Recent Course Offerings

Portrait of Edward Steidle

"MLA students are interested in their world, interested in the human condition, and interested in how they, themselves, fit into the world they have inherited."

—Edward Steidle, MLA Foundations Instructor

MLA students take at least seven MLA seminars, which provide the opportunity to participate in small group settings for discussions, debate, and intellectual exploration.


The seminars offered are different every year, though some seminars are repeated every two or three years. They include offerings from various disciplines, including anthropology, classics, history, literature, music, cultural studies, environmental science, history of science, political science, diversity studies, and philosophy. View the current year's curriculum under the Students and Alumni tab.

Some Recent Curriculum Offerings

Note that MLA seminar offerings vary year by year, to take advantage of faculty availability and to offer students a breadth of courses to choose from across the 2-3 years they are taking seminars.

Caroline Winterer

Professor of History and, by courtesy, Classics

Eighteenth-century America was like a laboratory for exciting new political, religious, scientific, and artistic theories that we collectively call “the Enlightenment.” But to what extent were the major ideas and questions of the Enlightenment shaped by the specific conditions of North America? Was the new world of America fundamentally different or the same as Europe, and did animals, plants, and peoples improve or worsen there? Could a perfect new society and government, uncorrupted by European problems, be created in America? To what extent did the American Enlightenment lay the groundwork for modern American society and its ideal of continual improvement and progress? We will attempt to answer these questions in this class through short lectures, readings in original documents from the era, and in discussions together.

Barton H. "Buzz" Thompson, Jr.

Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law, and Perry L. McCarty Director & Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment

Rivers are of exceptional importance to society. Rivers drain 75 percent of the Earth’s surface. Before railroads, trucks, and airplanes, they were the major arteries of transportation and commerce – and they still retain important commercial importance. They furnish us with one of the cleanest sources of energy. They provide us with fresh water for domestic, irrigation, industrial, and commercial use. They serve as “natural” borders between states and nations. They afford critical habitat for fish, birds, and many mammals. And they offer boundless recreational opportunities, from fly fishing to white water rafting. In the last century, these multiple uses have often clashed, leading to fierce political battles. Not surprisingly, rivers are also intimately bound up in the history of the region through which they flow. In this course, we will study three western rivers – the Colorado River, which is the water lifeblood of the American Southwest; the Columbia River, which produces almost half of the nation’s hydroelectric power; and the Los Angeles River, which was channelized in the middle of the 20th century but today is making a potential comeback. Each student will write a paper on the history, cultural significance, or current controversies of a river of his or her choice.

Anne Firth Murray

Consulting Professor, Human Biology

This course provides an overview of international women’s health issues presented in the context of a woman’s life, beginning in infancy and childhood and moving through adolescence, reproductive years, and aging. The approach to women’s health is broad, taking into account economic, social, and human rights factors and particularly the importance of women’s capacities to have good health and manage their lives in the face of societal pressures and obstacles. Attention will be given to critical issues of women’s health, such as: discrimination against women; poverty; unequal access to the cash economy, education, food, and health care; and violence. Issues such as maternal mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, violence in the home and in conflict and refugee situations, unequal access to economic opportunity, and sex trafficking will be discussed, with particular emphasis on promising interventions relating to the issues.

Jessica Riskin

Professor of History

This course treats the intertwined histories of modern science and modern law. Beginning during the early modern period, these two fields together developed the core notions of fact, evidence, experiment, demonstration, objectivity, proof – indeed, of law itself, and of the relations between natural and human laws – that operate at the crux of each. We examine these crucial ideas and their histories in science and law.

Denise Gigante

Professor of English

This course will explore the visionary, illuminated world of William Blake—poet, prophet, revolutionary, and experimental artist. Blake’s genius lived, moved, and had its being in the radical world of the 1790s when modernity was taking shape: religious dissent, scientific breakthroughs, industrialization, urbanization, commodification, and political turmoil that involved agitation for the abolition of slavery, the rights of women, and the restructuring of social class hierarchies, were all part of the ferment from which his illuminated artwork emerged. Its immediacy, relevancy, and capacity to inspire have only grown to this day.

Students will gain familiarity with Blake’s visual iconography, the basic principles of his system and ideology, his unique, multicultural mythology, and his “infernal method” of relief etching that allowed him to make every illuminated book a unique work of art.

Robert Siegel

Professor (Teaching) of Microbiology and Immunology

This course uses the idiom of photography to learn about nature, enhance observation, and explore scientific concepts. The course theme builds upon the pioneering photographic work of Eadweard J. Muybridge on human and animal locomotion. A second goal is to learn the grammar, syntax, composition, and style of nature photography to enhance the use of this medium as a form of scientific communication. Scientific themes to be explored include: taxonomy, habitat preservation, climate change; species diversity; survival and reproductive strategies; ecological niches and coevolution, carrying capacity and sustainability, population densities, predation, and predator-prey relationships, open-space management, the physics of photography. We will also explore the themes of change across time and space. Assignments will combine visual and written presentations and write-ups based on student research. Course makes extensive use of field trips and class critique.

Blakey Vermeule

Professor of English

The human predicament is in many ways tragic—or so argues the pessimistic South African philosopher David Benatar in his new book by that title. We are beset by pain and evil and we can eke out order and meaning only with sustained effort. In this class, we will study three masterpieces in some detail: Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667), Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, and Middlemarch by George Eliot (1872). These three works take up the human predicament (“all our woe” as Milton famously calls it) in diverse forms: political, social, physical, psychological, financial, marital, domestic. They are astonishing works that more than repay intense close study. We will take these great works on their own terms first, and then in relation to the great questions of suffering, joy, redemption, and transcendence that they offer. Participants in the class are asked to read David Benatar’s The Human Predicament before the first class meeting.

Elaine Treharne

Roberta Bowman Denning Professor of Humanities

From buildings constructed to resemble books, to collectibles and memorials shaped as open pages, to the language and effect of the Web and Kindle, The Book seems as culturally present as any object could be. This course seeks to investigate this thing—The Book—to see what it means, what it represents, and how it is itself represented. We shall examine medieval and modern books; books about books; artists’ books; and objects that are books, even if they don’t look like books (and vice versa). We’ll also spend time considering the book as Monument, as Relic, as Fetish, as Thing, and as Immaterial.

Abbas Milani

Hamid & Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies and Adjunct Professor at the Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute

The purpose of this seminar is to inquire into some of the different and subtle forms of dissent in the quotidian of the Islamic Republic of Iran, particularly in many realms of aesthetics. Only by understanding the subversive subaltern life of the vibrant youthful globalized society, and comparing it with the dour image of its dogmatic and aged central despotic political structure can we understand the paradox that is contemporary Iran. Through reading and analyzing novels smuggled out of the country (or published as Samizdat inside Iran), through watching films officially banned but shown in Iran or in Diaspora, through understanding the increasing assertive role of women in social spaces and their actual sartorial styles, through looking into the secret world of fashion, underground theater, underground music (from rap to hip-hop), and the burgeoning of social media can we hope to both better understand these aesthetic texts and the complicated paradoxical context that is contemporary Iran.

James Campbell

Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History

This course provides an introduction to some of the central questions in African American history. Topics includes: the transatlantic slave trade; slavery and freedom in the Age of Revolution; the slave's narrative; emancipation; black politics in the age of Jim Crow; the Harlem Renaissance; the Civil Rights Movement; and the slavery reparations debate. Readings include classic texts by such writers as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright.

Stanford campus