News Story

A Liberal Arts Seminar

December 12, 2013Don Giovanni. Dido and Aeneas. These operas are not exactly your standard first-year college fare. But then the College’s Liberal Arts Seminar (LAS) isn’t your average college class.

Since 1968, this yearlong seminar has offered an interdisciplinary deep dive into a panoply of subjects grounded in the humanities. This year’s seminar focuses on the period between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment—from the politics of the time to its music, religion, and philosophy—through the eyes of a faculty drawn from the fields of literature, music, and history.

Tommaso Astarita and Bryan McCann of the Department of History, Anthony DelDonna of the Department of Performing Arts, and Patrick O’Malley of the Department of English developed the seminar as a way of introducing students to a period of history that helped forge a modern Western identity. We sat down to talk with the professors about why they chose to teach this era, the value of the seminar, and students’ discovery that they actually like opera.

How did you decide to teach this particular Liberal Arts Seminar?

Tommaso Astarita: One reason Professor O’Malley and I chose that period is because it bridges our own research interests: I am a historian who has worked primarily on the 17th century, leaking a bit into the 18th. And he is a literature scholar who has worked primarily on the late 18th and early 19th centuries. So this topic allowed us to plan a course that we could teach together, which was something we wanted to try.

What is your academic interest in this period?

Anthony DelDonna: I am a scholar of music from the 16th to 18th centuries with a particular interest and focus on 17th- and 18th-century opera. The opera stage has often served as a lens through which to observe contemporary society, especially, culture, politics, and religion.

Why is the period between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment worth such a deep dive?

Bryan McCann: Creating this course allowed Professor DelDonna and myself to consider how the discovery, conquest, and colonization of the Americas was understood and depicted in European culture. This enabled us to consider key works of canonical authors like Montaigne and Shakespeare, but also to consider broader social transformations in Europe. This proved an ideal way to combine our scholarly interests and to offer students widely varying material and disciplinary approaches.

TA: Particularly for students interested in government, law, history, music, literature, philosophy, and the history of science, this is a significant class. But it is also a great course for any student ready for a challenge and for practice in some of the important processes of thinking and writing that are central to being an educated person and a critical thinker.

What about this period do you think resonates with students and why?

Patrick O’Malley: Some of the great, foundational texts of modern Western literature were produced in the era between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, from Shakespeare’s plays to Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, to the works of Rousseau and Voltaire, to the novels of Jane Austen. It’s an incredibly rich period with which students today will find many similarities with their own world, and many differences.

TA: The 18th century represents a key period in the development of ideas that continue to shape our world today: scientific engagements with the natural world and rationalist approaches to philosophical questions; the ideas of representative democracy, the rights of women, and racial minorities; the concept of the nation and of its relationship to a colonial system; the relationship between faith and reason.

What is the value of the Liberal Arts Seminar, both for students and for professors?

BM: For students, the LAS is a great bonding experience, an opportunity to delve deeply into great works in a challenge shared with peers. For faculty, the LAS is a great opportunity to learn from colleagues and reconsider familiar material in unfamiliar ways.

What have you learned from teaching the seminar with other professors from other departments?

PO: This has been one of the great advantages and pleasures of teaching the Liberal Arts Seminar: to see not just another colleague’s teaching practices—which in itself we get few chances to do—but also to see first-hand how different disciplines approach similar and related issues, texts, and problems.

AD: I have learned much from collaborating with Professor McCann, especially a deep appreciation of Montaigne and a broader understanding of the colonization of the Americas. It is especially rewarding to have a colleague who can complement my academic strengths and also offer alternative understandings.

What do you think is most interesting or surprising to students as they study this period?

BM: I think the students are most surprised when they begin to discover that they actually like opera.

—Lauren Ober

Related Information

The Liberal Arts Seminar is one option for first-year students in the College. Learn more about the First-Year Options Program.