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Humanities Blast Courses

The summer 2022 courses start on Monday, July 11. Course registration will begin on Tuesday, May 31. Many classes have a maximum capacity.

Blast Courses in the Humanities is a summer program offered by the Humanities Institute! Courses are free to all members of the public, taught online by up-and-coming Johns Hopkins experts. These five-week, online humanities classes offer entry-level explorations of topics ranging from “Medieval Irish Sagas” to radical movements to “Reading Poetry for Everyday Life.”

Classes are intended to offer adult students with busy schedules a chance to learn something fun and interesting without homework or high-intensity classes. Instead, Blast Courses allow students to get familiar with a new subject over about two hours/week.

Some classes include a live class discussion at a pre-arranged time: be sure to check if the class you sign up for is all pre-recorded or includes some group meetings. All Blast Courses are interactive. This includes even the fully recorded classes, in which instructors will ask students for their questions about the week’s ideas and topics, then post a Q&A video at the end of the week responding to you. Students need to provide an email address upon registration so their instructor can send these weekly links to videos, handouts, and/or any other material as you take this five-week blast through a topic!

What Blast Courses Offer

We believe that the humanities are all about making connections, both in our thinking and in our contact with other people. All students are welcome to sign up for a Blast Course: no prior knowledge is required, and participation is up to you! At a time when many of us want to learn for fun but don’t have time for a full course or lots of homework, Blast Courses are designed to introduce you to a topic as taught by some of the most enthusiastic and informed sources around.

These five weeks are supposed to be fun and thought provoking, but you will also gain skills you’ll be able to use once the class is over. Whether it’s about how to read a poem or why TV shows keep repeating the same stories, we want to share the amazing research and interests of young scholars in the humanities—and share it with the community beyond our usual students.

Any questions or concerns? Email – and be sure to mention which class(es) you have a question about!

Summer 2022 Courses

“The Atomic Age Today,” instructor: Ruoyu Li (Political Science)

Format: two recorded videos per week, including Q&A

The age of nuclear weapons, nuclear stand-off, and nuclear fear is not a distant past that ended in the 1990s with the Cold War. This course explores how the atomic age extends to the present with long-lasting and insidious consequences of radioactive disease, environmental pollution, and ideological and cultural legacy. We will look at the historical and contemporary nuclear conditions in four sites— Hiroshima/Nagasaki, the Marshall Islands, Chernobyl, and uranium mines in African states. Drawing from non-fiction accounts such as archives, memoirs, and ethnographies, this course addresses the extensiveness of nuclear programs and the pervasiveness of their manifold impacts. Students will not only gain knowledge of the four sites central to the current atomic age. They will also build critical skills to understand the relationship between politics, science, documentation, and everyday living, and to develop a race- and gender-sensitive approach to societal issues. No prior knowledge required. 

Ancient Poetry at the End of the World,” instructor: Martin Michalek (Classics)

Format: one recorded video + one live, virtual group discussion

We live in unprecedented times—and have been for over 3,000 years. Wars to end all wars, climate disasters, the collapse of governments, migrant crises, sweeping plagues: these modern portents also happened to inspire some of antiquity’s finest poetry. In this course, we will return to the ancient poets of Greece and Rome to examine how they dealt with the fear that their age would be the world’s last. In reading select poems in translation about war, homesickness, climate change, and more, we will uncover how the poetry of the past can be a voice of comfort to our present anxieties about the future.

This course has two main outcomes. First, it introduces students to several Greco-Roman poets, as well as great English-language poets who have translated them. We will read touchstone poems by landmark authors such as Homer, Virgil, and Sappho; we shall also explore the work of less commonly read poets such as Alcaeus, Callimachus, and Theocritus, whose poetry is short, accessible, and influential. Through these authors, students will encounter the cultural context that gave occasion for these poems, such as political events, religious customs, and social settings.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, “Ancient Poetry at the End of the World” shows how our personal and existential fears are not atypical. Rather, we live in a continuing and resolute poetic tradition, stretching back thousands of years, that has repeatedly responded to apocalyptic anxieties with impressive resilience and sublime literature.

“Fast Fiction,” instructor: Eric Emmons (Writing Seminars)

Format: one recorded video + one live, virtual group discussion

This course explores brevity in literature from Greek fables to online flash fiction. No prior knowledge is necessary as students will sample an array of stories that can be read easily in one sitting. This wide-ranging survey will focus on works under four pages and will include literary masters such as Anton Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, and John Updike. Rather than approach brevity as a type of limitation, students will explore how a story’s concision can increase its emotional weight. The course also explores how large stories can emerge from an ensemble of smaller vignettes. At the end of this course, students will survey the current landscape of online flash fiction publishing and will be encouraged to submit their own short pieces to these very accessible magazines and journals.

“A Voyage and the Marvel: Discovering Maryland in the 17th Century,” instructor: Ambra Marzocchi (Classics)

Format: two recorded videos per week, including Q&A

The course provides a survey of an early 17th-century eye-witness account of the discovery of what is now Maryland by European settlers. The course, then, expands up to include the exploration of the intercultural encounters (both with the indigenous peoples of the territory, and with the other European pioneers who had previously settled in the neighboring regions) that took place during the establishment of the colony of Maryland. Ample space will be constantly devoted to interrogating the historical account we read with questions about current-day issues such as colonialism, exploitation, human impulse to discovering, and the often-conflictual relationship between scientific interests and ethical concerns.

The course is planned for complete beginners: no previous knowledge nor purchase of any book are required—every text mentioned will be provided by the instructor in English translation.

“Glory of an Ancient, Storied Land: Tolkien and the Ancient World,” instructor: Kathryn H. Stutz (Classics)

Format: one recorded video + one live, virtual group discussion

This course invites students to wander into the world of Middle-earth, specifically by following a fragmentary path made from traces of the Greco-Roman past. In 1953, Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to a young friend, “I was brought up in the Classics and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer.” From mythical monsters and morbid marshes to sailing ships and besieged cities, many motifs from the ancient Mediterranean appear as foundational elements of Tolkien’s fantastical stories. Recently, an increasing number of scholars have turned their attention the specific ways by which Tolkien’s creative works draw upon the cultures of the antiquity, through both evocations of crumbling archaeological landscapes as well as references to ancient Greek and Latin epics such as Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. In order to explore these layers of literary history, students in this course will closely read small selections from Tolkien’s works alongside translations of the ancient sources from which Tolkien drew inspiration, while also exploring cutting-edge scholarship about these classical receptions, ultimately learning to see how “history became legend, legend became myth” within the world of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. 

No prior experience with Tolkien’s writings (or with ancient Greek and Latin literature) is required for students taking this course, although an interest in either Tolkien’s world or ancient history and mythology (or both) would be an asset. All readings will be provided electronically.

“Cut and Paste: Remediating the DIY Archive through the Creation of Cyber-Zines,” instructor: Lauren Mushro (MLL)

Format: two recorded videos per week, including Q&A

This course seeks to analyze the remediation of zines from print to digital format, starting from original zine prototypes emerging out of London, Portugal, Barcelona, and Brazil leading to present day transnational cyber-zine collectives that exist solely on the web. No prior knowledge of zine culture and illustration theory is necessary. The course will trace zine history up until contemporaneity, providing short theoretical readings and lectures on the socio-political role of zines at the turn of the 21st century. Any materials for reading and viewing in-class will be translated and therefore no knowledge of a secondary language is necessary.

The main approach to this course will be through analysis of primary source zine publications from the 70s, ‘00s, and 2010s, mainly looking at the following zine collectives: Sniffin’ Glue (London), Lectura Fácil (Spain), Cadáver esquisito (Portugal), Bombas Para Desayunar (Spain), SambaZine (Brazil)and Toxic Lesbian (Latin America). There will be two theoretical books utilized throughout the course, Comics Versus Art (Hillary Chute) and Ojos y capital (Remedios Zafra)from which translated excerpts will be read and analyzed during class lectures. Zines will likewise be read, analyzed, and discussed during lecture and Q and A.

“Where Are We at Home? Literature of Exile,” instructor: Marta Cerreti (MLL)

Format: one recorded video + one live, virtual group discussion

In Where Are We at Home (1995), Agnes Heller affirms that modernity has been the stage of an important shift, from a spatial home-experience to a vaster, temporal one. This course explores the themes of exile, alienation, and dislocation through a variety of literary works and theoretical perspectives. Together, we will analyze the implications, limits, and possibilities of thinking home as a temporal experience. What does it mean to feel at home in a world where our understanding of belonging requires continuous negotiation? How do these works respond to historical events?

Students will be introduced to different short texts, from Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals to Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations. Alongside these works, we will examine the notion of exile by looking at variations of this theme in existentialism, philosophy of race, postcolonial and gender theory. We will read some passages of Spivak, Derrida, Said, and become familiar with thinkers such as Cavell, Lahiri, Morrison. Our aim is to explore the notions of exile and displacement at different levels, including experiences of conscious and unconscious displacement; issues inherent in social and political dislocation; as well as possible tensions between the text, the reader, and the author. Among other questions, we will consider whether literature fosters ethical capacities and critical reflection. Throughout the course, we will constantly ask who is talking and what is the viewpoint from which the author is writing. 

“Tomorrow Will Be Too Late: Reading The Second Sex,” instructor: Thomas Mann (Political Science)

Format: one recorded video + one live, virtual group discussion

In this course, students will read the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s magum opus, The Second Sex in its entirety. Hailed as one of the most influential and controversial texts of midcentury France, The Second Sex remains today a cornerstone of feminist political theory. Through Beauvoir’s text, this course will consider topics such as biology, history, literature, poetry, political economy, and the law in order to examine the reasons why Beauvoir believed that each contributed to making Woman the “second sex.” 

“Talk Like an Egyptian: Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs,” instructor: Maarten Praet (Near Eastern Studies)

Format: one recorded video + one live, virtual group discussion

This five-week course introduces students to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in their broader cultural and societal context, and forms—an excellent starting point for individuals with little to no background in the ancient cultures of the Near East. We will dive deeper into the study of ancient Egypt: every week, consisting of one asynchronous and one synchronous session, will be built around a specific theme, such as kingship, economy, and the divine world, which we will explore through the lens of language. We will be reading ancient Egyptian texts in translation in order to discuss and critically assess their relevance to each week’s topic.

Additionally, we will be studying a few important characteristics of the language itself as they come up in each week’s reading materials. By the end of the course, students will thus not only be able to understand a few basic ancient Egyptian sentences, written in hieroglyphs, but will also have started to build up a general knowledge about ancient Egyptian history and culture as relevant to the understanding of the language. (No prior knowledge or homework required; some outside optional practice with language will be available.)

“The Production of Forensic Space in Crime Fiction,” instructor: Antonia Grousdanidou (MLL)  

Format: one recorded video + one live, virtual group discussion

What makes crime stories so fascinating? How do scientific approaches enhance the ‘realism’ of fiction and what might the tools of storytelling contribute to the development of real forensic technologies? By exploring the linked histories of forensic science and crime fiction, we will consider how they have come to inform our engagement with our surroundings. If the fictional and the forensic work synergistically to help us navigate spaces in everyday life, what might be the social and spatial implications of the enduring popularity of crime stories?  

Together, we will look at how forensic concepts and technologies are used in fiction, contributing to the ‘production of forensic space’. Over the first four weeks we will read four short stories by Edgar Allan Poe; considered some of the earliest examples of crime fiction, these will serve as starting points for discussions of today’s popular crime genres. Weekly lectures will introduce the stories alongside key literary and scientific themes. In the final week, we will discuss the ‘Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’ by Frances Glessner Lee, a series of crime-scene dioramas created in the early 20th century and still used for training purposes by the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office in Baltimore. By considering these constructed spaces that use storytelling to aid contemporary criminal investigation, we will explore how the linked crafts of fiction and forensic science transform both the stories we tell and the spaces in which we dwell.  

All reading materials will be provided electronically. No prior knowledge is required.

Summer 2021 Courses

  • “Exploring Uncanny Valleys in Contemporary Literature” – instructor: Antonia Grousdanidou [Dept. of Modern Languages and Literatures]
  • “Surgery, Herbs, and Amulets: A Social History of Ancient Medicine” – instructor: Dr. Lingxin Zhang [Dept. of Near Eastern Studies]
  • “Medieval Irish Sagas” – instructor: Daniel McClurkin [Dept. of English]
  • “Reading Poetry for Everyday Life” – instructor: Martin Michalek [Dept. of Classics]
  • “Letters from Prison—Homegrown Terrorism and Basque Nationalism” – instructor: Lauren Mushro [Dept. of Modern Languages and Literatures]
  • “Introducing Gilgamesh” – instructor: Michael Chapin [Dept. of Near Eastern Studies]
  • “Science and Utopian Fiction” – instructor: Mitchell Cram [Dept. of English]