FYS 170 Crime and Punishment

Jefferson Hunter, M W 2:40 PM-4:00 PM

What are some of the causes and consequences of human wrongdoing?  What kinds of wrongdoing do we consider worse than others, and why?  How can we tell the guilty from the innocent?  How can punishments be made to fit crimes?  What’s the relation between punishment and guilt, the distinction between punishment and revenge?  How, finally, do we define and recognize and attain that most elusive and important of human ideals: justice?  We’ll investigate these questions by reading, discussing, and writing about brief selections from the Old and New Testaments, a trilogy of ancient Greek plays (Aeschylus, Oresteia), a poem from the middle ages (Dante, Inferno), a nineteenth-century psychological novel (Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment), and the American film Dead Man Walking.  The seminar will conclude with oral reports and papers on other films, which each student will choose for herself.

I hope to accomplish two things in this course.  The first is to encourage you to discuss a wide range of issues involving crime, punishment, and justice, with the assigned readings serving as starting-points.  So, for example, after we study the hierarchical arrangement of sins in Dante (in his view, believe it or not, flattery is worse than murder), I’ll want you to think and talk about a hierarchy of sins you believe in yourself—how would you rank flattery and murder?  What do we do with kinds of wrongdoing Dante didn’t think of?  Similarly, after a screening of Dead Man Walking, I’ll expect a discussion on the pros and cons of capital punishment, which that film is about.  Since many high school English classes often treat literature in this way—as a starting-point for wide-ranging political or ethical debates—I expect that you’ll be on familiar ground here, and I hope that you’ll debate issues with each other frankly and energetically.  I won’t have particular answers in mind and I won’t be bothered if the debates sometimes become impassioned; human beings have been passionately engaged with these issues for centuries.  It will be important for everyone to speak out honestly, and to listen carefully.

My other aim is to help you pay very close attention to the texts or films in their own right, as works of art; to gain practice in critical analysis and thus be taken into an area where you will develop skills.  Here, I’ll want you to work not just with a writer’s ideas, but with the technique of his verse or the structure of his narrative.  I’ll be particularly interested in questions of form or genre—e.g., what’s the relation between Athenian notions of justice and the dramatic form in which the Athenian playwright Aeschylus worked?  In what ways is the psychological novel as perfected by Dostoevsky, with its emphasis on thought and dreams and interior debate, the only possible medium for his particular ideas of guilt and redemption?  And so on. 

Whether the focus is on ideas or literary analysis I want to do as much teaching as possible by discussion.  I won’t lecture, but will ask questions, give you bibliographical guidance, suggest topics, try to engage you.  In general, it will be everyone’s responsibility to be informed about the reading and viewing (i.e., to come to class prepared), to listen, to ask and answer questions, and to talk.  You can also expect some group work in the course, either improvised in class or set up in advance; some research tasks in the library; and some modest reading on the Internet.

This is a writing-intensive course, meaning that we’ll devote some class time to writing issues, that you’ll occasionally comment on each other’s work, that I’ll comment in detail on your papers, that I’ll expect to meet with everyone individually to talk about written work, and last but not least that you’ll be writing frequently.  At the start of the semester I’ll assign weekly short (two- page) papers; later, we’ll slow this pace a bit and lengthen the papers.  Some papers will not be graded; at least one will be revised.  You’ll also write an 8 to 10 page final essay on a film of your choosing.  This will be based on an oral report which you’ll give in class at some point during the last four meetings.