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2021 Summer Themes & Curriculum

Great Books seminars offer a truly unique array of literature spanning time and genres that is sure to pique your child's intellectual curiosity each and every session. To learn more about program themes that will spark your child’s interest, contact us via email info@greatbookssummer.com, or call/text 203-612-9470.

Every program provides new and challenging curriculum and readings for our students. Regardless of which program students attend, the themes and literature selections are sure to foster thought-provoking questions and fruitful discussions!


2021 Summer Themes & Curriculum:

Animal Mercy

If your pet could talk, what would they say? This question, seemingly a fun little thought-exercise, is actually the basis for a centuries-long, intercontinental quest for an understanding of what animals are thinking, if they can think, or what they are feeling, if they can feel. What this class will suggest is that these concerns are not really about animals at all: they are really about us, the human animal. Our interactions with (and views of) the natural world and the animal kingdom are a window into our treatment of each other.

  • Sample Texts: “The Tyger," by William Blake, "Attic Nights," Aulus Gellius, Politics by Aristotle, and more

Alex Johnson is an educator and theater artist based in Boston, MA where his work focuses on launching and sustaining theater programs in Boston public schools. Alex is a graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and holds an MA in Theater and Performance Studies from Stanford University.


Time Travelers

Are you prepared to enter the fourth dimension of space? If not, I have some bad news… you’re already here. You actually travel through it every minute of every second. After all, time is meant to be traveled. In fact, humanity’s desire for time travel is almost as old as time itself.

During our week together, we’ll examine literary representations of time travel, discuss the moral dilemmas that emerge when we change the past, and imagine how different versions of time can (re)shape our future identities. 

  • Sample Texts: “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, Kindred by Octavia Butler, and more

Dr. Jacob Burg is a lecturer at Boston University in the College of Arts and Sciences' Writing Program. He was the winner of the 2015-16 Brandeis University Shirle Dorothy Robbins Creative Writing Prize, and the 2019-20 Milton Hindus Dissertation Fellowship. He received his BA in English from Boston College and his PhD in American Literature from Brandeis University.


Wild: Savage or Sublime

The pristine wilderness, the heart of a lion, or the ultimate adversary: what does it mean to be wild? Together we will explore this elusive concept from a variety of perspectives across time and genres, considering its character and nature in the company of myth-makers, philosophers, and poets. 

Along our journey we will ask timeless questions: Does the wild only exist in remote places? Is there wilderness within each of us? And within this awesome landscape who gets to decide what counts as savage and what counts as sublime?

Sample Texts: The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Poetry by Joy Harjo, and more.

Susan Gentile is a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sustainability at Antioch University, teaching at both the New England and Los Angeles campuses. She received her M.S. in Environmental Studies from Antioch and is a graduate of Williams College.


Birth and Rebirth

Birth and rebirth are ongoing parts of our lives. They are part of our national heritages, our beliefs, our sense of self, and the very fabric of life coming forth in the universe.

During this week, we will explore the hopes and the worries that accompany our sense of birth and rebirth, looking at texts by Babbitt, Lincoln, Akutagawa, Milton, and Lazarus, discovering how they address how we are inspired and how we reflect on our purpose in the universe.

Dr. Kenneth Sammond is a senior lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University where he teaches writing and literature. He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University and an MPA from Baruch College-CUNY.



Ruins – The Mysteries of Past, Present, and Future

We have always been fascinated by ruins. An ancient Babylonian map describes “ruined cities watched over by ruined gods”; today we tour the acropolis in Athens and photograph the decaying factories of the American Midwest. The human fascination with ruins is no less than our fascination with who we are and where we come from. Ruins of stone and word tempt us to see our relationship with nature and with the past and future, and provoke us to ask an ultimate question: how is it that we should live?

Sample Texts: On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, Sonnets by William Shakespeare, Poetry by William Wordsworth

Dr. Ethan Guagliardo is the Assistant Professor of Western Languages and Literatures at Boğaziçi University in Instanbul, Turkey. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, and obtained his MA and BA from Louisiana State University.


Time Travelers

Are you prepared to enter the fourth dimension of space? If not, I have some bad news… you’re already here. You actually travel through it every minute of every second. After all, time is meant to be traveled. In fact, humanity’s desire for time travel is almost as old as time itself.

During our week together, we’ll examine literary representations of time travel, discuss the moral dilemmas that emerge when we change the past, and imagine how different versions of time can (re)shape our future identities. 

  • Sample Texts: “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, Kindred by Octavia Butler, and more

Dr. Jacob Burg is a lecturer at Boston University in the College of Arts and Sciences' Writing Program. He was the winner of the 2015-16 Brandeis University Shirle Dorothy Robbins Creative Writing Prize, and the 2019-20 Milton Hindus Dissertation Fellowship. He received his BA in English from Boston College and his PhD in American Literature from Brandeis University.


Into the Woods: Will We Find Good or Evil?

What might we find when we veer off the beaten path? As we embrace the adventure of heading into the woods do we find good or evil? Perhaps we will find exactly what we are expecting. Or perhaps we find something very different. What is good or evil anyway? And who decides which is which? 

When we are deep in the woods, the path is likely to be even less clear. Can we see the forest for the trees? Let’s venture into the woods and see!Sample Texts: Stories from the Brothers Grimm, Phaedrus by Plato, Mythology by Edith Hamilton, Poetry by Mary Oliver, and more.

Susan Gentile is a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sustainability at Antioch University, teaching at both the New England and Los Angeles campuses. She received her M.S. in Environmental Studies from Antioch and is a graduate of Williams College


Are Two (or More?) Better than One?

We typically think of authors as single individuals, but this isn’t always the case! In fact, there is a fascinating tradition of texts created by two (or more!) authors.

This week, we will undertake a shared critical project in which we read and discuss stories, essays, songs, films, and artwork that push authorship into strange new places. In doing so, we will ask questions about authorship, power, and collective responsibility. 

Who gets to tell the story? What does it mean to have a voice? How does a one-author text, like the Declaration of Independence, invite readers to imagine themselves as part of a project of collective authorship? And how can we create a society in which all are truly heard? 

  • Sample Texts: One Thousand and One Nights, The Surrealist Revolution by André Breton, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens by Alice Walker, and more.

Piers Gelly is a writer and radio producer based in Charlottesville, Virginia. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Virginia, where he is currently on the faculty of the English Department.


Selves and Others, Communities and Outcasts

Campers joining this session will explore how and why visions of selfhood and community are inevitably defined in opposition to visions of otherness.

Literary works ranging from Homer and Shakespeare to Langston Hughes and Nadine Gordimer will allow us to “frequent abroad in the world” even as we remain at home; together we will question the binaries of self and other, community and outcast, and strive toward the “marvelous clearness” Montaigne muses in his Essais.

  • Sample Texts: The Odyssey by Homer, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman, and more.

Dr. Amos Rothschild is an Associate Professor of English at St. Thomas Aquinas College. He attended Yale University and graduated magna cum laude with a BA in English. He earned an MA in Education from Fordham University and his Ph.D. from Boston University.


Nature and the Unnatural

What is nature? And what is unnatural? Who gets to decide? What happens if we disagree? The history and literature of humanity is intertwined and defined by how we choose what is nature and what is unnatural. We will explore the ways we are surrounded by nature and the ways we imagine nature.

How do we respond to nature as it relates to our shared humanity? How do our divisions and our dreams change or shape this? We will dive into works ranging from scripture to Orwell, from Shelley to Marlowe, from Wordsworth to Hoshi to find inspiration for answers to these questions and more.

  • Sample Texts: Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell, Poetry by Nikki Giovanni, and more.

Dr. Kenneth Sammond is a senior lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University where he teaches writing and literature. He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University and an MPA from Baruch College-CUNY.


Literature & Science: Friends or Foes?

Literature and science have often been cast as opposites, but is there more to this than meets the eye? How do these two seemingly contrary realms interact and influence each other? We will delve into Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the fears about the dark potential scientific discovery revealed in its pages. We will explore excerpts from Darwin that upended our ideas about ourselves and dive into a range of short stories, poems, and classics. Throughout the week, we will ask how scientific revelations influenced the literary world from poetry to science fiction. What does it mean to be human from scientific and literary perspectives? Are literature and science truly that different?

  • Sample Texts: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Short Stories by Isaac Asimov, and more.

Amelia McConville is a PhD Candidate at Trinity College Dublin where she is conducting interdisciplinary research on visual poetry, poetics, and Neurohumanities, funded by the Irish Research Council's Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship.



Fate and Free Will

Do we make our own path or do circumstances beyond our control shape our destiny? Are we truly able to choose what to do with our lives?

Can both fate and free will work together or are they in tension? For thousands of years, these questions have intrigued and perplexed philosophers, scientists, and anyone who thinks deliberately about how they live.

The implications of our views on fate and free will can affect everything from the small choices we make every day to our perspectives on bigger questions of moral responsibility, success, and failure. Exercise your free will and come explore these ideas.

  • Sample Texts: Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, “The Lady or the Tiger?” by Frank R Stockton.

Dr. Kathryn A. Miller is Associate Professor at the University of Jordan. She received her PhD from Yale and taught for 20 years at Wesleyan and Stanford.


Exploration and Discovery

What discovery waits for us beyond the boundaries of the known universe?The promise and mystery of the unknown has fascinated humanity for ages. We will examine the diverse ways that people recreate and imagine the ways we explore.

What do we discover about ourselves as we investigate the worlds around us? Our literary adventure will take us from West to East to the extraterrestrial, from explorations of the soul to explorations of places and people.

  • Sample Texts: “Learning to Read and Write” by Frederick Douglass, Poetry by Elizabeth Bishop, The Odyssey by Derek Walcott.

Dr. Kenneth Sammond is a senior lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University where he teaches writing and literature. He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University and an MPA from Baruch College-CUNY.


Every Book has an Author, or Does it?

This week, we will look at a range of texts—stories, poems, essays, films, songs, artworks—that were created by more than one brain. By inquiring closely into these collaborative texts, we will attempt to answer some questions about authorship: what is an author? What does it mean to have a voice?

What effects, experiences, or ideas are made possible by sharing authorship? We will also ask broader questions about authorship and democracy: is it possible to produce a text in which power is really, truly shared?

  • Sample Texts: One Thousand and One Nights, The Surrealist Revolution by André Breton, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens by Alice Walker.

Piers Gelly is a writer and radio producer based in Charlottesville, Virginia. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Virginia, where he is currently on the faculty of the English Department



What Does Justice Require

What does justice truly mean? We will explore the concept of justice and its relation to notions of right and wrong, vengeance, law, accountability, and restoration. These topics will be examined using a broad range of texts from the Torah to the dissent of a Supreme Court Justice.

What can writers such as Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Douglass teach us about questions that we continue grapple with today…what does justice require?

  • Sample Texts: The Eumenides by Aeschylus, The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Dr. Steve Volk is Professor of History Emeritus at Oberlin College where he taught Latin American history and museum studies for 31 years. In 2011, he was named US Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.


To Infinity and Beyond: An Exploration of Distance

How might we best measure distance––through space or through time? And how might the ground we cover bring us closer to (or farther from) friends, family, or even ourselves? From roads less traveled to time machine machinations, literature abounds with travel accounts and space-time ruminations.

Students will discuss works by literary titans like Shakespeare and Elizabeth Bishop and emerging contemporary voices like Charles Yu and Julia Alvarez, as well as examine visual art, film, and music––all in the hope of getting a little closer to understanding the myriad “distances” that exist in our lives.

  • Sample Texts: Sonnets by William Shakespeare, “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, “Names Nombres” by Julia Alvarez, “Top Ten Tips for Time Travelers” by Charles Yu,

Mike Harrington is a doctoral candidate in Princeton University's studying English Literature. He is a long time Academic Director at GBSP and a graduate of Amherst College.


Looking to the Future

Every day is lived on the precarious edge between the familiar past and the possibility of the future. As we look toward our own futures, we cast our gaze both ahead and behind. What is our place in history?  How do we and art and ideas move through time?  Through poets such as Shakespeare, Keats, and Shelley, we will look back to how writers of the past imagined art existing within the inescapable flow of time. Turning to visions of the future, we will read early works of Science Fiction, including HG Wells and Isaac Asimov, as they envision humanity’s potential and the possible pitfalls ahead. Do these imagined futures still appeal to us? Or, are our dreams different in this new age?

  • Sample Texts:  “The Long Rain” by Ray Bradbury, Sonnets by William Shakespeare, “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Michael Vaclav is currently earning his PhD in English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his BA and MA in English Literature from the University of Notre Dame studying Shakespeare and Early Modern Literature. This is Michael’s eighth year working with Great Books Summer Program both online and on the Amherst campus.


In Transit: Journeys and Belonging

When you meet someone for the first time, you might ask: “Where are you from?” Yet for many of us, our sense of self - the sense of who we are and where we belong is bigger than this. It has been powerfully shaped by the experience of being in motion, whether through travel, migration, or displacement. We will explore what it means to move from place to place in search of home, happiness, and, of course, adventure. Together we will ask: How do we change when we change where we are? If we don’t belong to one single place, is it possible to belong everywhere? Or do we then belong nowhere? What does it mean to be global?

  • Sample Texts: The Odyssey by Homer, “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman, “We Refugees” by Hannah Arendt

Dr. Dominic Vendell earned his PhD in history from Columbia University. Currently, Dominic is completing a postdoctoral research associate appointment with the Forms of Law in the Early Modern Persianate World project at the University of Exeter in the UK.


Beastly Natures

What is the relationships between humans and non-human animals? We will examine how we often employ (non-human) animals as a stand-in to think about ourselves, both fearing and welcoming the ways in which we might become those animals. Using readings spanning more than two millennia, we will consider how we think with and through animals to address our joys and confront our fears, and to ponder questions of freedom and confinement.

  • Readings include selections from Zhuangzi, Thomas Nagel, Mengzi, Aristotle, Franz Kafka, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and more.

Dr. Steve Volk is Professor of History Emeritus at Oberlin College where he continues to serve as the director of the Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence. In 2011, he was named US Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

A Hero's Quest 

Is a hero's quest always a noble journey with a happy ending? Where is the line between a virtuous quest and a destructive obsession? Does a hero know the difference between the two? Do we? In this exciting one-week session, students will delve into famous adventures in an attempt to define heroism. Who is a hero and who is a villain? The truth may be less clear than we think! 

  • Readings include selections from Joseph Campbell, Homer, William Shakespeare, Jane Hirschfield, and more.

Dr. Ilan Stavans is a co-founder of Great Books Summer Program, Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Cultures at Amherst College, distinguished author and literary critic, and publisher of Restless Books, devoted to world literature in translation.


Contact us with any curriculum questions or learn more about our Great Books summer programs.





2021 Online January/February Themes & Curriculum:

Utopian Visions

What does the "perfect" society look like? What barriers are there to achieving it? For centuries, schemers and dreamers have turned to the arts to pose these timeless questions and search for answers. Readings include selections from Shakespeare, Plato, Margaret Cavendish, Thomas More, and more. Seminars will be led by Dr. Annie Seaton, Dr. Amos Rothschild, Dr. Julia Fisher, and Eve Houghton. These celebrated professors and scholars represent hail from Bard College, St. Thomas Aquinas College, and Yale University.


Literature and the Senses

How can you see a sound, taste a memory, or feel a color? Together students will explore how authors, artists, and thinkers trick our senses and draw us into new worlds that make us perceive our own differently. Readings include selections from John Milton, Helen Keller, Emily Dickinson, Virgil, Borges and more. Seminars will be led by Dr. Annie Seaton, Dr. Kenneth Sammond, and Andrew Sanchez. These esteemed professors and scholars hail from Bard College, Fairleigh Dickinson University, and University of Oxford.


Sweet Revenge

They say time heals all wounds. But some of our favorite characters would disagree. How do the concepts of revenge, retribution, and mercy shape timeless works of literature? Readings include selections from Sylvia Plath, Franz Kafka, Thucydides, Eve L. Ewing and more. Seminars will be led by Dr. Stephen Volk, Dr. Amos Rothschild, Dr. Dominic Vendell, and Alex Johnson.  These award-winning professors and scholars hail from Oberlin College, St. Thomas Aquinas College, Columbia University, and Stanford University.


Humanity vs. Nature

Are humans a part of nature or apart from it? In this seminar, students will explore our complicated and ever-changing relationship with the natural world through timeless stories, essays, and poetry. Readings include selections from Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, Wilfred Owen, Margaret Atwood, Marilyn Nelson, and more. Seminars will be led by Dr. Jacob Burg, Dr. Kathryn Miller, and Andrew Sanchez. These renowned professors and scholars hail from Boston University, the University of Jordan, and University of Oxford. 

Contact us with any curriculum questions or learn more about our Great Books Online January/February programs.




2020 Online Winter Break Themes & Curriculum:

Magical Science & Scientific Magic

Is there a point where magic and science intersect? Arthur C. Clarke famously once said that magic is just science that we don’t understand yet. In this session, we will explore the line between science and magic through fantasy and science fiction, both old and new. We will work together to answer questions such as: how do magical stories help scientists imagine new technologies? Do new technologies inspire authors to invent new magic? We will cross through portals to other worlds, travel light years, cast spells, and construct robots! Join us to capture the magical power of science, and search for the science hiding behind our favorite magic. Readings include selections from Ursula K. Le Guin, Ted Chiang, Arthur C. Clarke, and more.

Dr. Jacob Burg is a lecturer at Boston University in the College of Arts and Sciences' Writing Program. He was the winner of the 2015-16 Brandeis University Shirle Dorothy Robbins Creative Writing Prize, and the 2019-20 Milton Hindus Dissertation Fellowship.


The Shape of the Future

How do we determine if we have made progress when some areas are so hard to measure? It is easy to evaluate scientific and technological progress. Systems exist to show just how far we’ve come. But what about other types of progress? When we can’t quantify growth, how do we know that we are truly moving forward? What happens when our views on what constitutes progress are in conflict? Is progress always definable or defensible? How can you shape the future? In this seminar, students will explore and investigate how famous literary figures defined progress. Readings include selections from Ambrose Bierce, William Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, and more.

Dr. Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Cultures at Amherst College and publisher of Restless Books, devoted to world literature in translation.


Contact us with any curriculum questions about our Winter Break program.

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2020 Online September Themes & Curriculum:

The Game of Risk: Luck, Chance, & Uncertainty

Prophecies, lotteries, and weather forecasts: uncertainty has always plagued (and delighted) mankind. Students will spend time exploring the concept of luck, risk, and reward. These award-winning professors and scholars hail from Oberlin, Oxford, Stanford, and Yale.

Text Selections may include: Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, "The Bet" by Anton Chekhov, "Lonely Eagles" by Marilyn Nelson, and "One of These Days" by Gabriel García Márquez.

Led by Great Books Academic Directors Dr. Ilan Stavans, Andrew Sanchez, Dr. Wes Alcenat, and Max Suechting. These award winning professors and scholars hail from Amherst College, Oxford University, Fordham University, and Stanford University.


Myths & Legends

What makes a simple story a legend or, better yet, a myth? Every culture has these tales - why do they persist; what do they tell us about our world?

Text Selections  may include: "Ragnarok" by Jorge Luis Borges, Bhagavad Gita, Mythology by Edith Hamilton, and “The Fairies” by William Allingham.

Led by Great Books Academic Directors Dr. Annie Seaton, Noah Rosenblum JD, Andrew Sanchez, and Jacob Burg. These honored professors and scholars hail from Bard College, Yale Law School, Oxford University, and Boston University.


I Contain Multitudes

Poet Walt Whitman said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” Identity and self-definition has long fascinated writers and artists. We will consider the multi-faceted components contained in the idea of self.

Text Selections may include: Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes, “On His Blindness” by John Milton, Hamlet by William Shakespeare, and paintings by Frida Kahlo.

Led by Great Books Academic Directors Dr. Steven Volk, Andrew Sanchez, Alex Johnson, and Eve Houghton. These celebrated professors and scholars hail from Oberlin College, Oxford University, Stanford University, and Yale University.


Contact us with any curriculum questions about our September programs.




2020 Online Summer Themes & Curriculum:

Why Shakespeare?

This session invites students, not just to read Shakespeare, but to reflect on why Shakespeare has become so central to English and world literature. Why did Shakespeare, rather than some other author, come to be imagined as our common literary inheritance? How did Shakespeare come to be read as a chronicler of universal human experience, even credited with (to borrow Harold Bloom’s phrase) “inventing the human?” We will combine an introduction to Shakespeare’s drama with a critical reflection on these questions. Reading will include Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, and more by Shakespeare. Led by Eve Houghton, who is a Ph.D. student in English at Yale University with research centering on English literature and culture from 1500-1800, the history of reading, and literary procrastination.


The Idea of God

There seems to be a human impulse—one we can find in lots of cultures, at lots of different times—to believe in some form of god. How does the idea of God respond to a natural human longing to understand the world? What kinds of arguments have people created to prove the existence of God? What do different conceptions of God look like, and how do those various sorts of gods reflect different human longings? Once they’ve conceived of a god, how do people interact with that idea? How does the idea of God inspire literature, moral behavior, or other kinds of devotion? What does it mean to live in a godless world? How does the idea of God shape even a godless world? Readings will include “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” poetry by John Donne, short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, and more. Led by Dr. Julia Fisher, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently an English teacher at Georgetown Day School.


The Myths & Realities of the American West

Cowboys herd cattle across vast plains, a caravan of wagons winds through narrow mountain passes, and bandits jump aboard speeding trains. Life on the American frontier was thrilling, dangerous, and beautiful – at least, that’s what countless westerns tell us. Were they telling the truth? Were they even trying to tell the truth? During this week, we’ll examine the myths, realities, locations, and different groups of people who make up the West in order to help us consider why this specific region of the country has become so important to its identity. We’ll travel across great geographic distances and stretches of time to explore our ever-evolving relationship to the West, starting with classic westerns, frontier stories, and paintings from the 19th and early 20thcenturies, to poems from the late 20th century, to short stories, non-fiction, and photographs from the 21st century. How do these different visions of the West fit together? How can we use old stories to understand present challenges? Reading will include selections from Annie Proulx, Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner, Cormac McCarthy, and more. Led by Jake Burg, who pursuing a Ph.D. at Brandeis University and is a Lecturer at Boston University in the College of Arts & Sciences' Writing Program.


Protest Literature

Explore the theme of “Protest” reading selections from works that have opposed restrictions or energized those who were protesting against laws, customs, habits and rules which have kept people from greater engagement with the world and one another. Literature of protest explores ‘great’ epics, poems, short stories, and speeches from the neo-classical to modern era, focusing on those diverse works that have provoked and motivated young and old to reflect, react, and challenge our structures and conventions. How has such literature been used as a tool for change? What roles have authors, and readers, played in energizing protest, reflecting on restrictions, and inspiring change? Readings will include Paradise Lost by John Milton, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass, Essays by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Led by Dr. Ken Sammond, a senior lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University and scholar of “imagined communities.”


Moral Dilemmas


Do you jump a rushing river in to help someone who is drowning? Should you steal food if your family is starving? Is it ever right to lie? If you were certain that no one would catch you, would you steal a rare book from the library? Would you kill an innocent child in order to save the world For millennia, we have pondered these and similar questions How do we know what is right, what is just, what we should do? During this week we’ll examine these and other moral dilemmas and see how others have addressed them from ancient times to the present, while raising how YOU would answer them. Readings will include Agamemnon by Euripides, The Principle of Utility by Jeremy Bentham, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and more. Led by Dr. Steven Volk Professor of History Emeritus at Oberlin College, who was named US Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.


Everything & Nothing

Students will discuss the nature of infinity and finitude: What is an ending, and what is a beginning? Do all things have limits, or are limits fictions of human perception? Is there a difference between everything and nothing? Drawing together fiction, poetry, essays, philosophy, and film, we will examine several aesthetics of the infinite, including the sublime, absurdism, and recursion, while also considering how paired of boundaries and boundlessness structure both out social world and our understandings of self. Readings will include The Pensées by Blaise Pascal, Fiction by Jorge Luis Borges, “Poetry” by William Blake, and more. Led by Max Suechting, a doctoral candidate in Stanford University’s Program in Modern Thought & Literature and Amherst College alumnus.



Caves & Shadows

Trapped, helpless, and unable to move. This is the predicament described by Plato in Book VII of The Republic, the 2500+ year old “Allegory of the Cave.” Plato’s prisoners do not seem to know that they are underground: they are ignorant of the sun, grass, or ocean. Their entire reality--what these locked-down bodies know --consists of shadow-shows that Plato’s cave-dwellers have learned to perceive as “the world.” This theatre is the only show in town. Someone, apparently, would like these prisoners to remain both ignorant--and distracted. Through classical and later authors, we’ll focus on recognizing the underground passages we inhabit, either by choice--or by (someone else’s?) design. Escape plans to be decided after reading. Readings will include The Republic by Plato, The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois, The Meditations, and more. Led by Dr. Annie Seaton, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Humanities at Bard College where she is also the Founder and Director of the Difference and Media Lab.


Are We There Yet?

Humans learn to fly. Small towns grow into sprawling cities. Women win the right to vote. There are historical periods that undergo such radical change that society’s basic assumptions get exposed, questioned, and reinvented. In this week of seminars, students will explore readings across history that investigate the notion of progress. With classic authors & visionaries as their guides, students will discuss the timeless questions that still puzzle our society today: What does it mean for a society or an individual person to progress? What does progress look like? And does progress always come at a cost? Readings will include The Republic by Plato, The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau, and “The Gospel of Wealth” by Andrew Carnegie, and more. Led by Dr. Wes Alcenat, who is an Assistant Professor of History and Affiliated Faculty, American Studies program at Fordham University, Rose Hill Campus.


The Philosophy, Physics, Poetics, & Psychology of Time

Writing about 1600 years ago, St. Augustine offered what is still the best observation about time: “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.” Of course we "know" about time, but what, really, is it? During this week, we'll explore how philosophers, poets, physicists and psychologists try to answer the question - and still manage to leave it strangely unanswered. We'll look at our relationship to time - to the past (through memory), to the present (through our changing perception how quickly or slowly time passes), and to the future (why is the idea of time travel so intriguing and so problematic?). Has time always existed? Will time end some day? Readings will include Confessions by Saint Augustine, “The Secret Miracle” by Jorge Luis Borges, “Hymn to Time” by Ursula K. LeGuin and more. Led by Dr. Steven Volk Professor of History Emeritus at Oberlin College, who was named US Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.


What is Poetry

This course asks how we can recognize “literary” or “poetic” language and distinguish it from ordinary, everyday speech. The question of how to define literary language remains important today, since it determines what is included in the category of “literature.” We will read works by poets like John Milton and William Wordsworth, who reflected extensively on the question what poetry is and what it should do. We will also read poems that seem to test the boundaries of what a poem can be, calling into question the division between poetry and other genres, and between literary and non-literary language. Readings will include Paradise Lost by John Milton, Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth, Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein, and more. Led by Eve Houghton, who is a Ph.D. student in English at Yale University with research centering on English literature and culture from 1500-1800, the history of reading, and literary procrastination.


Exploring Comedy

What is comedy? During this week of seminars and discussions, students will explore this simple yet elusive concept. Is it the opposite of tragedy? Does comedy travel well across time? Do all cultures laugh in the same way? Are there differences in gender, ethnicity, and economics in regards to comedy? When is comedy ironic and when is it sarcastic? Did Shakespeare conceive comedy in ways unlike stand-up comedians today? What might have Aristotle understood for comedy, given that his book on the subject has been irrevocably lost? Is Dante's Divine Comedy comedic? Readings will include The Divine Comedy by Dante, A Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare, Essays by George Meredith, and more. Led by Dr. Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Cultures at Amherst College and host of NPR’s "In Contrast."


Allegory

What is allegory? That may seem like a simple question about a simple term you learn in school, but scholars have had a surprisingly hard time pinning down a definition. We'll see if we can reach one of our own, and we'll also think about whether allegory is a useful way to understand the world. What does it mean for something to stand for something else? Does turning a character into a mere idea render the character flat and lifeless? Is allegory a really simplistic way of thinking? What happens when allegories are not so tidy? Readings will include Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Republic by Plato, “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and more. Led by Dr. Julia Fisher, who is an English teacher at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.



Masks & Faces

Explore the deep origins and current prevalence of masks. Found in nearly every human culture, masks have served purposes from ritual to performance to crime to care- what unifies these various purposes? Using a wide range of literature, images, and even a Supreme Court case, we will analyze the ways in which masks protect ourselves and project a kind of selfhood out into the world. In ancient Greek, the word prosopon could mean either "face" or "mask"; we'll think together about why those words meant so much the same to the Greeks, and mean so much different to us today. Readings will include Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare,“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe, “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, and more. Led Alex Johnson, who is an educator and theater artist based in Boston, MA where his work focuses on launching and sustaining theater programs in Boston public schools.


Freedom

Explore the many dimensions of freedom that have influenced our ideas of science, culture, and history. What is freedom and how has it evolved in diverse cultures? So much of our global literary heritage, including works by Plato, Anne Frank, Lorraine Hansberry, and Arthur C. Clarke, reveals how we desire freedom and seek ways to question and escape the confines imposed on us in order to become better, more complete, or more assured. How is it important to us? How does it change our perspectives and our senses of self, community and society? Reading will include The Republic by Plato, Dairy of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, “Learning to Read & Write” by Frederick Douglass, and more. Led by Dr. Ken Sammond, a senior lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University and scholar of “imagined communities.”



Can Literature Change the World?

When seeking social change, what holds the most weight? An idea, a sword, or a poem? Can a solitary writer scribbling in an attic change the course of history with prose? What is the relationship between the written word, the world itself, and society around us. Led by Dr. Ilan Stavans. What is the relationship between the written word, the world itself, and society around us? From Sun Tzu’s Art of War to the American Constitution. From Samuel Johnson to Pablo Neruda. From Silent Spring to How the Other Half Lives. In this probing journey across time, genre, and culture; we will examine the power of literature to shape communities, movements, and even nations. Led by Dr. Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Cultures at Amherst College and host of NPR’s "In Contrast."


Fairies, Merfolk, and Talking Wolves: Envoys from the Secret Commonwealth

The fairy tale tradition has supplied us with some of the most enduring stories, symbols, and characters of the artistic world, drawing from stories that predate even the earliest written literature. However, these tales are continually reworked and reborn even today. Fairy tales are imbued with a sense of wonder, implying that the world we know is bordered by something much weirder, a place both beautiful and sinister, which the seventeenth-century folklorist Robert Kirk called the "Secret Commonwealth." Why has the idea of a magical realm existing just beyond our understanding intrigued us for so long? Who are its strange inhabitants, and what can they tell us? Reading will include A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare Peter Pan by James M. Barrie. The session will be led by Dr. Marcus Conley a Dean and Tutor at Harrison Middleton University who received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nottingham.


Resilience

“By cosmic rule, as day yields night, so winter summer, war peace, plenty famine.” Heraclitus, nearly 2500 years ago, urges us to accept that change is the only constant. And with the acceptance of change, pace Heraclitus, comes the possibility of insight; even joy: resilience, in fact! Resilience comes from the Latin verb “resilio,” which means “to spring back, rebound” or “to recover.” As seekers of resilience, we will read ancient, classical, and contemporary writers as more than just literature: they will be our pathfinders and guides.Beginning with Boccaccio’s Decameron, in the thick of the Bubonic Plague, we will travel from Ancient Greco-Persia with Heraclitus, to the Roman Imperial era of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, if you listen carefully, have lessons on how art makes its own case for persistence and survival. Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table and Octavia Butler’s Parableseries, both located somewhere between science, fiction, and the surreal, in very different ways, give us more contemporary voices on struggle amidst chaos. This session is led by Dr. Annie Seaton, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Humanities at Bard College where she is also the Founder and Director of the Difference and Media Lab.


Words That Transformed Worlds

How might words and works of fiction not only reflect the world we live in but also change it? This week, we’ll read texts whose words jump off the page, demanding that we think differently about the self, society, rights, and the environment we live in. What kinds of worlds do these texts imagine, or make manifest? Are there particular forms that lend themselves to 'great ideas' or 'great changes,' or can a poem foster a movement the same way a speech can? We'll read excerpts of great fiction that reflected societies in upheaval and transition. Readings will include John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. We'll conclude with short fiction from authors who attempt to capture the contemporary climate crisis in their fiction-- not simply to reflect the world, but to witness and to ultimately save it. Led by Dr. Amanda Lagji who is an Assistant Professor of English and World Literature at Pitzer College.


Adventures in Mind, Body, and Spirit

What really is an adventure? Adventure can take a variety of forms, ranging from the intellectual to the physical to the spiritual. This week we will uncover the manifold meanings of this seductive concept through works of philosophy, literature, art, and film. As we unpack this rich theme, we will ask ourselves what constitutes a true adventure and why the spirit of adventurousness has captured the literary imagination for centuries. Any conception of adventure entails risk, and as we read accounts of fictional and non-fiction adventurousness, we will uncover how the transgression of boundaries and conventions is the basis of meaningful adventure. Readings will include Fiction by Plato, The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell, Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell, and more. Led by Andrew Sanchez who is a DPhil candidate and Ertegun Scholar at the University of Oxford.


The Extraordinary Ordinary
Leaving Chaos to Find Creativity

In a world where we are bombarded with constant stimuli—texts, videos, and social posts—it is increasingly challenging to slow down, observe, and appreciate our seemingly mundane surroundings. Yet, for centuries, the great writers and poets have found extraordinary inspiration within the ordinary. Whether it is Whitman’s celebration of everyday miracles, or Bashō’s meditations on an old pond, the splendor of the commonplace reveals itself to be anything but boring. Students will learn what it takes to perceive the hidden treasures in our world and what rewards spring from a patient observance of life. Readings include selections from Virginia Woolf, Pablo Neruda, Ernest Hemingway, and more. This session will be led by Mitchell Pinkowski, winner of multiple teaching awards and research grants and current English literature teacher at Episcopal High School in Washington, D.C.


Other Minds
Experience Life as Humans, Animals, and AI

Human. Animal. Machine. For the last half century, protecting human rights has been a common ideal around the world. Yet, to be human is fundamentally to live with other beings and now AI. The apparent gap between human and other lives has provoked enduring questions among writers, scientists, and philosophers: To what extent are human and animal minds similar or different? Do animals and increasingly robots deserve rights? Or are humans an exceptional lifeform? Students will explore these questions by critically engaging with an array of texts from the ancient world to the present. Readings include selections from Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Julio Cortázar, Marianne Moore, and more. The session will be led by Dr. Dominic Vendell who holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University and is completing a postdoctoral appointment at the University of Exeter in the UK.


Literature on Fire
Incendiary Works, Revolution, & Renaissance

Explore famous works of ‘incendiary’ literature with the power of revelation and igniting rebellion, or inspiring a renaissance from the ashes. Students will be asked to consider: How has literature been served as a tool for change? What roles have authors, and readers, played in revolutions? What stories can banned or burned books still tell us? Readings include selections from A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Alexander Brown, and more. The session will be led by Dr. Kathryn A. Miller, who is an Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Jordan.


The Fantastic, the Uncanny, the Macabre!
Imaginary Worlds & Everyday Life

Throughout literary history, writers have crafted imaginary worlds in which the logic of everyday life is overturned—islands fly, flowers talk, and owls bring the mail. But when we go “through the looking glass,” where do we end up? Some argue that literatures of the fantastic are fundamentally escapist, the product of a nostalgic longing for an irretrievable past. Others find in fantasy the potential for social engagement, political subversion, or meaningful experimentation. Readings include selections from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight by Gawain Poet, and more. The session will be led by Dr. Amos Rothschild, who is an Assistant Professor of English at St. Thomas Aquinas College.


Monsters Among Us
Who is the Real Monster?

The scariest monsters are often standing right next to you and you don’t even know. Some monsters screech and wail but others are charismatic, clever, even cunning. Is recognizing monsters among us a talent or skill? What lessons can monsters teach us? Many literary beasts stand the test of time, but is our definition of monsters timeless? Selections from Guy de Maupassant, Mary Shelley, Jorge Luis Borges, Bram Stoker, and more. Led by Dr. Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Cultures at Amherst College and host of NPR’s "In Contrast."



Freedom and Imagination
What is Reality Anyway?

To be a human is to exist in a singular location at a single point in time. Or does the power of imagination change this? Do your thoughts and daydreams have the power to transform the world around you? Are we free to imagine our own reality? What is reality anyway? Students will explore the paradox of reality and imagination that has fascinated writers, artists, and philosophers since the dawn of time. Led by Noah Rosenblum, J.D., a Yale Law School graduate who is pursuing his Ph.D. in intellectual history at Columbia University, and Dr. Annie Seaton, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Humanities at Bard College where she is also the Founder and Director of the Difference and Media Lab.


Stay tuned for more 2020 Themes!

Contact us with questions.  We are always glad to help! 



See our 2019 Themes & Curriculum

Games Week
Playing Through History

What would you do if you were forced to battle a Grecian cyclops or to protect the one you love while being hunted by a mad man? Games have been central themes in literature since the classical era. Students will delve into this theme and probe whether literature itself is a game, in the illusory way that it creates worlds, characters, plots, and the passage of time. Readings include Homer, Richard Connell, Orson Scott Card, and more. Dr. Ken Sammond, a senior lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University and scholar of “imagined communities,” will lead this exciting literary exploration.


Technology & Humanity Week
Artificial Intelligence

What is the real impact of implementing AI (artificial intelligence)? Will ‘the machines’ really take over? Students will engage in an energetic debate over the application of technology and its potential effect on humanity through the writings of literary greats. Readings include Ray Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Kurt Vonnegut, and more. This electrifying session will be led by Dr. Marcus Conley, a Dean and Tutor at Harrison Middleton University, who has taught at the secondary and post-secondary levels in both the UK and USA.


Science Fiction & Fantasy Week
Ourselves & Others

If alien life arrived on Earth today would they be hospitable, hostile, or hungry? That is the excitement behind the many great works of science fiction that thrust us into a startling new world and force us to re-examine life as we know it. Readings include H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Ursula Le Guin, and Jorge Luis Borges. Join Dr. Ilan Stavans, co-founder of Great Books Summer Program and winner of the Guggenheim Fellowship, in this exciting literary exploration into the new worlds around us and their impact on humanity.


Empire Week
The Rise and Fall of Power

Looking through the lens of Genghis Khan, the most feared historical figure of all times, students will explore how political power works, how leaders wield it, and how imperial subjects object to such domination. Witness the rise and fall of an empire by reading history, short stories, journalism, and poetry that focuses on the Mongol Empire. Readings include George Orwell, Roff Smith, and Jack Weatherford. This riveting session will be led by Spring Greeney, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduate of Harvard College.


Moral Dilemmas
Who would you save?

What if you found out you were a human clone created specifically for organ donation? Is that really your sole purpose or do you deserve to have your own life, free of donation? Jump into this provocative and engaging session, led by nationally celebrated Oberlin professor emeritus, Dr. Steven Volk, who was named US Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Reading include Shakespeare, Plato, and Dostoevsky.


The Magic of Mega Books
All about blockbusters!

Don Quixote, Gone With The Wind, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter. What is it about these blockbuster books that grabbed generations? How do novels captivate cultures around the world and become iconic? Dr. Ilan Stavans, an NPR Host, Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Cultures at Amherst College and the author of two award-winning graphic novels, will investigate the magic that makes a text endure for lifetimes.



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