HUMN 250/ENGL 230

Nihilism, Modernism, Uncertainty

Fall 2012

Professors: John Rickard and Slava Yastremski

Weekly Syllabus


Virginia Woolf once wrote that “on or about December 1910, human character changed.” This seminar will explore the pervasive sense in Western culture that fundamental shifts in cultural patterns and paradigms are taking place, changing not only our relationship with tradition and with the physical world, but even the ways we think and feel about ourselves and about each other. This cultural destabilization has been viewed as threatening by some and as potentially liberating by others. Certainly, many of the most influential modern artists and thinkers have questioned how or even whether value and belief can be sustained in a culture undergoing such rapid changes. We will trace the development of this sense of modernity by looking at selected texts that reflect or directly address this sense of cultural destabilization and transformation, with a primary emphasis on the twentieth century. Many of the primary texts for the class will reflect this anxious sense of diverse social and cultural shifts by concerning themselves with a sense of transformation and destabilization in various fields, including philosophy, religion, literature, psychology, music, art, and the natural sciences.

Readings from key modern writers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, W. E. B. DuBois, Virginia Woolf, Jean Paul Sartre, and others will illuminate our discussions of philosophy, music, religion, literary texts, and criticism. Like HUMN 098 and 150, the course is interdisciplinary in nature, and seeks to explore connections between different areas of human endeavor as a way to understand the tension between reason and uncertainty that has become characteristic of the twentieth century.

Each week of study will include a two-hour evening lecture and discussion by a guest speaker that all students must attend, and two daytime sessions that will involve structured lecturing and discussion.


The following course objectives are in accordance with the disciplinary requirements of the Division of Arts & Humanities, as specified by the new Core College Curriculum. They emphasize textual analysis and interpretation.

• Students will interpret texts with awareness of the texts’ basic orientation in the world (historical, philosophical, religious, linguistic, etc.).

• Students will be able to construct arguments and evaluate canons using the evidence and tools of critical analysis appropriate to the object of inquiry.

• Students will develop an appreciation of the fundamental ambiguities and complexities involved in all human attempts to answer questions about knowledge, values, and life.

PRIMARY TEXTS (available for purchase at Bucknell Bookstore):

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (Norton)
Toni Morrison, Sula (Vintage)
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (Vintage)
Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions (Carol)
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (Harvest/HBJ)

Other essays, chapters, and articles have been placed on Blackboard and are indicated in the reading section by an asterisk (*).


1) Attendance and participation. Class participation is fundamental to this course. This means that each student will be present for every class session and promote the quality of the classroom experience by fully participating in the various formats of the course: discussions, guest lectures, etc. If you miss more than two (2) unexcused class sessions, your final grade will be reduced one letter grade. Excessive absences – by this I mean missing more than five classes/lectures, excused or unexcused – will result in a student earning an F for the course. Please consult the Student Handbook for full details and more information regarding the University’s Policy for Medical and Other Excuses From Class.

2) Two papers, 6-7 pages in length. All papers should be neatly typed (double-spaced). Due dates for the paper are listed on the weekly syllabus. Please do not request an extension unless meeting the deadline is impossible entirely for reasons beyond your control (e.g., death, family emergencies, and illness). These papers are not reports or summary papers; rather they are analytical writings that show your critical skills in addressing and analyzing the proposed topic or problem. They will be evaluated and graded according to the following criteria: articulation and logical development of the thesis statement; reflective understanding of the topic or problem and its fundamental assumptions; clarity and adequacy of writing; and overall organization and style of writing.

3) One formal oral examination (15 minutes). Final oral comprehensive exam (based on readings, lectures, headnotes), date and time during finals period to be arranged. More details will be given later in the semester.

COURSE GRADES: Final course grades will be established in the following manner:
First paper: 30%
Second paper: 30%
Oral examination: 30%
Participation, attendance, and in-class writing: 10%

NOTE: Oral examinations will occur during finals period; please plan accordingly.

If you are looking for information on the web concerning any of the authors, texts, or issues included on the Humanities 250 syllabus, the best place to start is Alan Liu's Voice of the Shuttle: Web Page for Humanities Research.

A good source for modern art images is Mark Harden's Artchive.


Online Dictionaries and Style and Grammar Guides:

Jack Lynch's Guide to Grammar and Style

Jack Lynch's Resources for Writers and Writing Instructors

Patient Griselda's Grammar Guide, from Meredith College

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Grammar Handbook

The Ultimate Writer's Guide -- Thanks to Beth Santos for suggesting this page

Common Errors in English, by Paul Brians

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