20109-2011 Undergraduate Catalog

The Emily Balch Seminars


Michelle Francl, Department of Chemistry
Gail Hemmeter, Department of English

Steering Committee

Michelle Francl, Chemistry
Gail Hemmeter, English
Jody Cohen, Education Program
Kimberly Wright Cassidy, Provost
Karen Tidmarsh, Dean of the Undergraduate College (ex officio)

The Emily Balch Seminars are discussion-oriented, reading- and writing-intensive courses for first-year students. All students are required to take an Emily Balch Seminar during the first semester of their first year. Topics vary from year to year, but all seminars are designed to engage broad, fundamental issues and questions, ones that are not defined by the boundaries of any academic discipline. The purpose of the seminars is to help students become better close readers and interpretive writers. Course materials are chosen to elicit nuanced thinking and lively discussion, and may include, in addition to books and essays, films, material objects, social practices, scientific observations and experiments. Seminars offered in recent years include the following:

Classical Mythology and the Contemporary Imagination

The myths of the Greeks and Romans have provided an inexhaustible imaginative source for artists throughout the history of Western civilization, and each age has rewritten these myths (by translating them or adapting them) to reflect its own interests and anxieties. Writers have superimposed their visions upon the source myth, and in turn these visions have been examined by literary criticism, creating a kind of archaeology of interpretation on three levels. In the tension between the source myth and its reinterpretations lies the interest and the challenge for us as critics and as writers.

Performance and Self

When we use the word “self,”what do we mean? Are we coherent, authentic, natural selves, or is what we call “self”a role we’ve taken on and can discard at will? What does it mean to perform ourselves—in life, on stage, in film, in dance, in texts? We will examine the ways we perform ourselves in daily life at the intersections of gender, race and class. We will look at the ways artists and writers construct performances that convey these social and political aspects of identity. Our texts are drawn from philosophy, psychology, theater, dance, fiction, poetry and film.

Travel Tales and Understanding

This seminar covers a group of readings Involving travel, exposure to new cultures, and the kinds of learning that come with exposure to unfamiliar and often thought-provoking values. Some readings are set in everyday contexts, while others are more unusual: captivity narratives, imaginary travels, a temptation narrative, and even a descent into madness. Readings Include Mary Rowlandson’s narrative of her captivity among Native Americans; Zitkala-Sa’s account of her educational travels; Ruth Ozeki’s novel My Year of Meats; Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market”; and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Reading Culture: Poverty in the United States

The subject of poverty forces us to think critically about how we define and understand the concept of culture. Through a selective, critical examination of fiction and nonfiction works addressing the theme of poverty in America, this course will explore key methods for studying and writing about culture. It will look at how poverty and poor people have been discussed and represented in the United States at various points during the last 125 years, and it will provide an opportunity to explore the many ways “poverty” and “culture” intersect and interact, each term affecting the meaning of the other.