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HUMANITIES 1 and 1D: Reading Dante's "The Divine Comedy" in Translation

Instructor: Dr. Patricia L. MacKinnon, Emerita Faculty
Dept of Comparative Literature

Course Descriptions:
What is a “great book”?  Perhaps, most simply put, it is a work that endures across the centuries, being read by generations of literate people, as well as scholars. Dante’s Commedia or (as it is called in English, Divine Comedy) is such a book. Written in the vernacular, it is addressed to the general reader, as is this course, which invites all students from across the curriculum to enjoy “the banquet of knowledge” that Dante lavishes upon his readers. Lecture and discussion will examine the broad structural logic of Dante’s visionary poem, as well as in depth explication of representative individual cantos and passages that illuminate its governing patterns.

Dante’s achievement as an encyclopedic writer makes him an ideal subject for a Humanities course: indeed, Dante’s work belongs to “great books” core education courses, as well as the disciplines of philosophy, religion, history, medieval and renaissance studies, comparative and globally conceived languages and literature, precisely because he subsumes these modern disparate disciplinary specializations within the totalizing vision of his work. As much as the Divine Comedy is a learned poem that puts a heavy demand on its readers, it is also surprisingly accessible for the first-time reader, because Dante is such a superb storyteller.

Dante lived during a pivotal juncture of European history that contained, as he rightly discerned, potent forces destined to shape modernity.  Above all, Dante understood the central role of desire in material, economic, and spiritual life. He analyzes how love (appetite/desire) as the motive of all human action fueled the emerging capitalist society of his day and its culture of endlessly proliferating, insatiable desires which (as he concluded) can make a hell on earth; or alternately, how love, subject to reason and philosophy and in concert with divine influence, assists the individual in realizing his or her potential, leading to happiness both in this life and the next.  Indeed, Dante’s Divine Comedy raises issues which are still urgent for us—questions about our moral actions and their consequences, our political institutions and economic systems, and the nature of spiritual experience and the possibilities of individual transformation.  

While this course is designed to help the student practice and perfect techniques to read, analyze, and appreciate deeply Dante’s great poem, it will assist all students at any level in mastering the skills used by expert readers to assimilate any text.  Indeed the analytic habits of active reading and interrogation that open up interpretive depth and richness cultivated in this course are directly transferable skills to other courses in the university and should enhance students’ performance in their further studies across the curriculum.  Moreover, as a reading course, it provides the student with the pleasure of experiencing one of the greatest works of imaginative literature in the world tradition.  Dante’s work is a compendium of the entire western tradition of literature that preceded him and anticipates through prescient analysis many of the key forces of the emerging modern world we inhabit today.

The lectures will serve as guided readings, to help walk you through the poem in its entirety.  To do justice to the coherence and complexity of Dante’s vision, we will begin with a brief overview of the scope of the poem as a whole and establish key facts concerning Dante’s life and times.  We will briefly explore Dante’s early works, particularly the Vita Nuova.   As we proceed, we will note the key sub-texts of the Bible, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, without which the Commedia could never have been conceived. The course lectures will be divided, more or less equally, between the three major parts of the poem: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.  The lectures provide you with the background and guidance you need to grasp the “big picture”, at the same time taking you “beneath the surface” of the textual details, enabling you to discern the psychological, historical, and spiritual depth contained within the cosmic scope of Dante’s vision.

A Note on Texts
We will read Dante in the bilingual editions/translations of Durling and Martinez (Oxford University Press) for all three parts of the Commedia.   Durling and Martinez provide insightful guidance to the reader: each volume begins with an introduction that draws the reader’s attention to key issues of that part of the poem; there are notes at the end of each canto which provide detailed commentary explaining Dante’s (oft times for the modern reader obscure) allusions;  at the end of each of the three volumes are invaluable “Additional Notes” that cross-reference many of the major rhetorical patterns, themes, and symbols which Dante is orchestrating across the Commedia as a whole.  These texts present the original Italian on one side of the page with its English rendition on the opposite. Bring your texts with you to every class meeting.

1. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Volume 1: Inferno, trans. and ed. by Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez. Oxford University Press. ISBN-10: 0195087445; ISBN-13: 978-0195087444. 2. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Volume 2: Purgatorio, trans. and ed. by Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez. Oxford University Press. ISBN-10: 0195087453; ISBN-13: 978-0195087451. 3. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Volume 3: Paradiso, trans. and ed. by Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez. Oxford University Press. ISBN 10: 0195087429; ISBN 13: 9780195087420. 4. Humanities 1/1D Course Reader (available at Navin’s).


All students (both those enrolled in Hum 1 for 2 units and Hum 1D for 2 additional units satisfying GE requirements) will be responsible for a mid-term and a final exam. Those enrolled in Hum 1D will also have additional writing assignments in the form of 2 short papers/presentations.

About the Instructor:

Dr. MacKinnon is an expert guide through the “deep waters” of Dante’s work. She is a Dante scholar, having studied with one of the foremost world authorities on Dante (Robert M. Durling, the editor and translator of the text for this course). Part of her scholarly work focuses on Dante and she has taught the Divine Comedy over the past several decades at major universities, including Stanford, UCLA, and UC Davis. In addition, Dr. MacKinnon has a long established record of distinguished undergraduate teaching. She is particularly dedicated to assisting lower-division, incoming students and helping them to step up to the expectations and requirements of university study by focusing on critical thinking and analytical reading in challenging texts. She welcomes students from all levels and all disciplines.


Dr. Jack Hicks Summer Session I 2011 TTh 2:10-4:40 148 Physics


Call them private eyes, sleuths, shamuses, dicks, snoops, p.i.s, peeps or worse, detectives are very popular in contemporary fiction and film. We’ll meet Easy Rawlins (posing as a humble janitor in Watts); LAPD detective and Viet Nam vet Harry Bosch, working the darkness of the City of Angels; quadriplegic Lincoln Rhymes, a variant of Poe’s classic armchair “ratiocinative detective,” tracking serial killers from a Manhattan medical bed; Navajo investigator Jim Chee, who polices the “Big Rez” with traditional medicine and modern criminology; forensic scientist Kay Scarpetta (think popular television such as “CSI” and “Bones”), who frees corpses of their secrets via cybertechnology, computer analysis and DNA scans; and multi-pierced/tattooed Lisbeth Salander, a revenge-minded superhacker who uncovers dark incestuous conspiracy in the Scandinavian winter. Their tales make fascinating reading and tell us about worlds in transition, including the roles of detectives, criminals (and their awful deeds), victims and ourselves--who ignore, watch, impede or abet crime and punishment.

GE: Arts & Humanities Topical Breadth


(1) Prompt and regular attendance and participation [5%];

(2) Weekly reading quizzes [25%]; (2) Two short papers (5-6 pp each) [20% each];

(3) Final Exam [30%]


Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress

Michael Connelly, The Black Echo

Jeffrey Deaver, The Bone Collector

Tony Hillerman, Skinwalkers

Patricia Cornwell, The Body Farm

Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Selected passages from film adaptations of novels above

Humanities 8: Gender, Sexuality, and Other Science Fictions

HUM 8: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 10:00-11:40AM, 101 Wellman

HUM 8 CRN: 51723

Love potions, magic spells, cloning, alien encounters, mind control, artificial intelligences, and vampires. What do these fictions of science tell us about sexual desire?

Whether real or imagined ... depictions in literature, visual art, and film offer a unique lens through which we can examine scientific theories about gender and sexuality. Whether attempting to explain the origins of attraction, enabling people to change their gender, or offering a means to increase sexual desire, scientific practices and theories have emerged as an increasingly pervasive and powerful force in our culture. Yet science has a long history of attempting to explain or influence human reproduction, sexual desire, hybridity, disease, gender identity, and other elements that contribute to shifting definitions of “the normal."

This class will examine narratives across cultures and time periods to explore the relationship between the history of science and the history of sexuality.

Texts: We will read one play (William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream) two short novels (Octavia Butler's Fledgling and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go), and several short stories. We'll also look at depictions in television and film.

Grading: Essays (40%), Exams (30%), In-Class Activities and Discussion (30%).

GE Credit: ArtHum or SocSci, Div, Wrt.

Instructor: John Garrison |