A look ahead at upcoming semesters for your planning purposes

Spring 2023

Nature and Human Nature: Oil and Water: Elements of Global EcoFiction (MALS600)

In his provocative 2004 essay “Reflections on Water & Oil,” David Orr  declares that “Water makes life possible, while oil is toxic to most life. Water in its pure state is clear; oil is dark.” He even makes the extremely provocative claim that “Oil and water have had contrary effects on our minds”: water inspires and heals; oil deadens the imagination and made us “dumber.”  Is Orr on to something? Is he way off base? This course invites you to engage with these questions by thinking broadly and deeply about different ways of imagining and experiencing each of these substances. What might thinking with/through oil and water help us to see?  What might such thinking occlude? How might thinking in terms of oil and water enrich and enliven our ideas about environmentalism and sustainability?  Where are writers and artists leading us in terms of imagining or reconfiguring this relationship to make it more sustainable?  These are broad opening questions for a course that is very much interested in exploration and discovery.

Why “elements”?

  • Because the term connotes essentials, building blocks, basics, things out of which we build more complex things, like societies, and ways of life. Both oil and water are essential ingredients in our day-to-day experience.  In very real senses, our experience is built out of those materials. This course asks you to pay more attention to these ubiquitous, essential, mysterious, and often hidden elements that make up so much of our lives and worlds.
  • Also because, as the editors of the volume Elemental Ecocriticism note, the term “elements” evokes ancient conceptions of a vibrant, vividly animate non-human world with which humans are in dynamic relation.  Several of the texts we read this term lead us to conceive of oil, water, and their interactions in these terms. Such conceptions have consequences.  We will explore what those are.

Thinking Outside the Binaries

Ours is an age of extraordinary polarization. The two major American political parties seem more interested in scoring points off each other than in enacting meaningful legislation. Pundits and intellectuals weaponize phrases like “critical race theory” and “defund the police” to stigmatize those who disagree with them. Citizens wedded to news sources like MSNBC and Fox dismiss reports that fail to endorse their worldview as fake news.

This course focuses on two questions. What are the roots of the polarization that threatens to isolate each of us? And how can we survive and grow socially and intellectually in such a radically polarized world? The first part of the course examines the connections between the obvious political polarization all around us, the more subtle polarization that drives contemporary popular culture, and the surprising polarization baked into our educational system. The second part of the course will turn to several critical areas that may help us to think outside the binary choices presented to us every day: how to listen, how to trust, how to read the news, how to filter information, how to argue, and how to change our minds.

Course work will include extensive reading assignments chosen to provide points of departure for the class discussions that will drive the course. Grades will be based on a combination of brief, offbeat writing assignments and active and constructive participation in class discussions. Students interested in an advance taste of the reading are invited to dip into Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized, Daniel Kahneman’s ThinkingFast and Slow, Rachel Botsman’s Who Can You Trust?, and Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong.

The Arts in Context: Mozart and the Enlightenment

Using Nicholas Till’s book: Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue, and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas, we will explore productions of important Mozart operas. The operas will also be discussed against the backdrop of the Hapsburgs and Masonry in the late eighteenth century.