First-Year Seminar

First-Year Seminars initiate students into the academic life of the College by offering intellectually engaging experiences in which students and faculty work through challenging material, often across disciplinary lines. Each one-semester seminar is designed to develop essential skills for college work, such as the ability to read critically and analytically, to speak clearly and effectively, and to write logically and persuasively.

First-Year Seminars vary in content and format, and fall into three different categories: Reinventing Literary History, Reacting to the Past, and Special Topics.

Reinventing Literary History

Barnard’s liberal arts philosophy takes as its starting point the idea that every student, whatever her level of academic achievement, can continue to improve her skills in writing, analysis, and argumentation. This one-semester writing course uses literature as a lens to cultivate and develop expository writing and related tools of scholarship. Students choose one of three rubrics – Legacy of the Mediterranean, Women and Culture, or The Americas – each of which explores and questions a particular literary tradition.

Legacy of the Mediterranean

This course investigates key intellectual moments in the rich literary history that originated in classical Greece and Rome and continues to inspire some of the world’s greatest masterpieces. Close readings of works reveal how psychological and ideological paradigms, including the self and civilization, shift over time, while the historical trajectory of the course invites inquiry into the myth of progress at the heart of canonicity. Works studied in the fall term include Homer, Odyssey; The Homeric Hymn to Demeter; Euripides, The Bacchae; Virgil, Aeneid; Dante, Inferno; Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales; Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe; Shakespeare [selection depends on NYC theatre offerings]; Madame de Lafayette, The Princesse de Clèves; Cervantes, Don Quixote. Works studied in the spring term include Milton, Paradise Lost; Voltaire, Candide; Puccini, La Bohème [excursion to the Metropolitan Opera]; William Wordsworth (selected poetry); Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Darwin, Marx, and Freud (selected essays); Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness; T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land; Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse; J. M. Coetzee,Waiting for the Barbarians.

Women and Culture

Literary History often portrays women as peripheral characters, confining their power to the islands of classical witches and the attics of Romantic madwomen. This course offers a revisionist response to such constraints of canonicity, especially as they pertain to the marginalization of female subjectivity in literature and culture. The curriculum challenges traditional dichotomies—culture/nature, logos/pathos, mind/body—that cast gender as an essential attribute rather than a cultural construction. Fall term readings include Gilgamesh; Hymn to Demeter; Sophocles, Antigone; Ovid, Metamorphoses; Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book; Marie de France, Lais; Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales; Kebra Negast; Shakespeare, As You Like It; Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, selected poetry; Aphra Behn, The Rover. Spring term readings include Milton, Paradise Lost; Leonora Sansay, Secret History; Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; Lady Hyegyong, The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong; Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights; Emily Dickinson, selected poetry; Sigmund Freud, selected essays; Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway; Gertrude Stein, Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights; Yvette Christiansë, Castaway.

Special Opportunity: Reinventing Literary History courses are offered in both First-Year Writing and First-Year Seminar. Students may choose to follow a particular literary tradition through both semesters. For example, the reading list for Women and Culture I covers an historical range from ancient Greece to the French Renaissance, while Women and Culture II (offered in the spring semester) covers a later historical range from the English Restoration to the late 20th century in Africa. A student interested in studying a tradition in its entirety could take Women and Culture in her first semester as a First-Year Seminar and then take Woman and Culture II as a First-Year Writing course, or vice versa.

The Americas

This course transcends traditional and arbitrary distinctions separating Caribbean, North, South, and Central American literatures. The Americas emerge not as colonial subjects but as active historical and aesthetic agents.  Emanating from what might be called the geographical site of modernity, American literature is characterized by unprecedented diversity and innovation.  In addition to classic novels, short stories, and poetry, this multicultural curriculum features works ranging in scope from creation accounts to autobiographies, as well as indigenous genres including captivity and slave narratives that belie New World declarations of independence.   Works studied in the fall term include the Popul Vuh; William Shakespeare, The Tempest; Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, selected poetry; Phillis Wheatley, selected poetry; William Apess, A Son of the Forest; Esteban Echeverria, "El Matadero"; Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie; Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself; Herman Melville, Benito Cereno. Spring term readings include Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson; Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; José Marti, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, selected poetry; T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land; Pablo Neruda, The Heights of Macchu Picchu; Machado de Assis, Dom Casmurro; William Faulkner, "The Bear"; Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Global Literature

Global literature courses vary from semester to semester, addressing texts on a variety of themes across national boundaries. Recent Global Literature courses have included Thinking Latin America: How to Read about Globalization from the Margins, Travelling the Indian Subcontinent, The Caribbean Diaspora, and Imagining South Asia.

Reacting to the Past

In these seminars, students play complex historical role-playing games informed by classic texts. After an initial set-up phase, class sessions are run by students. These seminars are speaking- and writing-intensive, as students pursue their assigned roles’ objectives by convincing classmates of their views.

Each seminar will work with three of the following four games: 1) The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C. explores a pivotal moment following the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, when democrats sought to restore democracy while critics, including the supporters of Socrates, proposed alternatives. The key text is Plato's Republic. 2) Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor examines a dispute between Confucian purists and pragmatists within the Hanlin Academy, the highest echelon of the Ming bureaucracy, taking Analects of Confucius as the central text. 3) The Trial of Anne Hutchinson revisits a conflict that pitted Puritan dissenter Anne Hutchinson and her supporters against Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop and the orthodox ministers of New England. Students work with testimony from Hutchinson’s trial as well as the Bible and other texts. 4) Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor and the New Woman investigates the struggle between radical labor activists and woman suffragists for the hearts and minds of "Bohemians," drawing on foundational works by Marx, Freud, Mary Wollstonecraft, and others. Visit for more information about the course.

Special Topics

These seminars are developed individually by faculty from throughout the College and investigate a wide range of interdisciplinary themes. See the Course Catalogue for current offerings.