Colgate Syllabus: Head in the Clouds

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Editor’s note: Wondering what’s happening in the classroom at Colgate? Here’s a glimpse into academic life on campus — a syllabus from a recent course.

Colgate Syllabus: Head in the Clouds

Ferdinand von Muench, Lecturer in University Studies
Claire Baldwin, Associate Professor of German

Course Description:

This multidisciplinary core distinction seminar centers on a discussion of the way clouds are represented in art, poetry, computing, science, industry, and our everyday lives. In our everyday lives, clouds pass us by. In this course, students’ personal experiences — alongside the course themes of transience, delight, and despair — are integrated into the cloud curriculum. Clouds are considered across history in the formation of culture, modernity, and the future.

Course Goals:

This seminar provides a space for seniors who have excelled in their study of Colgate’s Liberal Arts Core Curriculum to discuss the broad, inter-divisional topic of clouds and apply their understanding to their honors work.

Students engage with readings from a variety of genres, including poems by Goethe and a play by Aristophanes. Further, clouds are studied through scientific classification, painting, film, and photography. Each student keeps a cloud journal as a place for their reading notes, points of particular interest, or cloud-spotting observations. Their notes also provide a space to ponder the emotional currents that circulate in clouds, such as delight and despair. 

Key Assignment:

Alongside class discussions, cloud-journaling, and online course-material responses, students design and present an end-of-the-semester original project. The project incorporates at least two examples of scholarly, creative, and/or personal cloud inquiry — examples range from a standard essay to creating a cloud in a jar. 

Professor Ferdinand von Muench says:

Head in the Clouds is a capstone course where students draw on what they have done in their core classes, alongside their respective majors and minors. They bring all of these different perspectives to the table for one issue that has all of these different dimensions — the natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, arts, and lived experience. Each week we take a different angle.

The question is, “How can we put together a course that really opens up the floodgates in terms of the liberal arts and takes it from various kinds of disciplines, but also, from everyday life experience?”

You can see things in clouds — you can look at a cloud and say, “Oh, that looks like an elephant to me!” And on the other hand, you can identify different shapes of clouds, such as a cumulous, stratus, or cumulonimbus. But you can also just look at their interesting, different shades of gray. Or if there’s a sunset, you can consider how color plays in the clouds. That gets you more into the abstract mode of art. Clouds lend themselves to all sorts of very different perspectives.