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12 class recommendations for fall quarter

Course enrollment for the 2019-2020 academic year returning students opened on Aug. 1. (JASMINE LIU/The Stanford Daily)

Are you looking to fulfill a WAYS requirement? Are you panicking upon realizing that you’ve taken no humanities classes since arriving at Stanford? Or are you a freshman daunted by the relentless stream of titles on ExploreCourses? Following the brilliant example of The Stanford Sphere, the editors and writers of the opinions section of The Daily are weighing in to offer you our top course recommendations for this fall quarter, starting with IntroSems and ending with our favorite advanced seminars. 

1. HISTORY 116N: Howard Zinn and the Quest for Historical Truth

In a famous scene from “Good Will Hunting,” Will (Matt Damon) surveys Dr. Sean Maguire’s (Robin Williams) bookshelf, sighing in disappointment and remarking, “Jesus. If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s ‘People’s History of the United States.’” Today, ownership of the iconic book is often associated with a commitment to activism and socialism. Sam Wineburg, an enormously dedicated and accessible educator, invigorates the academic and popular controversies that surround Zinn’s polemic in class discussions, while embodying a caring and humane approach to teaching. By shining a critical light on several contested chapters in the book, this IntroSem interrogates the stakes of historical revisionism, the power of words like “fascism” and writing to a non-academic audience. The class promises to get you thinking about the best way to be a good global citizen, while teaching you a thing or two about American history that your high school class might have (conveniently) missed. 

  • Units: 3
  • Workload: light-medium reading and writing
  • WAYS: A-II
  • Times: Wed 1:30 PM – 3:20 PM at School of Education 208 

2. ARTHIST 1B: How to Look at Art and Why: An Introduction to the History of Western Painting

Once dubbed “Stanford’s art history preacher” in our own pages, Alexander Nemerov is one of the “most beloved, confounding and discussed professors” on campus, and for good reason. Art History 1B is a survey course that gives students a glimpse at works by Raphael, Charlotte Salomon and Jackson Pollock, and with Professor Nemerov’s assistance, then animates these works to speak to each other in revealing and surprising ways. In addition to Professor Nemerov’s famed lectures, the class seeks to improve your visual analysis skills through section discussions and essays. The sheer force of Professor Nemerov’s evangelical command for students to “look at art” left multiple Carta reviewers attesting to shedding tears during lecture.

The midterm and final do require a fair amount of rote memorization, but we think that effort is well worth the moving experience students claim to undergo in this class.

  • Units: 5
  • Workload: light reading, some writing, a midterm and final
  • Frosh-friendly: Yes
  • WAYS: A-II
  • Times: Mon, Wed, Fri 10:30 AM – 11:20 AM at McMurtry Building 102, Oshman

3. EARTH 42: Landscapes and Tectonics of the San Francisco Bay Area 

George Hilley, professor in the geology department at Stanford, designed this course to make his fascinating work on the San Andreas Fault and tectonics of the San Francisco Bay Area accessible to non-specialist students. The course features weekly Tuesday afternoon field trips to some of the most beautiful natural spots in the surrounding area, including Shark Fin Cove, the Marin Headlands and San Gregorio Beach. If you’re lucky, he might even permit the class to stop for ice cream on the way back to Stanford! Back on campus, Professor Hilley is adept at connecting the field trips to important geological concepts through weekly exploratory problem sets. What other WAY-AQR or WAY-SMA eligible course at Stanford culminates in a creative podcast final project and eschews exams entirely? Sign us up. 

  • Units: 4
  • Workload: light, weekly problem sets and a final project
  • Frosh-friendly: Yes
  • WAYS: AQR, SMA
  • Time and Place: Tue 12:00 PM – 5:50 PM at 320-227

4. RELIGST 4: What Didn’t Make It into the Bible (CLASSICS 9N, JEWISHST 4)

Some movies have director’s cuts and deleted scenes that change important plot points or shed additional light on how to interpret the theater release. “What Didn’t Make It into the Bible” is probably the most important “deleted scenes” of Western culture. An authoritative director’s commentary is unfortunately unavailable, but in its place is Michael Penn, a leading scholar of early Christianity and the director of undergraduate studies in Religious Studies, guiding you through a selection of the hundreds of Jewish and Christian texts that didn’t make the final cut. Highlights include: Preschool Jesus throwing a tantrum and killing his classmates, the garden of Eden from the snake’s perspective and angels bringing makeup to mankind. The Bible reveals itself as a stark example of the contingent nature of history — what would the world have been like if the Bible had been different, if other scenes had made the cut rather than this one? 

  • Units: 4
  • Workload: medium reading and writing
  • Frosh-friendly: Yes
  • WAYS: A-II, SI 
  • Time and Place: Tue, Thu 10:30 AM – 11:50 AM at Lathrop 282

5. POLISCI 122: Introduction to American Law

Lawrence Friedman is an erudite and devastatingly sharp lecturer, despite his soft-spoken exterior. The most widely-cited professor of legal history, Professor Friedman’s lectures and textbook are an accessible and comprehensive look at the major branches of American law, from tort to worker’s compensation to civil rights. 

As Professor Friedman walks you through some utterly bizarre legal scenarios, you will not only become well-versed in legal rules and precedents, but also come to see the law as the human invention that it is: A force that at once reflects and transforms the historical moment in which it plays out. 

The midterm and final are entertaining and stimulating, asking you to identify avenues for legal action in a series of hypotheticals devised by Professor Friedman, who, by the way, has written a handful of mystery novels!

  • Units: 3-5
  • Workload: medium reading, midterm and final
  • Frosh-friendly: Yes
  • WAYS: N/A
  • Times: Mon, Tue, Wed, Thu 9:30 AM – 10:20 AM at 200-002 

6. AFRICAAM 68D: American Prophet: The Inner Life and Global Vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. (AMSTUD 168D, CSRE 68, HISTORY 68D, HISTORY 168D)

Dr. Clayborne Carson directs Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute, an unfortunately under-acknowledged research center housed in the mysterious structure behind the Engineering Quad. He is considered one of the foremost experts on the life and philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., in part due to his long-term project to edit and disseminate, at the bequest of Coretta Scott King, his sermons, speeches, correspondence, and other writings. Subject to rave reviews on Carta, this course promises an intellectually fascinating look at Dr. King’s transcendental marriage of spirituality and activism in his fight for equality, peace and justice. Dr. Carson’s intimate understanding of Dr. King, developed through his long-term engagement with primary source documents and personal relationships with key individuals involved in the civil rights movement, culminates in a course that is not-to-be-missed for anyone interested in American history, civil rights and the interplay between the personal and political.

  • Units: 3-5
  • Workload: light-medium reading and writing
  • Frosh-friendly: Yes
  • WAYS: N/A
  • Time and Place: Tue, Thu 3:00 PM – 4:20 PM at 380-380

7. PHYSICS 61: Mechanics and Special Relativity

The teaching team for Physics 61, led by particle physicist and cosmologist Pat Burchat, provides a model for the modern classroom. An inspiring and energizing instructor, Professor Burchat doesn’t simply spend lecture deriving equations for the class on the board. Rather, she guides and encourages students as they do it themselves. Such interactive classrooms are hard to pull off, but Burchat masterfully integrates the material so that each lesson builds inexorably off the last. You’ll never have to trust that the equation on the board is correct, because you will have derived it yourself from the last equation—which you will have gotten from the one before that… and soon you’ll be reminiscing on how you arrived at all these remarkable features of special relativity starting from nothing but a couple trains, a clock made of mirrors and light, and some basic calculus. 

  • Units: 4 + 1 unit optional lab. 
  • Workload: medium problem set load and two exams
  • Frosh-friendly: Yes
  • WAYS: FR, SMA
  • Time and Place: Mon, Wed, Fri 1:30-2:50 or 3:00 PM – 4:20 PM at Green Earth Sciences150

8. HISTORY 198: The History of Modern China

Today, most typed Chinese is entered phonetically: Type the appropriate sounds and choose the correct character from rows and rows of different characters that match the sound. But how did people type Chinese characters before the advent of the PC? As Tom Mullaney’s most recent book “The Chinese Typewriter” examines, there was once a quest for a typewriter that could somehow allow the efficient input of thousands of different characters in the Chinese language. To meet this momentous challenge, the machines became so complex that they may even have influenced the development of computers (Professor Mullaney’s next book). Typewriters are not the main focus of Professor Mullaney’s “History of Modern China,” which is a survey of, among other things, the politics, culture, society and ethnicity of China. But Professor Mullaney’s work promises a rigorous look in this class at the fascinating — and important — topic that is modern China. Amidst contentious disputes between the U.S. and China today that affect our very own university, understanding the foundations of modern China is essential for a better-informed view of the contemporary geopolitical situation.

  • Units: 5
  • Workload: heavy reading and writing
  • Frosh-friendly: Yes
  • WAYS: SI 
  • Time and Place: Mon, Wed 1:30 PM – 2:50 PM at 200-303

9. ENGLISH 159A: Literature that Changed the World (AFRICAAM 159A, CSRE 159I)

Michaela Bronstein dares to ask a question that challenges the status quo in English departments: how does literary art get involved in politics? Professor Bronstein has structured this course not as a typical literary history sequence or single-author study, but through a more unusual transhistorical, transnational way. The case studies are wide and diverse, featuring literature from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the American civil rights struggle, and 19th-century Russia all in the same course. The course connects to Professor Bronstein’s most recent book, “Out of Context,” a tour-de-force that magnificently explores how the study of literature might be repurposed for political aims. And, if this course is anything like her book, we think it will be a timely, exciting, and indispensable dive into how literature can take the driver’s seat in molding contemporary events more than we might typically think. 

  • Units: 3-5
  • Workload: medium reading and writing
  • Frosh-friendly: Yes
  • WAYS: A-II, ED
  • Time and Place: Mon, Wed 10:30 AM – 11:50 AM at Littlefield 107

10. COMPLIT 239: Queer Theory

A new addition to CompLit’s experimental 200-series, Queer Theory takes a project-oriented approach to queer studies, driving at questions of Twitter wars, college campuses and the connection between theory and the real. Adrian Daub, director of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies (FGSS), is an expert in German Idealism and James Bond songs, and has published on a wide range of topics in academic as well as in public journals. A seminar with both undergrads and grads, this course fills a much-needed theory gap in the department’s emphasis on canonical Western thinkers (looking at you, Heidegger and Kant).

  • Units: 3-5
  • Frosh-friendly: No
  • Workload: heavy reading
  • WAYS: None
  • Time and Place: Tue 3:00 PM – 5:50 PM at Thornton 210

11. PHIL 137: Wittgenstein

One of Stanford’s few courses devoted to a single thinker, David Hills’ Wittgenstein seminar offers students quarter-long engagement with the founder of analytic philosophy. Infamous among philosophy majors, Professor Hills is known for his meticulous notes and interest in undergraduate education. Though his lecture voice may take time to adjust to, there is no better way to study late Wittgenstein than with Professor Hills. Purporting to “solve philosophy,” Wittgenstein’s late work represents the linguistic turn in philosophy. Our very own department at Stanford follows in his footsteps in this regard. Professor Hills’ unconventional, literary approach to philosophy mirrors Wittgenstein’s own (“philosophy should really be written only as one would write poetry”) and provides a unique opening into Wittgenstein’s life and thought.

  • Units: 4
  • Workload: medium-heavy reading and writing
  • Frosh-friendly: No
  • WAYS: A-II
  • Times: Tue, Thu 10:30 AM – 11:50 AM at School of Education 230

12. HISTORY 237D: The French Revolution and the Birth of Modern Politics

Trained in the Cambridge School of intellectual history, Keith Baker –– quite literally –– wrote the book on the French Revolution. In “Inventing the French Revolution,” Professor Baker traces the origins of the ideas that give rise to this seminal moment in modern European history. There is possibly no one better equipped at Stanford to lead a colloquium exploring the roots of notions we take for granted today like “public opinion,” “the people,” and “representation” through the lens of the French Revolution. The class will also provoke students with questions like: “How did the French Revolution become thinkable?” What does it entail to make a break with the past? Rumored to be on the verge of his retirement, Professor Baker is a hidden gem in the history department. Though the reading list may be daunting, his insights and accessible mini-lectures on texts make the slog worthwhile.

  • Units: 4-5
  • Workload: heavy reading
  • Frosh-friendly: No
  • WAYS: N/A
  • Time and Place: Mon 1:30 PM – 4:20 PM at Lathrop 290

This post has been corrected to reflect that ENGLISH 159A will be meeting from 10:30-11:50 a.m. in Littlefield 107, not 10:30-11:50 p.m. in Littlefield 10. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact the Opinions staff at [email protected]

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