ENGL 138
What is a Self? Investigations in Literature, Philosophy, and Psychology Spring 2025
Division I Writing Skills

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 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 theoretical writings on the self by Plato, Thoreau, and Jean-Paul Sartre among others. We’ll even try our hand at meditation, while learning about the Buddhist idea of “no self.” 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
Limit: 19
Expected: 19
Class#: 3595
Grading: yes pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: four essays totaling 18-20 pages; active class participation; participation in other short informal writing assignments.
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 4-6 pages long) in multiple drafts, adding up to 18-20 pages total. Students will receive from the instructor timely comments on their writing skills, with suggestions for improvement.

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