Spring 2021 Undergraduate English Courses

358:263 Civilization and its Discontents

01  09270   SIEGEL   MW 1:10-2:

(This course satisfies Core Goals AHo and AHp).

For Spring 2021 this course will be run in a synchronous remote format. Class meetings will take place on Zoom. Assignments and other resources will be posted on Sakai.

Course description

This class, an introductory course on some of the most influential and most debated texts in Western culture, is based on the sense that it is still urgent for us to reflect together on forms of human expression that have shaped culture for centuries, whether drawn from the canons of philosophy, tragedy, religion, political theory, or political debate.

From the wars of ancient Greece to ongoing conflicts shaping activism and electoral politics on the streets of our nation, society has been shaped by the difficult challenge of reconciling contending values. Is civilization likely to make us happy or unhappy? What do members of a community owe each other? How should we determine the best ways to act as a society, as individuals? What does a society include or exclude? How does it deal with moments of resistance or contradiction? While culture has given us many texts dealing with these issues, none provides easy solutions to any of them. The traditions we are interested in exploring is not unidirectional and simple; it is one of discussion, debate, and the clashing of principles and interests

The course will be especially concerned with the forms through which a culture understands itself. What is the effect of expressing ideas in dialogue form, as a tragedy, as a narrative, as a parable, as a letter or public address? How do the formal characteristics of texts participate in the way those texts produce meaning?

Learning goals

--To develop knowledge of philosophical and other theoretical issues concerning the nature of human experience, knowledge, value, and cultural production in Western thought and literature, through analysis of texts in themselves and in relation to specific histories, values, languages, and cultures (NB: this course will satisfy Core Goals AHo and AHp).
--To cultivate strategies of interpretation and debate, including an ability to deploy critical, philosophical, and theoretical terms, concepts, and methods in relation to a variety of textual forms and other media
--To enhance the ability to write persuasively and precisely in scholarly prose.


Class participation (including weekly quizzes and brief presentations), three 1-2 page papers, one 2-4 page paper, take-home exam.

Books to purchase: Aristophanes, The Clouds, Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto Sophocles, Antigone, Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.

All other readings will be available on our Sakai course site.