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Honors Colloquia - Spring 2014

Click on a course name to read a description.

Course Name
Course Number/Section
Reading List
The Search for Knowledge
HONS 2011H/01

pdfs will be posted on the course blackboard site
The Good War: The Spanish Civil War in Art & Literature
HONS 2011J/01
To be posted
Jazz Age/Machine Age
HONS 2011K/01
To be posted
The Fall of the Roman Empire
HONS 20194./01
To be posted
Zombies & Monsters
HONS 3011E/01
To be posted
Evidence and Inference HONS 3011F/01 To be posted
Interdisciplinary Independent Study
HONS 301.99/01
Advanced Interdisciplinary Study
HONS 491.51/01

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

Course Descriptions

The Search for Knowledge

Professor Spiro Alexandratos


HONS 2011H
Mondays & Thursdays; 1:10-2:25 p.m.
Room 412 West
3 hours, 3 credits

The search for knowledge of all that we see has been central to humanity ever since we first learned to ask "What is?"  As this search proceeded over the centuries, we then asked "Are you certain?"  This course provides an overview of this search in the Western tradition and how we approach the question of certainty.

 We begin at the beginning, with epistemology: before we can address the search for knowledge, we have to ask "What is knowledge?"

 We will discuss how philosophers since Plato have answered this question, and then proceed to the search itself from the perspective of philosophers and scientists.

 The course objective is to understand what it means to know something and whether we can be certain of what we know.

Requirements: weekly essay (2-pages, double-space, in which you reflect on (not summarize) the previous week's lecture), one oral assignment, one mid-term + one final exam. Both exams are open-notes / open-book.

 Assigned readings (pdf's provided)

  • Plato - Theaetetus; Book V of the Republic
  • Rene Descartes - Meditations on First Philosophy
  • George Berkeley - A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (principles 1-24)
  • John Dewey - The Quest for Certainty (chapters I - III)
  • Lord Rayleigh - The density of gases in the air and the discovery of argon, Nobel Lecture (1904)

 There are no pre-requisites in either philosophy or science. Come as you are.

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The Good War: The Spanish Civil War in Art & Literature

 Professor Maria Hernandez-Ojeda (Romance Languages, Spanish)


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

This course will examine, in English, literary and artistic works of international significance inspired by the Spanish Civil War.  Students will read texts by major authors, watch films and documentaries that reflect this event, and discuss symbols and images of the War. For their final project, students will visit the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives to research the invaluable documentation that this institution offers, and choose a topic for their final paper.  Students will learn about the historical, political and cultural contexts that surround the readings, films and art studied during the semester.

Course Requirements:

Writing requirement: Students will write one final paper based on their archival research at the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. It will be approximately 10-12 pages long. Furthermore, they will write a two-page commentary on Blackboard for each one of the seven films assigned. I will revise every writing assignment at least once before final submission.

Midterm and Final Exam: The format of the midterm and final exam may include any combination of the following: short-answer identifications, passages for commentary, and long essay questions.

 Oral presentation: Students will prepare a presentation individually for the class using PowerPoint.  This oral evaluation should last no more than fifteen minutes and no less than ten. The presentation will focus on their research for the final essay.

Sample works to be studied:

  • - Novel: Cercas, Javier. Soldiers of Salamis
  • - Poetry: Neruda, Pablo. Five Decades: Poems: 1925-70.
  • - Testimonial Narrative: Hemingway, Ernest. The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War.
  • - Interdisciplinary Essay: Labanyi, Jo. "Memory and Modernity in Democratic Spain: The Difficulty of Coming to Terms with the Spanish Civil War."
  • -Theory: White, Hayden. "The Historical Text as Literary Artifact"
  • -Film: Pan's Labyrinth/ El laberinto del fauno.
  • -Documentaries: The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
  • - Guernica by Pablo Picasso
  • -Posters and Photography: Capa, Robert. Death in the Making.
  • -Music: Miguel Hernandez by Joan Manuel Serrat,

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Jazz Age/Machine Age

Professor Geoffrey Burleson (Music)


HONS 20163                         
Mondays and Wednesdays;
5:35-6:50 p.m.
Room 405 North
3 hours, 3 credits

From the late 1880s through the 1920s and beyond, musical style and substance in North America and Europe was irrevocably changed by the influx of three unstoppable influential tidal waves:  the flourishing of (1) "exoticism" via music, art and aesthetics of East Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa; the birth, development and ensuing mania of (2) jazz in the U.S. and Europe, and the many-layered influences and exponential growth of (3) technology, both for creative and destructive purposes.  These currents reached their apex in the 1920s, a decade simultaneously referred to as the Jazz Age and the Machine Age.  

Jazz Age/Machine Age will explore the influence of non-western music, art and philosophy, as well as technology, on music in the U.S. and Europe, using as wellsprings the Paris Exposition of 1889 (where music of Indonesia and other Asian cultures, as well as a futuristic "Gallery of Machines" were first encountered by over 32 million European visitors), the birth and flourishing of jazz in both the U.S. and Europe, and the beginnings of "machine-age music", reflecting a multiplicity of directions, such as the invention and inclusion of electric and electronic instruments into musical ensembles, and the resulting explosion of new musical styles and directions.   The slow but inexorable breakdown of barriers between "high" and "low" music and art, and the influence of film on musical coding and syntax, will be central interrelated topics for this course.  Beginning with the radical French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy, the music of a number of significantly relevant composers and improvisers from the concert, jazz and popular realms from 1890-present will be central to the course, in part as catalysts for developing movements arising out of the aforementioned areas of influence.  Class discussion will involve understanding and analysis of revolutionary aspects of the musical works being examined, incorporation of non-western European influences in the works themselves, the forging and development of new styles and genres resulting from synthesis of different stylistic ingredients and influences, and their musical and societal impact, as well as their interrelationships with art forms other than music.

Prerequisites:  Students who do not read music or play an instrument should have taken either MUSHL 101 or MUSTH 101 or obtain permission from Professor Burleson.

Some Major Musical Works and Currents to Be Examined During the Semester

  • -Indonesian Gamelan Music and Japanese Shakuhachi Music
  • -Works of French Impressionist Composers Claude Debussy & Maurice Ravel
  • -Igor Stravinsky:  Le sacre du printemps
  • -George Antheil/Fernand Léger/Man Ray/Dudley Murphy:  Ballet mécanique
  • -Louis Armstrong:  Hotter Than That
  • -George Gershwin:  Rhapsody in Blue
  • -Duke Ellington:  score for "Anatomy of a Murder"
  • -Bernard Herrmann:  Psycho Suite
  • -Frank Zappa:  G-Spot Tornado

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The Fall of the Roman Empire

Professore Richard Stapleford (English)

HONS 20194
Tuesdays; 5:35-8:05
Room 1602 North
3 hours, 3 credits

The idea that ancient Rome, a political institution of unparalleled size and duration, could simply "fall" is a commonplace assumption in our view of Western history. Yet a cursory glance at reality calls that assumption into question.  Today the majority of Westerners speak a dialect of Latin, our legal systems are based on those of the Roman Empire, our literary forms are modeled on those of the Romans, and a good part of our artistic efforts are based on principles developed in Rome.  Furthermore, though historians love to debate the issue, no moment of collapse is agreed upon, with suggestions varying over four centuries from the 200s to the 500s.  It seems then, that the "fall" is a metaphor intended to locate the historical development of the Roman Empire in a context relevant to the modern world.

What really happened to Rome? The methodology of this course is to examine history in order to distinguish historical fact from myth. We will examine testimony from the ancient world: historians, poets, theologians, politicians, artists and architects.  The synthesis of these voices creates a different picture from the "decline and fall" metaphor.  And, no less important, the process of examination and discovery will inform our view of all our "history." We will find that history is an invention, tailored to suit the needs of the culture that produces it. 

The course will be conducted as an enlivened lecture, a colloquium inviting the participation of each member of the class.  It will demand regular readings from various sources, ancient and modern, and the development of analytical skills in art and literature.  Four papers addressing different aspects of the investigation will be required.

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 Zombies and Other Monsters: Fact AND Fiction

Professor Derrick Brazil (Biological Sciences)
Professor Sylvia Tomasch (English)


HONS 3011E
Tuesdays and Thursdays; 2:45-4:00 p.m.

Room 412 West
3 hours, 3 credits  

Why zombies?  Why vampires?  Why zombies and vampires now?   Audiences seem unable to resist the onslaught of the undead in fiction, film, television, video, graphic novels, etc., but zombies and vampires don't just live (or not live) in popular culture.  There are also important connections to pressing issues in contemporary science.  In this this course therefore, we'll consider vampires and zombies in terms of folklore, history, politics, gender, race, and biology (to name just a few issues that will arise during the semester).  Because of the wide range of materials and approaches, students will have opportunities to focus on the areas of greatest interest to them.   

 In this course, we will try to understand the cultural aspects underlying the historical and contemporary popularity of the undead, to understand the biological cognates of the undead found in nature, to understand the connections between modern issues in science and biology, and the resurgence of popular interest in the undead.


 Everyone is expected to be an active contributor, in class and on the website.  You're expected to come on time, be prepared, with the text in hand, ready to contribute to discussion in an informed and positive fashion. 

 Participation (15%); Presentations (20%); Four formal writing assignments (15% each; 60% total); Weekly informal responses;

Quizzes and in-class informal writing

 Required Texts


Max Brooks, World War Z; Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, Carmilla; Richard Matheson, I Am Legend;

Bram Stoker, Dracula; Anne Rice, Interview with A Vampire


Stuart Hill, Emerging Infectious Disease;, Kelly A Hogan, Stem Cells and Cloning; Michael A. Palladino, Understanding the Human Genome Project

 Articles (available via Blackboard)

Paige Brown, "Zombie Ants and a Cultural Obsession," Scientific American

Berdoy et al., "Fatal attraction in rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii," The Royal Society

Eric Michael Johnson, "A Natural History of Vampires," Scientific American

Nick Lane, "Born to the Purple: the Story of Porphyria," Scientific American


I Am Legend; I Walked with A Zombie; Omega Man; The Last Man on Earth; 28 Days Later; Twilight; Vampyr;  Warm Bodies; White Zombie

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Evidence and Inference: How Do We Know What We Know

Professor Sandra Clarkson (Mathematics and Statistics)
Professor Steve Gorelick (Film and Media)


HONS 3011F
Thursdays; 5:35-8:05
Room 1042 East
3 hours, 3 credits

In a world of uncertainty, randomness, and contradictory versions of "truth," informed decision-making by individuals and institutions can be frustrating and confusing.  People want to make fair and wise decisions, but the flood of information available in the digital age, as well as the seeming absence of unambiguous answers, can frustrate even the most vigilant citizen.  When can we be confident that we have enough evidence to decide? What types of evidence can or should we rely on in a specific situation? Should some forms of evidence be considered more legitimate and authoritative than others? Are there times when it might be in our interest, even crucial, to make a decision before we believe we have adequate evidence? Put most simply and directly, how do we know what we know and when we know it?

The course will be an exploration of the widely diverse forms of evidence that are available for decision-making in a complex world. While a special emphasis will be placed on the evidence that can be inferred from statistics and other quantitative data, a myriad of other forms of evidence will be defined, explored, and compared.

Consider a jury trying to decide the guilt or innocence of an accused burglar. Criminal law has very specific rules in which some forms of evidence are inadmissible, while others are required to prove guilt. But think of just how many different types of evidence might come up in the course of a trial. Many people think of physical, forensic evidence in the age of CSI. But circumstantial evidence, eyewitness testimony, expert testimony, the defendant's previous record, the words spoken by the accused during interrogation, and even statistical evidence are also frequently introduced.   How does a jury distinguish the different types of evidence introduced and decide which should be believed? Why do some of the most popularly accepted forms of evidence - confessions, identification of suspects by victims - turn out to be so fallible and problematic?

The problem of evidence is also central in the realm of public policy-making. No one would dispute that public health and safety is an important objective of law and policy. But the era of evidence-based science and medicine presents us with a seemingly infinite number of sometimes-contradictory studies. Does caffeine improve focus or does it aggravate existing cardio-vascular conditions? Do changes in speed limits and driving ages affect the rate of automobile accidents? Do age restrictions on the purchase of tobacco reduce use? Not surprisingly, each of these and many other questions yield contradictory evidence, and the class will explore the intricacies of data and the sometimes hidden and variables that explain these contradictions.

Finally, the class will examine the significant issues and problems that arise when complex evidence enters the public sphere and is interpreted, shaped and sometimes distorted in news and media accounts.

Some mathematics and statistics will be illustrated in class, but students will not be assessed on those skills.  The course will require extensive reading, writing and discussion.

Pre-requisite: One college-level math course or permission of one of the instructors.

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Interdisciplinary Independent Study

HONS 301.99      
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 301.99 cannot replace any of the three required Honors Colloquia.

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Advanced Interdisciplinary Study

HONS 491.51      
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 491.51 cannot replace any of the three required Honors Colloquia.

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