Sean H. McDowell, PhD
Director, University Honors Program
Associate Professor, English, Film Studies
Building: Casey 232
Assistant to the Director
University Honors Program
HONR 1010: Origins of PhilosophyWith the beginnings of philosophy in Ancient Greece, some of the great questions of culture and the life of the mind presented themselves for the first time. What is human excellence? What can we know? What makes a human life distinctively human? How should we live? In the dialogues of Plato and the treatises of Aristotle, these questions and others are thoroughly examined.
HONR 1030: Faith and Reason in Global Perspective
This course examines Christian, Islamic, and Jewish medieval traditions through the study of their shared critical appropriation of Plato and Aristotle and synthesis of classical philosophy with theology and scripture. Some of the central questions are: What is the relationship between faith and reason and between theology and philosophy? Does God exist? Can the existence of God be proven? What is the nature of sin and evil? What does it mean to be human? Are human beings free? What is the soul? What role does embodiment play in being human? Authors studied include, for example, Augustine, Boethius, Avicenna, Anselm, Maimonides, Bonaventure, Aquinas, and Ockham.
HONR 1110: Foundations of Eloquence
Students in this class will study many of the important classical literary works whose forms gave shape to much of the literature written from the Middle Ages to the present time: e.g., epic (Homer and Vergil), tragedy (Euripides and Seneca), comedy (Aristophanes and Plautus), mythological tales (Hesiod and Ovid), satiric poetry (Horace and Juvenal), philosophical essays (Plato, Cicero, and Seneca), literary criticism (Plato, Aristotle, and Horace), and lyric poetry (Sappho, Catullus, etc.). Students will also prepare a research paper on a literary work written during classical times or one written at a later period that was modeled on a classical work.
HONR 1130: Between Epic and Romance
This course uses two of the most common genres in medieval literature—epic and romance—as touchstones for the wide variety of literary texts produced in the period. Medieval writers reworked the classical epic to their own ends and invented the romance genre. Even works that don’t quite fit the conventions of these genres can be read as in conversation with epic or romance expectations. Through the study of these medieval texts we will explore fascinating questions about love, secular or religious, and marriage and we will analyze medieval notions of identity by examining various forms of affiliation on the basis of categories such as gender and sexuality, nation, state, or ethnic group, social status, or religious belief. At the same time, we will also pay close attention to the formal and aesthetic features that are characteristic of medieval literature. Readings may include Anglo-Saxon poetry, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, selections from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Christine the Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies, among others.
HONR 1140: Literary Innovations 1
This seminar focuses on innovations in literature from the ancient to the medieval and the Renaissance worlds, 1500 BCE to 1700 CE. It follows the movement of literary genres from oral epic to acted drama, and from written poetry and tales to printed scripts and manuscripts. We will meet innovative writers and their classic creations: for example, from Gilgamesh to the Gita, from Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey to Shakespeare’s Hamlet or The Tempest, from Sappho’s Odes to Julian’s Showings, from Chaucer’s Tales to More’s Utopia. Through the study and analysis of these works, they will learn the rise and fall of genres, the development of literary traditions and communities and their intertextual echoes, allusions, and counter-texts. All of these literary innovations will parallel, challenge, and deepen our understanding of the issues and debates in Greek, Roman, and Christian global history, philosophy, and theology.
HONR 1150: Foundational Fictions
Whether conquering or conquered, different peoples have relied on the creative imagination to construct a sense of themselves as a community in relation to and often at the expense of other groups. In this seminar we will explore how ancient and medieval authors constructed and debated stories about themselves. Starting with classical epics and other poetry, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, or Ovid’s Metamorphosis, we will explore how classical texts both constructed the history and values of Greece and Rome and at the same time raised complex questions about them. We will then explore how medieval authors adapted those histories and values to their own context by, for instance, rewriting the story of Troy and also by imagining their own stories, including the myth of Arthur. We will consider the conquerors, the conquered, and those whose stories were left on the margins or even unmentioned to raise new questions about the relationships between literary expression and identity. Throughout the quarter, students will hone their writing and speaking skills to become more adept participants in the public sphere of the Honors program.
HONR 1210: Polis, Republic, and Empires
In the two millennia defining the ancient Mediterranean World, its people experimented with the rule of the one, the few and the many. Their achievements and failures became the subjects first of myth and then history. This course will first consider the nature of the discipline itself and then will focus on the stories history tells: the peoples and cultures of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia and the rise and fall of their political institutions. These experiences shaped their world (as ancient writers explain) and anticipated ours (as moderns and we will realize).
HONR 1220: From Polis to Subject to Citizen
This course traces the development of political institutions from the ancient world through the Renaissance. Significant attention is given to issues of religious identity (the position of Jews, Muslims and other religious groups in Christian Europe) and political rights. Debates about representation of various social groups in government decision-making as well as investigations of gender shaped political power will also be examined. The course concludes with a look at Renaissance Humanism and the way it shapes emerging notions of politics, society and rights in the modern world.
HONR 1230: The Worlds of Medieval EuropeMedieval Europe was a complex, diverse, and sophisticated society composed of dozens of ethnicities speaking different languages and practicing at least four religions. Over the course of a millennium, it spanned a wide geography that ranged from Ireland to Russia and from North Africa to Scandinavia. This course begins with the origins and development of societies after the dissolution of the Roman Empire and is both a macroscopic and microscopic study of European society. We work with primary sources —including chronicles, legal documents, manorial accounts, literature, art, personal letters, biography, and autobiography and use theories on power, gender, economics, anthropology, and sociology as interpretive frameworks, The course begins with geography, topography, and archaeology as evidence for land and wealth as the determinants of status. It then studies Europe and its relationship with the neighbors—Vikings, Magyars, Huns, Arabs, Rus, Slavs, Mongols—in the context of political and economic expansion. The course material pivots on two problems. The first is how social hierarchy shaped the legal, economic, political, and personal experience of nobles, townspeople, peasants, women, the poor, and religious minorities. The second is how premodern Christian European societies interacted with Jews and Muslims, both peacefully in terms of trade and intellectual exchange, and violently in persecution and warfare. Throughout, we will keep an eye on how the modern configurations of these problems and issues arise from the medieval context.
HONR 1240: Catholicism and Its Global ReachStarting with an examination of the rise of the Catholic Church as the dominant institution in post-Roman Europe, this course will explore the central ways the Church defined its identity, spiritually and temporarily, and the ways it dealt with religious heterodoxy. The second half of the course investigates the collapse of Catholic orthodoxy in the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century and how the emergence of the Jesuits shaped the globalization of Catholicism in the early modern world.
HONR 1400: Major Debates
This seminar provides a case study of a major debate or set of major questions that have informed the development of civilization from ancient times through the Renaissance. It asks students to analyze the historical roots of this debate from a disciplinary perspective and examines its long-term effects. The topic for this seminar will change each year, in accordance with the specialty of the professor teaching it.
HONR 2020: The Modern Age of Philosophy and Ethics
The rise of science and the transformation of cultural life heralded a new age of philosophy and ethical reasoning. Beginning in the 17th century, philosophers re-examine topics such as the nature of human knowing, the character of individualism and dimensions of human freedom and responsibility, as well as the importance of history to philosophical discovery. Authors covered range from Descartes, Leibniz, and Hume to Kant, Mill, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.
HONR 2030: Crises in Contemporary ThoughtIf the 18th and 19th Centuries produced some optimism about humanity and its prospects, the 20th and 21st centuries, with their unprecedented wars, ecological devastation, and global anxieties, led to grave doubts about the Western cultural heritage. Reading some of this period's most trenchant thinkers, we will examine some of its most vexing questions. For example: What remains of religion and the belief and trust in God? Is the humanistic heritage all it is cracked up to be? Does capitalism enhance the quality of life on earth or does it produce misery and ecological devastation? Do we any longer believe in progress and the goodness of life? Do the contemporary global crises provide any new openings for other ways of thinking and living?
HONR 2040: Ethics and Moral PhilosophyThis seminar examines the nature of moral responsibility and the practice of moral reasoning. Classic and contemporary authors will guide a philosophical examination of foundational ethical questions, such as: Are there moral principles that hold true in all times and places? Does the existence of moral responsibility depend on a religious foundation? Do human beings have a nature, function, or set of capacities that provide a framework for moral responsibility? Is it best to understand moral responsibility as a duty to promote good states of affairs, to respect individual rights, or to balance and combine the two? To what extent does moral responsibility extend across international borders? Does moral agency belong to individuals, groups, or both? Do human beings have responsibilities not only to existing persons but to future generations, nonhuman animals, ecosystems, and the like? The course will build on students' earlier readings in virtue ethics (Aristotle) and natural law theory (Aquinas), and will examine modern ethical theories such as utilitarianism (Bentham, Mill) and duty-based ethics (Kant), as well as critiques and extensions of classic Western ethics from authors of the Global South, feminists, and/or postmodern authors.
HONR 2110: Renaissance and Reformation in Literature
The period we call the Renaissance, or Early Modern Period, was characterized by tremendous religious, social, political, and cultural changes—and the upheavals that attended them. This seminar examines the literary transformations that occurred as writers reshaped traditions in response to their turbulent times. It will address such topics as the influence of Humanism, the impact of the Reformation on notions of interiority, the development of the professional theatre, the rise of professional authorship, and the role of writers in public and private discourse, as well as the rapid changes in literary style, aesthetic preferences, and approaches to self-fashioning that would lead subsequent poets and scholars to see Renaissance works as foreshadowing some of the concerns of modernity. Possible authors may include Montaigne, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Behn, and others.
HONR 2120: Revolutions and Revivals in the Long 19th Century
Beginning with the events surrounding the French Revolution, and concluding with the first World War, artistic and cultural production in the long nineteenth century began to engage and thematize social and political issues of rupture and revival. This course will investigate how visual and literary artists used their various media to intervene in some of the tumultuous questions of their day: the limits of reason, the effects of industrialization, the landscapes of urban expansion, the rise of science and technology, the movements in human rights, and the relationship between aesthetics and social justice.
HONR 2130: Representation and Culture in 20th-21st-Century Literature/Art
Starting roughly with the aftermath of WWI and culminating with the post-9/11 moment, this course examines the literary and artistic responses to technological modernity, historical trauma, and the rise of global capital. We will consider how artists and writers engage crucial forces that structure our world today through a variety of techniques, practices and media. Students will encounter: aesthetic fragmentation and Dadaist absurdity; the stream-of-consciousness novel and the Surrealist montage; the “unspeakable” nature of the Holocaust and the status of representation; the rise of consumerism, pop art, and metafiction after WWII; identity, race, and gender in the society of spectacle; postcolonial reassessments of history and the museum; the status of photography, painting, electronic media, and text in an era of terrorism and surveillance.
HONR 2140: Literary Innovations 2The second “Literary Innovations” seminar tells the story of innovations in literature from the revolutions of the late 18th century to the present. Just as the rise and diminishment of empires (French, British, German, American, Russian, Chinese, etc.) and World Wars I and II produced a variety of social and cultural ruptures during this period, literature also experienced seismic shifts in the revaluing and repurposing of genres, the rise of the novel as a dominant form, the rapid increase and prevalence of experimentation (e.g., free verse, stream-of-consciousness narrative, pastiche, metafiction, etc.), and the promotion of access to literature across the globe. Breaks with long-established literary traditions resulted in new trans-national literary movements (e.g., Romanticism, Modernism, Post-modernism, etc.). The prolific translation and mass distribution of literary works across national boundaries encouraged writers from many cultures to draw upon wider influences than ever before and to find audiences beyond their nations to create new works and make their voices heard. Through an examination of several significant writers, from Wordsworth to Bishop, from Austen to Borges, from Ibsen to Beckett, this seminar delves into the complexities of literary expression in our recent past.
HONR 2150: Writers in the Public SphereFrom the beginnings of recorded history, people have carefully wrought language, in both oral and written forms, for a variety of social purposes. Some, like the bards of Celtic Ireland, or the shamans of various indigenous peoples, or the poet laureates of our more contemporary times, served as official spokespersons for their peoples and sought to memorialize the stories, beliefs, and customs of their times. For others, like Du Fu and the Confucian poets of T’ang Dynasty China, or John Donne and the Inns of Court coterie poets of Early Modern England, writing poems was a way to demonstrate one’s fitness for public office; it allowed prospective employers to gauge one’s wit and rhetorical savvy. Singers, lyricists, and writers of lays and other forms celebrated and challenged the cultural conventions and assumptions of their times. Dramatists from multiple time periods and nations treated the world as a stage onstage and so furthered the public discourse on a variety of subjects, from politics and religion to gender relations and social norms. For still others, like John Milton or the satirists of the 18th century, writing became a way of speaking truths the world may not wish to hear. This seminar introduces several significant voices to illustrate the range of ways writers participated in the public sphere right up to the age of revolutions that began in the late 18th century.
HONR 2160: Literatures of ResistanceSignificant shifts in political and economic systems invite resistance in various forms, and yet many who dare to speak truth to power or express “subversive” points of view are silenced and/or persecuted. This course will examine various literatures that were considered subversive, dangerous, or in violation of dominant doctrines of a particular time and place. We will explore the contexts that influenced writers to engage in literary acts of resistance, and we will consider why and how writers subverted prevalent ideologies. Many writers risked their lives to demand that readers see the limitations of a particular worldview and shift perspectives, and we will consider the legacies of writers who dared to challenge dominant ideologies of their time.
HONR 2180: Rhetoric for Public DebateThis seminar develops the essential skills of effective argumentative writing on policy or other significant social issues within the social sphere. It provides a study of the rhetoric of public debate that emphasizes writing for diverse audiences, marshaling evidence for strong persuasion, constructing logical arguments, and appealing to an audience’s sympathies and reason. Consideration also will be given to the genres of public discourse and the development of a flexible prose style that can be adapted to a variety of rhetorical situations and audiences.
HONR 2210: Early Modern Culture and Global Expansion
This course will explore significant and selected developments in European culture and society from the Renaissance to the Scientific Revolution. The approach will be one that seeks to discern the interconnections and tensions between the social, cultural, economic, scientific, technological, and political spheres that marked the transformation of Europe from the fifteenth century through the seventeenth century.
HONR 2220: History of Revolutions
The first part of this course will compare the revolutions in England, France and the Atlantic World in the 17th and 18th centuries order to critique theories of revolution that have long dominated the discourse about these events. With this theoretical underpinning this course will then examine case studies of revolutionary responses to industrialization, political underrepresentation and colonialism in the 19th century. This course concludes with an examination of the extent to which the Russian Revolution represents a new model of revolution in the 20th C.
HONR 2240: Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World
Beginning with the theological, social and political unrest that resulted in the religious upheavals known as the Reformation this course will trace how these movements led to the political, cultural and intellectual revolutions of the 17th and 18th Century. In the first part of the course special attention will be given to the early history of the Jesuits and what this history tells us about the global impact of these religious upheavals. The second part of the course will compare revolutions in England, France and the Atlantic World in order to critique theories of revolution that have long dominated the discourse about this era.
HONR 2250: Human Rights in the Modern World
This course will focus on one of the major problems afflicting the modern world – the widespread violation of human rights. The first part will examine the theoretical evolution and general history of the idea of human rights. We will consider the problem of human rights from historical, legal, philosophical, and theological perspectives and explore the nature of different types of human rights – including political rights, socioeconomic rights, women's rights, indigenous rights, workers’ rights, children’s rights, and immigrant and refugee rights – as well as the relationships among them. The second part will analyze the historical reasons for the abuse and protection of human rights in the 20th C through several case studies. We will consider such themes as underdevelopment, democracy, dictatorship, revolution, genocide, global migrations, and globalization. The third and final part of the seminar focuses on human rights in the contemporary world, giving us the chance to analyze in greater depth the approaches, issues, and themes introduced earlier in the course and offering students the opportunity to pursue directed research on specific topics that are of particular interest to them.
HONR 2300: The Rise of ScienceThis seminar examines 16th- and 17th-century Scientific Revolution beginning with its roots in medieval Islamic and European scientific inquiry and culminating in the work of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. It includes laboratory experiments in 17th century physics and laboratory exercises in early astronomical reasoning.
HONR 2310: Electricity, Energy, EvolutionThis seminar examines the emergence of modern science in the 19th century and Big Science institutional global impact in the 20th century. It will include the study of animal electricity, natural history, and biological energetics leads to profound advances in understanding of life and the universe through the writings of Faraday, Darwin, Rutherford, and Einstein. Multidisciplinary, the seminar will feature a combination of biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science.
HONR 2350: From Blaise Pascal to Super Crunchers: The Evolution of Uncertainty
This class introduces foundational statistical concepts (probability and inference) and traces critical turning points in the development of statistical thinking. Over the past four centuries, statistical methods have spread horizontally across disciplines, while simultaneously growing vertically in their sophistication. Growth in computing power and data collection continue to fuel the spread of statistical thinking to new areas of human endeavor, from astronomy and genetics to art and economics.
HONR 2360: Statistics for Policy AnalysisThis course provides an introduction to the statistical methods that help inform decision makers and the public when considering public policy. The emphasis of this class is on application. Students will work with raw data related to the quarter’s theme. Students will also be introduced to computer applications used to generate statistical results. Topics include: descriptive statistics, probability, random variables, estimation, hypothesis testing, and regression.
HONR 2400: Major Ethical Debates of the Modern World
This seminar focuses on key ethical debates influencing public policy issues of the last 50 years. As with the Major Debates from the first year, it asks students to analyze the historical roots of this debate from a disciplinary perspective and examines its long-term effects. The topic for this course will change each year, as will the discipline from which it is approached.
HONR 2420: Artistic InnovatorsLike the “Literary Innovations” seminars, this seminar explores major innovators in the arts more broadly, those artistic masters who have greatly impacted the arts through their original work. The primary focus for this course will be on either drama or classical music. How did major dramatists or composers reshape received traditions to create new, innovative work that changed the course of their chosen media? What does the idea of “innovations” mean in the performative arts?
HONR 2510: Capitalism and Its DiscontentsThis course investigates the major social science themes and perspectives of modernity associated with the Enlightenment tradition—positivism, rationality, economic and political liberalism—through a study of those who celebrated the virtues of this tradition and those who mourned its vices. The study ranges from the mid-17th century to the 20th. Authors covered include such thinkers as Locke, Rousseau, Smith, Mill, Marx, Weber and Gilman.
HONR 2520: Modern Selves and Global SocietyThis course investigates a 20th/21st-century response to the Enlightenment ideas of freedom and rational autonomy. This response focuses on the rise of a class of questions that relate to ideas of the self, identity and community within society and society’s institutions. Particular attention is paid to the effects of modernization and globalization. Authors covered include such thinkers as Dewey, Du Bois, Freud, Levinas, Mead, Foucault, Nussbaum and Rawls.
HONR 2530: 18th- and 19th-Century Social TheoryThe main goal of this course is that you become well acquainted with the intellectual tradition known variously as The Age of Reason/Classical Liberalism/Modernity. This intellectual heritage is the basis of the legal, educational and social institutions in this country. It is not possible to participate intelligently in current discussions about government, economics, the family, crime, “political correctness,” sex, science, religion or any form of social morality without first understanding this intellectual tradition. In this course we will explore these historical discourses and trace the implications to contemporary intellectual debates. The world we live in is framed by this tradition. In order to comprehend and navigate this world successfully, you should develop a critical understanding of these ideas and how they shape your life. Authors studied include such thinkers as Bentham, Comte, Mill, Durkheim, DuBois, Wollstonecraft, and others.
HONR 2540: Modern Political TheoryThis seminar, which builds on the discussions of the polis during the first year, provides an introduction to modern political philosophy through an examination of major political theories and developments from the age of absolutist monarchies to contemporary times. Major topics include the sovereign state, social contract theory, constitutional governments, democracy, and socialist thought, as these were developed in the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Toqueville, Mill, Marx, Foucault, and others.
HONR 2550: The Evolution of Economics
John Maynard Keynes wrote, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood.” This course critically investigates the evolution of the dominant ideas that guide the economic aspect of modern society. The study ranges from the mid-17th century to the late 20th century. Authors covered include Turgot, Smith, Ricardo, Pareto, Keynes, Arrow and Sen.
HONR 2580: Promoting the Common Good: Crafting Social Policy
This seminar is a focused study of a prominent question of social concern (inequality, representation, provision of healthcare, environmental degradation) and how society has responded to this concern. The topic as well as the perspective of this class will vary with and reflect the disciplinary background of the faculty member leading the course. Analysis of the particular social issue will be both theoretical and empirical. The explicit aim of this course is to envision a policy response that reflects content of the Society, Policy & Citizenship track within University Honors—a policy that is ethical and politically and economically feasible. The seminar concludes with a capstone project produced in conjunction with the empirical methods and rhetoric courses featured in this quarter.