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 RegistrationDegree Requirements or Academic Policies pages.  

Amy Laura Hall
LS 780-98
Spring 2017
Mondays, 6:15-8:45 pm
GLS Conference Room
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*New Course*

Some contemporary writers in North America draw on a tradition of apocalypse -- or anticipation of "the end times" -- to draw readers into their stories.  Some of these same writers also seek to elicit a political commitment to change.  A key example is Margaret Atwood, who is the author of dystopian novels and also an activist for environmental justice.  Well before Atwood, Charlie Chaplin created his iconic film "Modern Times," which was both fantastical and radically political. We will consider this tradition. 

In a 2014 essay on "The Topics Dystopian Films Won't Touch," Imran Siddiquee noted: "While recent dystopias warn youth about over-reliance on computers, totalitarian rule, class warfare, pandemic panics and global warming, very few ask audiences to think deeply about sexism and racism."  In this class, we will consider the intersection of apocalyptic, gender, race, sex, and technology, in works that do and do not directly address racial and gender justice.  The course will include the artistry and politics of Charlie Chaplin, Gene Roddenberry, Prince Rogers Nelson, Octavia Butler, William Gibson, and Margaret Atwood.

Assignments will include weekly papers and regular participation.



About Amy Laura Hall
Divinity School

Amy Laura Hall is the author of four books: Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love, Conceiving Parenthood: The Protestant Spirit of Biotechnological Reproduction, Writing Home with Love: Politics for Neighbors and Naysayers, and Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich. She has also written numerous scholarly articles in theological and biomedical ethics.

Ylana Miller
LS 780-64
Spring 2017
Wednesdays, 6:15-8:45 pm
Location TBA
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The current international climate and, in particular, that of the U.S., has generated a tendency to focus on conflicts and differences between Americans and the peoples of the Middle East.  Yet the historical relationships of Americans with the area encompass a complexity of fantasies and realities, interests and commitments, influences and fear, wishes and disappointments.  This course will explore particular instances of this encounter focusing primarily on the ways in which both the U.S. government and the American public have understood the region, the effect that U.S. actions or inactions have had on the area and the ways in which both can be analyzed from a variety of perspectives.  Materials used in the course will draw from both U.S. views of the Middle East and from evidence of the ways in which Americans have been represented and understood in the area.  The focus of the course will be on studying and analyzing specific instances of U.S. political intervention, economic interest, and military action from World War I to the present.  Among the subjects that will be included will be the significance of oil, the historical relationship with Iran, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the emergence of Islamic political movements.

Texts will include selections from a range of studies, including as examples Epic Encounters by Melani McAlister, US Policy towards Israel by Elizabeth Stevens, and American Orientalism by Douglas Little.  We will also be reading foreign policy documents readily available now on the web and viewing films, as well as reading literature as vehicles to understand dimensions of this relationship beyond the formal one of policy.

Course requirements include: participation in weekly class meetings and discussion; two short papers based on the readings; an independent research project resulting in a final paper.

About Ylana Miller

Ylana Miller (Ph.D. Berkeley) is visiting Associate Professor in the Department of History and a graduate of the Duke-UNC Psychoanalytic Institute.  She teaches a range of courses on the history of the modern Middle East, including “Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict” as well as “History of Zionism and the State of Israel.”  Dr. Miller has published Government and Society in Rural Palestine – 1920-1948 (University of Texas Press), and her current research project is Constructing a Framework:  How US-Israeli Relations Defined the Meaning Given to Victory in 1967.

Deborah T. Gold
LS 780-57
Summer 2017
Mondays, 6:00-9:00 pm - Begins WED., May 17; Ends Mon., July 24
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The purpose of this course is to better understand the processes of aging and dying from both social science and humanities perspectives.  Because both aging and dying are culturally bound, they have a profound influence on the expression of societies’ feelings.  We will take a multidisciplinary perspective, combining social and behavioral science information (using a biopsychosocial approach) and the way in which American society has manifested its anxiety over aging and death in its arts as well as sciences.

The course will include an overview of the biomedical aspects of aging and dying, the social and psychological impact of these components of life, as well as the clinical outcomes of aging and dying in an aging society.  In addition, film (and possibly literature and poetry) will serve as the lens through which we can see the impact of aging and dying on the arts.

Requirements include weekly response papers about the readings, a midterm and a final research paper.

About Deborah T. Gold
Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences; Sociology, Psychology & Neuroscience

Deborah T. Gold is Professor of Medical Sociology in the Departments of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Sociology, and Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University Medical Center, where she is also a Senior Fellow of the Duke Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development. Professor Gold received her B.A. in English and Latin from the University of Illinois, her M.Ed. in Reading from National Louis University, and her Ph.D. in Human Development and Social Policy from Northwestern University. Her primary research interests are in the psychological and social consequences of chronic disease in the elderly.  She has done seminal research on osteoporosis and its impact on quality of life.  She has also studied the psychosocial impact of breast cancer, Parkinson’s disease, syncope, head and neck cancer, Paget’s disease of bone, and dementia in older adults. Her current research examines compliance and persistence with medications for older adults with chronic illnesses.

Martin Eisner
LS 770-91
Summer 2017
Wednesdays, 6:00 - 9:00 pm - Begins Wed., June 7; Ends Wed., August 9
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A close reading of Dante’s whole poem (Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise) in its philosophical (Plato, Aristotle), theological (Augustine, Aquinas), historical (Papacy vs. Empire, Florentine factionalism), and literary (Virgil, Arthurian romance) contexts, as well as an exploration of its influence on later thinkers, artists, poets, and popular culture (Machiavelli, Botticelli, Borges, Eliot, Rodin, Dali, ‘Se7en’).  Each class will require a close reading of several canti of Dante’s poem, along with a supplementary reading.  These secondary readings consider the poem from a variety of perspectives:  as an historical document produced at a specific space and time; an aesthetic object which uses particular narrative strategies to produce meaning; and an ethical and political treatise that both problematizes and prioritizes a certain set of values.

Course Materials

Four books to buy:


            Inferno, Tr. Mandelbaum.  9780553213393

            Purgatorio, Tr. Durling.  9780195087451

            Paradiso, Tr. Kirkpatrick.  9780140448979

            Vita nuova, Tr. Mortimer.  9781847493583 (try

One recommended book:

            Virgil, The Essential Aeneid, Tr. Lombardo.  9780872207905 or Tr. Mandelbaum

N.B. All other readings on Sakai

Course Work

            Course participation and in-class Provocation (25%)

            Three Short Papers (50%)

            One Final Paper (25%)

About Martin Eisner
Romance Studies

Martin Eisner is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at Duke University and Director of Graduate Studies for both the Department of Romance Studies and the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He specializes in medieval Italian literature, particularly the works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, as well as the history of the book and media.

Thomas Robisheaux
LS 780-91
Summer 2017
Thursdays, 6:00 - 9:00 pm - Begins Thurs., May 18; Ends Thurs., July 20
GLS Conference Room
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Republics and popular governments grow and flourish, but they also decline, weaken and perish.   The decline is often not obvious to the untrained eye.   All of the trappings of republican glory and values can continue, and yet, behind the public rhetoric, an entirely new form of autocratic rule may be taking form.   It happened in Rome.   It happened in Florence.   It has happened to modern democracies as well.    

This seminar explores one such crisis, brilliant and memorable because it gave birth, for the first time, to modern secular ideas, values and images about politics.  The place?  Florence, Italy.   The time?  The Renaissance ca. 1500-50, a time of crisis and turmoil for the Florentine Republic.  The witnesses?   Astute observers of politics: Niccolò Machiavelli, civil servant, writer, playwright and his friend, Francesco Guicciardini, diplomat, nobleman, and historian.   They were joined by artists: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci, Leon Batista Alberti, Donatello, Cellini, Giambologna, among others.   The key powerbrokers?   The Medici family, bankers, rulers, patrons of the arts, and popes.   The issues?   How to save a republic and how to use art and literature to engage the crisis of the republic.  

The course begins with historical background about Florence at the time of the Renaissance, including the republican tradition in Florence, the rise of the Medici and the end of the republic in the early sixteenth century.   Then we read three great works of Machiavelli: The Prince, The Discourses, and his ribald comedy, The Mandragola.  Machiavelli may confront us with startling reflections on human nature, fortune, personal will, situational politics, morality and leadership, Christianity, and the prospects of keeping republican values in a time of corruption and raw power politics.    In the second part we study selected—and now famous—works of Renaissance art  intensely charged with political symbolism, such as Michelangelo’s David, Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes, Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa, or the Pitti Palace, the Medici dukes’ grand residence in Florence.  At the end we turn to Machiavelli’s contemporary and friend, the brilliant Francesco Guicciardini, for mature reflections on finding consolation, guidance, meaning and understanding when living in a time of disappointment, danger and changing values.   We will read parts of Guicciardini’s magisterial History of Italy and his private reflections on life, The Maxims and Reflections.  Requirements will include several short essays.  

The aim of the course is for students to develop an understanding of these Renaissance thinkers and artists through encounters with their works.   Along the way, we will confront the inevitable question: Do these Renaissance writers, artists and powerbrokers have something to teach us about the challenges facing our western republics today?

About Thomas Robisheaux

Thomas Robisheaux, Fred W. Shaffer Professor of History, is an historian of early modern Europe. Dr. Robisheaux has particular interests in social and cultural history, German-speaking Central Europe, Renaissance culture, religious reform, popular religion and culture, and microhistory.