Interpretation Theory Course Descriptions

Students may choose courses for Interpretation Theory credit in Anthropology, Art History, Classics, Comparative Literature, Dance, English, Film and Media Studies, French, History, Linguistics, Peace and Conflict Studies, Philosophy, Political Science, Religion, Russian, and Spanish.

The descriptions below explain how each of these courses fulfills the Program in Interpretation Theory’s Learning Goals.

  1. Students should be familiar with different methods and theories of interpretation, both within disciplines and between disciplines.
  2. Students should be able to offer reasons for and against the use of different methods and theories of interpretation by:
    1. explicitly comparing different methods and theories of interpretation, and
    2. demonstrating systematic ways of talking about and reflecting on their virtues and vices.

Anthropology:

Christopher Fraga

ANTH 116. Anthropology of Capitalism

This Honors seminar is an extended consideration of the various ways in which theorists and ethnographers have approached the tasks of problematizing and analyzing capitalism as a dynamic and multifarious system. We draw lessons from political economy and its critics (Smith, Marx, Engels), sociology (Weber), critical theory (Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin), French structuralism (Althusser), and economic anthropology (Paul and Laura Bohannan, Sidney Mintz, Michael Taussig, Karen Ho). Instead of a traditional term paper, the culminating exercise for this course consists in designing an ethnographic study of their own, using the NSF's dissertation research grant as a template. This allows me to assess how deeply the students have understood and how creatively they have synthesized the many different interpretive approaches we've studied.

Farha Ghannam

ANTH 049B. Comparative Perspectives on the Body

This course offers a critical look at how the human body is regulated, interpreted, disciplined, and shaped in different societies. It offers the students the chance to explore key theories and concepts that aim to understand how bodies are made and remade to reproduce social inequalities and constitute different subjectivities.

Maya Nadkarni

ANTH 032D. Mass Media and Anthropology

This course examines how scholars studying different historical, cultural, and technological contexts have conceptualized both the possibilities and dangers of mass forms of communication. We focus on theories from the Frankfurt school (Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, etc.) and the various responses and alternatives to these frameworks that have been proposed by anthropologists and sociologists (Ginsburg, Appadurai, Abu-Lughod, Williams, and many others). Throughout the course, we ask the implications of these different approaches upon our understanding of not only mass media itself, but the kinds of subjects, collectivities, and politics that mass media is presumed to enable.

Art History:

Connie Hungerford

ARTH 164. Modernism in Paris and New York

This two-credit reading seminar examines case studies in 19th- and 20th-century European and American art, addressing artists such as Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso, Pollock, Rothko, Duchamp, Johns, and Rauschenberg, and movements such as Impressionism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism. Readings are chosen to represent a range of interpretive methodologies, e.g., formalist, social art history, feminist, post-colonialist, and post-modern. Students each write 4 papers during the semester as the focus for group discussion.

Classics:

Grace Ledbetter

CLST 020. Plato and His Modern Readers

This course examines a wide array of Plato’s dialogues through the lens of secondary literature informed by different interpretive methods: e.g. those of Analytic Philosophy (Vlastos), Deconstruction (Derrida), Lacanian analysis (Sharpe), French Feminism (Irigary), American Pragmatism (Rorty), and Anthropology (Detienne). We often read several articles, all about the same dialogue, that take different theoretical approaches, thus allowing for explicit comparison of their methodologies, their assumptions, limitations, and advantages.

Jeremy Lefkowitz

CLST 036. Classical Mythology

The long history of the theorizing of interpretation is so wrapped up in the study of mythology that the class seems ideally suited for students interested in interpretation as a topic in its own right. The class reads quite a lot of primary source material translated from Ancient Greek and Latin. In addition, the class spends a considerable amount of time on theories that have been successfully applied to the study of myth. Throughout the semester, lectures explore both ancient interpretive strategies (especially allegoresis and euhemerism) and modern methods of interpreting myths. Students are also required to write a number of essays in which they apply modern theories (including structuralism, functionalism, and psychoanalytic theory) to the ancient material.

Comparative Literature:

Jean-Vincent Blanchard

LITR 072F.  A History of the Five Senses

Luciano Martinez

LITR 075S. Borges: Aesthetics & Theory

See descriptions for SPAN 078 and 108

See also:

  • LITR 047R. Russian Fairy Tales (Forrester) 

  • LITR 070R. Translation Workshop (Forrester)

Dance:

Olivia Sabee

DANC 023. Contemporary Performance

This course exposes students to various methods and theories of interpretation used in dance history, dance studies, and performance studies. Students will compare the use of these methods using performance works as case studies to reflect on various theories’ virtues and vices.

English Literature:

Sara Bryant

ENGL 071S. Contemporary Life Writing: Form and Theory

This course explores works of life writing through the lens of various methods and theories of interpretation (e.g. performative theory, documentary studies, queer theory, autoethnography). The second half of the course focuses on autotheory, or life writing that explicitly engages with and performs theory/theorization. For units 2 and 3, I supplement the listed readings with short/excerpted critical and theoretical texts. I also address the different theoretical approaches with mini-lectures and short excerpts/handouts in class.

Rachel Buurma

ENGL 035CC. The Rise of the Novel

This course is a survey of the Anglo-American novel set alongside a survey of Anglo-American novel theory; it explicitly compares different theories of the novel to one another, drawing from literary criticism, history, sociology, anthropology, and computational text analysis. It reflects on the merits and limitations of these various approaches. It also considers questions about materiality from a theoretical perspective.
 

ENGL 111. Victorian Literature and Culture (upon permission of the department)

This Honors seminar is a research-intensive study of Victorian novels set alongside a close look at different, often interdisciplinary, interpretive approaches to the Victorian novel and Victorian culture and to questions of representation more broadly.

Lara Cohen

ENGL 092. Marxist Literary and Cultural Studies

This course introduces students to key works by Marx and Engels and explores how thinkers have continued to extend Marxist theory, particularly in relation to critical race studies, feminism, and queer theory.

Bakirathi Mani

ENGL 079. What is Cultural Studies?

This class is an introduction to cultural studies: that is, to the study of culture and power through a range of social, material, and aesthetic texts. Focusing on fashion, music, economy, art and performance, we explore a variety of approaches to reading and writing about the phenomenon that we call “culture.” By highlighting the ways in which race, class, sexuality and gender intersect in the creation and consumption of cultural texts, we also examine how what we read is part of the world in which we live.

Interdisciplinarity is central to this class, in terms of what we are reading (our texts) as well as how we read them (our analysis). Literary close reading is frequently a basis for our investigation, but we also examine how such close readings go hand in hand with ethnographic method, historical analysis, and aesthetic theory. As the visual studies scholar Irit Rogoff notes, “You don’t spend your life saying, ‘In sociology we do this, but in anthropology we do that; in literary criticism this, but in art history that.’ You get on with it. And you produce an undisciplined field that is a zone of dis-identification and immensely productive.”

Sangina Patnaik

ENGL 121. Modernism and Forgetting (upon permission of the department)

This intensive research seminar situates high modernist literary practice alongside psychoanalytic, postcolonial, queer, and feminist critique. We explore how the birth of psychoanalysis, with its attendant emphasis on consciousness (and its lapses), figures into the aesthetic and political imaginations of the twentieth-century. Central questions include: How do aspects of psychic life, such as mourning and trauma, exert pressure on literary form? Why do memory's material traces (the archive, the photograph) enthrall the modernist imagination? What ethical or political values attend literary projects of remembering? Of forgetting? We examine early twentieth-century literary and psychoanalytic texts through the lenses of trauma theory (Caruth, LaCapra), affect studies (Ngai, Berlant, Ahmed), Critical Theory and its descendants (Adorno, Benjamin, Butler, and Mbembe), and queer theory (Edelman, Love, Sedgwick).

Eric Song

ENGL 096. Methods

This is a survey of some of the key methodological developments in English literary studies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Our aim is to understand how this discipline has been constituted, why scholars in the field operate in the ways that they do, and what possibilities have emerged in the field. Throughout our semester, Shakespeare’s Sonnets serve as a test case: we will return to it as a primary text and look at some of the scholarship that has developed around it.

See also:

  • ENGL 090. Queer Media (P. White) 

  • ENGL 091: Feminist Film and Media Studies (P. White)

Film and Media Studies:

Patricia White

FMST 020. Critical Theories of Film and Media

This class introduces and examines key authors, debates, texts, and contexts in critical and cultural theory as a basis for work in film and media studies. Film was one of the principal innovations of a rapidly modernizing and globalizing world at the turn of the last century, and artists and intellectuals were attracted to the new medium as a prism of technological modernity.

In the wake of World War II and in the context of decolonization, film and television were interrogated as ideological mechanisms of domination on the one hand and tools for historical evidence and self-representation on the other. Finally, at the end of the 20th century, digital technologies offered new experiences and ways of understanding connectivity, human intelligence, and forms of social control.

This class links important currents of 20th-century thought—including psychoanalysis, Marxist cultural theory, semiotics and structuralism, poststructuralism, feminist and queer theory, and postcolonial and critical race studies—with the history, aesthetics, and theory of film and media.

FMST 045. Feminist Film and Media Studies

This class engages major questions that have shaped the vigorous fields of feminist film and media studies over the past four decades in relation to a range of feminist productions and mainstream media texts. We look at representations of gender as it intersects with race, class, sexuality, generation, and national identity and at the impact of changing media institutions and technologies. We debate theories of authorship and spectatorship amid shifting relations between media consumption and production. We attempt to make sense of our present moment of exciting intersections between and feminism and media and imagine possible futures.

FMST 046. Queer Media

The history of avant-garde and experimental media has long been intertwined with that of gender non-conformity and sexual dissidence, and queer cultural producers have often brought formal innovation to more mainstream forms. This class explores this link through epistemological questions derived from feminist and queer theory, ontological and aesthetic questions from film theory, and contextual approaches from Marxist cultural studies. In response to the form and spirit of our objects of study, assignments include critical digital media projects as well as close textual analysis and research papers.

French:

Carina Yervasi

FREN 116. La Pensee geographique

We discuss the history and relevance of the use of geographical metaphors in various examples of poststructural theory.

History:

Diego Armus

HIST 066. Disease, Culture & Society in the Modern World: Comparative Perspectives

This course deals with the diverse ways historians and scholars in general have been interpreting diseases. An initial discussion of texts by Owsei Temkin, Charles E. Rosenberg, Georges Canguilhem, Michel Foucault, Mirko Grmek and others introduces a close examination of case studies in which diseases are analyzed in specific places and times, that is, as localized phenomena. Special attention is paid to the possibilities and limitations of those theoretical frameworks vis a vis issues such as public health in metropolitan centers and neocolonial contexts; changing ideas about contamination, hygiene, segregation, and contagion; the cultural politics of blame and responsibility; the individual and collective experience of illness; class, gender, ethnic and racial dimensions that accompanied the efforts to understand certain diseases; disease representations in the media, cinema and in literature; the emerging field of international health; the professionalization of health care and the persistent presence of alternative healing cultures.

Farid Azfar

HIST 080. History of the Body

This course explores distinct modes of historical scholarship inspired by the work of Freud, Foucault, Elias and de Certeau on history as an embodied experience and the body as a site of historical change. It focuses on the early modern period in particular, starting in the anatomical theater, with the body as a subfield in the history of medicine, and moving on then to explore the cultural, psychoanalytic, sociological and poststructural turns in the history of the body. We look at critical historical works (ex: Roper, Schiebinger, and Stoler) alongside their theoretical influences and primary sources relating to a range of themes including but not restricted to witchcraft trials in early modern Germany, Enlightenment theories of racial and sexual difference, the political body as revolutionary symbol, and the cyborg turn in early modern studies.

HIST 090Q. The Queer Theory of Empire

This course explores how queer theorists (Butler, Bersani, Sedgewick, Muñoz, de Lauretis) have treated the historical dimensions of empire alongside the work of historians and literary scholars (Stoler, Arondekar, Frecerro, Lowe, Najmabadi) who have sailed through the same conceptual waters, looking to the same sources (Foucault, Freud, Benjamin) for guidance, often veering off then into very different directions. We look at problems that span these fields and pay very close attention to moments of convergence and dissonant echoes between unexpected convergences of subject, theory and methodlogy: imperial politics in the history of sexuality, illicit desire in imperial history, and queer theory's imperial timeline.

Timothy Burke

HIST 083. What Ifs and Might-Have-Beens: Counterfactual Histories

HIST 090H. Africans Explore/Africa Explored

HIST 140. The Colonial Encounter in Africa

Marjorie Murphy

HIST 001K. First-Year Seminar: Engendering Culture

The kind of theory covered in this course depends on the students. I am happy to say that we have used Foucault, Lacan, and others but I do not determine what we do; they do by the topics they choose to write about. I am also a Marxist historian, so historical materialism is part of the discussion but we never go deep, as we are considering gender as something alive and changing. I think the course is a fine foundation to more theoretically informed courses.

Linguistics:

Donna Jo Napoli

LING 002. FYS: The Linguistic Innovation of Taboo Terms and Slang Literatures

The main goal of this course is for us to examine together slang and taboo terms from English and many other languages, to see what we can learn about linguistics from them. We look at situations in which taboo terms and slang are used from a variety of perspectives: sociological, biological-medical, psychological, and political. We are constantly viewing taboo from different perspectives within each context, holding up common beliefs about them and examining them to see if they hold water or are myths. And we look at books, stories, movies, and other videos that themselves are taboo because of their topic, but which deal with other kinds of taboo as part of the story (such as the novel THE THINGS THEY CARRIED), so we take a self-conscious or meta-type approach to taboo, as well.

Each student picks a language to work on all semester. Each week the student applies the analyses and theories of the readings to data in that language via writing a short paper. The final project of the semester, which is presented in class as well as written up, must be on their chosen language and must be an analysis of data that uses the tools we’ve developed. Students also do a pair presentation in which they pair up to look at some issue we do not cover in our general readings and apply the various lenses we have at our disposal in viewing them.

LING 63. Supporting Literacy Among Deaf Children

This course is taught jointly at Swarthmore and Gallaudet University, with a professor on each campus and 12 students on each campus. We work together via email, skype, google hangout, and the like to create bilingual-bimodal ebooks for hearing parents and their deaf children to share. The books consist of text and illustrations, plus videos for each page of someone telling the story in a sign language.

We study how spoken languages present stories in contrast to how sign languages do. This means that we read about different sets of literary tropes – those used in spoken languages and those used in what’s called the Visual Vernacular – and we compare them. Since we deal with multiple spoken language texts, we talk about rhyme from linguistic, cognitive, and psychological points of view. Most importantly, though, we talk about metaphor and simile, and the effects of having a language expression of a metaphor as opposed to a language embodiment. We discuss the very nature of metaphor, drawing from philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and education. Students also get involved in matters of translation among spoken languages, too. We look at translations from a socio-economic perspective, from a sound effects perspective, from a literary perspective, from a linguistics perspective, among others that may come up, depending on the text we are working with. We also deal with matters of formatting, reading extensively about visual attention versus aural attention -- and what tropes can help with focusing visual attention.

Overall, this course is a model of what one might want in an interpretation theory course, mostly because of our attention to metaphor. We deal with issues of metaphor in deciding how to render every single page of every single book we do. The range of choices in how to present a sense insist that we understand potential consequences of those choices and that we be deliberate in making them.

See also:

  • LING 070. Translation Workshop (Forrester) 

Peace and Conflict Studies:

Sa’ed Atshan

PEAC 043. Gender, Sexuality, and Social Change

Interdisciplinary in nature, this course combines a peace studies approach to the study of gender and sexuality, while also integrating scholarship from various disciplines including anthropology, sociology, history, political science, religious studies, cultural studies, and film and media studies. We address the nature and politics of representation in the realms of women’s and queer movements and theory building, with an emphasis on how central categories and self-definitions are constructed, interpreted, historicized, and universalized by scholars and social actors. The course emphasizes the need to read texts closely, and to take relevant theoretical frameworks as points of departure, in order to compare how conceptual frameworks on gender and sexuality are developed and contested across disciplines. We also explore how epistemological work on gender and sexuality in the Global South, and on subaltern populations in the Global North, can or cannot align with ontological realities, and how they can or cannot be mired in imperialist political projects.

Philosophy:

Richard Eldridge

PHIL 019. Philosophy and Literature and Film

This course surveys and assesses work on the nature and value of literature and film as forms of art. Do these forms of art have important cognitive functions? What is the role of emotion in the experience of literary and filmic art? What are the social uses and significances of literature and film? What is it to understand a literary work or a film as art? Authors covered include: Aristotle, Freud, Nussbaum, Wilson, Cavell, Carroll, Bordwell, Munsterberg, Bazin, and Schatz, among others.

PHIL 106. Aesthetics and Theory of Criticism

The first two-thirds of this course surveys major systematic theories of the nature of art and its functions in human life: Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Collingwood, Marcuse, and Danto. The final third treats some major contemporary work (e.g. Wollheim, Nehamas, Felski, Cohen, etc.) in relation to either literature or painting.

PHIL 114. Nineteenth-Century Philosophy

This course discusses Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche--and especially with respect to Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, it includes a big dose of classical hermeneutics (of human agency, social life etc.) that is foundational for subsequent Critical Theory (Adorno, Benjamin, Habermas etc.) Core issues include: whether and how to understand human powers of reasoning, meaning-making, and identity-adoption as essentially formed and exercised socially; whether the historical development and exercise of such powers has any direction or logic to it; and what kinds of free and meaningful life are or are not possible for us.

Tamsin Lorraine

PHIL 039. Existentialism

PHIL 049. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud

PHIL 069. Phenomenology-Then and Now

PHIL 079. Poststructuralism

PHIL 139. Phenomenology, Existentialism, and Poststructuralism

The theorists examined in all of these courses were responding to the kind of dissonance that can arise when what we are told about life doesn’t fit with how we ourselves experience it. I therefore introduce each thinker as having a project that responds to concerns that emerged in the context of that theorist’s time and place. Each project constitutes a response to that dissonance that reframes reality in order to explain what from a conventional viewpoint was invisible or inexplicable. By considering both the historical and cultural situation to which the theorist responded, as well as the variations among theorists, despite the thematic continuities that may allow gathering them under a given label (“phenomenology,” “existentialism,” “poststructuralism,” etc.), I thus introduce students to the relationship of distinct perspectives to the truths they reveal about the world and consider how shifts in those perspectives may reveal specific worlds in different ways. In addition to considering the variations of perspective among the different theorists covered as well as between those theorists and the more conventional views of their time, I also encourage the students to try on each theorist’s perspective, in order to become more aware of how shifts in perspective might precipitate shifts in experience, beliefs, and values, and in order to heighten their awareness of their own perspective as a perspective.

See also:

  • PHIL 016. Philosophy of Religion (Wallace)

  • PHIL 020. Plato and His Modern Readers (Ledbetter)

Political Science:

Ben Berger

POLS 012. Introduction to Modern Political Thought

This is a mid-level, non-honors political science course that covers five centuries of the most influential works in Western political thought. Students read Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, American Federalist and Anti-Federalist thinkers, Marx, Nietzsche, and samples of a few more recent thinkers (including excerpts from Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Carole Pateman, and Judith Shklar). In addition to learning about the thinkers' main arguments, student are asked to consider the relationship between our texts and the social, religious, and political context in which those texts were written. Other course themes include different conceptions of freedom and liberation, the historical development of liberalism and multiple critiques, and the role of gender, race, and class written primarily by relatively privileged white men.

POLS 101. Modern Political Theory

This is an honors political science seminar that covers five centuries of the most influential works in Western political thought. Students read many of the same texts covered in POLS 12 (albeit in greater volume and depth), which is why students cannot ordinarily take both courses. Featured authors include Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, American Federalist and Anti-Federalist thinkers, Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, Shklar, and Pateman. Because the course is designed to approximate a first-year graduate school seminar, students also read a variety of influential, contemporary critics and critical approaches to the interpretation of political theory, including scholars from the so-called "Cambridge School" (which represents a specific approach to studying history and the history of ideas), Straussians, feminists, civic humanists or civic republicans, and others.

Carol Nackenoff

POLS 011. Ancient Political Theory: Pagans, Jews, & Christians

Central to this course is the interpretation of philosophical texts. Reading major works in the history of political theory, we examine the way authors made sense of the world around them, including what they viewed as central problems. We examine the solutions they constructed, in the form of treatises on how to organize political communities/societies. In doing so, students examine the ways these authors envisioned human nature and human capacities.

Kenneth Sharpe

POLS 100. Ancient Political Theory: Plato to Hobbes (Sharpe)

This course will consider the development of political thought in the ancient and medieval periods and the emergence of a distinctively modern political outlook. Special attention will be paid to the differences between the way the ancients and the moderns thought about ethics, reason, wisdom, politics, democracy, law, power, justice, the individual, and the community. Key philosophers include Plato, Aristotle, and Hobbes.

Religion:

Gwynn Kessler

RELG 032. Queering God: Feminist and Queer Theology

RELG 037. Sex, Gender, and the Bible

Mark Wallace

RELG 015B. Philosophy of Religion

RELG 027. Radical Jesus

RELG 112. Postmodern Religious Thought

What my three INTP courses have in common is a commitment to asking root questions about the foundations of culturally-shaped ways of knowing from a self-reflexive, positioned perspective. I think of my classes as exploring INTP as an ur-discipline within the liberal arts and sciences. These classes excavate the foundations of the Western canon, in its historical and contemporary expressions, though reading and discussing classic works of vision and critique. They ask outsize questions about the nature of science, history, society, art, religion, and literature at a time when the academy is increasingly specialized according to narrow research projects, departmental turf-protection, and sometimes less than congenial faculty-student relations.

Russian:

Sibelan Forrester

RUSS 047. Russian Fairy Tales [LITR 047R]

This class offers a general introduction to Russian folklore with special focus on folktales and the ways they are "translated" into various forms in elite or popular culture. We read a great deal of theory about folktales, including structuralist and semiotic approaches, psychological analysis, feminist and Marxist analysis. Differences between oral and literate culture are emphasized.

RUSS 070. Translation Workshop [LITR 070R]

The translation workshop combines three elements: first. reading about the history and theory of translation (in texts reaching from Saint Jerome to very recent); second, reading about and exchanging observations about the practice of translation, with lots of concrete examples; third. making translations and workshopping their drafts in class. The insights we gain may prove useful in the study of languages, literatures, linguisitcs, or any field that involves movement between languages

Spanish:

Luciano Martinez

SPAN 078. Laberintos borgeanos 

SPAN 108. Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges is one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. His work has influenced countless writers around the world, and the direction of Latin American literary fiction through his genre-bending metafictions, essays, and poetry. Borges’s postmodern thought has transcended literature itself to cast its influence on philosophy, mathematics, architecture, and epistemology of science, among other disciplines.

A course devoted to Borges serves as an ideal introduction to Interpretation Theory because Borges engaged creatively with different traditions of interpretation (Gnosticism, the Kabbalah, metaphysics, rationalism, etc.), and developed his own theory of interpretation which is also a theory of cultural translation. In his texts, Borges not only anticipated but also discussed the major topics of contemporary critical thinking: the theory of intertextuality, the limits of the referential illusion, the relationship between knowledge and language, meta- and hypertext, deconstruction, Orientalism, and the dilemmas of representation and narration.

See also:

  • LITR 075S. Borges: Aesthetics & Theory (Martinez)