How Absurd! Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros: Are these plays nothing but nonsense? If so, how does anyone make sense of the non-sense?  And why bother?  In this course, we will discover answers to those questions and others that will help us wonder significantly about the language we use to make meaning matter.

Mythmaking in Ancient Rome: Mythology is a powerful tool to explain human experience.  Arya Stark vs. the Night King, Beowulf vs. Grendel, Simba vs. Scar—myth allows us to wrestle symbolically with deep questions about our customs, values, and the origin of the world around us.   In the course, you will study the many myths cataloged by the Roman poet Ovid in the Metamorphoses, a poem that uses the theme of change to trace the origins of ancient Rome up to its height of power in the 1st century C.E.  While learning about the major Roman myths, you will apply critical approaches to understand the underlying messages that myths held for the Romans, and that they still hold for us.

Censorship in American Film and Media: The history of censorship in the United States is far more than a collection of municipal codes, state laws, and court decisions. It is also a history of the dynamic socio-political forces and institutions that shape life in America. Mass communication mediums, from early cinema to social media, have sparked debates about their role in society because of the threat they posed to the genteel class, the education system, state-sponsored religion, and the consciousness of the individual. This course attempts to understand the notion of censorship and its manifestations by using primary historical documents and critical histories to examine such topics as regulatory practices, the cultural politics of media, and audiences that comprise a wide spectrum of American society. Through Hollywood movies, documentaries, and media, we will seek to uncover the silenced voices and overlooked interests of those under the guise of dominant censorship discourses.

Environmental Ethics: It has always been hard to forget natural calamity hitting close to home. We can add February’s Deep South freeze from Texas blackouts to Jackson water failures to a growing list. As one reporter put it, “So climate change is now in Mississippi faucets!” There was the saga of the Houston Flood, but my brain retrieves images from the Louisiana flood. Oh wait, were there two enormous floods so close? Yes. And there were fires and droughts and snowstorms and hurricanes and mudslides. Science tells us the natural calamities are the consequence of human industrialism. If the news is dreary, there’s much to learn and perhaps more chances than ever for human connection, caring and creative living, all big themes in philosophy. In this course we’ll assess environmental challenges of the 21st century and ways for responding. Though industrialism begins in the 18th century, our readings span the 1930s to the present. Topics include farming ethics, ecosystem endangerment, local versus global economies, and the climate effects of deforestation and fossil fuel consumption.

Are You Positive? Positive Psychology: Positive Psychology is one of the newest branches on the sprawling tree that is Psychology. Often defined as the scientific study of what makes life worth living, positive psychology focuses on topics like optimism, gratitude, happiness, compassion, self-esteem, and hope.  It all seems like such a good idea: focus on our strengths instead of our weaknesses; enjoy the good in life instead of repairing the bad; move our lives from average up to great instead of focusing only on mental illness and maladaptive behaviors.  Is Positive Psychology indeed the antidote to a more depressed and anxious society?  Or is it nothing more than Pseudoscience and Quackery?  In this course we will try to discover where Positive Psychology came from and if it can indeed improve human behavior and help us flourish.  Get ready to uncover the surprising controversy that is Positive Psychology.

Shakespeare’s Renaissance: On stage, on screen, and worldwide, there is more Shakespeare being seen today than at any time in history. While exploring the original, Renaissance context in which Shakespeare lived and wrote, this course will reflect upon the “Renaissance” in Shakespeare production that has been ongoing since the late 20th Century. In the process, we will decide for ourselves whether or not Shakespeare’s plays were, as his great contemporary Ben Jonson proclaimed, “not of an age, but for all time!”

Impressionism: Art and Society: This course explores the social, technological, and class developments of 19th century France through the lens of Impressionist paintings. We’ll look at works by well-known artists such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassat, Berthe Morisot, and Auguste Renoir alongside lesser-known artists, Eva Gonzalès, Charles Conder, and Theodore Robinson.

Has America Taken a Wrong Turn?: We are at a critical moment in American history. At stake is the survival of political democracy and of a nation with a social contract that is fair to all, rather than an ever-increasing fraction of wealth and income going to an ever-decreasing fraction of the population, with the “American Dream” sliding ever-farther from the grasp of an ever-larger fraction of Americans. In this course we’ll examine recent books exploring when and how the country took a wrong turn, and historical documents, including movies and fiction, that may shed light on the issue.

Archaeology of Civilizational Collapse: Why do societies collapse? Do environmental over-exploitation and unsustainable economic practices account for most cases of collapse, or are political instability, war, and disease to blame? Do societies collapse rapidly in a bout of apocalyptic chaos, or is breakdown so gradual that people do not even realize they are living through it? We will explore these questions and more through the study of a diverse range of civilizations, including the ancient Maya, the Assyrian empire, Minoan Crete, the Roman empire, and Easter Island. Through the study of ancient ruins, artifacts, historical records, and paleo-environmental data, we will determine what missteps ancient societies made, how some of these societies adopted sustainable and resilience practices, and how the cautionary tales of collapse in the ancient world may help us prevent our own civilizational collapse.

Fit to Print?: Investigating “Fake News” and “True Facts” from Plato to Politico: The truth is out there and this class will teach you how to find it. From the art of persuasion to strategies for citing and verifying information, we will study and practice the rhetorical tools necessary to both savvy media consumers and compelling media makers. The internet and social media have made it easier than ever to get a message “out there,” but a culture of information overload also influences where our news comes from, what is newsworthy, and who we trust to tell us about it. By examining long and short form print journalism as well as a range of multimedia platforms from podcasts to TED talks to stand-up comedy, students will learn how to sort fact from fiction in the media, and how to become effective truth tellers themselves.

Sex, Lies, and Scandals: Political Corruption in America: This course will investigate the causes and consequences of various forms of political corruption in the United States. Students will be challenged to define the concept of corruption, explore both familiar and obscure cases of political corruption, and consider the long-term implications of these cases on the American political system. We will also address whether it is possible—or desirable—to entirely purge political corruption from public life.

Writing, Authority, and New Media: Martin Gurri—a former CIA analyst and author of the acclaimed 2014 book The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium—believes that we live “at the earliest moment of what promises to be a cataclysmic expansion of information and communication technologies.” Gurri begins from the position that the internet caused a “tsunami of information” at the turn of the twenty-first century. This tsunami devastated our sense of authority. So much “viral crap,” as Gurri puts it, now lives online. So many sites and talking heads claim to tell us the truth about important matters. Whom should we believe? Where can we find reliable information, the real signal amid so much noise? How can we navigate the information environments of our time and stay afloat? These are the questions we will take up in this course. Rather than write our answers in the form of print essays, however, we will put them online. We will both reflect on these new communications technologies and learn to use them in an informed way.

Music as Protest: Aristotle believed music can be used to achieve catharsis — a release, a purging of the emotions. Because music affects us so powerfully, it also has the power to persuade. This Connections course is an investigation into the ways music has been used to persuade, inspire, and mobilize, with a primary focus on American protest music since the 1930s.

Contemporary Black Filmmaking: Black filmmaking has shaped 20th- and 21st-century U.S. culture in significant ways. Black filmmakers have long brought a keen but also critical eye for social structures to the popular and niche films they have shepherded to the big screen. In this class, you’ll develop your skills in analyzing, writing about, and speaking about film, an artistic genre, as we delve into the impact of race, racialism, and racism on how Black directors’ films are made and what subjects those films address, as well as how these films are produced, distributed, and received. After a screening of Spike Lee’s iconic and pathbreaking film Do the Right Thing (1989), this class will focus on four films by contemporary Black filmmakers, including Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Malina Matsoukas’s Queen & Slim.

Disasters in History: What causes disasters to happen? What are their effects? And how can we prevent them? These questions are especially worth thinking about in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. People experience the effects of disasters in many ways. People tend to blame disasters on nature, yet as we have all learned, disasters shed light on the prior decisions, good and bad, made by people. This class will explore the causes and effects of disasters, taking an approach that is global and historical.  We will learn how to approach disasters by looking at case studies about the Black Death, the Irish Famine, and 9/11.  In all these cases, we will examine primary sources – the written and visual records of disasters – as well as secondary works – the analyses of latter-day scholars.    Students will conduct research on a disaster of their own choosing and describe their findings in an academic essay. We will conclude the course with oral presentations about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on our own lives and on our families.

Jesus Meets Confucius: Christianity in China: Christianity has become the fastest-growing religion in China since the 1980s, but the recent state policies of regulating and controlling religious activities of Christians aim to slow the spread of Christianity and to eliminate Chinese Christians’ connections with the outside world. This course will examine the history of Christianity in China starting from the earliest presence in the 7th century to today while exploring the themes of inter-religious encounters, missionary activities, conversion stories, identity constructions, and inter/intra-religious conflicts, indigenization of Christianity, secularization, religion-state in China.