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Important and relevant


“These electives make real our ideas about what skills and ideas students should build and confront during their time with us in Watkinson's upper school.”

Ryan Reese, Upper School head


Black Voices in American Literature — This course is an introduction to Black writers who have had a powerful impact on American thought and expression in the United States. Students will study the central themes, conflicts, and creative currents of Black American literature through readings that  emphasize concerns of racial identity and cultural heritage, as well as the struggle for justice, equality, and freedom. Our exploration will focus on the emergence of distinctly Black literary contributions in the 20th century, often in response to other American literary movements and trends. Students will examine essential questions such as: What role has writing by Black Americans played in the ongoing development of American literature? How has that writing changed over time to reflect and respond to the political and social needs of its historical moment? How does that writing influence discussions about the written word, equity, and social justice? Through their engagement with the literature, students will learn about the influence of Black writers on American literature and society.

Individualism/Freedom to Choose — Students will study the emergence of individualism and shifting ideals of choice and freedom in the American psyche, exploring American writers that portray a society and characters whose core features are independence and self-reliance. The freedom to make individualistic choices is foundational to Americans’ values, their sense of self and citizenship, and their struggle to identify and address American society’s flaws. Students will be asked to explore several key questions as they relate to the literature, including ones like: Why do Americans prize individualism so greatly? What does our society value today, in terms of the freedom to make individual choices, compared to the past? What have other non-Western cultures emphasized as morally/ethically correct for the individual or to those in power? What are the benefits and drawbacks of the American focus on the individual?

The Land — This elective will explore the role the land has played in American experience. It will consider how Americans have changed what was once a vast wilderness, but also how the land has shaped our beliefs and values. This theme is essential because, with its expanse and beauty, the land of the United States has brought freedom and opportunity to many but also exploitation and oppression to many others. Through fiction, poetry, essays, drama, and film, we will explore a number of recurring themes, including the first settlers’ attitude to the wilderness, America as a mobile society, the Native American Experience, the myth of the West and the vanishing of the frontier, the Great Northward Migration, technology vs. the natural world, and the environmental movement. As they read the assigned texts, the students will be asked to reflect on their own relationship to the natural world and on what role, if any, they may play in preserving it for future generations.

Concepts of Home — Students will study portrayals of domestic life in America via fiction, drama, essay, poetry, and film. This study of home life will include a range of perspectives across race, class, region, gender, family unit, and time period.  In addition to its accessibility and relevance to students’ lives, what makes this theme of domestic life essential is the way it combines two of American literature’s most prominent subjects: family and place.  In terms of family, students will be asked to explore several key questions as they relate to the literature: how one’s family shapes one’s identity; the role family plays in one’s life and vice versa; how family history informs the present; how a family unit responds to conflict; how the stories America tells itself about family align with reality.  In terms of place, students will consider: how one defines “home”; how one decides to stay in or leave a place; how one defines and finds satisfaction regarding their place in American society; urban vs. suburban vs. rural spaces; what responsibility one has to one’s neighbor; what it means to own land and property; how an author’s home informs their work.  

Assimilation and Identity — This elective will ask students to study portrayals of assimilation into “American culture.” The study of how different cultures are asked to assimilate, and how they accept or resist this expectation, will include a range of perspectives across race, class, region, gender, and time period. The United States (as a country and a concept) was built by immigrants and transplants—some of whom came by choice, some of whom came by force—and in many ways this continues to be the story of the American population. Students will be asked to explore several key questions as they relate to the literature, including how one’s ancestry and/or culture of origin shapes one’s identity; how one’s family’s immigration and acculturation shapes one’s identity; how issues of assimilation, and points of view about it, have changed over time; and what assimilation means in terms of American identity today.   

Postcolonial Literature — This course will build on the 9th grade reading curriculum and serve as a deeper dive into postcolonial literature and history. As of the mid-19th century, approximately 90% of the world had been colonized by European and American powers. Through a variety of postcolonial voices, readings will highlight the concerns of colonized peoples, including the loss and/or maintenance of cultural heritage, the costs of colonization, and the drive for liberation. Through their reading, students will explore several essential questions about the postcolonial experience: How do European colonial empires exercise power before, during, and after periods of formal colonization? How does the history of colonialism impact the present? How do colonial methods of domination affect the individual and society across time and space? What role has literature played in advancing liberation movements in different postcolonial contexts? Throughout the course, students will determine how and to what extent the texts challenge, resist, or reinforce colonial structures of power. This course is highly recommended for Global Studies diploma students.

European Thought Revolutions — Students will study revolutionary texts in the European literary tradition. In an ever-changing world where ideas and thoughts travel quickly from screen to screen, it has become essential to understand where and how culturally significant ideas started, and the nature of how they have evolved. Accordingly, in this class, students will study European texts through which the writer challenged established social, cultural, literary, and political systems of thought. Students will consider questions like: How do revolutions happen in society? Is power given or taken? How do specific texts affect how the larger population thinks and lives? Throughout the course, students will compare these concepts to today’s society and explore the connections between revolutionary thought as it was, and as it is today.

Women, Men, and Madness — In this elective, students will study iconic portrayals of women in European literature.  European (and American) women have been viewed largely through the lens of hysteria—that is, “madness of the womb”—throughout what many Americans today still view as the Western Canon. In turn, these ideas largely form the foundation of prevailing attitudes about gender. Over the course of the class, students will study the origins of the concept of hysteria in European literature and consider current revisions by major Feminist writers and theorists. Students will be asked to explore several key questions as they relate to the literature, including how women came to be linked with madness and what, if anything, gender and sanity have to do with each other in Western culture. In what ways have socioeconomic forces informed the roles assigned to women? What role does madness play in the power struggle between men and women? Is there a relationship between gender and how we view sanity?

Asia: Near and Far — Students will study literature that explores the ethos of the near and far East via fiction, drama, essay, poetry, and film. These largely unexplored domains by traditional high school English curricula are rich in historical, cultural, and literary diversity and are essential for students in 2020 to understand because of their relevance to current geopolitics. The religious and mystical underpinnings of Middle Eastern literature, as well as the discernibly non-Western existential tenor of texts from the Far East, may serve to inform how students understand today’s issues of religious tension, war, and international economics (to name only a few).  Students will be asked to explore several key questions as they relate to the literature, including ones such as: Why do many Eastern voices sound so “foreign”? What makes them different from what we’re used to? How can we understand the roots of Islam, Buddhism, and other eastern philosophies through literature? What do those ways of thought have to do with the world today? What can we learn from looking to Eastern ways of thinking and being?

Globalization & Immigration — This elective will require students to study texts that explore globalization and immigration, with specific attention to what life is like in major cities as a result of globalization.  The overarching concept of this elective will be convergence: namely how global cities serve as the place where many different kinds of people live among each other. The texts for this course should find a balance between the study of expansive narratives about city life and close study of specific immigrant experience.  Emerging from the broad theme of convergence are key questions regarding race, class, language, religion, tolerance, modernization, conservatism vs. liberalism, and, above all, power and identity.  As the world globalizes, it is essential that students explore portrayals of human life in cosmopolitan settings, and in so doing, consider the multiplicity of human experience and how it mingles, unites, and collides.

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Christina Bernbach


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American Exceptionalism and the American Dream — What makes America different, if anything at all?  What is the American dream, and who has been excluded from it? 

This course will study the trajectory of American Exceptionalism, from William Bradford’s original description of the “city upon a hill” to the construction and erosion of the American dream and where those ideals stand today. Students will examine ideas and theories surrounding the Puritan work ethic, a legacy of independence, and the importance of the large, lawless frontier and its vast natural resources, as well as the importance of contributions from a vast array of diverse minds and voices in order to examine the underpinnings of American Exceptionalism.  Importantly, the rise of America as a superpower and the conceit of the American dream only serves to highlight all the peoples who have been excluded from it.  Is American Exceptionalism better defined by the persistent and pervasive nature of anti-Black racism and other exclusionary policies aimed toward other traditionally marginalized peoples?  Students will examine the racialized history between Black and white Americans, as well as institutional and systemic practices aimed at division and inequity that have had far-reaching and long-lasting effects on American society and culture in order to find answers and construct meaning. 

The Signature of Civilizations: History through Art — How can we use the arts to learn deeply about peoples and societies across time and place? Do changes in the arts reflect or drive social change?

Studying the art and culture of a people teaches us how those people saw themselves and the world, as well as how they wanted to show these ideas to others.  Art provides us an avenue to understand our human past and its relationship to the present. These stories and approaches to art are diverse and vary greatly across the globe and throughout human history.  These differences are critical and can help us identify the most important and essential aspects of a people and what they valued at any given moment in time.  From the discovery and study of the cave paintings of Lascaux to the ritualistic and religious importance of artifacts from Egyptian necropoli, we will trace the development and purpose of art across centuries.  Beyond that, we will look at key convergences of historical moments and great artists, such as Ghiberti’s entry in  the competition to create the bronze doors for the Baptistry in Florence, Italy and Edouard Manet’s responses to Haussmann’s redesign of Paris.  Making meaning in visual terms within a world where most information is presented to us in that medium, students will build skills in critical viewing and comparison, as well as oral presentation and discussion, while studying objects interdisciplinarily through focusing on the historical, religious and societal contexts in which they were created.  

American Civics & Government — What are the origins of American government and how are those intentions interpreted and manifested today?

This elective explores the origins and evolution of the United States government, its political systems, and the rights and responsibilities of American citizens. Topics include the philosophical origins of the U.S. government, the Constitution, the three branches of government at the federal, state, and local levels, the two-party system, the election process, and the impact of media, technology, and the economy on government and political systems. In reading Kim Wehle’s How to Read the Constitution and Why, students will gain a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the Constitution and how it influences policy, laws, and legal disputes. Throughout the course, students will have the opportunity to engage in local government by connecting with public officials on important policy issues. 

Triumph and Tragedy: The Legacy of Conflict in the 20th Century Did the three great global conflicts of the 20th century lead to a more peaceful world?

The 20th Century witnessed three interrelated conflicts which brought about human tragedies on a scale virtually unmatched in history. The two World Wars, and the Cold War which followed in their wake, collectively killed over 100 million people, increased the power of dictators and authoritarian governments across the world, inspired the creation of weapons with the power to destroy life as we know it, and sparked further conflicts which still simmer to this day. But these three conflicts also led to waves of decolonization which gave birth to dozens of independent countries, spread democracy across the globe, inspired declarations of universal human rights, and ushered in an era of sustained economic growth and prosperity unrivaled in human history. So what exactly is the shared legacy of these conflicts? This class will explore the various answers to this question through a study of the causes, courses, and impacts of the three major conflicts that helped define the previous century, and which continue to weigh so heavily on our own.

The Age of Genocide What is genocide, why does it happen, and what happens in its aftermath?

Many of us are sadly all too familiar with genocide. Images from the death camps of the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the bloody hills of Rwanda have been burned into our collective consciousness. While the 20th century has been called “The Century of Genocide,” genocidal violence is sadly not a thing of the past, but has continued into the new millenium, with atrocities committed in Darfur, The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Middle East. These tragic events raise many troubling, but important, questions. What exactly is “genocide?” Where did the term come from, and how has it been defined and examined over time? How does genocide come to take place? How is it patterned? What motivates people to participate in such violence? Why do many governments fail to intervene to stop genocides? Does failure to intervene equate to complicity in the genocide?  And finally, what happens in the aftermath of genocidal violence? This course will seek to answer these questions through in-depth studies of several modern genocides, from widely recognized incidents of mass murder, like the Holocaust and Rwanda, to often ignored genocides, like Armenia and Guatemala, guided always by the most important question of all, how can we make sure it never happens again.

Searching for the Self: Philosophy, Identity, and Religion — What is the basis of a person’s identity, how do we know, and what responsibilities do we have to one another?

What makes me who I am? The question of what constitutes your identity has been addressed by many disciplines, including philosophy, political theory, psychology, literature and religion. What does it mean to be human? Is there an unchanging core to your being? How does your identity relate to others, and how are you bound to others through your identity? This interdisciplinary course will use readings from diverse classic and recent sources to propose different accounts of personal identity, the purpose of life, and the basis of moral obligation.  Important topics could include the self as an act of personal creation, nature vs nurture, the self in Hinduism and Buddhism, mind and body, the individualist vs communal conception of the person, the self and the soul, Aristotlian ethics and politics, contemporary research in cognitive science, existentialism, and intersectionality.

Human Progress: Geography, Culture, and Commerce — Why did different areas of the world develop at different rates, and why are some regions more developed than others? Is there a universal standard for what counts as successful development? 

Why did Spain conquer Mexico in 1521, instead of Mexico conquering Spain? It is easy to say that Spain had ships, swords, guns and horses, or that Eurasian epidemics like smallpox wiped out millions in the New World, but why didn’t Mexico have ships, guns, horses or epidemic diseases?  The focus of this class will be the examination of such questions about human development and historical change.  We’ll study such topics as the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture,  the way the geography of the continents affects why some societies develop more quickly than others, and why some nations have been able to exploit others. Seeking  answers to such questions also forces us to re-evaluate what human development is,  why it occurs, and where it may be headed. The class will use recent works of “Big History” including works by Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari, and Tim Marshall, and will study the development of cultures in Africa, East Asia and the Americas in order  to enhance the student’s knowledge base about Geography, World History, Anthropology and Economics. 

Globalization: Our Connected World — When societies come into contact with one another, what is lost, and what is gained?

From the Silk Road to the Columbian Exchange to the globalized world of today, this course will examine the interconnectedness of cultures and societies through the exchange of trade, ideas, technology, and information and the migration of people. Students will examine examples of conflict and cooperation resulting from globalization, as well as the distribution of wealth and resources in different regions of the world. What countries have emerged in the new global economy, and what are the reasons for the emergence? How does their emergence impact prior alliances and partnerships? Students will explore how different forms of diversity enrich a society and how cultural and ethnic identities and a cosmopolitan culture have evolved in a connected world. Globalization leads to unique opportunities and challenges for different countries and societies. Students will identify and interpret contrasting perspectives on globalization from a variety of cultural viewpoints, while exploring globalization’s economic, political, social, and cultural dimensions. Ultimately, students will evaluate if globalization is a failed experiment or the inevitable future.

Revolution: Causes and Consequences — What is the driving force behind revolutions, and what can follow in their wake?

Revolution. It is a word we all know, a word which conjures up many images to our minds: of barricades and gun smoke, of corrupt kings and emperors succumbing to the moral authority of an awoken people, of human progress. But how did a word that means to return to the starting point come to be synonymous with sudden fundamental change? What exactly is a revolution? Going further, what are the primary drivers of revolution? Why and when do revolutionary movements emerge?  Why do some revolutions succeed and others fail? And finally, what kind of world do revolutions leave us? This course is designed to answer these questions. In our investigation we will examine political, social, economic, technological, and intellectual revolutions, ranging from peaceful transformations like the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, to vast societal shifts like the industrial and digital revolutions, to violent upheavals like the French and Chinese revolutions. 

The Rise and Fall of Empires — Why do Empires rise, and what leads them to fall?

Empires have been around almost as long as human civilization itself. From the dynasties of China to the Great Khanates of the Mongols to Rome, the pages of history are littered with the rise and fall of great empires. But what exactly are empires; why do they form, and, just as often, fail? Through a series of case studies this course will examine multiple empires throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas, across thousands of years of history; exploring their foundations, the reasons behind their success, and the roots of their ultimate collapse. While each individual empire and culture is unique, our exploration will reveal historical patterns explaining the life-cycles of empires, and the roles played by greed, cultural superiority and diffusion, the quest for power, imperial overreach, geography and the environment in the rise and fall of empires. 

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Ryan Reese


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