Campus & Community

A sampling of classes in new Gen Ed curriculum

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With this fall’s formal launch of the new Program in General Education (Gen Ed) just a few months away, undergraduates are sampling from eight courses being offered this spring under the Gen Ed rubric.

The Gen Ed curriculum, approved in 2007 by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, replaces the 30-year-old Core Curriculum. Starting with the Class of 2013 — next fall’s freshmen — Harvard College students will shift to the Gen Ed curriculum, which aims to connect classes with students’ lives outside the classroom.

A glimpse into four of this spring’s eight Gen Ed courses follows.


From grand museums to humble family keepsakes, all cultures are rife with material artifacts and physical markers providing links to the past. These objects shape cultural heritage, but can also provoke conflict over meaning and ownership. Julie Buckler, professor of Slavic languages and literatures, explores how societies and cultures construct a “usable past” through material objects in “The Presence of the Past.”

Buckler and her students focus on memorials, monuments, and museums to discuss the cultural politics surrounding historic preservation. They also evaluate private methods of commemoration, with the goal of addressing the dialogue between past and present in contemporary cultural landscapes.

“I hope that my students will come away thinking differently about traditional sites of ‘high’ culture such as museums and monuments,” Buckler said. “There are many rigorous ways to approach these sites … many critical questions to be asked and stories to be excavated.”

One of the primary requirements for Buckler’s course is the development of an “individual cultural landscape.” Each student chooses a place that interests him or her — a town or region, for example — and, over the course of the semester, becomes the class specialist on that locale. The students upload research materials about the locale onto the course Web site (such as essays, articles, and links) to create a cultural “map” for the rest of the group, taking into consideration questions of cultural politics and contested memory.

“I encourage my students to be interested in all kinds of cultural landscapes,” said Buckler. “I hope that they are excited about the diversity of the world’s surface, but also able to think of it as a coherent whole.”


Science and history illuminate one another in the new interdisciplinary course “Understanding Darwinism.” Jointly taught by Janet Browne, Aramont Professor of the History of Science, and Andrew Berry, lecturer on biology, the course covers both the history of Darwinism and the science of evolutionary biology.

It’s the interdisciplinary nature of the class that sets it apart, Browne and Berry say. Each has taught classes that independently cover the material, but neither has previously collaborated in this way across disciplinary boundaries. Together, the two say, they can provide the big picture.

Both Browne and Berry also have expertise in each other’s fields, knowledge that contributes to the course’s coherence. Browne trained as a biologist, and Berry has written about Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin whose work also theorized about natural selection.

Course work is varied because of the interdisciplinary nature of the material, and includes students sequencing their own DNA in the laboratory, as well as lectures on the cultural and societal implication of historical topics such as eugenics — the attempt to manipulate human evolution through selective breeding practices.

The theory of evolution lies at the heart of all of biology, but it is much more than just a biological idea, Browne and Berry say, adding that our understanding of who we are, both as individuals and as human beings, is critically informed by evolution. Unlike many scientific ideas, evolution readily spills out of the category “science,” they say, making it especially attractive to nonconcentrators.


Limits and boundaries hardly seem like the type of themes to encourage wide-ranging discussion. But for Stephanie Sandler, they are the perfect jumping-off point to talk about poetry.

Sandler, Ernest E. Monrad Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, draws on the idea of boundaries and borders in her General Education class. Titled “Poetry Without Borders,” the course explores how poetry challenges political and cultural limitations.

Sandler and her students discuss poetry across three thematic frameworks: linguistic borders, geographic borders, and aesthetic borders. The first provides an opportunity to discuss poetry and translation. The second addresses poetry and exile, and the third considers poetry in light of music, film, and the visual arts.

Though Sandler is trained as a Slavic scholar, she and her students read poetry from many countries, including France, the United States, Germany, and China.

“I want my students to have an opportunity to think about the poetry of our world,” Sandler explained. “I chose poets whose work would illustrate our themes … texts that encourage us to think about the choices poets make, and how poems interact with the world.”

Many of the poems are difficult to read, said Sandler, but her students have taken up the challenge of poets like Paul Celan, Susan Howe, and Joseph Brodsky.

“They have brought their openness and curiosity and are willing to go wherever the poetry takes them,” she said. “And it has led in some pretty unexpected directions.”


The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was recently recognized, both at Harvard and around the world, making this an appropriate moment for students to examine the topic of human rights.

Mathias Risse, associate professor of public policy and philosophy at the Harvard Kennedy School, teaches “Human Rights: A Philosophical Introduction.” The course is the first Risse has taught at the undergraduate level on this aspect of human rights studies.

The course has received an extremely positive response, with more students enrolled than were originally projected.

“Anybody who works in an international setting will be confronted with human rights questions,” says Risse. “The class is different from a philosophy concentration class by not going into as much depth as one would in such a class, but instead, we cover a broader range of topics.”

Risse hopes the course encourages students to participate in the human rights movement, and to contribute, in any way possible, to a better world. Regardless of their path after college, students will eventually encounter questions about these values, and Risse hopes this course will help them to better deal with those issues.

“The field of human rights studies becomes ever more central to college education because the language of human rights has become the universal language of assessment in the international arena,” says Risse. “It’s in terms of human rights that we are negotiating our interactions with each other across the globe, and this also matters enormously in many career tracks these days.”


Even for a Harvard professor, building a new course from scratch is a daunting prospect. Increasingly, though, students from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) are helping faculty reshape Harvard’s undergraduate curriculum.

Through Graduate Seminars in General Education, GSAS students work closely with faculty members to develop innovative courses for the College curriculum. GSAS students earn credit while analyzing readings, primary materials, laboratory work, and teaching techniques for proposed Gen Ed courses.

“The collaborations in these seminars are exciting, and the results gratifying for our graduate students, faculty, and, ultimately, Harvard College students,” says GSAS Dean Allan Brandt, professor of the history of science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Amalie Moses Kass Professor of the History of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “It’s a win-win-win situation.”

Gen Ed courses shaped by the graduate seminars will become available to College students in the coming semesters — with graduate students who’ve participated in their creation serving among the first batch of teaching fellows. To date, Graduate Seminars in General Education have touched on subjects including Asia in the making of the modern world, the Civil War, food in America, international human rights, probability, animal studies, and ethics and aesthetics.

Graduate Seminars in General Education are supported by the Richard L. Menschel Fund, which has been instrumental in fostering efforts to improve teaching and learning at Harvard.

Additional courses

Other Gen Ed courses being offered this semester:

• Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 13: “Cultural Agents” (Doris Sommer)

• Culture and Belief 13: “The Contested Bible: The Sacred-Secular Dance” (Jay Harris)

• Culture and Belief 14: “Human Being and the Sacred in the History of the West” (Sean Kelly)

• Societies of the World 11: “Germany in the World, 1600-2000” (David Blackbourn)

See a current listing of all courses approved for the new program.