Course Descriptions Skip Navigation

Sophomore Residential Seminars - Course Descriptions

Find your course of interest below, and apply for this truly immersive experience by January 31, 2014.

Existentialism (PHIL)

Professor David Dudrick - Associate Professor of Philosophy

Who am I? How should I live? For what may I hope? In this course, we will confront these fundamental questions in our investigation of the philosophical movement known as existentialism. Existentialism came of age in 1940s Paris with the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, but its roots extend at least to Pascal, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard in the 17th through 19th centuries. While they insist on rigor, these authors are no friends of abstraction: for them, philosophy must reflect our actual, concrete, everyday lives. As a result, they make use of literary forms uncommon in philosophy, including plays, novels, and short stories. Whatever means they employ, however, their goal is always to challenge readers to confront these questions for themselves, a challenge that we will seek to meet – individually and collectively – in this course.

Over the winter break, we will travel as a group to Paris, France, in an effort to better understand existentialism concretely. Doing so will take us to Lycée Henri IV and the École normale supérieure, where Sartre studied philosophy, and to the Cimetière de Montparnasse, where Sartre and Beauvoir were laid to rest. We’ll consider on the importance of the experience of the French Resistance to existentialism and visit sites celebrating its fallen heroes. We’ll think through existentialist themes in works housed at the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay. And we’ll journal our reflections while sitting in the cafés where so much existentialist work was produced.

Upon returning from Paris, we’ll use the spring semester to broaden and deepen our understanding of existentialism by considering its relevance in contemporary life. We’ll examine current work being done in philosophy, read recent novels, and see films new and old that explore and/ or challenge the assumptions of existentialist thought. Students will pursue projects that they will present to their peers in a salon.

In Professor David Dudrick's Own Words
View Dudrick's comments at a recent information session.

I love philosophy – it’s both my vocation and my joy.  Philosophy poses some of the biggest questions human beings can ask: does God exist?  Are we free?  Is morality objective?  Because there are no settled answers to these questions, one might think that philosophy makes no progress.  In a certain respect, this is true.  There is no “instructor version” of the text with the answers in the back, no database that you can access to discover what philosophers know.  If the discipline doesn’t make progress, though, individuals who practice it certainly do: by reading and thinking about these issues, our answers come to be supported by reasons.  And because these reasons are our own, the beliefs in question become our own as well.  Philosophy isn’t a body of knowledge, it’s an activity – it’s something you do.  Doing it allows you to take hold of your beliefs and, in doing so, your self.  It allows you, in Nietzsche’s words, “to become who you are.”

But if philosophy is deeply personal in this way, it is also fundamentally communal.  How do we assess whether there are good reasons to think that God exists or that we’re free?  We can do so only by putting them into conversation, by talking through them.  Our conversation partners span time and space – we engage with thinkers from Socrates to Sartre to see whether their ideas are worth taking seriously and let them respond through their texts.  Most importantly, though, we talk with each other – our class is like a lab where these big ideas get put to the test.  And here’s the thing: we won’t agree!  But one of the purposes of a liberal arts education is to come to see that you can regard another’s position as reasonable and wrong at the same time.  Philosophy is one way that the liberal arts train us not to agree all the time, but to disagree well.

It’s because I think of philosophy in this way that I’m so excited about teaching Existentialism in the SRS program.  The existentialists aren’t simply interested in changing your mind – their interested in changing your life.  Better put: they offer you the chance to your life.  For them, philosophy is far from a disinterested pursuit of the truth: these issues matter.

I remember being disappointed as an undergraduate that the exciting ideas I was thinking through in class didn’t translate into the rest of college life.  I wanted to be in a community where conversations didn’t stop at the classroom door, where the people I was hanging out with were also the people who I wanted to think with.  That’s just what this program generally and this class specifically is designed to do: to allow you to be in a community where you don’t just learn the liberal arts, you live them.

Part of living the liberal arts – and of living existentialism more specifically – will involve traveling in Paris in January of 2014.  When I directed the St. Andrews Study Group a couple years ago, students reported that as much as they loved being in St. Andrews, they valued the community they formed there just as much as any travel experience.  We will have had a semester of living and learning together before we embark on our Parisian excursion.  This will not be a sightseeing trip; we’ll be engaged in the project of trying to determine the effect this city and its culture had on existentialist thought and whether such thought is relevant, especially germane, or even possible there today.  When we return, we’ll continue our conversation in a .25 credit class in the spring semester.

I think the SRS program will be an amazing way to do philosophy and, more importantly, to be part of a community that lives and learns together.  I hope you’ll consider joining us.  SRSly.

Coffee and Cigarettes (HIST)

Professor Robert Nemes - Associate Professor of History

How did Arabian coffee and American tobacco become global vices? How has the use and meaning of these everyday products changed over time? Why are so many people drawn to caffeine and nicotine – and why do they have such a hard time quitting them? In this class, we will trace the history of coffee and cigarettes from the 1500s to the present. Our readings and discussions will range from sixteenth-century Turkish coffeehouses to twenty-first century Starbucks, and from the prohibition by King James I on tobacco to contemporary debates on second-hand smoke.

The fall semester will also prepare us of a weeklong trip to Costa Rica in January, when the coffee harvest is in full swing. We’ll pick coffee berries and talk with growers, laborers, and traders. By visiting big plantations as well as eco-friendly family farms, we’ll learn about the production of an everyday good we take for granted. A larger goal of the trip is to see what globalization looks like through Costa Rican eyes.

In the spring semester, we will continue our conversations, placing an emphasis on meaningful discussions and on intellectual engagement. Our conversations will touch on coffee consumption, sustainable agriculture, and global fairness, and we’ll think about what these issues might mean for Colgate and for the surrounding region. Students will embark on a range of projects, including the creation of short videos, posters, or web-pages.

View Nemes's comments at a recent information session.

Native Americans in the Southwest (NAST)

Professor Sarah Wider - Associate Professor of English and Women's Studies

When you think of the depth of your community’s history, how many years does your mind trace? Were those years experienced in the same place? What journeys do they embrace? Are you wondering for yourself, “who is this supposed community?” Do you see change more than continuity? Are those two forces equally balanced? What is their relation?

These are some of the questions we will explore as we turn our thoughts and conversations to the place now called the “American Southwest.” We will listen to a variety of indigenous voices — poets, storytellers, educators, scientists, community leaders, artists — as we seek to understand interdependence, complementarity, and the vital interconnections across past and present that are held within specific places.

For those of us with a seemingly short history of community, we’ll learn from those whose community histories are measured in the 1000s, if not 10,000s of years. Focusing on discussions by and with people from the Pueblos, as well as from the Navajo and Apache nations, we will think together about memory, land, and community. Especially at a time when memory is as easily associated with the capacity of one’s electronic device as with a power of mind, such discussions will open perspectives on how we engage with the past as well as how we imagine the future, how we engage with each other as well as how we engage with the land that we live on.

In January, we travel to New Mexico, an exceedingly busy time in the Pueblos (though as you’ll learn, every time in Pueblo life is full). We’ll attend January 6 dances at Cochiti Pueblo as well as the celebration for the installation of new tribal officials at Tesuque Pueblo. While in New Mexico our home base will be Santa Fe, and if possible, homestays with families in the pueblos. Where appropriate, you might attend class with a high schooler from the family, or help out at one of the pueblo’s early childhood education programs or shadow a parent or grandparent through their work day. We’ll also have the honor to visit places where a community’s history is measured by millennia.

After we return to Hamilton, thanks to the creative work done by ITS, we’ll continue the conversations shared in New Mexico. We’ll also look forward to and prepare for visits to our communities from those from Cochiti and Tesuque. We’ll work together with those from the pueblos to create a symposium or brown bag on listening: to place, within community, through time.

Pending approval, this course will satisfy the Core Communities and Identities Requirement.

Hunting, Eating, Vegetarianism (ENST)

Professor Ian Helfant - Associate Professor of Russian

Historically, hunting for food has represented one of the most direct ways in which people have engaged with nature. Some scholars even believe that the “hunting instinct” is a fundamental aspect of human identity. People in modern industrialized societies, however, often have little idea about the origins of the flesh they consume. While the majority continue to eat meat, poultry, and/or fish, a minority have chosen to restrict their diets by becoming locavores, vegetarians, or even vegans for ethical, religious, cultural, health-oriented, or environmental reasons. Others continue to hunt and fish but within ecosystems dramatically altered by human intervention and amidst cultural landscapes complicated by commercialized and trophy hunting. 

In this course we will explore the ways in which humanistic perspectives can be brought to bear on these important issues. We will address them in an international and historical context but will also focus upon the key prey species that is hunted for meat in modern America – the white-tailed deer – as well as the animals most commonly raised for meat including cattle, pigs, and poultry. We will also briefly address fishing and fish farming. We will utilize literature, artistic and documentary films, works of popular culture, autobiographical accounts, online hunting (and anti-hunting) forums, diverse web resources, self-reflective essays, and scholarly analyses ranging from animal studies to humanistic ecocriticism to investigate the intertwined themes of hunting, industrial versus family farming and slaughter, eating, and vegetarianism and their relevance to our lives as individuals and members of modern industrialized society. 

In January we will travel to Texas (San Antonio, Austin, and New Braunfels) to consider some of these issues in a very different context. Deer hunting is enormously important in rural areas of both New York and Texas but the local cultures that surround it differ dramatically. Texas’ feral hog problem also presents an interesting parallel to the overpopulation of white-tail deer in New York. Livestock operations in the two states are very different. Our destinations in Texas also offer an array of cultural and culinary traditions,  including a strong Hispanic influence. The trip will allow us to reconsider the perspectives we’ve developed over the fall.

During the spring semester we’ll continue in our quest to develop nuanced and firmly grounded ethical stances concerning the issues raised during the fall semester and January trip. We’ll also visit the “Farm Sanctuary” in Watkins Glenn, New York. Students will work individually and as a class to develop a set of web resources – including videos, blogs, and other materials—that will be available to the Colgate community and broader public.