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.  

Jonathan Shaw
LS 760-14
Fall 2016
Mondays, 6:15-8:45 PM; Aug. 29-Nov. 28 (no class on Oct. 10)
Biological Sciences Building 130
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Darwin’s book (1859), On the Origin of Species, shook the world.  What really was the “Darwinian Revolution”?  Why is Darwinism, or evolution, still so controversial? How do evolutionary ideas affect medicine, agriculture, astronomy, psychology, sociology, even religion? Is evolution and spirituality incompatible?  What IS the evidence for evolution?  These are some of the issues we discuss in The Darwinian Revolution.

This course consists of three (very) general and overlapping components.  In the first section of the course we will read (at least) some of The Origin of Species so we can see how Darwin framed the problem and provided evidence in support of his theory.  Although biology has come a long way since Darwin published his book, it’s amazing that the basic tenets of evolution by natural selection, as we understand them today, were accurately laid out more than 150 years ago.  We will then do some reading to better understand the historical context of evolutionary biology. As we shall see, the idea of evolution was not entirely new with Darwin. Darwin’s really original contribution was in proposing a naturalistic (as opposed to a supernatural) mechanism for evolution – that is, natural selection.  First, of course, we will need to consider what we actually mean by “evolution”, what “natural selection” is, and how scientists study these topics. We will also discuss terms such as “fact”, “theory”, and “hypothesis”, as they are used in the scientific literature and by the public. We will read about and discuss the philosophical implications of Darwinism, and examine the “creationist” alternative to evolution in a variety of contexts from the legal to philosophical.

In the second component of the course we will have a look at the modern evidence for evolution. We examine the history of life on earth as revealed by the fossil record, including human evolution over the last two million years.  We will also discuss other sorts of less direct evidence from the fields of genetics and molecular biology, biogeography, and comparative anatomy.

In the last section of the course, we will discuss some of the uses and abuses of evolutionary ideas.  These include critically important applications in medicine and agriculture, as well as horrendous misapplications of (pseudo)evolutionary ideas, including eugenics and racism.  Here we also examine and discuss current ideas about the evolution of what we think of as uniquely human characteristics such as moral/ethical thinking, and laughter, and discuss the role of natural selection in contemporary human populations.

A couple important points about this course.  You need not be a scientist or biologist!  We will address these issues in a way that is accessible to all.  Who might this course interest?  If you are opposed to the idea of evolution on religious grounds – join us; we need to hear your voice!  If you just don’t know what to think in that regard, and want more information – join us!  If you are interested in biology and natural history – join is; evolution is the glue that holds all of biology together!  The more diverse our class, the more interesting the course.  Several years ago was the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of publication of The Origin, so the time is right!



About Jonathan Shaw

GLS Advisory Committee Term: 2021-2024

Jonathan Shaw is a Professor in the Department of Biology. He received his Ph.D. in 1983 from the University of Michigan. Dr. Shaw's research is on the systematics, population genetics, and evolution of bryophytes (mosses). Some of his research interests have included the taxonomy and classification of particular groups of mosses, developmental anatomy, and genetic relationships among populations of very rare species. A current focus in the lab is the evolution of peatmosses (Sphagnum) and Dr. Shaw's field work tends to be in polar and high altitude environments. He has published some 200 scientific papers and has edited two books, one on the evolution of tolerance in plants to toxic metals in the environment, and one on the biology of bryophytes. Dr. Shaw taught for eight years at a liberal arts college (Ithaca College) before coming to Duke in 1996.

LS 770-34
Fall 2016
Tuesdays, 6:15-8:45 PM, Aug. 30-Nov. 29 (no class on Oct. 11)
Perkins Rubenstein 150
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Course Description:

            This course will be taught as a research and writing seminar closely connected to the ADA and to visiting photographers whose work is held in the archive. This course will challenge students to think critically about photography and to frame the subject of photographic meaning personally, historically and conceptually. Students will consider how photography offers insights into subjects such as social change, sexual identity, and regional culture, and how images have shaped our collective understanding of these subjects. Students will write about specific photographs or groups of photographs, taking into consideration their own response to the images, the historical moment in which the pictures were made, the personal history and artistic sensibility of the photographer, the tools of the medium, and the ways in which all of these factors come together to create a meaningful depiction of the world.


       There will be 5 short papers (2 to 5 pages) assigned in response to the visiting artists or reading under discussion. In addition, each student will write one longer paper (6 to 8 pages), devoting more in-depth study to a group of photographs in the archive of their own choosing.

       There will be a series of discussions about photographs in the archive, sometimes led by individual photographers whose work is represented in the archive.

       There will be assigned readings each week covering some of the history of photography and seminal ideas expressed by artists, curators, and critics. Each week 2-3 students will be asked to prepare questions in advance and assist in leading the discussion.      


       I will assess your final grade on a combination of two factors: (1) Preparation for and contributions to class discussions and (2) the quality the assigned papers.

       More than one unexcused absence will impact your final grade.

Required Books

American Photography by Miles Orvell

Beyond Beauty (library copy will be provided)

Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values, by Robert Adams

Reading Packet with essays by John Szarkowski, Susan Sontag, Jerry L. Thompson, Robert Coles, Tom Rankin, Margaret Sartor, Walker Evans, among others.


Gregson Davis
LS 770-87
Fall 2016
Thursday, 6:15-8:45 PM, Sept. 1-Dec. 1 (no class on Nov. 24)
GLS Conference Room
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*New Course*

Seminar participants will take part in the joint analysis and interpretation of Homer’s canonic epic poem, The Odyssey, against the background of archaic Greek and ancient Near Eastern heroic narrative traditions (such as the Gilgamesh Epic). In the latter phase of the course, we will examine aspects of the reception of the poem in contemporary Caribbean literature (e.g. Derek Walcott’s play, The Odyssey and Aimé Césaire’s prose-poem, Return to my native land.

In addition to a final seminar paper of approximately 10-15 pages, students will be asked to do a short oral presentation on an assigned research topic related to Homeric epic narrative motifs and their reception in later European and postcolonial literature and film (e.g. James Joyce’s Ulysses; the movie, O Brother, Where art Thou?).

About Gregson Davis
Classical Studies

Gregson Davis, Andrew W. Mellon Research Professor in the Humanities at Duke University, teaches in the Department of Classical Studies and the Program in Literature. He has previously taught at Stanford University, Cornell University, and, most recently, New York University. His primary research specialties are the interpretation of poetic texts in the Greek and Roman as well as Caribbean traditions (francophone and anglophone).

Thomas Robisheaux
LS 780-35
Summer 2016
Tuesdays, 6:00-9:00 PM
GLS Conference Room
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Have you ever wondered why magical knowledge is forbidden, and yet pervasive in our culture at different times? Have you paused to consider what claims religion can make about human affairs, the natural world or the supernatural? Have you ever asked why science commands such authority and even awe? Or have you wondered how religion has at times driven on scientific inquiry and, at other times, curiously dismissed robust scientific theories?

This seminar explores these questions by looking at the ways that three ways of understanding our world—magic, religion and science—have intersected in surprising and creative ways in our culture. The seminar explores selected episodes in our history when the boundaries between these ways of knowing unsettled understandings about nature, the divine and even the supernatural. Topics might include: Renaissance wonder and naturalism; the puzzle about Galileo and religion; witchcraft as a rational way of coping with the world; Romanticism and nature; the first “scientific” religion (Spiritualism); early psychology and its ties with the occult and the paranormal; the curious renaissance of occultism in our own day; the conflict between “creationism” and Darwinism; and religion as a product of evolution. A special unit will focus on the Laboratory for Parapsychology at Duke University (1930-65) and the efforts to make psychical research into a field of modern psychology..  Over and over we will encounter such paradoxes as the uses of science to detect the supernatural; the “magical” underpinnings of both religion and science; and living in a “disenchanted” modern society.

The course may not answer all of our questions, but the aim is to understand the long history behind our current ways of knowing, and how they are shaped by culture and society. Approaches to the topic will include anthropology, history and the history of science, psychology, religious studies, and literature.

Readings involve a variety of secondary and primary sources and may change depending upon availability. Books may include: Ian Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues;; Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (1997); David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, ed., When Science and Christianity Meet (2003); Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1998); Charles Webster, From Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science; Lawrence Wright, Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory (Vintage Books); Thomas Robisheaux, The Last Witch of Langenburg (New York, 2009); Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: A Tragedy, Part One (Yale University Press); and Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (HarperCollins); Deborah Blum, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof After Death (New York, 2006).

Writing assignments will total about 25-30 pages, and will include a combination of short essays and a longer research paper.

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.

Trudi Abel
LS 780-96
Summer 2016
Wednesdays, 6:00-9:00
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*New Course*

Nearly 97 years ago and into the 1930s, Frank C. Brown, a Duke scholar, began recording North Carolina folk music and archiving it for posterity.  NC Jukebox will give students the chance to explore the cultural history of North Carolina and the South past through analog and digital archival material through the digitized recordings in the Frank Brown Collection at the Rubenstein Rare Book and Special Collections Library.

Through analyzing digitized historical materials—both texts and vintage audio--and researching in local collections, students will create new interpretations of North Carolina’s cultural history and present these to a wider public through new media. The course will integrate readings in folklore, history, and ethnomusicology. No prior technology experience is expected.

Course participants will submit weekly responses to the readings on our course blog, contribute to class discussions, develop an introductory assignment on a primary source (e.g. a song/singer from the Frank Brown Collection), a research project proposal, and create a final research project/paper with a new media component.  There will be an optional field trip to The Orchards at Altapass (


About Trudi Abel
Duke University Libraries

Trudi Abel is a cultural historian and Rubenstein Library archivist at Duke who created the Digital Durham (, a web repository for primary sources relating to Durham from the post-Civil War decades to the present. Currently, Dr. Abel co-directs the NC Jukebox Project with Victoria Szabo (AAHVS). Over the past decade, Dr. Abel has taught Consumer Culture in America and Digital Durham and the New South for the MALS Program. In the summer of 2016, she will offer NC Jukebox, a cross-disciplinary course in which students use new technologies and digitized audio recordings to create fresh interpretation of the history of North Carolina and its roots music.

Deborah T. Gold
LS 780-89
Summer 2016
Mondays, 6:00-9:00 PM
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The purpose of this course is to examine the biopsychosocial perspectives of old age and how they influence the dying process.  Although we will examine real-life data on these topics, the focus of the course is to see how biopsychosocial phenomena are represented in fiction, with emphasis on their presence in novels and popular film.  The course is divided into several subsections.  These will include “Theories of Aging and Death,” “Gender in Aging and Death,” “Physical and Cognitive Decline in Aging” and “Extending Life by Preventing Death.”

We will document real-life issues of aging and death through 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.  As most deaths in the US occur in older people, it is important to link these two phenomena on both a theoretical and pragmatic bases.  Keeping the themes of aging and death as constants over the semester, we will examine issues of retirement, relationships and love in late life and among the dying, off-time death, and modern medical intervention with dying patients. We will also discuss institutional differences (i.e., between nursing homes for aging and hospice for dying) and what twenty-first century America must do to prepare for the soon-to-be old and dying baby boomers.  Students will each write a final research paper on a topic discussed during the class.

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.