The Curriculum

Each semester the Institute offers 60 – 80 courses. All have weekly reading assignments but no exams, papers, or grades. Members usually participate in one to three courses during each of the two semesters. (They may also enroll in Intersession courses taught by external faculty in January, for a small additional fee.)

Classes are once a week for two hours, 10 am–12 noon, or 1–3 pm, with a short coffee break. The semesters are 12 weeks, mid-September to mid-December, and mid-February to mid-May. Some courses run for only six weeks to accommodate members’ schedules.

Courses are in a range of liberal arts disciplines—history, politics, literature and poetry, art and architecture, music, science, and technology—and they change each semester. Following is a selection of typical courses.

Sample Course Offerings

Seamus Heaney (1913-2013): A Lifetime of Poetry

Readings: Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground, Selected Poems 1966–1996 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) Pbk, $10.68; Seamus Heaney, District and Circle (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007) Pbk $11.05; Seamus Heaney, Human Chain (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) Pbk $7.07

Seamus Heaney, the much-loved Irishman of humble origins, wrote poetry in English regarded by many to be the best since Yeats. Heaney’s wit, charm, deep understanding of the Troubles that racked Northern Ireland, and his extraordinary ability to write clearly that which is applicable to humans everywhere, makes his poetry universally acclaimed. He began teaching at Harvard as a visiting professor in 1979, was elected the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory (1984-95), then the Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet-in-Residence, a post he held until 2006. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. We will read selected poems from his earliest to latest works. Discussions will focus on interpretations of these works. The history, culture, and other background of Ireland will be taught. If time allows, some of Heaney’s prose articles will be reviewed. Two to three hours of preparations will be expected each week, along with a commitment to participate fully in the class.

Middlemarch: A Novel for the Ages

Readings: George Eliot, Middlemarch (Oxford University Press, 1997) $9.86

For Virginia Woolf, Middlemarch was “one of the few novels for grown-up people.” F. R. Leavis enthroned it in the “Great Tradition.” Margaret Drabble called it “[a] book one can read and reread, with no fear of exhausting its riches.” It is a panoramic novel of social history; a brilliant portrayal of the English Midlands on the eve of the 1832 Reform Bill. But it is also an exceptionally modern work. It depicts with acute psychological insight various individuals from different walks of life struggling against the world’s constraints. It is the perennial story of man—and woman—caught in society’s web.

DNA and the Language of Life

Readings: James D. Watson, The Double Helix, 1968 (Touchstone Edition, 2001) $10.85 selected articles from scientific journals, the Internet, and elsewhere.

We will read The Double Helix by James Watson and talk a bit about the chemistry, physics, and biology that came together in the exciting collaboration that led to the discovery of DNA. We will talk about the life of a research molecular biologist. We will look at why DNA is so special, how hereditary information provided by DNA is transcribed and translated into proteins, the functional agents of living systems acting as enzymes, receptors, and antibodies, among other functions. We will explore how proteins are synthesized, and consider the structures and functions of selected proteins. We will learn about gene sequencing and the human genome project. We will consider population genetics, gene modification in animals and plants, gene repair and its promise in the cure of disease.

A Passion for Justice: Bayard Rustin, 1912-1987

Readings: John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004) $25; Michael G. Long, Ed., I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters (City Lights Books, 2012) $19.95; additional photocopied essays

Throughout his life, Bayard Rustin forged difficult, often courageous pathways. He was no stranger to controversy. Whether speaking as an African-American, Quaker, conscientious objector, prisoner, community organizer, mentor to Martin Luther King, planner of the 1963 March on Washington, opponent of nuclear arms, or as an activist on behalf of labor, African de-colonization, refugees, Soviet Jews, and gays, his powerful voice seemed tireless. A remarkable singer, he rallied fellow prisoners with Billie Holiday’s bitter “Strange Fruit,” raising furious alarms in the prison system. A gay man, he began living openly with his white lover in New York in 1943. As a prominent civil rights leader, he incurred the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover. In this study group, we will consider Rustin as a major figure in twentieth-century struggles for justice achieved without violence. Discussion will focus on 55–65 pages of weekly reading from the D’Emilio biography, Rustin’s letters and essays, and study questions.

African Women Writing Resistance

Readings: Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Pauline Dongala, Omotayo Jolaosho, Anne Serafin, eds., African Women Writing Resistance (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010) $18.50

How are the present day women writers of Africa reacting to the events unfolding in their countries, events that range from sad to horrific? By use of a remarkable anthology of women’s writings that focus on issues and strategies of resistance, our study group will discuss the topics raised in the various works; intertribal and interethnic conflicts; degradation of the environment; polygamy; domestic abuse; Sharia law; emigration and exile; genital mutilation and more. The anthologies include essays, short stories, poems, interviews, lyrics and folktales that capture a diverse range of responses to the struggles of African women today. The writers come from 13 countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Botswana, Senegal and others. As we read about the issues raised by these brave and articulate women, we will also learn more about the history of their home countries.

The Mexican Muralist Movement and Mexican Arts of the 20th Century

Readings: Desmond Rochfort, Mexican Muralists (Chronicle Books, 1993) $15.90; Carlos Fuentes, The Old Gringo (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) $12.60

When the fighting subsided in Mexico, after the chaotic years of 1910–20, newly appointed Minister of Education, J. Vasconcellos commissioned a number of artists to prepare murals that would tell the history and aspirations of the Mexican Revolution. He offered the walls of various public buildings to leading artists like Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David A. Siqueiros and many others who revived the art of ‘al fresco’ mural painting in a way not seen since the Renaissance.

We will see how the Muralists drew inspiration from Pre Conquest and Colonial Art as well as the Renaissance Masters, Catholic iconography and Cubist art. We will study the Muralist Movement from a stylistic and historical point of view. The Revolution also had a profound effect on the Mexican art of the first half of the twentieth century in Mexico: canvas painting, graphic arts, photography and architecture all saw a resurgence and new vitality.

We will read essays on Mexican art and history from some of Mexico’s pre-eminent writers, like Enrique Krauze, Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. Readings will include a short novel by C. Fuentes that will give us a sense of the Mexican character and life during the Revolution.

We will visit the MFA to see their collection of Mexican graphic arts and Dartmouth University to see the Orozco murals. Trips will be made on Fridays or Saturdays to avoid conflicts with other SG.

What’s Behind China’s Transformation in the 21st Century

Readings: Jianying Zha, Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China (The New Press, 2011) $10.25

Who are the people creating the trends that will map out the future of China? Tide Players by Jianying Zha, Beijing-born writer and a long-term resident of the US, tells us more about the intellectual and entrepreneurial pragmatists, who prosper by challenging or accepting a system characterized by both enduring constraints and increasing options in everyday life. Selected by The Economist as one the best of 2011, Tide Players consists of two sets of three chapters, each a biographical profile. The first set deals with entrepreneurs; the second set covers intellectuals. We will read the entire book in five weeks and discuss the political, social, and cultural barriers and implications facing the contemporary China. The SGMs are encouraged to participate in class discussion. Required weekly reading: 40-50 pages

Celluloid Indians: Film Portrayals of Native Americans

Readings: Jacqueline Kilpatrick, Celluloid Indians, (University of Nebraska Press, 1999) $18.76

Celluloid Indians offers an in depth analysis of how Native Americans have been portrayed in films, through readings, viewings and discussions. We will see them as barbaric enemies, heroic though doomed noble savages, sympathetic victims of Euro-American greed and prejudice, complex human beings in contemporary society. We will examine the work of contemporary Native American actors, writers and directors. Each week we will watch excerpts of well-known films in a variety of genres. Candidates include Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves, 1950), Cheyenne Autumn (John Ford, 1964), Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990), Pocahontas (Disney animation, 1995), The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992), Pow Wow Highway (Jonathan Wacks, 1989,) and Smoke Signals (1998).

Out of the Shadows: Great Women of Science, Their Lives, Their Work

Readings: Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Nobel Prize Women of Science, Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries, 2nd. Ed. (Joseph Henry Press, 2001) $13.71

Only about 2% of Nobel laureates in science are women. Why? Recently a New Times Magazine article asks “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” In answering these questions we will look in detail at several women whose outstanding work in physics, chemistry, medicine, biology and mathematics has not been recognized by their peers. In the process we will review 200 years of science, beginning with Madame Curie, a winner of two Nobel Prizes. Readings will include the lives and works of Barbara McClintock, Lise Meitner, Chien-Shuing Wu, and Rosalind Franklin. These women struggled to become community and scientific leaders breaking through many barriers to achieve their goals. “They were mountain climbers, musicians, mothers, seamstresses, and gourmet cooks. They were strong joyful women in love with discovery” (Book Jacket quote).

Mozart’s Later Symphonies

Readings: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Later Symphonies. Full Orchestral Score of Symphonies 35-41 (Dover Publications) $14.01; Course reader (prepared by SGL) $10

Mozart's six last symphonies were composed within a few short years after his move from Salzburg to Vienna. Listening attentively to these symphonies, we learn to distinguish repetition and contrast, variation and development, haunting melody and rousing fanfare, and to appreciate how Mozart called on all the musical means at hand in developing his individualized late works. Selected readings fill in the context of musical taste and musical practice in Mozart's Vienna, and include selections by contemporary historians on the traditional and revolutionary aspects of Mozart's style. Some ability to read music is helpful but not a requirement. Following a score is just one of the ways we will practice focusing on the music as it unfolds, with the aim of becoming active and engaged listeners