons why this is the case. We will also investigate the question of whether or not the medical model should dominate or even influence the birth process. Many midwives believe that medicine has developed important interventions to help birth along; these interventions, they argue, should be “at the ready” and used whenever things even look like they could potentially go wrong. Midwives in this tradition are called Certified Nurse Midwives (CNM); they are trained nurses who specialize in birth. Conversely, Certified Professional Midwives (CPM) do not require a nursing degree and do not follow a medical model for the birthing process. Helping a woman give birth, they argue, is a matter of offering comfort, support, massage, food, entertainment, time. A woman’s body knows how to give birth, these midwives suggest, and they are present to support this process, not control it. CPM’s are illegal in 23 states, including North Carolina. CPM’s caught performing a homebirth in any of these 23 states are prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license.
The second issue investigated in this class is the event of death. 100 years ago the vast majority of Americans died at home surrounded by family and loved ones. Today, the vast majority of Americans die alone in a hospital, surrounded by machines. Moreover, a gap between when a person dies and when the family thinks they are dead can become very wide; i.e., the definition of death is not always clear. Meanwhile, “hospice” (which was founded in England a century ago by midwife Cicely Saunders), is a practice that tries to close this gap; once a person is within six months of dying, hospice advocates discontinue all treatments, giving palliative care (pain relief), along with a midwifery model of support. Each dying person has a team that works with them to make sure they are comfortable and have everything they need. Hospice has many problems, though. Its rules vary from state to state and, because it is composed mostly of volunteers, it varies even within a state. It is often difficult to determine when a person is six months from death, so in many cases, hospice enters too late. The midwifery model even extends beyond death to the care of the body. How is a corpse dealt with and who gets to decide that? Family? Religious leaders? Lawmakers? Land developers?
No one is discrediting the great advantages medicine has brought to our world, even or especially at birth and death. What this class is arguing for is a conversation that tries to recover some of the best practices of earlier or more female centered models of care. “Interpreting Bodies” revisits the discourse of midwifery, which argues that the processes of birth and death are not illnesses that need to be cured, but rather are normal and natural events in the course of a life. Instead of using drugs and technology to manage these events, midwifery seeks the path of “being with” the patient through these changes, and only using drugs or technology to assist a natural transition. What is this process of “being with” and how does it differ from the ways we are treated in medical settings today?
Paper 1: Explain why hospital births are standard care in America. Is the material around midwifery persuasive to you and if it is, why is it still thought of as outmoded and old-fashioned. If you support hospital births, explain why they are thought of as best practice, and for whom. 5–10 pages 30%
Paper 2: What assumptions are circulating in medical and religious language that block the idea of a good death? Or using two sources from outside class, explain why green deaths may or (may not) become the wave of the future 5–10 pages 40%
The remaining 30% will be based on your attendance, participation, and general presence toward course material.
Please, no electronic devices in this class.
Section One: Midwives of Birth
Ladies Hands, Lion’s Heart, Carol Leonard
Cut it Out, Theresa Morris
Section Two: Midwives of Death
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
Greening Death, Suzanne Kelly
In this seminar, we will investigate the history of nonviolence in the modern world by focusing on two thematic approaches.
In the first part of the course, we will focus on individual Americans who have historically made significant contributions to the theory and practice of nonviolent solutions to national and international conflicts. Some, like Martin Luther King, will be familiar, but most, such as Gene Sharp, Dorothy Day and A. J. Muste, in all likelihood will not be. Later in the semester, we will study individuals from other countries who have formulated concepts for nonviolent conflict-resolution, including well-known luminaries such as Mohandas Gandhi, Lech Walesa, and Nelson Mandela.
Following this exploration, we shall immerse ourselves in case studies of peaceful resolutions of seemingly intractable conflicts during the twentieth century as alternatives to traditional tactics of warfare and counter-terrorism. Included among the examples to be studied are (1) the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European subordinate states between 1989 and 1991; (2) the end of British rule in India in 1948; (3) the transition from the apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1990s; (4) the plebiscite that ended the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile in 1988; (5) the Good Friday Accords ending decades of violence in Ireland in 1998; (6) and the successful nonviolent strategies of the American civil rights movement during the 1960s. Not all efforts at nonviolent solutions succeed. One prominent example are the agreements known as the Oslo Accords agreed to in the 1990s by Israeli and Palestinian delegations to end a conflict that continues into the present.
In lieu of formal exams, you will be graded on the basis of the quality of several response papers, voluntary oral participation in our discussions of the assigned material, and a research paper due at the close of the semester. The first response paper will count for 15% of your grade, the second 25%, and the term paper 50%, leaving 10% for participation.
Assigned Books: (tentative)
Ackerman, Peter. A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-Violent Conflict
Chernus, Ira. American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea
Schell, Jonathan. The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People
The goal of this class is to survey different approaches to ethical thinking in relation to non-human animals and their dilemmas. In the world named but not captured by the term “animal rights,” philosophical, ethical, and legal theories once sanctioned for use only in relation to humans are now being applied to animals with a varying array of outcomes and conclusions. This course will examine different strategies of animal advocacy as they are manifested in Kantianism, contract based theories, utilitarianism, welfarism. The animal advocacy movement is filled with activists, philosophers, political theorists, feminists, lawyers, and representatives of many different intellectual traditions who disagree about the status of animals, about whether or not we should eat them or wear them or hunt them or train them for entertainment or keep them in our homes. We’ll investigate these conflicts throughout this class by looking at the narratives of particular kinds of animals. While certain forms of public rhetoric may promote an idea that animal advocacy is a seamless, all-or-nothing, rights-based, vegan agenda, this class presumes there are many acceptable positions in relation to non-human animals. While what happens to animals beyond the scope of our vision—at the factory farm, the slaughterhouse, the dog pound, the circus, or the research lab—may indeed be unethical, this class presumes that there are many different ways to formulate moral solutions. Class discussion will focus on novels and memoirs to open our thinking on ethical frameworks for animals.
Pack of Two
Making Rounds with Oscar
Love at Goon Park
Attendance and participation 25%
3-5 page opinion piece about each book and the problems that surround the subject 50%
Expanding ONE paper to 10 pages for final paper 25%
The purpose of this course is to describe and analyze the adult life course from the transition to adulthood and continuing through old age and death. The course is divided into three sections.
Section One includes an examination of the age structures of developed and developing nations, focusing on the meaning of an aging population for the future of the U.S. Section Two reviews social, psychological, and social psychological aspects of the human life course from the transition to adulthood through middle age. In particular, it identifies the developmental challenges of young adulthood (finding one’s identity, establishing an intimate relationship), and middle age (developing generativity) as well as the social adaptation of each (finding a job and getting married in young adulthood; caring for parents and reaching occupational summits in middle age). Section Three concentrates on late life, again viewing changes from social (retirement, widowhood) and psychological (ego integrity, wisdom, life review) perspectives.
Readers are always surprised by the modernity of Boccaccio’s stores of desire, deception, and delight: how can a fourteenth-century work speak so clearly to twenty-first century readers, especially on the topic of gender? This course investigates this question by exploring both Boccaccio’s narrative masterpiece, the Decameron, and his other works, including the first collection of women’s lives, On Famous Women. Examining critical debates about Boccaccio’s proto-feminism and the apparent misogyny of the Corbaccio, we will scrutinize how Boccaccio uses literature to create a new space for women and their wit as well as other models of desire. Our attention will focus on the Decameron, but we will also examine the distraught lover that narrates Europe’s first psychological novel, the Elegy of Madonna Fiammetta; the many nymphs that populate both the Ameto and the Nymphs of Fiesole; the lives of mythological and real women recounted in his Genealogies of the Gentile Gods and On Famous Women; and his manipulation of misogynistic discourse in the Corbaccio. Far from being a work of the past, Boccaccio suggests radical new paths forward.
The Italian films we’ll view and discuss may be films you’ve never seen or perhaps even heard of. Ready for adventure? Nevertheless, they are among the most powerful and influential films ever made. They cover a revolutionary period of “neo-realism” from the late 40s through the late 60s, beginning with documentary-like revelations of lower class struggles (De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves) which present lives determined and undermined by harsh economic conditions, to films which move to highly imaginative explorations of subjective interiors (Fellini’s 8 1/2) and cultural and psychological terrain inaccessible to strictly realist techniques.
Typically, talk and writing about film tends to proceed as if film and literary narratives are indistinguishable. Plot, story, character, and dialogue are the subjects of such so-called film commentary without reference to the fact that its unique, non-literary medium is what makes film what it is. Film, to put it bluntly, is not literary fiction. Consequently, in this course we will focus on how the actual visual image is crafted to shape and reveal the film-maker’s intention to tell stories that cannot be told by strictly literary means. The film-makers we’ll study: DeSica, Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Germi.
Several short essays required, along with faithful attendance.
This course explores and examines the tradition of mysticism in literature of world, British, and American writers. The objective is to introduce students to numerous genres and literary works that manifest a deep religious attitude or experience as a way of life and cross-cultural phenomenon. The course will focus on selected works of Dante, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, and American Transcendentalists and their predecessors in Muslim Spain, such as Ibn Arabi, Abu Al Ala’a Al Ma’arri, and Rumi among other Sufi poets.
Close readings of texts will reveal the recurrent theme: “the direct, intuitional experience of God through unifying love”.