“Why – and What” Fall 2013

This page presents materials from the first offering of the course: “Why – and What – Should We Read?” at Shimer College in the Fall of 2013.

Here is the final syllabus for the course. On the menu under the link to the left, you’ll find student writing, images, videos of field trips and other materials generated over the course.

Why – and What – Should We Read?

Fall 2013

This course presents the question of its title as one that has endured over the five millennia since writing was invented. Indeed, it begins with a myth concerning the invention of writing told by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus, which dialogue deals at length with the role of writing and reading in human civilization. We will then turn to the social, cultural, political and, more specifically, educational and religious dimensions of reading through the process of canon formation, both in the context of Shimer College itself and in that of early Christianity. From there, we turn to questions concerning reading as a specifically individualized activity with the advent of books as private possessions in the early modern period. We will read three works – Montaigne’s essays “Of Books” and “On Some Lines of Vergil” and Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote – each of which presents reading as a key activity in the formation and presentation of a personal self. From there, we proceed to contemporary developments in literary theory by Bakhtin, Kristeva, Borges and Derrida that will develop new perspectives on the formation of selves through reading by examining the political, social, imaginative and metaphysical structures and assumptions that underly our approaches to what we read. Then, in the end, we return to issues raised by Plato in Phaedrus concerning the impact of technologies of communication on both our individual and social lives, this time through McLuhan’s exploration of the rise and passage of print culture in The Gutenberg Galaxy. Finally, we will be entertaining some of these questions on two field trips: to the Art Institute of Chicago (on Thursday, November 7) and to the Newberry Library (on Thursday, November 25), the first to consider visual art in the guise of “texts” to be “read,” the second to meet with one of the Newberry’s librarians and discuss the past, present and possible futures of texts and our reading of them.

Requirements and Grading

As with all Shimer courses, your work will consist mainly of reading and discussing our texts and periodically writing on them. Given our focus on reading, we will be doing a considerable amount of it. While the assignments are often long, however, and of quite various genres, you will have three or four days between each session in which to do them, so please look into the structure of each session’s readings ahead of time and strategize your approach accordingly.

Doing so will allow you to come to class able to participate in discussions fully and with the requisite care and focus that our varied readings will require. At the same time, note that we will have the opportunity to spend more than a single session on many of the works or authors in the syllabus (including eight sessions alone in the case of Don Quixote) giving us the chance to delve deeply into them in discussion. Discussion will count for 60% of your final grade, indicating the importance in this course of attentive, critical reading and the ability to reflect on our materials in collaboration with others.

Of course, you cannot participate well in class if you are frequently absent or late. If you are absent more than three times, your participation grade is likely to drop. If you are absent more than four times, you will likely be asked to withdraw from the course or risk a failing grade. If you are frequently late to class, you will begin accruing absences at the rate of one per two latenesses.

The remaining 40% of your final grade will be based on your writing. The writing for the course will take two basic forms:

  1. short reflections on our various texts of between 250 and 500 words (roughly two typed, double-spaced pages) at a time, which will be due at the end of our discussions of certain readings, and
  2. one longer essay of between 1500 and 2500 words (roughly 6 – 10 pages), due at the end of the semester, on a topic which you will devise yourself in consultation with me and in discussion with your classmates.

Your writing, in both short and long form, will be graded largely in terms of its basic grammatical and mechanical soundness and your ability to convey a cogent, compelling reaction to a text or set of texts. I will not be expecting you to produce essays according to the generally recognized standards for expository or persuasive essays. Rather, I will expect you to shape your written reflections – both short and long – according to approaches that you deem best fit your rhetorical purposes. That said, I will of course reserve the responsibility of judging how clear and compelling your rhetorical approaches are in any given case.

Based on your success in producing clear and compelling written work, I will be inviting you to post your shorter pieces on a course website that this class will be building and maintaining throughout this semester and that will endure and develop in years to come. This website is being funded (as is the course as a whole) by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and will be part of the next offering of this course at Shimer, which is planned for some time before the Spring of 2015. The members of the present class will therefore have the unique opportunity not only to set the standard for the website’s written elements but will, I hope, also join me in building a site devoted to the course’s title question(s) with whatever materials you and I, individually and together, think will help (both us and whatever visitors we garner) entertain those questions as deeply as we may. I will be giving you more information about the technical side of the site’s development during the early weeks of the semester.

Objectives and Outcomes

As with all the courses in Shimer’s core curriculum, this course has been designed with specific learning objectives for you as students to aim for and outcomes for both you and me to look to for evidence that you have achieved those objectives.

Stated briefly, the course learning objectives are:

To be familiar with specific philosophical and historical issues surrounding the development of writing as a social and individual practice and with basic developments in the technology of writing and reading // To be able to converse and write about the distinctions between and relations among various genres of text (chiefly: philosophical dialogues, personal essays, novels, short stories, philosophical and historical arguments, and paintings) // To be able to converse and write cogently and compellingly about your own experience of reading across a variety of texts // To be able to write cogently and compellingly for a broad public audience about the variety of social scientific and humanistic issues raised in the course readings and classroom discussions.

The intended outcomes of the course, according to which you and I should be able to judge your achievement of the foregoing objectives, are:

Sustained and insightful discussion of our course texts and the issues they raise // The ability to undertake such discussions toward the common end of the class and its members, namely, our ongoing ability to engage in mutual, inclusive and constructively stimulating conversations // A series of short and one longer written reflections demonstrating your ability to convey – including in a public setting beyond Shimer College – compelling reactions to and reflections on both our course readings and your experience of them as a reader // An ability to shape your written reflections in creative but compelling and readily intelligible ways according to rhetorical devices and/or strategies that may vary from standard expository or persuasive essays.


The following books (in Calendar order) will be available from the Shimer Bookstore:

Plato, Phaedrus (ISBN: 978-0-872-20220-7)

Morrissey, Debating the Canon (ISBN: 978-1403968203)

Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (ISBN: 978-0679724537)

New Jerusalem Bible (ISBN: 978-585161119)

King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala (ISBN: 978-0944344583)

Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (ISBN: 978-0-195-18250-7)

Cervantes, Don Quixote (ISBN: 978-0060934347)

Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (ISBN: 978-0292715349)

Kristeva, Desire in Language (ISBN: 978-0231048071)

Derrida, Dissemination (ISBN: 978-0226143347)

McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (ISBN: 978-1442612693)

The following readings (in Calendar order) will be available in a packet of reprints from the Bookstore:

Hutchins, The Great Conversation (selections).

Severson, Responses to Threatened Organizational Death (selections).

Shimer College Catalogues 1954-55, 1969-70, and 1978-79 (selections).

Shimer College Core Curriculum Reports for 1978-79, 1990-91, 2000-01, and 2010-11.

Kasser et al., “The Gospel of Judas”

Montaigne, “On Books” and “On Some Lines of Vergil.”

Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”


Th 8/22 – Plato, Phaedrus

M 8/26Phaedrus  – Written Reflection Due             

Th 8/29 – Morrissey, Debating the Canon, Introduction (skim), Chapters 5, 11, 14, 17, 19, 23 – 24, 26, 30, 33, 39, 42.

M 9/2Labor Day

Th 9/5 – Hutchins, The Great Conversation, Chapters 1, 6; Adler, “Reading and the Growth of the Mind (Chapter 8 in Debating the Canon, pp. 37-42); Severson, Responses to Threatened Organizational Death, Chapter I: pp. 6-10, Chapter II: pp. 11-20, 32-38, Chapter III: pp. 50-52; Shimer College Catalogues (selections) for 1951-52, 1969-70, 1978-79; Core Curriculum Reports for 1978-79, 1990-91, 2000-01, 2010-11. – Written Reflection Due

M 9/9The Gospel of Mark; The Gospel of John, Chapters 1 and 20-21; Kasser et al., “The Gospel of Judas,” Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, General Introduction, “The Gospel of the Nazarenes,” “The Gospel of the Ebionites,” “The Coptic Gospel of Thomas,” “The Gospel of Philip,” “The Gospel of Truth,” “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” The Proto-Gospel of James,” “The Second Treatise of the Great Seth,” and “The Secret Gospel of Mark.”

Th 9/12 – Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Chapters 1-3, Conclusion.

M 9/16 – King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, Parts I and III. –  Written Reflection Due

Th 9/19 – Montaigne, “To the Reader,” “On Books” and “On Some Lines of Vergil”

M 9/23 – Cervantes, Don Quixote, First Part, Prologue, Chapters 1 – 10.

Th 9/26Don Quixote, First Part, Chapters 15 – 22.

M 9/30Don Quixote, First Part, Chapters 26, 47 – 52. – Written Reflection Due

Th 10/3Don Quixote, Second Part, To the Count of Lemnos, Prologue, Chapters 1 – 10.

M 10/7Don Quixote, Second Part, Chapters 16 – 18, 22 – 27.

Th 10/10Don Quixote, 30 – 41.

M 10/14Dean’s Break

Th 10/17Don Quixote, 53 – 60.

M 10/21Don Quixote, Chapters 61 – 74. – Written Reflection Due

Th 10/24 – Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” pp. 261 last paragraph – 279 to end of first paragraph; 288 from break – 300 end; 309 from second paragraph – 315 up to last paragraph; 320 from “Let us pause . . .” – 327 to footnote 25; 331 – 339 through first full paragraph; 358 – 362 through first full paragraph; 365 from “The plot itself . . .” – 366; 384 from “Cervantes excelled . . .” – 386 through first full paragraph; 408 from “All the old links . . .” – 422; and Borges, “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote”

M 10/28 – Kristeva, “The Bounded Text.”

Th 10/31 – Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue and Novel.”

M 11/4 – Kristeva, “Giotto’s Joy.”

Th 11/7 – Kristeva, “Motherhood According to Giovanni Bellini.” Art Institute of Chicago


M 11/11 – Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Part I.

Th 11/14 – “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Part II

M 11/18 – McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, pages 7 – 31; 34 – 44; 54 – 77; 88 – 126;

153 – 158; 172 – 176.

Th 11/21The Gutenberg Galaxy, pages 184 – 201; 248 – 272; 277 – 303.

M 11/25Newberry Library Trip

Tu 11/26Classes End – Final Essay Due

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