Interpretations Seminars


Interpretations seminars provide an experience that survey courses lack – sustained, deep engagement with one particular work or author, and the interpretive universe that grows around it. Courses focus on one or several books or works of art, music or film, their historical context, on the interpretive questions they raise, on histories of their reception and transformation. 

The goal is to give students the experience of coming to know works very deeply, to grapple with the many ways of understanding a work and with the multiplicity of meanings that can arise from interpretation.

  • Hobbes theorized the unlimited sovereign authority of the modern state. At the same time, Hobbes never wavered in identifying individual liberty as the ultimate source of sovereign authority. By deriving absolute sovereignty from individual liberty through the mechanism of the covenant, Hobbes inaugurated the tradition of liberalism in political thought. 

    Spring 2024
    M 3:30p-5:20p
  • How can we live well in periods of instability, when the founding ideas of our civilization come under threat? What does it mean to be ethical in a situation you cannot control? Can bewilderment be a virtue? What role might poetry play in living a good life?

    Spring 2024
    M 1:30p-3:20p
  • A systematic, chapter-by-chapter study of Heidegger’s Being and Time, arguably the most important work of philosophy of the twentieth century. All the major themes of the book are addressed in detail, with a particular emphasis on care, time, death, and the meaning of being.

    Spring 2024
    MW 11:35a-12:50p
  • This seminar engages in the interpretation of a single great book, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Some attention is given to its historical and literary context, with readings in Emerson, Hawthorne, Webster, and Douglass, Shakespeare and Montaigne, and Melville’s other writings.

    Spring 2023
    TTh 1pm-2:15pm
  • An undergraduate seminar on the life and work of one the greatest poets of all time, and founder of modernity, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Readings include œuvre de jeunesse, his collection of poems in verse, Les fleurs du mal, his collection of poems in prose, Le spleen de Paris, and others.

    Spring 2023
    M 1:30pm-3:20pm
  • The seminar looks closely at the most influential poem of the 20th century, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” as a radical modernist experiment and as carrying on a kaleidoscopic dialogue with world literature, including the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, the Upanishads, the Holy Grail myth, and others.

    Spring 2023
    TTh 2:30-3:45pm
  • In this Interpretations seminar on Plato, we read the Alcibiades I, Laches, Protagoras, Symposium, Phaedrus, and Statesman–rich and complex dialogues that are rarely taught at the undergraduate level. 

    Spring 2022
    MW 9am-10:15am
  • Claude McKay was the preeminent queer black leftist poet, novelist, and political thinker of the early 20th century. This course covers the full range of his many contributions.

    Spring 2022
    W 3:30pm-5:20pm + 1
  • This seminar offers a multidisciplinary exploration of one of the most daring and beautiful architectural achievements of medieval Europe, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (constructed 1242-48) with three specialists from different departments.

    Spring 2022
    T 1:30pm-3:20pm
  • HUMS 346. A scrupulous reading of Nietzsche’s “great” book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. We ask what it means to philosophize in and as literature, and how this reckless experiment transforms both.

    Spring 2021
    M 3:30-6:30
  • A close reading of the Essays by Michel de Montaigne.  An important theme to be examined will be politics. Some brief selections from contemporary writers who have tried to bring Montaigne into conversation with our present moment.  

    Spring 2019
    MW 1:00-2:15
  • A close examination of Mann’s most ambitious novel which seeks to elucidate the German mind. Broad exploration of the context of Doctor Faustus through readings in history, literature, literary history, music history and music theory, history of religion and theology. 

    Spring 2018
    W 1.30-3.20
  • Close reading of the eighteenth-century Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Chamber in translation, with some attention to secondary and theoretical materials. The novel is used to examine humanistic questions, including what it means to read across cultures.

    Spring 2016
    MW 11.35-12.50
  • An intensive study of George Eliot’s  Middlemarch (1871-72)—a work she called a “home epic” and Virginia Woolf  declared “one of the few English novels for grown-up people.”   Our close reading of Middlemarch itself is framed by a brief selection from George Eliot’s essays and short fiction, as well as by a more extended study of some critical responses, both Victorian and modern.

    Fall 2024
    M 1:30pm-3:20pm
  • A careful reading of Karl Marx’s classic critique of capitalism, Capital volume 1, a work of philosophy, political economy, and critical social theory that has had a significant global readership for over 150 years. Selected readings also from Capital volumes 2 and 3.

    Fall 2024
    MW 11:35am-12:25pm
  • An extended reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) as modernist and postcolonial epic. Beginning with considerations of the relationship of modern epic and novel, the class will study Joyce’s re-working of Homeric epic in modern Irish, “World Literature,” Western and postcolonial literary contexts. 

    Fall 2024
    T 1:30pm-3:20pm
  • Before his tragic death at the age of 32, and with a comparatively small total output, Hart Crane produced some of the most astonishing and influential poems of the 20th century. This seminar will focus on close-reading Hart Crane’s complete poetic oeuvre, with sustained attention to his volume of poems White Buildings and his short epic The Bridge.

    Fall 2024
    W 1:30pm-3:20pm
  • Intensive study of the life and work of Simone Weil, one of the twentieth century’s most important thinkers. We read the iconic works that shaped Weil’s posthumous reputation as “the patron saint of all outsiders,” including the mystical aphorisms Gravity and Grace and the utopian program for a new Europe The Need for Roots

    Fall 2023
    Wednesdays 9:25am-11:15am
  • This course explores the world of William Blake’s poetry, with an emphasis on the longer prophetic poems, in conversation with his artistic output. We locate Blake in his historical moment, responding in his poetry and art to a variety of political, philosophical, and aesthetic movements in England and elsewhere. 

    Fall 2023
    Mondays 1:30pm-3:20pm
  • A close reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s masterpiece, Emile. Though the book poses as a guide to education, it has much grander aspirations; it offers a whole vision of the human condition. Rousseau called it his “best and worthiest work” and said he believed it would spark a revolution in the way that human beings understand themselves. 

    Fall 2023
    Tuesdays 1:30pm-3:20pm
  • In this seminar we will close-read a wide range of Emily Dickinson’s poems, seeking to understand tensions that run throughout her work, between feeling and intellect, chaos and control, power and passivity, things hidden and revealed, ecstasy and despair, life and death. 

    Fall 2022
  • A close reading (in English) of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, with emphasis upon major themes: time and memory, desire and jealousy, social life and artistic experience, sexual identity and personal authenticity, class and nation.

    Fall 2021, Fall 2018
    MW 1pm-2:15pm
  • Working from a new translation, this seminar studies Hugo’s epic masterpiece in all its unabridged glory and uses it to explore the world of nineteenth-century France.  Attention is also paid to famous stage and screen adaptations of the novel. No French required. 

    Fall 2021
    T 1:30pm-3:20pm
  • HUMS 319. A study of the poetry of John Ashbery (1927-2017) through examining the films, music, and art that provoked his imagination and structured and inhabited his poems. Critiques of the interdisciplinarity of Ashbery’s poetics.

    Fall 2020
    Th 1:30p-3:20p
  • HUMS 206: We read the Arabian Nights, discuss its dominant themes, and explore the ways its themes and tales have been adapted and appropriated by later authors. HU

    Fall 2019
    MW 9:00-10:15am
  • HUMS 415: An exploration of Chartres Cathedral as a meeting point of various artistic, technological, ritual, literary, intellectual, and social trends in the High Middle Ages.  We study how the cathedral fit into and changed the world around it, HU

    Fall 2019
    MW 1:00-2:15pm