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    Colloquia for the Friends of the SOF/Heyman Taught by Columbia Faculty

    Named in honor of Carl Hovde (1926-2009), Dean of Columbia College, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and co-founder of the Friends of the SOF/Heyman, these colloquia are offered twice a year as a token of our appreciation to our donors. Led by some of Columbia’s most gifted teachers and scholars, the colloquia are essentially reading groups on a broad range of topics, stretching from antiquity to the present.

    Past colloquia will be archived online soon. Please check back later.

    Spring 2024

    Roger Lehecka

    Tuesday, 6:00pm - 7:30pm

    Whatever purposes we find in college and university mission statements, there are expectations that go beyond them. Here are a few examples that don’t appear in traditional mission statements but are clearly baked into what higher education does today: (1)Colleges are sorting mechanisms--which college someone attends significantly affects that person’s opportunities for economic success and access to career opportunities. (2) Because of their involvement with sorting and distributing opportunity, colleges are expected to offer the possibility of social mobility to those with talent but few financial resources, and to do that in a fair way. (3) Beyond helping individuals be more financially successful, higher education is expected to promote economic growth for the society as a whole.

    Our colloquium will look at the various stated purposes and implicit expectations in United States higher education to understand and evaluate them. Columbia will be a regular touchstone in our discussions, but our view will include all of American higher education—other selective universities, public colleges and less selective private colleges as well.

    Dates: February 6 and 20, March 5 and 19, April 2 and 16

    Fall 2023

    Gareth Williams

    Tuesday, 6:00pm - 7:30pm

    Sample the wonders of the literature written in Latin in Italy in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The texts that we explore are not just revivalist re-workings of ancient Greco-Roman and medieval precedents, but highly innovative productions that are at the cutting edge of major scientific, societal, and political changes in the late Quattrocento and beyond. The further aim is to show how many of the preoccupations that are visible in these texts are themselves major catalysts for innovation in the later literary tradition extending down to our own times. Through our coverage of such luminaries as Ermolao Barbaro (1454-93), Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), and Girolamo Fracastoro (1476/8-1553), we shall explore, among much else, the origin of term ‘syphilis’; theories that try to explain why volcanic eruptions happen; a passionate account of why celibacy is obviously the best vocation to follow in life; and the origins of modern diplomatic immunity.

    This colloquium will be led by Gareth Williams, Anthon Professor of the Latin Language and Literature. All the texts will be supplied by the instructor, and further suggestions for secondary reading are available upon request.

    Spring 2023

    John Ma

    Tuesday, 6:00pm - 7:30pm

    In this course, we follow in the footsteps of the king of Macedonia, Alexandros, son of Philippos, AKA Alexander III, AKA Alexander the Great, during his astonishing, protracted conquest of the Persian empire. The venture was characterized by both disruption and continuity— and our sources insist on both aspects, which are inescapable parts of conquest. We will explore these aspects through a number of test cases and source readings drawn from Alexander’s whole reign.

    The sessions will be held on six Tuesdays. We currently plan to run the course in a hybrid format, both in person and online. Moreover, we plan to hold the first session at the Salmagundi Club. Those Friends attending in person will also have the option of joining Gareth Williams and John Ma for drinks and dinner after the class. The other sessions will be held as usual in the Heyman Center on the Columbia campus.

    Fall 2022

    Liza Knapp

    Wednesday, 6:00pm - 7:30pm

    We’ll read two masterpieces by Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (publ. 1875-8) and Hadji Murat (composed 1896-1904; published posthumously in 1912). Anna Karenina is universally recognized as one of the great novels of all times. It shows Tolstoy using fiction to reveal the mysteries of love and death, while also wrestling with social and political questions, as he follows multiple plotlines to ask about the interconnectedness of human lives. After reading this long novel, we will turn to Hadji Murat and find Tolstoy up to much of the same in this much shorter work, which is often regarded as Tolstoy’s swan song. As Tolstoy gives a searing look at the human condition and at empire, he also draws the reader’s attention to the song of the nightingale.

    This class will meet on five Wednesdays online.

    Spring 2022

    Roger Lehecka

    Tuesday, 6:00pm - 8:00pm

    While it appears to be an ancient word, like democracy or aristocracy or oligarchy, meritocracy was invented as an English word about sixty years ago by a British sociologist named Michael Young. As unlikely as it sounds, his book The Rise of the Meritocracy was a novel, not a work of social science. Since the time of the word’s invention it has become the name for what most people say a society should be: fair, recognizing talent and effort, removing inherited privilege and advantage. This is ironic because, in describing a fictional future society that was fully meritocratic, Michael Young wrote a dystopian novel, not a utopian one. Furthermore, despite the obeisance paid to merit and meritocracy in public discourse today, meritocracy is under attack by writers on the political right, left and center.

    The colloquium will explore what merit and meritocracy mean in the United States today, and why those words produce so much contentious debate. Because sorting people through education is central to current meritocratic ideals, higher education is inevitably a vital instrument in realizing a meritocratic society. Therefore, discussions of American colleges generally, and Columbia in particular, will occur throughout our six class meetings. Other subjects we will cover are how notions of merit have evolved since the founding of the United States; how the word meritocracy has come to have connotations opposite to what its creator intended; how meritocratic American society, or a part of it like admission to selective colleges, is today; what it would take for the United States to become truly meritocratic; the wisdom of equating school success with promise of professional success; and whether Young was correct to see meritocracy as a flawed or even incoherent ideal.

    Fall 2021

    Christia Mercer

    Thursday, 6:00pm - 7:30pm

    Aeschylus' Oresteia was a hit when first performed in Athens in the 5th century BCE, and remains one of the most riveting and obscure ancient tragedies. The trilogy treats the violence and impact of war, the instability of justice, the far reach of revenge, and the fragility of goodness. The plays are moving, bizarre, frustrating, and beautiful. This colloquium will contextualize the trilogy, and then explore the fascinating complications of the drama, which will be framed within philosophical questions about the nature of love, justice, power, and communal responsibilities. We will track metaphors analyze language, and do close readings to excavate some of the profound richness of the plays.

    Fall 2020

    Gareth Williams

    The overriding objectives of the colloquium will be to explore (i) what lies beyond the modern reputation of, and beyond modern critical orthodoxies about, many of the famous Greco-Roman texts from Homer down to the first-century CE Roman philosopher-politician Seneca; (ii) what forms of commentary and illumination those texts potentially offer on/about modern lives, attitudes, and socio-political issues; and (iii) how several of these Classical authors have been drawn on and exploited to support and help articulate certain modern ideologies and belief-systems. A further aim throughout our discussions will be to experiment with close readings of the assigned texts, to show how their meaning is so often encased in and complicated by the finer nuances of what might at first seem like a fairly innocuous path of narration.