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Honors Colloquia - Spring 2015

Click on a course name to read a description.

Course Name
Course Number/Section
Reading List
Sex and Gender in the Middle Ages HONS 2011L/01 To be posted
Sexual-Textual Politics in Mozart's Operas
HONS 2011M/01
To be posted
Contemporary Russia in a Globalized World
HONS 2011N /01
To be posted
Sanskrit Epic and Hindu Thought
HONS 2011P/01
To be posted
The "Lost Promise" of Weimar Germany, 1918-1933
HONS 3011G/01
  1. Gay, Peter.  Weimar Culture, Norton; ISBN: 9780393322392 – Background reading during January
  2. Weitz, Eric D. Weimar Germany, Princeton University Press; ISBN: 9780691140964
  3. Brecht, Bertolt.  The Threepenny Opera, Penguin; ISBN: 9780143105169
  4. Mann, Thom. The Magic Mountain, Vintage, International; ISBN: 9780679772873
  5. Weber, Max.  The Vocation Lectures, Hacket Publishing ISBN: 9780872206656
Risk and Randomness
HONS 30127/01 To be posted
Interdisciplinary Independent Study
HONS 30199/01
Advanced Interdisciplinary Study
HONS 49151/01

All course materials can be purchased at Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers, located at 939 Lexington Avenue.

Course Descriptions

Sex and Gender in the Middle Ages

Professor Marlene Hennessy (English)


HONS 2011L
Tuesdays & Fridays; 12:45-2:00 p.m.
Room 412 West
3 hours, 3 credits


This colloquium will examine a broad range of texts written on the topics of sex and gender in the Middle Ages.  From medical writings to mystical treatises, from the scandalous fabliaux to the orthodox lives of the saints, the texts read in this course will be used to explore some of the dominant ideas about gender and sexuality, as well as the often paradoxical discourses of misogyny, present in medieval literature, art, religion, and culture.  The material will first be contextualized by looking at classical and early Christian ideas of sex and gender, with special focus on theories of reproduction and sexual function.  Throughout the course these subjects will be approached from an interdisciplinary perspective, drawing upon research in literature, history, art history, and the history of science.  Two films will be included in the syllabus, as will several musical recordings of the songs of the Women Troubadours, the chansons de toile (women's weaving songs), and the musical compositions of the polymath and composer Hildegard of Bingen.  Texts to be read include works by major authors such as Sappho, Ovid, Juvenal, Galen, Aristotle, Marie de France, Heloise and Abelard, and Richard Rolle.  In addition, we will read several anonymous texts, including "The Ballad of a Tyrannical Husband," and (in translation) the Anglo-Latin Book of Monsters.  Topics to be studied include: blood, body, and Christian materiality; chaste marriage and clerical sexuality; the erotics of courtly love; transgender persons and hermaphrodites; the sexuality of Christ; medical theories of pleasure and contraception; and masculinity in the earliest Robin Hood texts.  Special attention will be devoted to the iconography of sex and gender in medieval visual traditions such as manuscript painting.  We will also engage with recent developments in criticism (including historical, literary, feminist, queer, and art historical approaches) by authors such as Judith Bennett, Caroline Walker Bynum, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Leo Steinberg, Michael Camille, Carolyn Dinshaw, Dyan Elliott, and Ruth Mazo Karras, among others. 

Requirements: one research paper (10-12 pages, submitted in two drafts); one 20-minute oral report based on one of the optional readings for the week on the syllabus, which is handed in as a 3-page written essay, and various in-class writing assignments.

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Sexual-Textual Politics in Mozart's Operas

Professor Catherine Coppola (Music)


HONS 2011M
Tuesdays & Fridays; 11:10-12:25 p.m.
Room 406 North
3 hours, 3 credits


This course examines four of Mozart's operas as musical transformations of provocative literary sources. Starting with The Marriage of Figaro, we will read the socially and politically charged play by Beaumarchais, as well as segments that were cut from the original and which add to our understanding of the gender relationships among the characters. These insights will be applied to text-music relations in Mozart's music. Next will be Don Giovanni-the opera that was commissioned in response to Figaro's remarkable success.  Here the literary antecedents widen to several 17th-century stories, notably Moliere's Don Juan and Molina's The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest. Early 19th- century reinterpretations include the story by E. T. A. Hoffmann.

Così fan tutte stems from an even more complex array of sources ranging from Ovid to Ariosto and Shakespeare. In one case an older story overlaps with a theatrical contemporary, that is, the use of an episode from Cervantes' Don Quixote as the basis for Anfossi's Il curioso indiscreto, a Viennese operatic precedent that was known to DaPonte and Mozart. A layered interpretation is especially fruitful for Così, which has been described as everything from "most puzzling," "most disturbing," and "most artificial" to "most beautiful" of Mozart's operas, while the story was often criticized as unworthy of Mozart's music. The story is also a sticking point for The Magic Flute, much of which functions on a symbolic level, and in which misogynist and racist notions are particularly problematic. Complicating matters, it is a Singspiel that is based on a German fairy tale as well as a French imitation of an Egyptian story, the author of which made the false claim that it was based on a Greek manuscript!  Striking changes to the original fairy tale are crucial to the operatic version by librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder, especially in its depiction of the Queen of the Night, one of Mozart's most enigmatic female roles. 

We will trace sometimes surprising notions about gender issues-notably, that Mozart and DaPonte were not as backward as some might suggest, while current society is not nearly as progressive as most would want to believe. Contemporary figures such as Amanda Knox, Chris Rock, and Hillary Clinton will provide case studies that support the pursuit of a continued discussion of feminist issues in Mozart operas. Critics who object to such discussion often justify their view with the idea that times were different then, that the authors, composers, and librettists were not thinking about such issues, and that in any case the situation is better now.  Our study of the literature and music will question these fallacies surrounding context and change.

Readings will be taken from the literary sources mentioned above, as well as from the secondary literature. Students will also view and respond to operatic scenes both in written and in discussion assignments. Where possible, the class will attend live performances of the operas. There will be four essays (one on each of the four operas) and a final 15-page paper.


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Contemporary Russia in a Globalized World

Professor Cynthia Roberts (Political Science)


HONS 2011N
Mondays & Wednesdays;
5:35-6:50 p.m.
Room 412 West
3 hours, 3 credits

Nearly 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia remains a major world actor and is more integrated into the international system that at any point in its history. It retains the world's largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, possesses large reserves of oil and natural gas, boasts the world's sixth largest economy, and enjoys veto power in the UN Security Council. However, as Russia created markets and globalized, it failed to liberalize its political institutions and suffers from extreme corruption rare among economies ranked in its high per capita income level.  Moreover, despite extensive cooperation with other states, its behavior in the former Soviet space is hegemonic, even imperialistic and aggressive. Many of Russia's weaknesses have historical or structural roots, such as its chronic backwardness punctuated by problematic bursts of modernization as well as its demographic and economic problems.  Russia also displays a recurring tendency in its quest for security and international status to make others insecure.

This course will explore these issues as they emerge in the intersection of Russia's domestic and foreign policies. The focus will be on contemporary Russia and its place in the current international arena with forays into historical patterns, the legacies of the post-Soviet political transition as well as pressing economic and demographic challenges. Students will engage these topics through assigned readings (which include works by both Western and Russian scholars},class discussion, oral presentations, papers, and an essay examination.

Requirements include:

2 papers: The first paper will be a review essay on a book to be read over January break. Students will select from a list of works (primarily in the social sciences) or petition to substitute a suitable alternative. The second paper will analyze an issue or puzzle related to one of the topics covered in the course.

Final Examination

Oral Presentations

 Assigned Readings:

Articles and book chapters drawn from recent scholarship on Russia. All or portions of the following books:

Treisman, Daniel. The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev. Simon and Schuster, 2012.

Ledeneva, Alena V. Can Russia Modernise? Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance.

Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Gaddy, Clifford G., and Barry Ickes. Bear Traps on Russia's Road to Modernization. Routledge, 2013. Gvosdev, Nikolas K.,and Christopher Marsh. Russian Foreign Policy: Interests, Vectors, and Sectors. CQ Press, 2014

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Sanskrit Epic and Hindu Thought

Professor Vishwa Adluri (Religion)


HONS 2011P
Mondays and Thursdays; 1:10-2:25 p.m.

Room 412 West
3 hours, 3 credits


This course offers an introduction to the Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata. We will begin with a brief look at the Sanskrit language, its writing system (Devanāgarī), its place as one of the oldest Indo-European languages, and its influence on the literature, culture, and artistic history of India. The main part of the course will focus on the Sanskrit epic’s phenomenal influence on Indian traditions of literature, drama, art and iconography. The Mahābhārata includes almost every popular myth of Hinduism in some form, including the story of the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons and the story of the great eagle Garuḍa’s flight to obtain the elixir of immortality. Even today, its role in Indian life is ubiquituous: dance traditions such as Kathakali from the south Indian state of Kerala, for instance, still perform a repertoire that is largely based on the Mahābhārata. The Mahābhārata largely gave rise to the tradition we know today as Hinduism, creating in the process not only its philosophical and textual basis, but also a well-developed liturgy, temple tradition and iconography. In this course, we shall read a selection of popular narratives from the Mahābhārata and explore how the epic articulates and redefines the Hindu experience.

Required texts:

van Buitenen, J. A. B., trans. The Mahābhārata:  I. The Book of the Beginning. Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 1973.Smith,
John D., trans. The Mahābhārata. Abridged and Translated. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Additionally, I will provide excerpts from other books of the Mahābhārata; you do not need to purchase these books.

All textbooks are available at Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers who also has a limited number of used copies available at lower prices.

Course Requirements:

1.      All students are responsible for a mid-term paper (10 pages min.) which counts toward 50% of their grade.

The mid-term paper will be on one of two questions pertaining to general aspects of Hinduism. I will write the questions in class one week before the paper is due. You are required to edit your papers for correct spelling and grammar. I reserve the right to reject any paper that does not meet these standards.

You will have the option of rewriting your mid-term paper for a better grade if you wish. I do not accept late assignments.

There will also be a final exam with two short questions. The final exam is 30% of your grade.

Regular reading counts toward 10% of your grade.

Class participation counts toward a further 10% of your grade.

Regular attendance is required; any student who misses more than three classes without notice will have to see me before he/she can continue attending. I take attendance for every session.

Course policies

Every student is required to meet with me at least once a semester during office hours to discuss his/her progress.


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The "Lost Promise" of Weimar Germany, 1918-1933

Professor Lisa Anderson (German)
Professor Omar Dahbour (Philosophy) 


HONS 3011G
Mondays & Thursdays; 11:10-12:25 p.m.
Room 412 West
3 hours, 3 credits

The twentieth century is conventionally identified with the death of traditional European politics and culture, and its replacement by new forms of government, economy, communication, and media from the United States and the Soviet Union. But what if it should turn out that some of the most radical political ideas, and the most modernist artistic experiments, were actually produced in the heart of "old" Europe? This what if is the "lost promise" of what today is called Weimar Germany: exploring it will be the mission of this interdisciplinary course.

In order to understand the political and cultural history of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) in Germany, we will:

  • trace the historical trajectory that took Germany from World War I into a failed revolution, a short-lived democratic republic, and the rise of Nazism.
  • consider literary texts that reflect the cultural and political struggles of the interwar years, as Germans negotiated among monarchism, soviet-style Marxism, and parliamentary democracy.
  • examine Expressionist and New Objectivist artworks that contextualize the cultural openness and financial prosperity of the "Golden Twenties" within the lingering effects of Germany's war guilt and crushing reparations.
  • read political and philosophical essays that introduced both radical alternatives to liberal democracy as well as new philosophical concepts (e.g., existential phenomenology, critical theory).
  • watch such films as Metropolis, The Blue Angel, Nosferatu, and M, which illustrate the origins of film aesthetics.
  • listen to musical compositions that demonstrate the invention, in these years, of new forms of film music and musical theater.



Attendance & Participation
2 Essays
1 Biographical Report/Presentation


Required Reading

Eric D. Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy
Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar Cinema and After
Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera and selected poems
Thomas Mann, "Reflections of an Unpolitical Man" and The Magic Mountain (excerpts)
Ernst Toller, I Was A German

Additional texts in a course packet or on e-reserve

Recommended Reading

Peter Gay, Weimar Culture
Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918 to 1923
Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures

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Risk and Randomness

Professor Philip Alcabes (Adelphi University)
Professor Sandra Clarkson (Mathematics and Statistics)

HONS 3011G
Mondays & Thursdays; 4:10-5:25 p.m.
Room 522 West 
3 hours, 3 credits



Life is thick with risk today.  The Ebola outbreak, terrorist attacks, charter bus crashes, drunken drivers, airplane pilot errors, gluten, secondhand smoke... The list of threats to life and health seems to get longer, and the evasive actions recommended get increasingly extreme. 

And risk takes many forms. There is risk to safety and security: our civilization is said to be threatened by powerful forces like climate change, emerging viruses, and radical fundamentalism. There is investment risk. And there are the little risks of everyday life: Buy a thrift-shop coat and risk it falling apart or pay the higher price for a new one? Take the chance of waiting for an express on the Lexington line at 42nd St. or to stay on the downtown local? Leave the umbrella home and risk getting wet, or take it along and risk leaving it in a classroom. 

What makes possibilities seem risky? How do we understand "risk" today?  How does our sense of risk accord with real probabilities of events - with the implacable randomness of nature? How can we apply a single concept of randomness to both the nearly impossible (shark attack) or the nearly certain (express will be too slow or too crowded), and everything in between? Finally, what does risk tell us about how we think, how society works, and how we think it should work?

This course explores the idea of risk in relation to the concept of random events.  It traces the history of thought about probability, the development of the concept of risk (first in ship insurance, later in life insurance), and the adoption of the risk concept by other fields of great social importance, notably finance and the study of disease occurrence,  called epidemiology.  And it examines how risk figures in social decision making today, exploring why some people say we live in a "risk society."  Some arithmetic exercises will be done in class, but students will not be required to master complex probability equations.  The course will require extensive reading and writing.

Pre-requisite:  One college-level math course. 


  • Five short papers (750-1000 words). Required but not graded. Each instructor will read each paper and write comments. Each student works with another student as editing partner, to revise papers after receiving instructors' comments.
  • One "perfect" short paper: Revised version of one of the five short paper. This paper is graded.
  • Three in-class writing tests: A paragraph or two on material from assigned readings.
  • Term paper.
  • Blackboard discussion board postings.

Recommended (not required) reading: (Required readings to be distributed in class)

1)      John Graunt, Observations on the Bills of Mortality, 1662.
2)      William Rothstein, Public Health and the Risk Factor, 2003.
3)      F.N. David, Games, Gods, and Gambling, 1998.
4)      Peter L. Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, 1999.
5)      Ian Hacking, The Emergence of Probability, 1984.
6)      Richard J. Cleary and Norean Radke Sharpe, "Randomness in the Stock Market" in Statistics: A Guide to the Unknown 4th ed., pp 359 - 372. Brooks Cole, 2006.
7)      Natalie Angier, "Probabilities: For Whom the Bell Curves", in The Canon, pp 47 - 70, 2007.
8)      Sven Ove Hansson, "Seven Myths of Risk" in Risk Management, vol 7, No. 2, pp 7 - 17.
9)      Baruch Fischhoff, Paul Clovic, Sarah Lichtenstein, "Lay Foibles and Expert Fables in Judgments about Risk" in The American Statistician Vol. 36, No. 3, Part 2, 1982.
10)   Deborah Lupton, Risk, 1999.
11)   Selections from Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, 1992.
12)   Selections from Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear, 1997.
13)   Mary Douglas, Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory, 1992.

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Interdisciplinary Independent Study

HONS 30199
3 hours, 3 credits
Hours to be arranged

Students wishing to take this course will need two readers, from different disciplines, one of whom generally should be a member of the Council on Honors. In principle, the Council must approve the subject matter of such a paper before the student can register for the course. This course may be taken only once and does not count towards the three Honors Colloquia required of every member of the Program.

HONS 30199 cannot replace any of the three required Honors Colloquia.

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Advanced Interdisciplinary Study

HONS 49151
6 hours, 6 credits
Hours to be arranged

Upon completion of 90 credits, certified Honors Program students may be admitted by the Council on Honors to Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies, with the opportunity of engaging in advanced independent study under the Council's supervision. A project for a thesis or other appropriate report of the results of the student's research is presented to the Council, which must approve it the semester previous to registration. Three sponsors, from at least two departments, one of whom must be a member of the Council on Honors, will supervise the work. The final product must be approved by all three sponsors and the Council.

HONS 49151 cannot replace any of the three required Honors Colloquia.

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