Interdisciplinary Studies: Course Offerings

Courses in this program will explore topics, problems, or relationships that do not fit within the boundaries of a single discipline. In doing so, not only will the ideas of two or more disciplines be considered and brought to bear, but also their methods and media. 

Dinosaurs: Bringing Them Back to Life 
Everyone loves dinosaur fossils, cartoons, and movies, but how much does anyone really know about these “terrible lizards?” How big was the biggest? How fast was T. rex? Are birds dinosaurs? What was their world like? As we explore the traces left by dinosaur existence, we will discuss geology and paleontology– how fossils are formed, discovered, and identified; the chemistry of radiometric dating; principles of evolution such as cladistics and natural selection; and anatomy and physiology as we learn to identify isolated bones by morphology and infer their articulation and musculature. Along the way, we will incorporate hands-on art projects designed to increase our understanding of these animals’ physical structures. Our investigation will employ drawing, sculpture, and stop-motion animation as means of speculation upon how dinosaurs may have looked and moved. Scientific accuracy and creative inspiration will both feature in these projects! Coursework will thus include both academic science work and a portfolio of dino-inspired artwork.

History of Western Ideas from Enlightenment to Romanticism

This is a course in the history of 18th and early 19th-century Western ideas, the ones that belong to what we call “high” culture rather than popular: in particular ideas about fiction, poetry, mathematics, physics, music, painting, biology, philosophy, religion, economics, and politics. For Physics and Mathematics we will contrast Newton with Maxwell and Gauss; for Fiction we will contrast Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons with M. Shelley’s Frankenstein and Dickens’s Christmas Carol, and for Poetry Alexander Pope with Goethe, P. Shelley and Whitman. Music will try to show how we got from Bach to Wagner; Painting how we got from Watteau to Delacroix, Biology from Linnaeus to Darwin, Economics from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, Philosophy from Hume to Hegel, Religion from Voltaire and the Baal Shem Tov to Nietzsche and Durckheim, and Politics from Enlightenment liberalism (Locke and Jefferson) to nationalism (Mazzini), anarchism (Fourier), conservative reaction (Maistre) and democratic socialism (J.S. Mill). The readings will be in primary sources as well as secondary sources like Richard Holmes’s An Age of Wonder. The writing will be short essays, regularly assigned, with one longer one, which could be either a “term paper” or an imitation, even a pastiche or parody, of a work in the style of one of the two eras.


The Great War, The War to End All Wars: World War I
Mellon, Meslow

The cataclysmic conflict that engulfed the world from 1914 to 1918 was unprecedented in its scope and destruction. 2014 marks the centennial of the war’s outbreak, yet its effects on politics, literature, and art are still evident today. In this class we seek to understand the conditions and events leading to WWI, the defining moments, strategies, and conditions during the war itself, and the human, political, and economic costs of the war that led inexorably to both World War II and the birth of the modern world.

To gain an overview of the various strategic, tactical, economic and political aspects of the war, we will read a variety of historians (Martin Gilbert, John Keegan, Holger Herwig, Paul Fusell, Norman Stone). To contextualize and complement our study of the war’s complex history, we will read memoirs, novels, poems, letters, essays, and short stories written by those who chronicled the period. Potential authors include Ernst Junger, Henri Barbusse, Erich Maria Remarque, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, Rebecca West, Cecily Hamilton, Ford Maddox Ford, Willa Cather, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf, and Pat Barker.


Let There Be Light: A Writing and Visual Art Studio Course
Gantcher, Luce
There was nothing until there was the word. And that first word, light, mixing meaning, sight and sound, is our evidence, verified by our deepest mythologies, that the arts are linked at the genetic level. In fact, we mix the language of sensory experience intuitively. We say a troubling but gripping movie is “dark,” shabby treatment “stinks,” and an orange checkered necktie is “loud.” A closer look at that everyday synaesthesia, however, reveals a piece of what freaked Plato out about art and artists, to psychoanalyze the self-appointed philosopher king. He was freaked because art is so powerful—swifter, more interesting—oh, we’ll just say it—better than philosophy or any other human invention. Because art explodes, and its shockwaves carry a wealth of information on different frequencies simultaneously.

In this class, we are going to explore the way the written word and the visual arts interact with and provide inspiration for each other. We are going to write and paint, sculpt, draw, print, etcetera, all manner of language- and image-based art works. To find our topics and devise our forms, we will adore, swear allegiance to, baste in, manhandle, at first mistrust but then come to rely on a great range of art works across disciplines. Sometimes we’ll look at how artists in different disciplines handle a similar impulse, such as the urge to record exactly and with gusto the experience of an object or a mental state. Other times we’ll cross-breed art forms, attempting to translate the structures, techniques and effects of one discipline into the language of another. What would it mean to write a story that uses patterns and contrast as the painter Edouard Vuillard does? How would you translate Hopkins’ chiming headlong poetry into brushstrokes? What will you end up with when you translate Schoenberg’s rules for musical composition into a visual language or into English or both? We’re going to find out, and when we arrive at especially redolent, polychrome and toothsome efflorescences and fruitings, well, then we’ll cultivate them and scatter the seeds around town.

Students will create portfolios of both artwork and critical writing. They will be able to concentrate on the discipline (writing or visual art) that they think of as their own, but writers and visual artists will also be asked to work in each other’s disciplines and to collaborate. Students will also keep artist’s journals, using those of Joe Brainard and Peter Handke as models. And they will be required to produce a long-term project of their own design. While assignments will grow out of our engagement with a great raft of artworks, students will also be given both the latitude and the support necessary to follow their inclinations.

In addition to the artists named above, readings (broadly defined) may include:

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
An anthology of poetry edited for this course
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
Selections from Mythologies by Roland Barthes
Selected stories and essays by Julio Cortazar
Selections from Silence: Lectures and Writing by John Cage
The Weight of the World: a Journal by Peter Handke
Work of Duchamps, Bueys, Rothko, Arakawa, Schwitters and Cornell
Tantric imagery
The Japanese Tea Ceremony
Music of Gesualdo, Monk, Cage, Bach, Beethoven, Marais, Wilco, Schoenberg and Webern
Holy Motors, a film by Leos Carax

Patterns Through Math and Music
At the heart of math and music is an obsession with pattern. Math wears its mechanics on its sleeve, making obvious to any who study it the need logic has of pattern. Music can be a denser forest: the keen-eared listener can discern patterns in sound with focus, but internal logics and structures can often go unnoticed. This course will contemplate patterns and their aesthetics from the vantage point of both the mathematician and the composer – we will discuss their wrangling, their enactment, and their comprehension.

Patterns will be a course run as a studio. There will be presentations and discussions of new points of inspiration, such as the relationship between J. S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue and fractals, and the way we can think of The Velvet Underground’s music in terms of periodic functions. There will also be weekly group sessions where students will share their plans and progress for short and long term projects. To inform these projects, assignments in the class will be given as needed: they will include readings and papers, but also problem sets.

Some musical literacy would be helpful in these endeavors, but not necessary. Similarly, students should have a certain comfort with algebra. A desire to be inspired by patterns and to create independently is the only real prerequisite for this class – students must commit to generating their own new work regularly, be it musical or mathematical or both.

Guest lecturers in the visual arts, literature, math, music, and dance will come as student interest dictates – if a particular student is interested in the pursuit of pattern in a specific art form, all available resources will be procured to help guide her or him in the development of that project.