Course Descriptions


Interdisciplinary seminars are at the heart of the Graduate Program in Liberal Studies. One MLS seminar is offered each term (Fall and Spring) and is normally taught once a week in the evening, usually on Mondays, from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. Below are course descriptions for the seminars currently in the MLS curriculum.

Master of Liberal Studies Courses

MLS 510: Darwin's Controv Legacy and Influen

(Darwin's Controversial Legacy and Current Influence.) The Darwinian legacy continues to influence much of our current thought, across diverse fields of inquiry. The importance of the work of Charles Darwin, whether acknowledged or unrecognized, is as strong 鈥 and controversial 鈥 today as it has ever been. While a significant portion of the U.S. public may continue to reject evolution, believing to some extent that humans have always existed in their current form, the scientific community not only accepts Darwin鈥檚 theory of evolution by natural selection, but entire research programs have been built around it, ranging from evolutionary biology itself to genetics, medicine, psychology, sociology, anthropology, geology, and philosophy. This seminar examines Darwin's text, On the Origin of Species, as well as selections from several of his other books. David Quammen鈥檚 The Reluctant Mr. Darwin and several essays by Stephen Jay Gould inform discussion, while John Dewey鈥檚 鈥淭he Influence of Darwin on Philosophy鈥 is a touchstone for the course. These foundational readings serve to shape our analysis of the ongoing debate surrounding Darwinian concepts, not only regarding issues of creationism and intelligent design, but ongoing controversies related to Darwin's theories within the current disciplines of biology, philosophy, psychology, and sociology.

MLS 514: Public Policy & Environment

The seminar will examine: the historical background of current environmental issues; alternative ways of conceiving of the relationship of humankind and the natural world; the complex issues created by the need to reconcile environmental with other social goals such as economic growth; consideration of international law and organization as a means of protecting the ozone layer and preventing global warming; analysis of the consequences of population growth.

MLS 516: The Idea of Law

The idea of 'law' can mean different things in different contexts and applications. This seminar considers such questions as whether the concept of law is used the same way in the natural and social sciences. How does 'natural' law differ from 'positive' law? While literature does enlarge our understanding of law in these several senses, how do letters, as well as the other arts, themselves reflect their own 'rules'? And do new theories of literary criticism along with chaos theory challenge older assumptions of order and meaning?

MLS 518: Intellectual Revol of 20th Cen

In the unsettled years around 1900 new aesthetic visions emerged in the arts, while intellectuals and scientists developed radically new ways of thinking about the natural and social worlds. These intellectual revolutions permeated the general consciousness during the early decades of the twentieth century. This seminar examines the contributions of major thinkers such as Freud and Einstein and movements such as modernism that had a decisive influence on our worldview.

MLS 520: Mind and Brain

The brain has been called an 'enchanted loom.' Can our knowledge of the physical brain help us understand our thinking selves, our emotions, and other mental processes? Conversely, can a good understanding of the human mind (rational, spiritual, and creative) illuminate our study of the physiological brain? How do personality and intellect develop over one's life? How does the brain develop, and how might consciousness have evolved? Do we have inborn 'social instincts'?

MLS 522: The 18th Century

The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century transformed the intellectual climate of European civilization. In the century that followed, many argued that the rational methods of natural science could be applied to philosophy, religion, politics, aesthetics, and society. The impulse to Enlightenment was challenged by a generation of writers and satirists who, while often introducing new styles of poetry and prose, defended traditional humanistic values. From this tension between old and new, continuity and change, emerged a modern world view. This seminar will explore eighteenth-century culture in a variety of its manifestations, including science, literature, the arts, religion, and politics.

MLS 524: Ways of Knowing

We know many different things but we also know in many different ways. The poet and the biologist know nature in distinctive manners. What is the basis for scientific knowledge? How can we know the past? What kinds of knowledge are the province of literature and the arts? The seminar will explore several of the ways in which we know, concentrating on the scientific, the historical, and the literary.

MLS 526: Sound and Image

This seminar will consider the aesthetic interaction between ear and eye, especially in the mass-mediated forms of music, sound effect, dialogue, photograph, painting, and cinema. We will read both theoretical and literary reflections on the subject, see some movies, and listen to recorded music. Briefly considering the physics and physiology of hearing and vision, we will consider how the artistic imagination, delivered in audio and visual media, interacts with audience experience both as individuals and as a social group.

MLS 528: Liberty

The concept of liberty is a relatively modern one; we can trace its development from the English Enlightenment to the 21st century. This seminar will explore how the idea of liberty has developed as a political, economic, cultural and social ideal. We will look at liberty in markets, individual rights, conflicts between equality and freedom, international relations, psychological explorations of freedom, conflicts between states and individual liberties, and other topics. Materials will include classic texts and cultural explorations of liberty through literature and the arts.

MLS 530: War and Peace Conflict/Human Nature

(War and Peace: Conflict and Human Nature) This course examines how issues of war and peace frame international relations in the modern era. With a special emphasis on World War I, we will study popular attitudes toward war, including militarism, imperialism, and pacifism. Consideration is also given to Woodrow Wilson's peace plan and subsequent efforts to end states' reliance on armed conflict to settle international political disputes. The course also considers the effect of technological change on war, efforts to promote democracy as an antidote to war, humanitarian intervention, and Islam's tradition of pacifism as a response to jihadism.

MLS 532: Sex & Gender in Nature and Society

An interdisciplinary exploration of sex and gender, with emphasis on the perspectives of biology, psychology, history, art, and literature. We will examine the biological bases for differences between males and females and how evolution shapes sex roles in animal societies. We will consider the social and cultural differences between males and females and how gender and sex affect the social roles of men and women. How, if at all, have gender roles changed in the process of historical development? How does culture construct gender and in what ways can art and literature illuminate aspects of gender?

MLS 534: Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

MLS 536: Meetings: East and West

Encounters between cultures play a significant role in world affairs. This course explores the complex and evolving inter-relationships among East Asian cultures and Western societies. It focuses on how both Eastern and Western traditions and discourses encounter, resist, assimilate, and transform each other in unpredictable ways. The course will involve history, politics, art, philosophy, film, literature, and music.

MLS 538: Ethics and Life

Selected topics dealing with the ethical dimension of human activities, institutions, and traditions. Topic for Fall 2005: International Relations. Considerations of the intersection between ethics and U.S. foreign policy, examining tensions and harmony between universal values and national interest. Examination of the extent ethics does, can, or should inform decisions about the U.S. role in international affairs.

MLS 540: Cinema & Society

Cinema exerts a powerful influence on society. It reflects, shapes and comments upon a variety of social and political concerns. Through careful analysis of films--classic as well as recent--and related texts, the seminar will explore varying representations of such themes as nation, gender, class, and race from literary, socio-scientific, and artistic perspectives.

MLS 542: Images of Human Nature

This course will consider various views about the nature and meaning of human existence. Among the images to be examined are the religious and philosophical, the heroic, the psychological, and the sociological and historical. Readings include selections from Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Freud, and various contemporary documents, including film.

MLS 544: Sensing Chicago

(Sensing Chicago: Past, Present, and Future.) Our experience of place is mediated by our senses. Chicago鈥攁 city whose name derives from an Algonquian term for stinking onion鈥攃an be grasped via its aroma (the Stockyards, Blommer's Chocolate Company), sights (1893 World's Fair, the Chicago School of Architecture), sounds (Blues, Jazz, Classical), tastes (deep dish pizza, molecular gastronomy), and touch (the wind toward the Lake, the crowds on the CTA). By using our senses as a lens, we interrogate the many layers of Chicago. The course will integrate campus sessions as well as field-based explorations of Chicago's sensorium.

MLS 546: Relig: Inter-disciplinary Approach

Religion has been a cultural universal in the past, and remains a constant in our current societies. Some of the questions that this cross-disciplinary seminar explores are as follows: What is religious experience? How does it interact with other facets of our psychological, sociological, economic, and cultural life? What was its role in traditional societies? What is its future? We shall look at religion from the perspectives of theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and social scientists.

MLS 548: Romanticism: Self and Society

The Romantic era (ca. 1780-1830) was a period of revolutionary change in politics, literature, music, and the visual arts. This seminar examines the evolving relation of self and society through five transformational decades of modern European history. Discussions will focus on the works of a number of major figures, including Blake, Burke, Schiller, Wordsworth, Keats, Schubert, and Mary Shelley.

MLS 550: Latin America: Economy & Culture

An interdisciplinary study of the historical development of Latin American societies, highlighting the artistic achievements of Latin American writers and film directors and focusing on the links between political and economic change on the one hand and artistic production on the other. Literary texts and films will be treated as complex aesthetic objects whose language does not merely photograph socio-historical reality, but transfigures it.

MLS 552: The Science of Science Fiction

(Life as We Don鈥檛 Know It: The Science of Science Fiction.) "It鈥檚 life, Jim, but not as we know it!" An interdisciplinary seminar exploring classic and contemporary texts of science fiction from the perspectives of a scholar of literature and a trained ecologist. We will investigate the science behind some of the classic tropes of the genre including alien life, artificial intelligence, the ecology of other worlds, and the political logic of dystopia. How do science fiction stories and films help us imagine the future鈥攁nd perhaps as importantly, better understand the world in which we now live? Materials will include classic science fiction texts by Frank Herbert, Stanislaw Lem, Ursula K. LeGuin, N.K. Jemisin, and others, as well as films such as Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris and Alex Garland's Annihilation.

MLS 554: Modern British Culture

An interdisciplinary exploration of British culture in the 20th and 21st centuries. Topics include the Edwardians, the impact of World War I; the Bloomsbury circle; culture during the Slump; films of the Second World War; working class realism after the war; the Sixties; Thatcherism and its critics; postmodernism and posthumanism.

MLS 556: Existentialism and Its Discontents

Existentialism was one of the most popular philosophical trends in the twentieth century, attracting philosophers and artists who sought to wrestle with the most personal and ultimate questions of meaning in the face of rising rationalism and scientific positivism. In part, Existentialism was rooted in the view that philosophy should be a way of life, practical and engaged, rather than mere abstract theorizing by elite intellectuals. Consequently, some of the deepest expressions of this philosophy have been in popular literature and film, which will be the focus of our seminar. This course will explore the artistic and ideological roots of the Existentialist movement in the 19th century with writers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky. It will examine the explosion of Existentialist thinking in the 20th century, especially in France through the literature of Sartre, De Beauvoir, and Camus. And, finally, it will consider more recent critiques of Existentialism from the vantage of philosopher-novelists like Iris Murdoch. Emphasis will be on the artistic expressions of Existentialism, particularly the novel as a form of philosophical exploration. Other Existentialist artists and philosophers to be considered may include De Unamuno, Bergman, Frankl, and Buber.

MLS 570: Preceptorial: AmericanGreats

The course will focus on great works from American literature and philosophy. Works include those by Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, Twain, Wharton, and others from the 20th century.

MLS 572: Higher Education in the U.S.

(Higher Education in the U.S.: Goals and Outcomes, Current Challenges, and Sustainability).This course examines the worth of a college education in the U.S.鈥攆or the society, the economy, and the individual. The seminar, with a focus on comparisons between liberal arts, universities, and community college models, draws from the work of philosophers and recent higher education research to consider the fundamental values and ethics that drive expectations for the college experience. Economic analysis addresses outcomes associated with public investment in colleges and universities and concerns about economic stability of current models. Public policy expert opinions provide insight as to why U.S. confidence in its colleges and universities is low and why employers may report disappointment in the skills of college graduates. The contributions of historians, artists, humanists, and social and physical scientists illuminate the idea that U.S. colleges and universities are often considered the best in the world at generating creativity and innovation. This course engages in a current assessment of undergraduate education鈥攊ts structures, challenges, and contributions. Considering higher education's complexities, students in this course generate ideas for reform to existing higher education models to enhance outcomes and future sustainability or necessary evolution of this historic enterprise.

MLS 580: The American Founding

(The American Founding: Principles, Practices, Controversies.) American politicians and legal scholars often support their opinions by referring to the Founding era of the United States. But what exactly occurred during those important years at the end of the 18th century? What were the major debates about the ratification of the Constitution and how were they resolved? Are these founding principles and institutions still worthy of support as they stand? Do they need to be revised to meet changed circumstances and, if so, to what degree? In this course we will carefully interrogate the history and political philosophy of the Founding Era by examining a wide selection of key texts. In addition, we will explore how different generations of Americans have (re)interpreted the meaning of these texts. Finally, we will consider how and why debates surrounding the meaning of the Founding era ae still very much present in virtually all of the major political controversies of our day.

MLS 582: Iconic Supreme Court Cases

American political and legal history is filled with important and influential Supreme Court cases that have dramatically shaped our constitutional tradition. In this course, we will carefully examine a number of iconic cases, such as Marbury v. Madison, Dred Scott v. Sanford, Roe v. Wade, and Obergefell v. Hodges (to name just a few), with an eye towards understanding their continuing legacies and significance. In addition to analyzing these cases on their own terms, we will also rely on them to illuminate broader questions concerning the proper role of the Supreme Court in our democracy.

MLS 583: Hamilton and the Founding Fathers

The reputation of Alexander Hamilton has vacillated wildly over the years. Detractors have called him an elitist, an opponent of democracy, or a crypto-monarchist, while his admirers view him as a realist who believed that the new Republic needed a strong central government in order to build a strong economy. Because he played a pivotal role in both the American Revolution and the formation of the Constitution, his story becomes a lens to study many of the defining moments of the founding of the United States. His life takes us into the great debates of the early republic over the scope and nature of government power and its role in shaping American society. This course will draw on the musical "Hamilton" as well as recent scholarship and key primary source readings to reassess Hamilton鈥檚 influence upon the key events of his lifetime and his legacy. The goals of the courses are: 1) to understand the key personalities, debates, and decisions of the Revolution and the Early National Period and 2) to model and practice the most effective teaching strategies for use in your own civics and history classrooms.

MLS 585: Rights: The History of an Idea

The idea that humans have rights, as we understand them today, is a relatively new one in the world. Rights that protect liberties are central to the theory of liberalism, the dominant political idea in the West. We will trace the roots of the idea, beginning with the Magna Carta, examine the classic liberal theorists, like Locke and Smith, whose philosophies have been so influential worldwide but particularly in the United States. We will end with 20th century American theorists who wrestle with the challenges of a rights-based society. Claims of individual liberty have political, economic, cultural and social implications. Throughout the semester we will juxtapose theoretical explorations of rights and liberties with concrete and specific examples of how ideas of liberty have expanded, contracted and brought conflict in American history. Public policy, law, and Supreme Court decisions reflect our constantly changing views on what it means to be free to speak, to consent, to participate in economic markets, to control one's own body. In emphasizing the theoretical foundations of rights and liberties, we prepare for further study on American politics, civil liberties, and American foreign policy.

MLS 586: American Constitutional Experience

(The American Constitutional Experience.) While many Americans note with some satisfaction that our Constitution is the oldest written governing national charter still in operation, there are a rising number of scholars and citizens of diverse political persuasions who argue and worry that our constitutional order is dangerously close to rupture. In this course, we seek to examine the American constitutional experience from as broad a lens as possible (including via film and literature) in order to assess its legitimacy. By examining previous historical moments of crisis and rupture, we will seek to glean lessons and/or gain context from the past. We will also try to assess the efficacy of our current constitutional arrangements by considering what reforms, if any, are necessary to solve our most pressing problems. Given that high-quality civics education is often put forward as one such solution, we will consider what our role as educators should be in transmitting and communicating our constitutional traditions and cultures to future generations.

A preceptorial is a small group tutorial focusing on a particular theme. The Graduate Program in Liberal Studies will offer these special classes on an as-needed basis. Previous preceptorials include:

MLS 570 American Greats
The course will focus on great works from American literature and philosophy.  Works included those by Throeau, Emerson, Melville, Twain, Wharton, and others from the 20th century.