Course Listings

Emily Balch Seminars Course Descriptions Fall 2023


Sec. 001 Sense and Nonsense
Instructor: Jen Callaghan
TTh 11:25-12:45 p.m.

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells….” said children’s author Dr. Seuss. “It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.” In this seminar, we will think deeply about the playful illogic of absurdity, poppycock, and gibberish in order to tease out their whys, hows, and what-fors. What is nonsense? Is it possible to make sense of nonsense? What purposes beyond entertainment can nonsense serve? To help us critically examine nonsense, we’ll also consider some ways in which humans try to make sense of the world and what role our senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing) play in our understanding of it. Our inquiry will draw on texts from literature, philosophy, visual art, film, and science. Topics will include the literary nonsense of Lewis Carroll and Edward Gorey; InspiroBot and Buddhist koans; the avant-garde art movement Dadaism; political satire; and indigenous logics. Through frequent short writing assignments that lead to longer analytical and argumentative essays, students will learn strategies for generating and organizing ideas, drafting, and revising.

Sec. 002 Short Stuff
Instructor: Betty Litsinger
TTh 11:25 – 12:45 p.m.

As Shakespeare famously wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” but perhaps it is also the soul of philosophy and a key to interpreting the world. This course is an invitation to indulge in the guilty pleasure of reading extremely short works. We will begin by studying aphorism. Using Andrew Hui’s A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter as a guide, we will explore the ways in which pithy, enigmatic statements have opened minds and cultures to new ways of thinking, both creating and dismantling worldviews. Next, we will consider the difference between the merely witty and the profound as we sample quips, memes, tweets, six-word memoirs and such. Along the way, we will explore various short poetic forms, chengyu (four-character Chinese idioms) and flash fiction (stories as short as one sentence in length) focusing on works by Lydia Davis and other contemporary writers. Finally, we will consider the impact of abridgement, reflecting on the ethics of editing to create compact works.

Students will engage in peer-informed revision of their essays, improving their thinking through writing and discussion and improving their writing by rethinking.

Sec. 003 Performance and Self
Instructor: Gail Hemmeter
TTh 11:25 – 12:45 p.m.

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 easily discard or change at will? What does it mean to perform ourselves—in life, on stage, in film, in dance, in texts? Do we perform a social or cultural role in a script that has already been written for us? Or do we create ourselves through desire, passion and will? In this seminar, we will use a variety of texts to examine the ways we perform ourselves in daily life. We will look at the ways artists and writers construct performances that convey these social and political aspects of identity. Our texts come from a variety of sources: philosophy, psychology, theater, fiction, poetry, and film. They may include examinations of the self by Freud and Emerson, and expressions of gender performance in the poems of Tony Hoagland; in a play by Susan Glaspell; in paintings; and in dance videos. Other texts may include Henry David Hwang’s M. Butterfly; essays by Gloria Anzaldua; and John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. The end of the seminar will provide an opportunity to create a short project around course themes. Discussion will be less about right or wrong answers, more about exploring ideas in all their complexity. Because writing is also a performance, we will pay attention to how we present ourselves on paper. Students will write frequently, confer individually with their instructor, and have opportunities to revise their work.

Sec. 004 The Lives of Mathematicians: The Creative Individuals Behind The Mathematics
Instructor: Peter Kasius
TTh 11:25 – 12:45

When we study mathematics in high school and beyond, we are taught about the mathematical concepts and methods but rarely about the mathematicians who discovered or created these ideas. Except for a few very famous mathematicians such as Euclid or Isaac Newton, most of these people remain obscure and invisible to students while their creative works are given great prominence. Yet many of these mathematicians have led lives that are as fascinating and important as are their own creative contributions to the subject. We will discover this hidden background to the mathematics familiar to students, as we read biographies and memoirs about the lives of some of the mathematicians who have helped to create the mathematics that we learn and practice today. Each has had their own journey to becoming a mathematician- what led them to their paths? What was their personal process of developing this powerful way of apprehending and describing the world? We will read, write and talk about the social and historical contexts that helped to shape the directions that their mathematical careers took. At the same time, we will look at how they in turn influenced the lives of their students and the academic and professional institutions in which they worked. We will have a strong focus on notable women mathematicians of the past two hundred years, some of whom spent a portion of their time as faculty here at Bryn Mawr College. Among the texts that we will likely read will be excerpts from the books Women Becoming Mathematicians by Margaret A. M. Murray and Women of Mathematics: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook, editors Louise Grinstein and Paul J. Campbell, and articles from various journals related to these topics. We will certainly read about Emmy Noether, a very important mathematician who spent several years right here at Bryn Mawr.

The writing for this course will start with brief essays critiquing and discussing the biographical presentations. Students will have the chance to explore for themselves how math is a way of knowing and to articulate their own experiences. We may also contrast math as a pure and aesthetic endeavor with math as a practical, worldly power, and the ethics of each stance. I also want the students themselves to contribute ideas about what sorts of writings they would like to do, so that this course will be collaborative among all students and instructor.

Sec. 005/006 Fantastic Fiction and the Environment
Instructor: Willow DiPasquale
Section 005 TTh 11:25 – 12:45 p.m.
Section 006 TTh 2:25 – 3:45 p.m.

Despite dragons, spaceships, and alien encounters, fantasy and science fiction stories are “a means of understanding,” claims author Ursula K. Le Guin, and “a mirror of the real.” How, then, do we reconcile the imaginary landscapes presented in these stories with our actual and pressing environmental crises? What value does fantasy have, if it not as simply “escapist” or “untrue” stories? In this seminar, we will explore current environmental concerns through the dual lens of news media coverage of environmental issues and genre fiction, specifically science fiction and fantasy literature and film. We will investigate how the alternate views of the environment presented in works of fantastic fiction encourage us to rethink our assumptions regarding the human-made problems affecting our environment today. We will also use these works to examine our personal relationship towards the environment and consider the duty we have, if any, to help preserve and protect the world around us. Can fantastic stories spur real world action? We attempt to answer this question by applying several different eco-critical themes—deep ecology, feminist ecology, ecological utopias/dystopias, environmental racism—and reading excerpts from news media, eco-critical scholars, and fantastic fiction (The Lord of the Rings and works by Ursula K. Le Guin, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Ray Bradbury, among others). We will also watch several visual works, including the films Soylent Green and Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke. Students will complete a series of analytical writing assignments, reflections on course readings, and student-led discussions.

Sec. 007 Passing
Instructor: Pardis Dabashi
TTh 11:25 – 12:45 p.m.

What does it mean to have an identity? How about to show that identity, or not show it? What happens when a community thinks you are one thing, and then discovers that you are “actually” another? These and other deceptively simple questions are, and have long been, at the center of literature and films about different forms of “passing.” This course introduces students to key texts—literary, cinematic, legal, theoretical, and historiographical—that chart the complexities of passing. Along the way, we will discover the themes, problems, and tropes that recur throughout cultural artifacts of passing, such as the threat of exposure, deceit, duplicity, betrayal, loyalty, and disclosure. Authors and filmmakers may include Nella Larsen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rebecca Hall, Francis Harper, Douglas Sirk, Elia Kazan, Leslie Feinberg, and Brit Bennett.

Sec. 008 Worlds of Place and Identity
Instructor: Joni Baumgarten
TTh 11:25-12:45 p.m.

This course will explore ideas of home, connections to nature that define “home,” and identities layered within those worlds. Often, our memory of place centers on landscapes, colors, sounds, in ways that can affirm a feeling of welcoming, or can create a disjointed experience of a familiar place. Part of this course will be exploring stories of people who have been erased from the idea of “pristine nature” in America. Part of it will be to consider how ideas of “pristine nature” are contrary to the inordinate impact of humans on the entire world and a trend of urbanization. Part of the exploration will be to think about how individuals have their own personal bubbles of experience that intersect with ideas of communal spaces. Finally, our society is founded with a narrative of settler colonialism that also can contribute to the tension people feel with and about “home.”

As an Emily Balch Seminar, this course involves critical reading, in-class discussion, and cogent, idea-driven writing. Students will learn and practice strategies for generating, drafting, and revising longer essays. Peer-review and one-on-one conferences will support the student in developing these writing skills. Readings will include the compilations Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, and Trespass: Ecotone Essayists Beyond the Boundaries of Place, Identity, and Feminism. We will watch a few episodes from TV shows like Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Undone by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy.

Sec. 009 The Politics of Science
Instructor: David Schaffner
TTh 11:25-12:45 p.m.

The Scientific Method lays out a clear, objective process for building our collective understanding of the universe. Ask Questions. Propose Hypotheses. Experiment, results, and conclusion follow. However, history and current events demonstrate that the scientific process is far from objective, involving money, power, policy, culture, and the impact of countless human lives. In this seminar we will explore and discuss the modern approaches to how science gets done—from the proposal process to the President’s Budget—and trace how these pathways have been shaped by past scientific triumphs—and tragedies. Who has historically had a say in what science gets pursued and who should have a say? From the building of the atomic bomb, to the global battle against epidemics, to the rise of A.I. and ChatGPT, policy and decision-making in science pursuits is a complex process that has always veered far from the objective clarity of the Scientific Method.

Sec. 010 Making Memory Matter
Instructor: Lisa Saltzman
TTh 11:25-12:45 p.m.

Think of a fossil. Then think of a photograph. Each contains a trace of the past. Yet only one is an intentional object. Not nature, but culture. If photographs make particularly vivid the ways that works of culture can capture the past, summon history in visual form, they are by no means the only such vessels of memory. All works of culture, be they art or artifact, come to us from a moment in time. But only some make remembrance their explicit subject. This seminar will explore those cultural objects that make memory matter, from the contested monuments and memorials that define and defile public space in the present to the paintings and photographs, video projections and installations that negotiate traumatic historical events that demand yet often defy representation. Together, we will spend the semester reading about, looking at and discussing such cultural objects as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and An-My Lê’s Small Wars; William Kentridge’s Monument and Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Hiroshima; Shimon Attie’s The Writing on the Wall and Anselm Kiefer’s Sulamith; Kara Walker’s A Subtlety and Mark Bradford’s Tulsa; Doris Salcedo’s Unland: The Orphan’s Tunic and Oscar Muñoz’s Project for a Memorial. And you will learn to craft different forms and components of an essay: an Op-Ed piece, a classic art historical formal analysis, and an annotated bibliography. These exercises in argumentation, descriptive analysis and bibliographic research will be cumulative and will be put together at semester’s end to produce a final polished and persuasive essay.

Sec. 011 Living With Ourselves
Instructor: Betsy Mesard
TTh 11:25 – 12:45 p.m.

You may have been told that college is a time to learn how to think for yourself, but what does that really mean? Have you seriously considered what sort of an activity thinking is? And how is it possible that you can do something for the very same person – yourself? In this seminar, we will survey sources and ideas about the somewhat peculiar notion that we live together with ourselves – that we have a relationship, dialogue, responsibilities, and struggles with ourselves. We will explore classic sources, key theorizations, and contemporary reflections on this phenomenon of inner experience, under various headings, including “thinking,” “introspection,” and “conscience.” While we will begin “inside,” so to speak, we will quickly find that this mysterious, hidden relationship between me and myself has implications for all of our other relationships – including the personal and the political. We will therefore also attend to topics like obedience and conscientious objection, guilt and shame, and the question of how we go on living with ourselves in the wake of harms we’ve caused and wrongs we’ve committed? The presupposition that who we are is first and foremost an inner difference – a relationship of “two in one” – underlies key conversations in moral philosophy, political theory, psychology, and the study of religion. We will have opportunities to explore sources from across these fields of study, as well as various examples from literature and pop culture: from the ancient maxim, “know thyself,” and Socrates’s bold proposition, “it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong," to Qur’anic and Biblical representations of accountability; from Hannah Arendt to Louise Erdrich, and from James Baldwin to Alec Baldwin.

Secs. 012/013 Imagining the Future with Science Fiction
Instructor: Devin Daniels
Sec. 012 TTh 11:25-12:45 p.m.
Sec. 013 TTh 12:55-2:15 p.m.

What does the future look like? Is it a time of freedom and life-changing technology? Or one of disaster and totalitarian control? How can literature and writing help us imagine, predict, or alter these possibilities? In this ESEM, we will read classic and contemporary works of science fiction, watch SF films, and read works by journalists, public intellectuals, and political thinkers that draw on the tropes of SF to grapple with economic and political realities. We will ask about what sort of futures these texts can imagine as well as what sort of changes or alternatives they are unable to imagine, while considering how science fiction has explored topics such as race, gender, sexuality, climate change, and capitalism. We will read short works by authors such as Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Ursula K. Le Guin, and E. M. Forster alongside brief selections of non-fictional, journalistic, and academic writing. With frequent short writing assignments, students will write both formal essays and creative speculations, learning and practicing how to engage with science fiction seriously and critically without losing sight of its imaginative possibilities.

Sec. 014 Outcasts and Rebels: The Legendary Transgressive Women of Literature
Instructor: Miriam Kamil
TTh 11:25-12:45 p.m.

"I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once!" In these lines, Medea, a mythical witch, laments the unequal status endured by many women in Ancient Greece. Her character presents an early champion for women's liberation, who would inspire feminist authors for millennia. Yet Medea is also a cold-hearted murderer. When she kills her own children, her myth becomes a warning about the dangers of unruly women. In this class, we will examine the famous transgressive women of literature, both fictional and historical. These rebels, outcasts, and deviants refused their assigned roles and defied expectations, in the process becoming legendary. From classical antiquity to our modern world, including plays, novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction essays, we will explore how female characters and writers can both reinforce and protest against the inequalities of their times. At the same time, students will learn to organize and communicate their ideas in writing through short paper assignments and revisions. Authors may include Sappho, Euripides, Ovid, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Allison Bechdel.

Sec. 015 Gentrification
Instructor: Colin McLaughlin-Alcock
TTh 11:25-12:45 p.m.

As processes of gentrification transform cities around the globe, turning previously declined urban areas into trendy middle-class hubs, how should we understand the dynamics of race and class displacement that accompany this process? By examining gentrification, a predominant mode of urban change in the 21st century, students will build skills in urban analysis, learning to understand how wider political and economic trends shape contemporary cities. We will examine how social boundaries, power relationships, and identities are reorganized through gentrification; how class and racial disparity are produced and enforced; how the social meaning of place impacts neighborhood change; and how communities have resisted gentrification. Through a combination of short writing assignments, engaged discussion, and the development of longer critical and analytical essays, students will build skills in academic writing and argumentation.

Sec. 016 What the Hell? Dante Reimagined
Instructor: Giulio Genovese
TTh 11:25-12:45 p.m.

One day, some 723 years ago, an Italian middle-aged man from Florence, Italy strayed from the designated path and entered a dark wood. What happened next is a story of impossible love, infernal torments and political enemies, all wrapped in beautiful poetry. Through nine Infernal circles, Dante encountered a multitude of departed souls – and their tragic, complicated stories – while at the same time trying to find his own salvation. Since then, Dante’s Inferno has sparked a never-ending fascination for writers, artists, filmmakers, playwrights, songwriters, political activists and even marketing executives. Why is a poem about an infernal afterlife still quoted, referenced, adapted and re-imagined everywhere in the world? How can a Medieval Italian text cross centuries, cultures and languages and still remain relevant to this day? By reading some excerpts in translation from Dante’s Inferno, and confronting them with its subsequent re-imaginings (in the form of short stories, films, paintings, songs, live performances, advertisements, comics books and more), this class will address how we can negotiate a canonical text with contemporary sensibilities, how questions of race, gender, religion and political persecution factor in these adaptation practices and in what way those transformations reflect the specificity of different cultures and moments in time.

Sec. 017/018 Human and Post-Human
Instructor: Stephanie Harper
Sec. 017 TTh 11:25-12:45 p.m.
Sec. 018 TTh 12:55-2:15 p.m.

What is it to be human? Beginning with Ursula Le Guin’s premise that Science Fiction is not predictive, but descriptive, that Science Fiction teaches us about ourselves rather than about the future, this seminar will explore the moral complexity of varied lived experience and trouble our conceptions of what it is to be human. Reading excerpts from Margaret Lucas Cavendish’s 17th century “Blazing World” and short fictional works, including Ursula Le Guin’s “Nine Lives,” Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation,” Octavia Butler’s “Blood Child,” and Nalo Hopkinson’s “Message in a Bottle,” we will test the boundaries of what distinguishes humans from animals, clones, aliens, or artificial intelligence. In our discussions, we will explore how fictional representations of other forms of conscious life, natural or artificial, reflect and/or critique the society they were written in. As the answer to “what is it to be human?” is so crucial to our social structure, our readings will not be limited to fiction and will also include a few select excerpts from critical theorists that can be used as lenses for the writing developed over the course of the semester. Writing will begin with informal responses to the literature, films, and works of art we examine closely in our discussions. As writing is a recursive journey, the informal responses will be developed over the course of the semester into a smaller number of polished essays.

Secs. 019/020 Family Secrets
Instructor, Sec. 019: Bethany Schneider
Instructor, Sec. 020: Kate Thomas
MW 1:10 – 2:30 p.m.

Why does every family have a secret? It might be as sweet as a recipe for walnut cake or as cruel as a stolen birthright. It might be as tiny as a buried doll or as heavy as a murder. It might—like Thomas Jefferson’s secret—unmask both a family and a nation. But whatever it is, however important or horrible or humorous, every single family has one. From slavery to sexuality, from crime families to royal families, we will look at the power of family secrets, and ask what “family” means when it is founded on that which must remain unspeakable. We will cover topics such as the concept of family values, slavery, illegitimacy, sexuality, and inheritance. We will approach writing as a way to communicate and persuade, done best when you engage your creativity and curiosity. Texts will range from Shakespeare to The Sopranos. You don’t have to come to class with answers—only questions, an interest in what makes families tick, and a nose for a good secret!

Sec. 021 The Modern City of Paris
Instructor: Min Kyung Lee
TTh 11:25 a.m. – 12:45 p.m

During the 1800s, Paris underwent a dramatic urban transformation that would mark it as a modern city to the world. This was the city and period where the cafe was invented, where wearing black became fashionable, when apartments were first conceived, where sewers and public transport were first installed, when the first public parks were designed, and where an entirely new urban culture was formulated. This course focuses on how Paris’ built environment was shaped into a modern city and the social and political consequences of those changes. Through an examination of architectural, visual, literary and scholarly works, we will discuss what it means to be modern and what was sacrificed in this modern transformation. Discussion topics include the invention of objectivity, consumerism, social inequality, imperial conquest and colonization, the public sphere and space, and the role of architects, artists and writers to give meaning to these changes. Through critical reading, writing, discussion, and one-on-one conferences, students will explore what defines modern life and its complexities.

Section 022 Classical Myths in Art and in the Sky
Instructor: Astrid Lindenlauf
TTh 11:25-12:45 p.m.

The myths and legends of ancient Greece and Rome provide some of the most familiar metaphors and symbols in Western literature and art, and a significant number of star constellations were named after mythological figures. In this seminar, we discuss the ways in which ancient Greeks and Romans engaged with their myths, imagined their gods and heroes, and the contexts in which they encountered them. Adopting an archaeological and art historical approach, we will learn how to identify representations of mythological figures and myths in the visual arts, including Greek vases and Roman sarcophagi, and to study them in their socio-political contexts. Myths and legends were not only represented in art, but also projected into landmarks, such as rocks, and landscapes, including the sky. To better understand how the ancient Greeks and Romans lived in and through landscapes, we will read papers dealing with the archaeology and anthropology of landscapes. The course will include a visit to Special Collections in Old Library.

Secs. 023/024 Poverty, Affluence, and American Culture
Instructor: Matt Ruben
Sec. 023 TTh 11:25 – 12:45 pm
Sec. 024 TTh 12:55 – 2:15 pm

Poverty and economic inequality are among the most persistent and controversial problems in the United States. They have a wide range of political and cultural meanings in addition to their economic aspects. This Emily Balch Seminar will explore poverty, wealth, and the American Dream from the 1700s to the present, through a critical examination of scholarly works, journalism, novels, movies, and electronic texts and videos. We will look at how poverty, poor people, and class mobility have been discussed and represented, and how these representations have shaped the meaning and perception of America. As an ESEM, this course involves critical reading, in-class discussion, and cogent, idea-driven academic essay writing with one-on-one meetings outside of class. Students will write and revise papers in which they actively engage the course texts to join the ongoing public conversation about this topic.

Sections 025/026 Imagined Histories
Jess Shollenberger
Sec. 025 TTh 11:25-12:45 p.m.
Sec. 026 TTh 2:25-3:45 p.m.

In this seminar, we will explore how writers create alternative histories by imagining what might have been. Imagined histories are a way for writers to add to and contest official stories about the past, and they have been a crucial resource for Black, queer, trans, and feminist histories. Our course texts are drawn from these fields. We will read works that trouble the line between the “fictional” and the “historical,” the imagined and the real, to tell the stories of marginalized figures and communities. Examples include Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Juliet Jacques’ Variations, Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho, and Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. Through frequent short writing assignments, students will learn and practice strategies for generating, drafting, and revising longer essays. We will approach the writing process as a creative and collaborative one, informed by class discussion, peer-review, and one-on-one conferences.

Section 027 Horror Classics
Instructor: Carman Romano
TTh 11:25 – 12:45 pm

“Why do we tell scary stories, seek out terrifying films, and gravitate toward narratives that set out to make us uncomfortable? In this ESEM, we will visit classic and Classic figures of horror: the witch, the ghost, the vampire, the shapeshifter, and the human being, and trace their appearances in the literatures of the ancient Mediterranean world (for example, up to their incarnations in media rooted in various times and cultures. Prepare to engage with both Greek and Latin sources in translation as well as modern literature, theories of horror, and films. Texts may include works by Euripides, Poe, Sophocles, Vergil, Freud, and Stephen King. Students will hone their ability to think critically across a broad range of ancient and contemporary material, and gain a deeper appreciation for the ties, severed or maintained, between the ancient and modern worlds.”

Section 028 Personal Narrative and the Creation of Self
Instructor: Eleanor Stanford
TTh 11:25 – 12:45 p.m

Whether in art forms like memoir, autofiction, poetry, and film or popular media like television and Instagram, audiences can’t resist the allure of the intimate details of a writer’s life. Why are we so fascinated? When does a personal narrative cross the line between authenticity and TMI? What is lost in this immediate and ever-increasing self-disclosure? What new forms and opportunities are made possible? How do we account for factors like trauma, the unreliability of memory, race, gender, sexuality, and culture, while also allowing for ambiguity and complexity within a narrative and a self? Possible texts will include essays by Junot Diaz and Kiese Laymon, a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, Hannah Gadsby's Nanette, readings in neuroscience on memory, poetry by Sylvia Plath and other confessional and post-confessional poets, and more. Students will engage both analytically and creatively through reading, writing, and discussion, and develop the tools to express and revise their ideas in an academic context and community.

Contact Us

Emily Balch Seminar Program

Gail Hemmeter, Director
English House
101 North Merion Avenue
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 19010-2899
Phone: (610) 526-5306