“Reading the World: Where’s the Evidence?”

Course Description: Each discipline on campus has a different way of describing what it calls “evidence.” What counts as “evidence” for an argument for the Humanities or Law might not hold water for the Sciences or Medicine, and vice-versa. In fact, the nature of evidence may radically differ depending on who is looking at it. Or does it? Are the criteria for evidence in a legal case different from the evidence that a film critic would acknowledge? What about a historian, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a mathematician, or a scientist? Do all of these different areas of study share the same basic assumptions about what counts as evidence toward proof, or are there fundamental differences between fields and branches of knowledge? In cases of atrocity, cases of brutality beyond what can be imagined, articulated in language, or in cases where evidence of brutality has been systematically destroyed or is unavailable, what does evidence mean, and how can we “prove” the reality of pain, suffering, and trauma?

What about literature? What is evidence in a book or a poem? When we say that a book has multiple possible interpretations, hidden messages, and codes that exist beyond the words on the page, are we reading the evidence, or are we reading too much into it?

In this course, we will look at literature where analyzing and interpreting evidence becomes a problem for the characters, narrator, or plot. We will see characters and narrators walk the fine line between seeing things in evidence that others cannot and, well, maybe just seeing things. And we will look at texts that perhaps give up on the idea of evidence entirely and instead attempt to find other ways to work toward proof. We will especially look at atrocity as a case where evidence is burdened with not only proving the reality of an event, but also proving the reality of suffering, moral value or depravity, and theoretical claims about the meaning of such horrific events. We will look at the way that fiction seeks to establish factual evidence about the state of affairs in the “real” world, and we will look at how factual accounts may enlist techniques of fiction in order to substantiate such “reality.”

In addition, we will think about how evidence fits into a broad array of diverse cultures beyond the type of verification standardized by the West. How do we think about divination, voodoo, or prophecy as forms of proof-finding? We will read writings in a number of different genres, we will look at archival material, and we’ll watch some films as well. Students will be asked to think critically about how the themes of the course play out differently in different disciplines, media, and also in a diverse range of cultural contexts.

Course Primary texts: Sherlock Holmes, The Big Sleep, Calcutta Chromosome, Proof, Mother Night, The Farming of Bones, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, In the Lake of the Woods, Zong!.

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