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Course Descriptions


Interdisciplinary seminars are at the heart of the Graduate Program in Liberal Studies. One MLS seminar is offered each term (Fall and Spring) and is normally taught once a week in the evening, usually on Mondays, from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. Below are course descriptions for the seminars currently in the MLS curriculum.

MLS 510 Darwin: His Impact on His World and Ours
Darwin and Darwinism are studied from a variety of perspectives, including the ways thinkers used the prestige of scientific theory to justify contemporary business practices and social inequalities; the impact of Darwinism on literature; scientific developments since Darwin; sociobiology and theories of the genetic and cultural evolutionary determination of human behavior.

MLS 514 Public Policy and the Environment
The seminar will examine: the historical background of current environmental issues; alternative ways of conceiving of the relationship of humankind and the natural world; environmental and political implications of global energy supplies and renewable energy sources and their uses; the complex issues created by the need to reconcile environmental with other social goals such as economic growth; analysis of the consequences of population growth, and the dangers of climate change.

MLS 516 The Idea of Law
The idea of “law” can mean different things in different contexts and applications. This seminar considers such questions as whether the concept of law is used the same way in the natural and social sciences. How does “natural” law differ from “positive” law? While literature does enlarge our understanding of law in these several senses, how do letters, as well as the other arts, themselves reflect their own “rules”? And do new theories of literary criticism along with chaos theory challenge older assumptions of order and meaning?

MLS 518 Modernism
This seminar explores the origins and development of the cultural movement that helped define Europe and America in the 20th century.  The radical transformation of both natural and social science in the late nineteenth century reconfigured notions of time and space that profoundly affected literature and the arts.  New technologies contributed to a pervasive mass culture that both influenced and alienated artists and intellectuals.  The seminar will discuss a variety of thinkers who challenged middle-class conventions and created the heresies of Modernism.

MLS 520 The Mind and the Brain
The brain has been called an “enchanted loom.” Can our knowledge of the physical brain help us understand our thinking selves, our emotions, and other mental processes? Conversely, can a good understanding of the human mind (rational, spiritual, and creative) illuminate our study of the physiological brain? How do personality and intellect develop over one’s life? How does the brain develop, and how might consciousness have evolved? Do we have inborn “social instincts”?

MLS 522 The Eighteenth Century: Emergence of a New World View
The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century transformed the intellectual climate of European civilization. In the century that followed, many argued that the rational methods of natural science could be applied to philosophy, religion, politics, aesthetics, and society. The impulse to Enlightenment was challenged by a generation of writers and satirists who, while often introducing new styles of poetry and prose, defended traditional humanistic values. From this tension between old and new, continuity and change, emerged a modern world view. This seminar will explore eighteenth-century culture in a variety of its manifestations, including science, literature, the arts, religion, and politics.

MLS 524 Ways of Knowing
We know many different things but we also know in many different ways. The poet, the scientist, the historian and the mystic come to know the world distinctively. What is the basis for scientific knowledge? How can we know the past? What kinds of knowledge are the province of literature and the arts? The seminar will explore several of the ways in which we know, concentrating on science, literature, philosophy and the arts.

MLS 526 Sound and Image
This seminar will consider the aesthetic interaction between ear and eye, especially in the mass-mediated forms of music, sound effect, dialogue, photograph, painting, and cinema.  We will read both theoretical and literary reflections on the subject, see some movies, and listen to recorded music.  Briefly considering the physics and physiology of hearing and vision, we will consider how the artistic imagination, delivered in audio and visual media, interacts with audience experience both as individuals and as a social group.  

MLS 528 Liberty
The concept of liberty is a relatively modern one; we can trace its development from the English Enlightenment to the 21st century.  This seminar will explore how the idea of liberty has developed as a political, economic, cultural and social ideal.  We will look at individual rights, liberty in markets, and in international relations, and we will examine conflicts  between equality and freedom, conflicts between states and individual liberties, and consider psychological explorations of freedom, as well as other topics.  Materials will include classic texts and cultural explorations of liberty through literature and the arts.

MLS 530 War and Peace: Conflict and Human Nature
The seminar will examine our complex attitudes toward war and peace, as elaborated through literature, philosophy, and history.  We will consider topics such as the moral issues of starting and waging war, the impact of war on participants and those affected by it, how issues of war and peace frame our global reality, and efforts to encourage peace.  The seminar will also explore imaginative literature about war – memoirs, fiction, and poetry – with particular emphasis on the literature of the American Civil War, and the Vietnam War.

MLS 532 Sex and Gender in Nature and Society
An interdisciplinary exploration of sex and gender, with emphasis on the perspectives of biology, psychology, history, art, and literature. We will examine the biological bases for differences between males and females and how evolution shapes sex roles in animal societies. We will consider the social and cultural differences between males and females and how gender and sex affect the social roles of men and women. How, if at all, have gender roles changed in the process of historical development? Have these changes been influenced by a growing understanding of the biology of sex and gender? How does culture construct gender and in what ways can art and literature illuminate aspects of gender?

MLS 534 Civil Liberties and Civil Rights
Civil rights and civil liberties are often confused but both are essential to any civilized society.  This seminar will explore the issues in the American context, focusing on the essential differences between civil liberties—or the individual freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—and civil rights, the protections afforded particular groups from discrimination or unequal treatment.  Landmark court cases in the areas of reproductive rights, freedom of speech and religion, capital punishment, the right to keep and bear arms, and voting rights will be studied and discussed, from a legal, political and an historical perspective.  International comparisons will be an integral part of the course.

MLS 536 Meetings: East and West
Encounters between East and West play a significant role in world affairs.  This course explores the complex and evolving inter-relationships among East Asian nations and Western powers by focusing on how both Eastern and Western traditions and discourses encounter, resist, assimilate, and transform each other in unpredictable ways.  Sweeping themes, ranging from the formation of empire and efforts to create modern nation-states in China and Japan to cultural/intellectual interchanges between East Asia and the United States will be discussed through the examination of a wide variety of sources, including official documents, personal memoirs, oral histories, literary and artistic works, academic scholarship, and documentary films.   

MLS 538 Ethics and Life
Selected topics dealing with the ethical dimension of human activities, institutions, and traditions. Topic in International Relations. Consideration of the intersection between ethics and U.S. foreign policy, examining tensions and harmony between universal values and national interest. Examination of the extent ethics does, can, or should inform decisions about the U.S. role in international affairs.

MLS 540 Cinema and Society
Cinema exerts a powerful influence on society. It reflects, shapes and comments upon a variety of social and political concerns. Through careful analysis of films—classic as well as recent—and related texts, the seminar will explore varying representations of such themes as nation, gender, class, and race from literary, socio-scientific, and artistic perspectives.

MLS 542 Images of Human Nature
This course will consider various views about the nature and meaning of human existence.  Among the images to be examined are the religious and philosophical, the heroic, the psychological, as well as the sociological and historical.  Readings include selections from The Book of Genesis, Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Al Farabi, Hobbes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Freud, Durkheim, Woolf, Sayers, and various classical and contemporary documents, including film.

MLS 544 Sensing Chicago: Past, Present, and Future
Our experience of place is mediated by our senses. Chicago—a city whose name derives from an Algonquian term for stinking onion—can be grasped via its aroma (for instance, the stockyards or Blommer’s Chocolate Company), sights (1893 World’s Fair, Chicago architecture), sounds (blues, jazz or classical music), tastes (deep dish pizza, molecular gastronomy), and touch (the wind toward the Lake, the crowds on the CTA). By using our senses as a lens, we interrogate the many layers of Chicago. The course will integrate campus sessions as well as field-based explorations of Chicago’s sensorium.

MLS 546 Religion: An Interdisciplinary Approach                            
Religion has been a cultural universal in the past, and remains a constant in our current societies. Some of the questions that this cross-disciplinary seminar explores are: What is religion? How does it interact with other facets of our psychological, sociological, and cultural life? What has been its role in different societies? What is its future? We shall look at religion from the perspectives of theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and social scientists, and through literature and the arts.

MLS 548 Romanticism: Self and Society
The Romantic era (ca. 1780-1830) was a period of revolutionary change in politics, literature, music, and the visual arts. This seminar examines the evolving relation of self and society through five transformational decades of modern European history. Discussions will focus on the works of a number of major texts and figures, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and works by Schiller, Keats, Burke, and Beethoven.

MLS 550 Latin America: Economy and Culture
An interdisciplinary study of Latin America, focusing on economics, society, and culture. Special attention to the transfiguring role of film and literary texts.  Also special emphasis on border studies, including free trade agreements, the treatment of workers, and immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.

MLS 552 Life as We Don’t Know It: The Science of Science Fiction
“It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it!” An interdisciplinary seminar exploring classic and contemporary texts of science fiction from the perspectives of literature and natural science. We will investigate classic tropes of the genre including alien life, artificial intelligence, the ecology of other worlds, and the political logic of dystopia. How do science fiction stories and films help us imagine the future—and perhaps as importantly, better understand the world in which we now live? Materials will include classic science fiction texts by Frank Herbert, Stanislaw Lem, Ursula K. LeGuin, N.K. Jemisin, and others, as well as films such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Alex Garland’s Annihilation.

MLS 554 Modern British Culture
An interdisciplinary exploration of British culture in the 20th and 21st centuries. Topics include the Edwardians, the impact of World War I; the Bloomsbury circle; culture during the Slump; films of the Second World War; working class realism after the war; the Sixties; Thatcherism and its critics; postmodernism and posthumanism.

MLS 556 Existentialism and Its Discontents
Existentialism was one of the most popular philosophical trends in the twentieth century, attracting philosophers and artists who sought to wrestle with the most personal and ultimate questions of meaning in the face of rising rationalism and scientific positivism. In part, Existentialism was rooted in the view that philosophy should be a way of life, practical and engaged, rather than mere abstract theorizing by elite intellectuals. Consequently, some of the deepest expressions of this philosophy have been in popular literature and film, which will be the focus of our seminar. This course will explore the artistic and ideological roots of the Existentialist movement in the 19th century with writers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky. It will examine the explosion of Existentialist thinking in the 20th century, especially in France through the literature of Sartre, De Beauvoir, and Camus. And, finally, it will consider more recent critiques of Existentialism from the vantage of philosopher-novelists like Iris Murdoch. Emphasis will be on the artistic expressions of Existentialism, particularly the novel as a form of philosophical exploration. Other Existentialist artists and philosophers to be considered may include De Unamuno, Bergman, Frankl, and Buber.

A preceptorial is a small group tutorial focusing on a particular theme. The Graduate Program in Liberal Studies will offer these special classes on an as-needed basis. Previous preceptiorials include:

MLS 570 American Greats
The course will focus on great works from American literature and philosophy.  Works included those by Throeau, Emerson, Melville, Twain, Wharton, and others from the 20th century.