Undergraduate Courses

COL 233: Literature & Happiness
Approved for SUNY Humanities requirement

We all want to be happy. But what is happiness? This course will investigate the answers given to this question. We will be reading, writing and talking about a wide variety of short texts from different fields such as art and literature, journalism, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, religion, and sociology. We will study visual media as well. Through literary and philosophical analysis, some of the questions we will try to answer will be the following: What makes us happy? Do we deserve to be happy? Can we create our own happiness? What is the relationship between happiness, virtues, pleasure, money, and friendship?

COL 112: Cross-Cultural Explorations - Professor Ewa Ziarek

The principal objective of this course is the study of the diversity of Western, East Asian, and African cultures from the Renaissance to the Modern Age. Although we will explore cultural diversity in its various expressions; in politics, religious thought, social customs, everyday beliefs, and scientific advances; our primary focus will be the study of art, literature, and big ideas. One of the central concerns of this course will be different cultural and historical conceptions of the human and its relation to nature, politics, and science. In the first part of the course we will examine the different formations of humanism in the Western cultures from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment; from Romanticism to Marxism.   In the second part of the course we will focus on the non-Western ideas of the human and humanity and their expression in religions, political organizations, and artworks. We will begin with Daoism and Confucianism and their impact on Chinese ethics, philosophy, politics, and culture during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. We will also briefly discuss the Cultural Revolution and Maoism in 20th century China. We will follow the influence of Confucianism in Japanese culture and its confluence with Zen and the Shinto Revival. In the context of politics we will focus primarily on the Tokugawa Shogunate. In the context of the arts we will analyze the place of the human in nature as reflected in Japanese landscape paintings, poetry, and woodblock prints. We will conclude our course with the discussion of the devastation of colonialism and the struggle for independence in Africa. We will analyze the influence of traditional (for example, masks and music) and modern African cultures (Fanon, Achebe, and Soyinka) in the contemporary world.

COL 199: On Dignity & Death, Professor David E. Johnson 

What is dignity? What is the relationship of dignity to what Victor Hugo calls the inviolability of life, but also and no less trenchantly to both the death penalty and the right to die? How does the concept of dignity work both to defend and to challenge both the death penalty and the right to die? On Dignity and Death explores these questions through readings of philosophy (Cicero, Kant, Hegel, Foucault), criminology (Beccaria), legal and medical accounts (Dworkin, CohenAlmagor), literature (Hugo, Camus, Capote, Mailer), and abolitionists (Badinter, Prejean). We will also read the Universal Declaration of Universal Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (proposed 1966, ratified 1976) in order to examine the paradox of a universal human right to life that coexists with the death penalty. In addition, we will read several United States Supreme Court decisions concerning both the States right to put to death and its right to make live.  

COL 200: Democracy & Justice in America - Professor David E. Johnson
This course explores issues central to democracy. First, it examines the relation between democracy’s claim to protect and promote both universal freedom and universal equality. Second, it considers the unresolvable tension between popular sovereignty (“we”) and individual rights (“I”). Third, it considers the limitation of democracy in its necessary calculus of citizenship, the dual question of both how to count and who counts. Fourth the course takes up the role of narrative (recounting and accounting, telling) in establishing citizenship and the tradition or legacy of democracy. The course focuses on detailed readings and discussions of founding and foundational documents of the United States’ democratic experiment: declaration of independence, articles of confederation, constitution of the United States, debates on the constitution; writings of Jefferson, Douglass, Lincoln, Stanton and Anthony, Larsen, MLK, Morrison; and major supreme court decisions concerning citizenship, racial equality, reproductive rights, rights to privacy, same sex marriage. In sum, “We the people” asks what it means to be a citizen and why democracy is at once the worst and the best form of government. In sum, in its consideration of the language of democracy–of citizenship and rights–“We the People” asks what it means when African-American novelist Toni Morrison remarks, in Beloved, that the story of slavery and of a mother’s desire to “free” her daughter is “not” one “to pass on.” What does it mean not “to pass on” the haunted narrative of our cultural and legal inheritance?

COL 199: Art & Madness, Professor Kalliopi Nikolopoulou 

When we think of artists we often imagine people who are eccentric, at odds with the everyday world, and indulging in impulsive emotions: easily irascible, self-absorbed, volatile, passionate, melancholic, and self-destructive are some of the adjectives that come to mind. The artist’s 

volatile psychology is often explained as the effect of inspiration: the artist seems to have a special, even sacred, relation to a higher, spiritual reality to which average people lack access. In this interdisciplinary seminar, we will start with Plato’s understanding of the artist in his lon and in relevant excerpts from The Republic. After a brief historical survey of the notion of the artist in the Renaissance and Romanticism, we will turn our focus to two modern novellas: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, both of which explore the significance of violence, madness, and death in relation to artistic creativity.   

COL 199: Literature of/and Human Rights, Professor Shaun Irlam 

This course will explore the intersections between literature and human rights through a number of contemporary post-modern, diasporic and post-colonial works.Summary: a). Narratives of witness; b). poetics of sentiment, creating an audience; c) politics of representation / aestheticization d.) suffering of others, e.) articulation of rights. How does literature bear witness to human suffering and crimes against humanity? A prominent dimension of the novel since its inception has been the drama of human suffering and championship of the persecuted. In the 18th century, an iconic instance of this was Richardsons heroine, Clarissa; in the 19th century, the social protest novels of Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell and others charted the horrors of industrialization in Victorian Britain while Zola¿s Rougon-Macquart cycle did the same for the French underclasses. Across the Atlantic, a large corpus of slave narratives and novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave momentum to the abolitionist movement which became to precursor to the contemporary discourse around human rights. 

COL 199 Telling Stories, Professor Ewa Ziarek

Although it plays different roles in different cultures and different historical moments, storytelling seems to be a universal human activity. Children want the same stories to be told over and over again in exactly the same manner. As adults, we enjoy stories in literature, film, videos, or computer games. We listen to the stories of friends and family members. Historians, anthropologists and sociologists both research and construct their own stories in order to make sense of human cultures, traditions, laws and religions.  Different kind of stories, such as testimonies and eyewitness accounts, are at work in legal trials. Patient stories are important for social workers, psychologists and doctors. Storytelling has invaded even neuroscience and medicine, for example in Kleinman, The Illness Narratives. Some philosophers argue that foundational stories of a given culture teach us about love, moral values, and good life. 

 In this interdisciplinary seminar we will examine stories in literature, folklore, film, anthropology and history, as well as significant stories in your own lives, in order to ask fundamental questions: why do people tell stories? What kind of knowledge and wisdom is conveyed through stories? How are stories related to power and politics? What can story teach you that science cannot? And what counts as a story? How is it constructed? What is the difference between fictional stories and real stories, such as documentaries or history?

Our readings will include stories from the Bible-- for example, the story of Isaac and Abraham-- and their subsequently pictorial and philosophical retellings; selected fairytales such as Beauty and the Beast and their film versions, short stories by diverse literary writers, such as Melville, Larsen, Kafka and Dinesen; films, for example the BBC film production of Shakespeare¿s Hamlet; legal accounts, selected stories told by anthropologists, for example Carol Stack, All Our Kin, as well as some of the most interesting reflections by historians and literary critics on the role of storytelling in human culture. Students will also be asked to share the most important stories they learned during their first year colloquium and to reflect on the role of sharing stories through social media.

COL 199 Quarrel between Philosophy and Literature, Professor Krzysztof Ziarek

Why do philosophers read poets, and why do poets read philosophy? The course will trace the history of this question, beginning with the ¿quarrel¿ between philosophy and poetry in antiquity and leading up to the contemporary conversations and polemics between the two disciplines. This quarrel between philosophy and poetry is mentioned in Plato, and already at that time it was perceived as ¿ancient.¿  The course will begin by exploring the provenance and the stakes of this quarrel as seen by Plato and proceed on this basis to inquire into its formulations in later texts, from ancient Greece to 20th literature, philosophy, and film. 

This seminar is open to all students interested in exploring the fascinating and challenging intersections between the two main areas of the humanities: literature and philosophy. Reading literary and philosophical texts, we will discuss such questions as the nature of human existence, the problem of time, death, and finitude, the role of gender, as well as the differences and similarities between imagination and reason, passion and logic, literary language and philosophical argumentation. What is the difference between how poetry and philosophy address and express those issues?  How is poetic/literary saying different from philosophical ways of telling?  How do we think between poetic images and philosophical reasoning/argumentation?  

In the first part of the course, we will examine convergences and differences between literary and philosophical texts in antiquity (Plato, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Sophocles' tragedies), the Middle Ages (Boethius), and the Enlightenment (Voltaire). Rethinking the heritage of Greek culture and tragedy for the moderns, Nietzsche's influential study The Birth of Tragedy will serve as the transition to the questions that characterize contemporary debates between philosophy and literature. After The Birth of Tragedy, we will read essays by Heidegger and Irigaray, and a number of literary texts: short stories by Dinesen, Borges, and Faulkner, poetry by Wislawa Szymborska, Reggio¿s film, Koyaanisqatsi.