ENGL 138
What is a Self? Investigations in Literature, Philosophy, and Psychology Spring 2021
Division I Writing Skills
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Class Details

The experience of having a self (or a subjective point of view) informs and colors literally everything we think, see, and feel. And yet what, exactly, is a self? Is it the unchanging essence of who we are as individuals? Or is it the historically contingent product of ever-changing cultural and political forces (like the media, gender norms, and ideologies about race, to name just a few)? Or, perhaps, is the belief that we have a self just one big illusion, as the Buddha suggested millennia ago and as modern philosophers and scientists have argued in their own different ways more recently? In this class, we’ll explore the deep mystery of human existence that we call “the self” or “subjectivity,” looking at various attempts to capture, represent, and explain it (even escape it!). Our investigations will be wide-ranging, looking at examples from literature, philosophy, religion, and psychology. Works we’ll study include: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, and theoretical writings on the self by Plato, Thoreau, and Jean-Paul Sartre among others. Students who genuinely find the experience of the self puzzling and fascinating will get the most out of this class. Bring an open mind about what it is to have a mind in the first place.
The Class: Format: seminar; This seminar will be taught as a hybrid seminar. About once a week, the entire class will meet as a group (on Zoom, most likely). The rest of the time we'll meet in smaller (7 student) discussion groups (in-person, with remote students participating via Zoom). Details of the format can't be worked out until registration is done, but this is the general plan.
Limit: 14
Expected: 14
Class#: 5183
Grading: yes pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: four essays totaling 16 pages; active class participation; participation in other short writing assignments (there will be lots of free writing!)
Prerequisites: none
Enrollment Preferences: first-year students who have not taken or placed out of a 100-level ENGL course
Distributions: Division I Writing Skills
WS Notes: Four essays (ranging in length from 3-6 pages long) in multiple drafts, adding up to 16 pages total. Students will receive from the instructor timely comments on their writing skills, with suggestions for improvement.

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