The fifth summer of Blast Courses will begin in July 2024! If you’d like to get an announcement when registration begins, please email us at [email protected] and ask to be added to our listserv.

What are Blast Courses?

Blast Courses in the Humanities are interactive, free summer courses offered by AGHI since July 2020. All members of the public are welcome to join an online, flexible, and fun group as you dive into five weeks of ideas, questions, and skills centered on a special topic. Early-career instructors lead these gatherings and offer interactive opportunities so that any student, especially those without any prior experience in that subject, can learn, discuss, ask, wonder, gather, and find a community of fellow curious folks just like you.

In short, every Blast Course is:

  • Free to all students—truly, everyone! Adults ages 16 to 116+ are welcome.
  • Interactive—so you can ask questions and get feedback from the instructor, plus join a new community of fellow learners and discuss important ideas with them.
  • Flexible—totaling 2 hours/week, divided into two or more videos (and in some cases, live Zoom sessions), so our classes fit busy adults’ schedules.
  • Online—no travel or textbooks required!
  • Entry-level—no homework, prior experience, or outside pre-reqs needed.
  • Question-focused—asking big, thought-provoking questions about a range of topics, so that no matter what the subject (from ancient myths to current events to timeless art), you’ll find yourself looking at the world around you a little differently.
Banner for "Blast Courses in the Humanities" stating "new classes begin July 8, registration ends June 30, open to all!" Below text are 14 tiles with images of various historical, cultural, and imaginative artifacts.

Summer 2024

We’re gearing up for another fantastic summer of short, interactive, and eye-opening programming! The full list of 2024 courses will go live in mid-May. Registration begins on June 1 and remains open through the end of June (or whenever each class is full).

Courses and Registration:

Don’t Lose Your Head!: Tracing the Disembodied Head Through Culture, Fairy Tales, Food, and Beyond

Blast Course icon for "Don’t Lose Your Head!: Tracing the Disembodied Head Through Culture, Fairy Tales, Food, and Beyond," featuring a background image of an upside-down stone head of Medusa resting in a shallow pool of water within a temple (Istanbul).

Instructor: Rini Barman (Anthropology)

Description: Why do so many fairy tales have characters losing their heads? And how do these fairy tales change when translated across cultures and forms, from South Asian folklore to HBO dramas and vice versa? This Blast course will consider the afterlives of heads as they roll off shoulders, fall into soups, get zombified and displayed in museum, and many other endings. We will explore a range of literary texts, from fairy tales and folklore to rewritings in poetry and visual representation in the recent times. We will also try to wrap our heads around everyday sayings involving heads, headlessness, and the associations they suggest—from mental illness to mindfulness to monstrosity. Finally, we’ll think about the cultural and social taboos about heads, and how questions of touch, contact, identity, purity, exclusion, and even disgust matter for headless ‘things’… and even for those who “head-hunt” (sometimes literally). So, head on over to our Blast course and learn more about this weird and wonderful side of the magic of heads!

Truth & Historical Dramas: Slavery, Data & Film

Blast Course icon for "Truth & Historical Dramas: Slavery, Data & Film," featuring a background image of photo-negative icon of a large ship and a film strip against a dark backdrop.

Instructor: Arianna Browne (History)

Description: When a film or television show says “based on true events,” how much truth does the movie actually portray? This class aims to explore how much reality appears in the media’s depiction of slavery. The class will introduce students to historical techniques for resolving the flat portrayals of enslaved people’s lives and experiences onscreen. Through this course, students will learn to think like historians: we will explore a handful of available digital resources and discuss how to use the data in these archives to tell better stories. This Blast Course will tackle the following questions: How does the lack of certain voices in historical records—especially around gendered voices—show up again in entertainment media? How can we mine data in public and digital archives to help us challenge and disentangle the simplistic versions that appear in fiction? And how can the film industry and historians honestly and ethically represent the painful and complicated stories of enslaved people in a way that’s both engaging and respectful? The course will equip students with a new critical eye for film and television, particularly those that portray Atlantic slavery. Importantly, the course will provide students with a new outlook on how we consume knowledge, what we perceive as truth, and how we can challenge generalizations within entertainment. No prior knowledge or familiarity with the texts/films or history mentioned will be required for this course!

‘Exquisite is her Splendor’: Women in Ancient Egypt

Blast Course icon for "‘Exquisite is her Splendor’: Women in Ancient Egypt," featuring a background image of an ancient Egyptian wall painting including several women drinking and feasting with each other.

Instructor: Tori Finlayson (Near Eastern Studies)

Description: What do we know about women in ancient Egypt? How did they participate in religion? show up in myth? How did they hold power and use it? This Blast course will use evidence from texts and archeological materials to examine the economic, social, religious, and political roles of women in ancient Egypt. As we dig deeper, we will also pay attention to how scholars who study the ancient world have discussed—or neglected to consider—how gender shapes the narratives and lives of people, both in ancient Egypt and today. Over five weeks, we will consider the stories, physical artifacts, and other primary-source clues about women who lived more than 3,000 years ago, as well as consider how the study of women in the ancient world reflects our own. Through this course, students will sharpen their critical eyes for spotting how biases shape how histories are written—and how later readers continue to rewrite the narrative. (No prior knowledge or outside reading required.)

From Clay to Code: A Journey Through the History of Writing

Blast Course icon for "From Clay to Code: A Journey Through the History of Writing," featuring a background image of an abstract swirl of iridescent fluidity.

Instructor: Marc Flores Flores (Near Eastern Studies)

Description: Embark on a fascinating journey through the history of human communication and symbolism in “From Clay to Code: A Journey Through the History of Writing.” From the beginnings of clay tablets to the digital age of social media and AI, this course delves into the transformative power of writing. How does writing relate to speech and other symbolic systems, and how does it shape our ideas and communities? Explore ancient writing systems like cuneiform and Incan quipu, and uncover their significance in shaping societies and cultures. Throughout the course, you will engage in thought-provoking discussions on the multifaceted functions of writing, at the same time that you discover the intricate skillsets required for various types of writing, spanning from ancient royal inscriptions to modern social media posts. Enroll now to expand your understanding of writing as both a fundamental human skill and a complex social practice, as you investigate the socio-historical contexts that gave rise to writing and the subsequent shifts it engendered in human interactions. No prior knowledge required—just a curious mind eager to explore the profound impact of writing on our world. Join this Blast course to unravel the mysteries of writing from clay to code, from scrolls to screens, from antiquity to today.

Shakespeare on Screen and Stage: Adaptations and Us

Blast Course icon for "Shakespeare on Screen and Stage: Adaptations and Us," featuring a background image of a screencap from "Romeo + Juliet" (1996) showing Leonardo Dicaprio, Harold Perrineau, and other cast members as Romeo, Mercutio, et al. holding cocked guns and posturing at the viewer.

Instructor: Neah Lekan (English)

Description: Why do new adaptations of Shakespeare keep getting made? Why is Hollywood, and for that matter film industries from around the world, continually obsessed with an author from another country, five hundred years ago? And how is it even possible to adapt such a play to a movie or staging that could be meaningful to a community today? This Blast course will look at the most famous, most frequently adapted Shakespeare plays, focusing each week on a pair of screen or stage versions that have tried to highlight certain themes/elements that speak to its moment, means, and message. We will discuss how the once-privileged ownership of the Bard has become a truly global phenomenon, with artists from all nations, backgrounds, and communities taking on each of the 38 plays and adapting them for new audiences.  And by reviewing excerpts, clips, and behind-the-scenes glimpses from these productions, we will follow several recurring themes across these adaptations: community, autonomy, empowerment, conflict, and healing. Updates from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet to teen classic 10 Things I Hate About You, to the musical West Side Story and the Italian-language Cesare Deve Morire and more—all these, we will explore, add something special to an otherwise narrow interpretation of what Shakespeare is and means. We will also try out our hands at imagining our own adaptations: for each play, we will ask how each of us might craft a version of Romeo & JulietOthello, or Julius Caesar that speaks to our own constellation of diverse experiences, goals, and desires. By the end of this Blast course, our group will consider how to reframe Shakespeare not as an irrelevant voice of the past, but a playwright who offers the blueprint to perform the future. (Clips and extras about all stage productions/movies will be made available. No prior knowledge or readings required!)

Fatal Allure: Imagining Death

Blast Course icon for "Fatal Allure: Imagining Death," featuring a background image of a netsuke or miniature sculpture in ivory of a human skull being climbed by a frog and a snail.

Instructor: Keisuke Nakajima

Description: As human beings, we are aware of our mortality—and this, it is often said, is what separates us from all other animals. We prepare ourselves for death through stories, from mythology, literature, visual arts, games, and popular culture. But how do different cultures and time periods define what it means to die? Why do individuals—and societies—take such intense care about what happens to the body after death? What, when we compare cultures, do different peoples imagine exists (or doesn’t) in the afterlife? This Blast course aims to survey a wide range of examples—including the present-day United States, ancient Greece and Rome, Japanese mythology (including Shintō and Buddhist beliefs), and Maori death customs and more—to explore how different communities have thought about, acted around, and helped each other face our inevitable end. We will also ask: How do we represent death in paintings, games, and literature? Could death be alluring? How does imagining and/or witnessing death affect our understanding of our own mortality? From death deities to near-death thrills and much more, this course is for everyone. Come prepared to think and even share in a discussion that provides information and an opportunity for students to discover what they find interesting about death, including how it might become a starting point for future creative projects and lived experiences. (No prior knowledge or readings is required.)

More Than a Feeling: Sensory Experience in Ancient Egypt

Blast Course icon for "More Than a Feeling: Sensory Experience in Ancient Egypt," featuring a background image of an ancient Egyptian stone carving of a woman named Mesu spelling a lotus flower.


Description: Children learn the five primary senses in early school. What we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell greatly influences how we, as humans, understand ourselves and everything around us. These sensory experiences allow us to continuously (re)shape our lived reality (or should we say, realities?). But what about in the distant past—what about in ancient Egypt? What information from ancient Egyptian sources—including written, iconographic, and archaeological ones—can help lift the veil on the lived realities of people at the time? What would ancient Egyptian people have seen, smelled, or touched when going about their day? In this Blast course, we will discuss the impact of the different human senses (vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch, proprioception), on embodied experience(s) in ancient Egypt. We will dig into some specific scenarios: How would the consumption of food and (alcoholic) beverages, as well as their bodily movements have shaped their particular lived reality? Each week, these topics will be put into context with a theoretical framework drawn from different schools of philosophy. Then, in weekly live sessions, students will have the opportunity to engage with selected examples, images, texts in translation, audio reconstructions, and 3D recreations of landscapes and buildings. By looking at these records of feelings and sensations from long ago, we will ultimately be able to ask: How might such ancient experiences compare to our modern perspectives? Let’s sense like an (ancient) Egyptian! (No homework or background in history necessary!)

Sushi, Ramen, and Tempura: The History of food (Ex)Change in Japan

Blast Course icon for "Sushi, Ramen, and Tempura: The History of food (Ex)Change in Japan," featuring a background image of an 18th-century Japanese handscroll of a noble's house during a feast (owned by the British Museum).

Instructor: Wesley Sampias (History)

Description: Hearing the term “Japanese food” likely causes daydreams of sushi, ramen, and tempura to float across your mind—but what makes these foods “Japanese”? While these foods are widely available in Japan today and are exported around the world as part of the Japanese soft power machine, the history of just these three foods tells the historian much about global and local change—and exchange—throughout the last several centuries. Looking at the history of food in Japan from the seventeenth century to today, this Blast course will consider what makes food “national.” We will explore big and small culinary shifts and the responses to those shifts. We will consider the lived experience of people in the past by considering the food they ate, bought, sold, and grew. We will take these historical lessons from cookbooks to fictional scenes of dining to medical advice and more. We’ll then apply these lessons to our own food culture and others so that we may encounter to get a better sense of the importance of exchange to our palates and our own everyday lives. Plus, because it will not do for a class on food to focus solely on the written word, we will also have the opportunity to cook recipes from the periods we are looking at each week so that we can experience the past through taste, smell, sight, and touch. Get your tastebuds ready and join us for a Blast through historical and present-day Japan by way of our senses! (All “Let’s Eat” cooking activities are completely optional, and no prior knowledge of Japanese history or culture is required.)

Chess as Art— From Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’ to ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

Blast Course icon for "Chess as Art: From Shakespeare's 'Tempest to 'The Queen's Gambit'," featuring a background image of a 14th-century page from the Iranian "Book of Kings" illustrating an Indian envoy being beat by a local vizier at chess.

Instructor: Jonah Shallit

Description: Marcel Duchamp, one of the most innovative visual artists of the 20th century, once said that “while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” But what does it mean to call chess “art”? After all, art and literature—from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” to the recent popularity of Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit”—have long found inspiration in the game of chess. Meanwhile, great chess masters have borrowed language from the arts in describing chess games or moves as something beautiful or artistic. This Blast course will explore chess as art: both the ways artists in paintings, drama, and film have found drama and metaphorical significance in the board game, and the ways in which chess itself might meet or complicate the traditional definitions of beauty and art. What, we will ask, can chess teach us about understanding other art forms? And how can reading closely the scenes where fictional characters play or think about chess also teach us something about how games help humankind to tell stories, stories about hardship, conflict, victory or defeat? We will discuss these and many other questions as we dive into the chessboard and all its challenges. (No prior experience playing chess is required, though a casual familiarity with the basics may be useful.)

Ancient Highways: Trade Routes of the Middle East and North Africa

Blast Course icon for "Ancient Highways: Trade Routes of the Middle East and North Africa," featuring a background image (mirrored side to side) of an ancient Syrian stone relief of a caravan trader-rider atop a dromedary camel (from the Walters Art Museum).

Instructor: John L. Shannon (Archaeology/Interdisciplinary Humanistic Studies)

Description: Where does frankincense come from? What is obsidian from Senegal doing all the way in Egypt? How and when did Islam arrive in China? Questions like this inevitably arise when we think about the impact of trade routes. Our world has always been a connected one, and trade routes have historically provided unique avenues for trade and exchange across both regions and cultures. This is especially true in the Middle East and North Africa, where such ‘ancient highways’ served as facilitators of human interaction for thousands of years. This Blast course will focus on a handful of the great trade routes of human history, which provide us with the most historically and archaeologically visible evidence of past interactions. Over five weeks, we will travel five of these influential routes—the Incense Roads of Arabia, the Persian Royal Road, the Trans-Saharan Trade Routes, and the Silk Road—from an archaeological perspective. This course will explore how the formation and maintenance of such routes permitted the movement of people, raw materials, finished foods, technologies, and ideas across vast distances, leaving lasting impacts on geographically disparate communities. Such investigation will provide us with the tools to better understand the history of civilization and the state of the world today.

2500+ Years of Artificial Life: A.I. and the Idea of the Human

Blast Course icon for "2500+ Years of Artificial Life: A.I. and the Idea of the Human," featuring a background image of a humanoid robot or artificial entity reading a book in front of a window.

Instructor: Chris Taylor (Comparative Thought & Literature)

Description: When did (human) philosophers start thinking about robots? What’s the difference today between A.I. (“artificial intelligence”) and the kinds of thought, intellect, and imagination that human beings are capable of? And why have so many major thinkers across human history returned, again and again, to the example of the automated mind as a test for their own theories? This Blast course will take us through more than 2,500 years of intellectual history to explore the difference forms of artificial (i.e., human-constructed) life that have arisen in different times and places. We will investigate the notion that artificial beings reflect not only their creators’ ideals of humanity but also the complex media environments in which said ideals are perpetually renewed and transformed. Drawing on the philosophy of technology together with histories of art, science, and media, we will take up several key theories and examples of automation (including robots, golems, cyborgs, androids, and more). Together, we will discuss how each of these innovations’ contexts shaped the ideals as much as the technological designs behind such creations. By the end of our five weeks, we will be able to look with new (human?) eyes at what we even mean by artificial, mind-body, thought, animation, and other keywords that increasingly define what it means to be human—and what the future of human and artificial life may look like in the near future.

The Image of China Abroad and at Home

Blast Course icon for "The Image of China Abroad and at Home," featuring a background image of a Korean map of China (circa 1800).

Instructor: Shengshuang Wang (Modern Languages/Interdisciplinary Humanistic Studies)

Description: The most populous country, a major power in world politics, a cultural center comprising a multicultural array of communities: even these big labels cannot cover all that China is or means. Instead, this Blast course will try to offer a comprehensive understanding of how China has been perceived and portrayed historically and currently, both by other nations and by its own people. We will start with the historical evolution of China’s self-perception and its image in the West, offering a narrative that extends from early impressions formed by Jesuit missionaries to the complexities of modern geopolitics. The course will then conclude by engaging with contemporary debates, such as China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and the global response to its New Silk Road Initiative. Using the rich historical context and present circumstances, we will explore China’s image from multiple perspectives, examining the historical narratives (and stereotypes) from the outside world as well as the representations that come from within China itself. Together, we will discuss the different lenses we might use to see the realities of China and its influence around the globe. (No prior knowledge or expertise required!)

Poetic Architectures, Building Worlds

Blast Course icon for "Poetic Architectures, Building Worlds," featuring a background image of collage including a distant smoggy cityscape, a piano keyboard, a side of a modern building, a trio of Victorian gentlemen, and a series of moons in eclipse.

Instructor: Jess Yuan

Description: How do we imagine worlds into being? For literature, worldbuilding usually means the construction of setting through imaginative description. In popular culture, worldbuilding appears widely in science fiction and fantasy, video games, film, and television—taking shape in the ways creators imagine fictional cultures and creatures, seasons and continents, and even the very laws of these alternate realities. But how much of this imagination is, in fact, building? Architects use “paper architecture” projects to explore conceptual worldbuilding by examining how the world is built and how we might imagine building new worlds. This Blast course brings together these perspectives, discussing worldbuilding by offering five pairings of authors and architects. Each week, we will discuss these recent literary and architectural projects to explore various themes and techniques of worldbuilding. From Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and the Italian design firm Superstudio, to author Renee Gladman alongside Rem Koolhaas, and more, this course will trace some of the big-picture themes that unite these clusters of artists. Students will participate in virtual discussions and also have the opportunity to complete free writing prompts based on the literary works covered in lecture. Together, we will lay the foundations of a discussion about spaces, cities, and pop culture, then see how this basis allows us to look outward and imagine our own world and its future.

Registration will open June 1! Check back soon or email us with questions.

Past Courses

Summer 2023

  • “1000 Bread, 1000 Beer: Food & Drink in Ancient Egypt,” Instructor: Dr. Morgan Moroney (Near Eastern Studies)
  • “Insurrection & Conspiracy: America & Ancient Rome,” Instructor: Juan Dopico (Classics)
  • “Listening to the Past: Clues to the Social Lives of Ancient Egyptians,” Instructor: Alison Wilkinson (Near Eastern Studies)
  • “The Meaning of Extinction: Cinema and the End of the World,” Instructor: Brad Harmon (German/Modern Lang. & Lit.)
  • “Nature Poetry,” Instructor: Martin Michálek (Classics)
  • “Power, Pleasure, Personhood: Indian Painting, 1500-2000,” Instructor: Meghaa Ballakrishnen (Art History)
  • “Reform or Revolution: Political Rebellion in German Thought and Literature from Plato to Star Wars,” Instructor: Luke Beller (German/Modern Lang. & Lit)
  • “The Stories Maps Tell: Ancient Civilizations to Modern Readers,” Instructor: Paige Paulsen (Near Eastern Studies)
  • “Writing Poetry of the Environment,” Instructor: Samantha Neugebauer (Writing Seminars)

Summer 2022

  • “The Atomic Age Today,” instructor: Ruoyu Li (Political Science)
  • “Ancient Poetry at the End of the World,” instructor: Martin Michalek (Classics)
  • “Fast Fiction,” instructor: Eric Emmons (Writing Seminars)
  • “A Voyage and the Marvel: Discovering Maryland in the 17th Century,” instructor: Ambra Marzocchi (Classics)
  • “Glory of an Ancient, Storied Land: Tolkien and the Ancient World,” instructor: Kathryn H. Stutz (Classics)
  • “Cut and Paste: Remediating the DIY Archive through the Creation of Cyber-Zines,” instructor: Lauren Mushro (MLL)
  • “Where Are We at Home? Literature of Exile,” instructor: Marta Cerreti (MLL)
  • “Tomorrow Will Be Too Late: Reading The Second Sex,” instructor: Thomas Mann (Political Science)
  • “Talk Like an Egyptian: Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs,” instructor: Maarten Praet (Near Eastern Studies)
  • “The Production of Forensic Space in Crime Fiction,” instructor: Antonia Grousdanidou (MLL)  

Summer 2021

  • “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]

Summer 2020

  • “Modern Painting and Prostitution” – instructor: Meghaa Ballakrishnen [Art History]
  • “How to Read Poetry” – instructor: Joel Childers [English]
  • “Science and Utopian Fiction” – instructor: Mitchell Cram [English]
  • “What is Knowledge?” – instructor: Cara Cummings [Philosophy]
  • “Discriminating Taste: Understanding the French Approach to Fashion, Conversation, Food, and Art” – instructor: Nicole Karam [Modern Languages and Literatures]
  • “Latinx Immigration and Literature: Interpreting the Border” – instructor: Alexandra Lossada [English]
  • “The Northern Irish Troubles: Literature of Conflict” – instructor: Daniel McClurkin [English]
  • “Bad Mothers in Literature, On Screen, and Across History” – instructor: Sarah Ross [English]
  • “Conceptualizing the Pandemic: Emergency Humanities during COVID-19” – instructor: Arpan Roy [Anthropology]
  • “Astronomy and Astrology in Ancient Egypt” – instructor: Lingxin Zhang [Near Eastern Studies]