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Core Human Questions Cluster

For academic year 2018-2019. 

Creating an art installation on campus for the Equinox


The seminars in Core Human Questions this year will ask the question, “In a world of constant movement, how shall we live?

To be alive is to move, change, fluctuate, and transform. We start by growing physically, from children into young adults who move away from home. Throughout life, we move psychologically towards and away from other people, ideals, goals, and beliefs. We are continually moved, emotionally, by what we hear, read, see, and experience. In the contemporary world, movement often takes the forms of displacement or distraction. Whether movement is felt as transcendence or fragmentation, itinerancy or freedom, many great writers, artists, and thinkers have reflected on the dilemmas and joys of living in perpetual motion.

In your four years at Holy Cross you will find yourself changing through sudden jolts as well as subtle evolutions. Our cluster will think together about how best to live with the constancy of movement, investigating a variety of ways that moving apart and moving together defines lived experiences. We will pay close attention to the many forms movement can take: shaping of works of art like musical movements or narratives; the crafted movements of the body participating in sport or making a gesture; political and historical movements across time; journeys imaginary and real.  Individual, collective, local, global: our seminars will take on all these dimensions to understand better how movement shapes every part of our lives.


Core 1: Dante's Journey: The Comedy

Common Area Designation(s): Literature

Down to Hell (fall):  

In this seminar, we will conduct a close reading of Dante's Hell, the first segment of the Italian writer’s three-part visionary journey through the underworld. We will pay particular attention to the rich literary, philosophical, theological, and political concerns of the time in which this classical text was created. We will also consider how Dante’s Comedy relates to our own world: this poem is ultimately about an individual’s search for meaning, and his journey is our journey. Additional readings will include Dante’s Vita Nuova, On World Government, and other sources. Selected visual material will complement the texts with an iconography of Dante’s world.

Up to Heaven (spring):  

In this seminar, we will conduct a close reading of Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise and the context of their historical and cultural background. Together, we will journey upward with the pilgrim and the poet through Purgatory, and encounter the souls of the repented who purify themselves, and get ready to ascend through the heavens to Paradise. Together, we will follow Dante and his guides geographically as well as textually, canto by canto and region by region, we will continue to tease out the poem’s different levels of meaning. We will consider the relationship between the moral topography of Dante’s Hell and that of his Purgatory, observe the ways in which Dante understood the opposition between vice and virtue, and question the implications of his construction.


Core 2:  Literature of Lost Time

Common Area Designation(s): Literature

Traveling Back to Childhood (fall):  

Child readers are transported to imaginary worlds like Hogwarts and Narnia. How do literary writers transport readers back to the lost time of childhood? In this seminar, we will study some influential ways that British literature in the past two centuries has famously depicted the child's inner experience. From the “golden age” of iconic fiction written both for and about children – think Alice in Wonderland and Oliver Twist -- we will encounter everything from romanticized remembrances of childhood innocence to rough and tumble depictions of its troubles. Our study will culminate with the magical childhoods of recent fiction.

Moving On, Growing Up (spring): 

In this seminar, we will move on from exploring varied depictions of childhood to focus on one endlessly transformable narrative: the novel of education, formation, and development, traditionally called the Bildungsroman. We will pair classic novels about making one’s way in the world, such as Jane Eyre, with film adaptations and modern coming-of-age narratives in order to understand the shared narrative conventions of the form and its remarkable adaptability to different cultures, eras, and media. Students will undertake a culminating research project comparing vastly different tales of growing up that will hone their independent learning skills.


Core 3: The Fate of Freedom

Common Area Designation(s): Philosophical Studies

Rational Conversion (fall):   

Beginning with the pre-Socratics, in this seminar we will address ancient philosophy as a mode of conversion. In particular, we will consider the various ways these thinkers tried to live out the rational, contemplative life—a life that was truly free, fully human, or even divine. Our class will focus on texts from Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Epicureans, many of which offer methods for attaining tranquility or harmony of the soul through study of the physical world. We will question these practices, noticing the different ways philosophers understood the movements of the internal world, the soul or life principle, as a microcosm of the external. The semester will lead towards an articulation of the problem of free will, and in particular how it gains importance and takes on a different meaning with the Christian appropriation of ancient philosophy.

Existential Therapy (spring):   

In this semester, we will trace the development of Existentialism. Drawing on the development of the problem of freedom from last semester, we will consider the ways in which all-encompassing, anchoring worldviews began to fall apart in the 19th Century, and how this fragmentation played out in the philosophical movements that followed, from Romanticism through Psychoanalysis. Reading Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, and Sartre, among others, we will ask: What does freedom mean for us now? Does it still make sense to make parallels between soul and world? Does the language of alienation/fragmentation, freedom/wholeness, still speak to us in the age of advanced technology and institutionalized philosophy? Can we imagine a therapeutic existentialism on the model of ancient philosophical schools?


Core 4: Utopia and Catastrophe

Common Area Designation(s): Literature

Home (fall):   

Both semesters of this course will be framed around the concepts of utopia (an imagined place or state of perfection) and catastrophe (an event that causes massive destruction). In this seminar, we will explore the question of “home.” Home can be a comforting concept, but also a place of discomfort or damage. What kinds of homes inform our sense of the world? How does the concept of home shift in different historical contexts? We will consider how utopian visions of home (family, nation, environment) are challenged, ruined, or even renovated by ongoing catastrophe (divorce, war, pollution). Authors may include Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, Freud, Tolkien, Toni Morrison, Steven Spielberg, and Junot Díaz.

Away (spring):

In this seminar, we will hit the road, exploring texts that involve various kinds of movement, transport, speed, turning, climbing, falling, displacement, exile. Together, we will consider the ways in which narratives of personal, political, or natural development are challenged by counternarratives of wandering, loss, and distraction. How did shifts in technology and the advent of political modernity change our view of ourselves as bodies, and minds, that can be “moved”? In what ways can movement be generative, or destructive? And why do sports teams lose more when they are “away”? Authors may include Homer, Shakespeare, Olaudah Equiano, Byron, Thoreau, Darwin, Mark Twain, Bram Stoker, Virginia Woolf, Antoni Gaudí, John Ford, Marilynne Robinson, and Alfonso Cuarón.



Cluster Director:

Core Human Questions: Debra Gettelman, Associate Professor of English