Humanities Blast Courses

two hands paging through a book on a table with many books

Thanks for another wonderful year of Blast Courses! If you’d like to be notified about our program in Summer 2024, email us at [email protected] and ask to be added to our listserv.

Blast Courses

Blast Courses in the Humanities is an interactive, free summer program offered by AGHI since July 2020. 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.”

Blast Courses are:

  • 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—2 hours/week, spread 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 what you learn in this class also connects to your everyday life.

Blast Courses—Summer 2023 (now closed)

Mosaic poster for "Blast Courses in the Humanities," including small tiles for ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, 18th-cen. Indian painting, dinosaur films, Caesar's assassins in art, maps of different kinds, an ancient Japanese poet, three German philosophers, a vista of a cape, and a fragment of ancient papyrus.

1000 Bread, 1000 Beer: Food & Drink in Ancient Egypt

Blast poster for "1000 Bread, 1000 Beer: Food & Drink in Ancient Egypt" with Morgan Moroney, with background hieroglyphic relief of large man seated by table with piled foods and vessels, with children in small reliefs at right offering grains, beer, and more.

Instructor: Dr. Morgan Moroney (Near Eastern Studies)

About: We eat to live, but we also eat to share community and family, renew traditions, restore health, and celebrate. Breaking bread for the ancient Egyptians was no different. This Blast course will investigate aspects of ancient Egyptian society related to food and drink during the pharaonic era (ca. 3000–30 BCE). “1000 Bread, 1000 Beer: Food & Drink in Ancient Egypt” will introduce students—in weekly lectures and virtual, live discussions—to one slice of the world of food studies, using evidence ranging from archaeological remains to historical texts to modern scientific studies. From feasts to famines, festivals to fish dinners, we will uncover how food and drink present ways to access the daily life practices of Egyptian kings and farmers alike. This class will feature optional “experimental archaeology,” offering ancient (and a few modern) recipes, snacks, and drinks for students to try at home and to share with the class. Come learn about the lives of the ancient Egyptians, from their work to their health to their storytelling, setting an ancient table with “1000 Bread, 1000 Beer.” Together, we will discover what food and drink says about a society, its members, and its history even after thousands of years.

Format: Monday (video to watch) + Friday (Q&A video)

Insurrection & Conspiracy: America & Ancient Rome

Blast poster for "Insurrection & Conspiracy: America & Ancient Rome" with Juan Dopico, with background etching of Brutus and the other conspirators marching toward the assassination of Caesar.

Instructor: Juan Dopico (Classics)

About: Why should we care about conspiracies? How can understandings of real (and imagined) plots help us better understand the narratives about insurrection and conspiracy that continue to show up today? In this Blast course, students will examine how conspiracy narratives and theories have been a part of the Western tradition as far back as Ancient Rome. In weekly lectures and live (virtual) discussions, we will explore the long history of influential conspiracies, beginning with Ancient Roman stories about how different groups come to occupy rival sides on issues of political power, information, and social norms. After our weeks on Rome, we will turn to some famous conspiracies in modern America: the assassination of JFK; conspiracy theories concerning small elite groups (e.g., “QAnon”); and others emerging from social media. Together, we will ask how we can become careful critics of recurring narratives of indoctrination and paranoia, as well as what lies beneath some of the most dangerous conspiracy theories of our time. [Students are not expected to be familiar with ancient works or languages to take this course. Nevertheless, an interest in modern and/or ancient history and politics would be helpful.]

Format: Tuesday & Wednesday (videos to watch) + Friday 3-4pm EDT (LIVE virtual discussions)

Listening to the Past: Clues to the Social Lives of Ancient Egyptians

Poster for "Listening to the Past: Clues to the Social Lives of Ancient Egyptians" with Alison Wilkinson, with background of fragmented and threadbare papyrus with ancient script in red and blank ink.

Instructor: Alison Wilkinson (Near Eastern Studies)

About: What can we learn from fragments of the past? How can re-discovered ancient traces still reveal new discoveries about people who lived, worked, worshipped, played, married and divorced, raised children, and died more than 3,000 years ago in the Valley of the Kings? What even were ancient Egyptian ideas of norms and social expectations, and how do these compare to our societies’ today? This Blast course will jump into the social lives of ancient Egyptians, using primary sources, both artistic and textual (in English translation), as part of our discussion of how we use evidence to learn about past societies. Students will have the chance to see some surprising artifacts—from stone tablets detailing divorce cases, to a papyrus with an ancient joke, to personal accounts of visions of gods and goddesses—and even dive into virtual 3-D models of a preserved workers’ village. Together, we will ask how these voices and slices of life from long ago and far away can make us think differently about the past and, perhaps, see our own present-day social lives with new eyes.

Format: Tuesdays (videos to watch) + Fridays (Q&A videos to watch)

The Meaning of Extinction: Cinema and the End of the World

Poster for "The Meaning of Extinction: Cinema and the End of the World" with Brad Harmon, with background of a screencap of an old film featuring unrealistic dinosaur miniatures as if in a fight.

Instructor: Brad Harmon (German/Modern Lang. & Lit.)

About: What does extinction mean now? What does the extinction of other species say about our human existence? And what can films reveal about how to answer these questions? Like climate change and Deep Time, extinction occurs on a scale that defies human comprehension. Despite knowing about the extinctions of the dinosaurs, Dodos, or woolly mammoths, humankind has yet to confront the meaning of extinction, both other species’ and our own. Though sometimes frightening, these ideas animate many recent films and cinematic TV shows, all tackling the feeling that there is “no future”—and how we might adjust our sense of “now.” This Blast course focuses on cinema as a medium which tries to represent climate change, extinction, and bleak or even apocalyptic futures. Films/shows to be discussed: Children of Men (2006); Aniara (2018); The Wall (2012); First Reformed (2017); and The Last of Us (2023). [Students will be encouraged, but *not* required, to watch these independently outside of class.] This asynchronous course offers the opportunity, as Donna Haraway says, to “stay with the trouble” and discomfort by exploring these questions, their answers and non-answers, in a new community with fellow dwellers in this world of both dread and—together—potential. 

Format: Mondays (videos to watch) + Fridays (Q&A videos to watch)

Nature Poetry

Blast poster for "Nature Poetry" with Martin Michalek, with background Japanese print of nature poet seated with ink and paper contemplating a bird, a river, and a hillside.

Instructor: Martin Michálek (Classics)


But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet…

…so William Wordsworth described his nature walks through the ruins round Tintern Abbey in the early 19th century, as greenery reclaimed manmade ruins and industrialization took over England. Wordsworth, like all great poets, was sensitive to humanity’s ever-changing relationship with nature. In this class, we will read a series of poets across centuries, nations, ethnicities, genders, and beliefs to better understand how the natural world has influenced poetry around the world. In addition to reading broadly, we will supplement our readings with theories of poetry by Ezra Pound, Mary Oliver, and Don Paterson. We have two principal aims: First, in this class we will become better readers of poetry by learning how poets manipulate sounds, words, and images—how they use various rhyme schemes, meters, language, and allusions—to write about nature. Secondly, this course aims to reconnect participants with nature through poetry—a thing increasingly difficult to do in our high-pitched and noisy age of urbanization, commuting, truncated attention spans, and the proliferation of screens.

Format: Mondays (videos to watch) + Thursdays 6:30–7:30 pm EDT (LIVE Zoom discussion groups)

Power, Pleasure, Personhood: Indian Painting, 1500-2000

Poster for "Power, Pleasure, Personhood: Indian Painting, 1500-2000" with Meghaa Ballakrishnen, with background painting of Hindu god Vishnu surrounded by a group of women.

Instructor: Meghaa Ballakrishnen (Art History)

About: Why did painting—the production through ink, water, oil, pigment, and graphite of a world on a flat surface—suddenly flourish after 1500 in the Indian subcontinent? What does its history have to do with the region’s cross-cultural formation, power struggles, and self-representation? This Blast course will focus on three themes that motivated painting in India: power, pleasure, and personhood. We will move from Indo-Islamic Mughal and Hindu Rajput court paintings, through popular bazaar and “company” paintings during British colonization, to modernism after decolonization in 1947. We will ask why painting was important to royals, bureaucrats, lovers, artists, art historians, and other viewers, and what historical painting offers us in our present moment. Students will be introduced not only to a complex, and misunderstood, region, but also to the resources and methods of the discipline of art history. Art historians look closely at visual materials to analyze the social, political, and ethical significance of works of art—and over five weeks, we will break down how and why they do so. Lectures present students with artworks and how to approach them; live seminars will practice reflecting, discussing, and understanding them together (including instructor feedback on optional written responses).

Format: Mondays (videos to watch) + Fridays 10:30–11:30 am EDT (LIVE Zoom discussion groups)

Reform or Revolution: Political Rebellion in German Thought and Literature from Plato to Star Wars

Poster for "Reform or Revolution: Political Rebellion in German Thought and Literature from Plato to Star Wars" featuring portraits of Rosa Luxemburg, Schiller, and a Star Wars rebel alliance pilot suit.

Instructor: Luke Beller (German/Modern Lang. & Lit)

About: What’s the difference between reform and revolution? How have great thinkers in history understood these ideas? This Blast course introduces students to historical analysis and literary interpretation by focusing on the idea of striving for freedom—especially how this quest for freedom appears in literature and political realities. We will explore political revolution, its sometimes-disastrous consequences, and how rebellion continues to captivate the popular imagination. Together, we will trace some of the historical ideas of revolution: from Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, to two German writers, poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller and political activist Rosa Luxemburg, and finally to American filmmaker George Lucas. In lectures and virtual discussions, we will also look at the German reaction to the 1789 French Revolution, as well as the 1918 November Revolution in Germany (which led to new nations and further uprisings). By the end, students will connect stories like Star Wars: A New Hope to centuries of writings about tyranny and domination, human rights, and rebel resistance. By examining political crisis, disaster, and rebellion, this course aims to understand notions of political freedom and how they can spark greater self-understanding, as well as to inspire an informed sense that a freer, more just world is possible.

Format: Mondays (videos to watch) + Thursdays 4–5 pm EDT (LIVE Zoom discussion groups)

The Stories Maps Tell: Ancient Civilizations to Modern Readers

Poster for "The Stories Maps Tell: Ancient Civilizations to Modern Readers" with Paige Paulsen, with background slices of three maps (of ancient Iran, an Edwardian Fairyland, and topology of Yellowstone).

Instructor: Paige Paulsen (Near Eastern Studies)

About: This Blast course explores how maps and history are intertwined. But what is a map’s purpose? What can a map tell us about places or ways of life that no longer exist? How do different kinds of maps tell different stories? We want to know about the past, but it doesn’t exist for us to study, so instead archaeologists study what we do have: the records of peoples and places. Maps thus raise interesting questions about the similarities of ancient landscapes to present ones, how maps both record evidence and then become evidence themselves in archaeological arguments, and the tricky process of reconstructing the past with any methods, including cartographic ones. In this course, we will compare what we can see on certain maps—and how modern borders sometimes mislead us in understanding history. Students will get a chance to create their own maps of places that are important to you, then reflect on how your experiences translate onto the page. By exploring the theories and the practices of map-making, this course offers an introduction to how archaeologists construct historical interpretations, the costs and benefits of different technologies, and the practical and imaginary tools for telling stories through mapping.

Format: Monday (video to watch) + Friday (Q&A video)

Writing Poetry of the Environment

Poster for "Writing Poetry and the Poetics of the Environment" with Samantha Neugebauer, featuring background photograph of walker gazing out at moor seaside landscape in foggy weather.

Instructor: Samantha Neugebauer (Writing Seminars)

About: [Creative writing course] Environmental change is all around us, affecting people from all walks of life. As a result, ecopoetry – that is, poetry that is environmental and environmentalist – is for everyone. But how do we actually begin to write it? What techniques and practices might we use as part of the craft of making poems? In this Blast course, students will read contemporary ecopoetry as the inspiration for writing their own creative work in response to the environmental changes they see in their local community. No previous poetry/creative writing training is required! While focusing on past examples of ecopoetry and poetics, we will also consider the relationship between the human and nature, the human and the city (from Baltimore to wherever you are), humans and other non-human animals, and finally, discuss the purpose and value for all of us in writing (and reading) ecopoetry generally. 

Format: Monday (videos to watch) + Thursday (response/reflection/activity videos)

Past Courses—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)  

Past Courses—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]

Past Courses—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]