Using literary and cultural history as tools of critical thinking, we invite students to grapple with “the self” as an object of intellectual inquiry. Beginning with an overview of some major philosophic frameworks for understanding selfhood in the Western tradition, from antiquity to the present, the course examines in detail three foundational ways in which the self has been defined in the modern world: in terms of gender, race/religion, and class. We will discuss a variety of historical sources–including plays, novels, poems, films, legal documents, and philosophical treatises, from Europe, America, the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia–to help students develop a more sophisticated understanding of these critical vocabularies and frameworks. Questions we will address include, but are not limited to, the following: how do current debates about transgender identity echo the fluid gender identities in early modern love lyric? How are medieval ideas of community implicated in current debates over terrorism and “otherness”? What can ancient texts on sexuality tell us about intimate relations in the digital future?
This class will involve a combination of lectures and creative or debate-style group work in which students will have the chance to engage with these issues, and use the tools we introduce them to, in more direct and interactive ways.