Most of us think we know beauty when we see, hear, or experience it. But what is beauty and what makes a thing beautiful? Our chief task in this course will be to analyze our basic assumptions about beauty. How have our beliefs about beauty and the beautiful been created and shaped through writing (as they continue to be rewritten)? Experiencing beauty – viewing Michaelangelo’s David, hearing Bach’s Requiem, reading a poem by John Keats – enhances our lives. However, the concept of the beautiful has had many different meanings over time and these definitions and representations have innumerable real-world repercussions. On one hand, beauty has been called the noblest aim of art and life, enriching our everyday aesthetic experiences. On the other hand, beauty has been used as justification for discrimination, exclusivity, and unthinkable atrocities. Yet none of these uses, or abuses, could be effective or, perhaps, even possible without the construction and dissemination of an ideal of beauty, often through writing. We will learn to recognize the means through which writing shapes and expresses our conceptions of beauty. In turn, students will develop their own ideas and thoughts about the topic through clear and effective writing. Thus, through reading, writing, and rewriting, students will explore the ways that beauty has been constructed and how it defines perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world.
Rationale for Assignment Sequence
The essay assignments for this course progress towards the final research paper, an intensive engagement with primary and secondary sources in which students analyze textual evidence in support of a central argument or thesis about beauty. The first assignment asks students to familiarize themselves with a seminal work of aesthetics—Edmund Burke’s treatise on beauty. Because students will be tempted to merely describe Burke’s philosophy, it is important to emphasize that this is an argumentative essay in which they make a central claim about what constitutes the most important features of Burke’s position. The second essay asks students to take even greater ownership of Burke’s philosophy by applying it to a contemporary text with which they are familiar. Both essays offer the instructor the opportunity to emphasize organizational, rhetorical, and analytical aspects of strong essay writing. The third assignment invites students to further apply what they have read so far in the semester to an analysis of popular cultural texts that deal with beauty by formulating a clear argument about the tensions between two works’ definitions of the beautiful or ugly. Finally, students should be well equipped to analyze and make an argument about a specific “beauty problem” that we have covered in class by drawing on multiple sources.
The materials and description for this course were revised in 2012.
- Beauty Course Overview and Assignments (doc)
- Beauty Pre-Draft Activities and Assignments (doc)
Previous versions of the syllabus (2009):
- Beauty Syllabus 1 (doc)