College Seminar II/English 249
Beauty: A Conversation between Chemistry and Culture
Sharon Burgmayer and Anne Dalke
Bryn Mawr College
Spring 2005
Tuesday/Thursday 10-11:30


week 1 . . . week 2 . . . week 3 . . . week 4 . . . week 5 . . . week 6 . . . week 7 . . . week 8 . . . week 9 . . . week 10 . . . week 11 . . . week 12

Class Roster

This new course, designed by professors of chemistry and literarature, will explore the interdisciplinary topic of "beauty," ranging from the molecular to the political levels, with considerable time spent inbetween on the matter of aesthetics. The arc of the conversation will occur in four stages: Exploring Form: What is Beautiful?; Apprehending the Physical World: The Structures of Nature; Appreciating Beautiful Objects--What Moves Us, How and Why; and The Shaping Work of Politics; or the Ethical Turn: On Beauty and Being Just.

The class will draw heavily on the work of the pragmatist educator John Dewey (whose Art as Experience will be a guiding text). Selections will reach from a consideration of the beauty industry, to feminist work on standards of aesthetic evaluation (in art history, literature and film study); from debates among physicists about whether the beauty of a theory is predictive of its truth, to current cognitive work on how we apprehend the beautiful; from the tradition of grand metaphysical aesthetics to the work of current aestheticians. There will also be a wide range of aesthetic objects on-and-about which we will conduct our analysis of beauty (including two class trips to the Barnes Foundation). The recent Symposium on Beauty will also be a resource for the course (

Course Requirements:


  • 1/4: participation in class and on-line conversations
  • 1/8 each: papers # 1, 2, 3, 4
  • 1/4: final paper and portfolio

In this class, we'll be exploring multiple different experiences of beauty. It will be clear, from that exploration, why we think a single grade will not adequately reflect your various, distinctive efforts in the class; nor do we think it will function as an adequate index to how you may perform in other contexts. We hope you'll regard this score as only one measure of your accomplishments, and take into account your own sense of how what you achieve here relates to your own goals. We're of course happy to discuss all these matters with you in conference.

This course is predicated on an assumption that the sorts of experiences and questions being considered here are significant not only in the classroom but in a broader human context. So the course is organized to contribute to public conversation, both by having a weekly on-line forum and by the on-line publication of course materials, including student papers. In considering whether this course is appropriate for your own educational objectives, you should be aware of this assumption and associated arrangements, and of the implications and obligations of engaging in a public arena, where you will be responsible not only for your own education but that of others as well.

"There can be no rule according to which
anyone is to be forced to recognize anything
as beautiful." Immanuel Kant,
Critique of
Judgment, trans. J.H. Bernard. New York:
Macmillan, 1951: #8.
Week One
I. Exploring Form: What is Beautiful?
1/18 Welcome!
Introduction to the course: a "beautiful" sensorium of taste, smell, touch, hearing and sight
"Tell me what text you find most beautiful....": A Survey of Bryn Mawr's English Department (and associated others)
What Anne finds beautiful: the Watercolors of Sharon Burgmayer

1/20 What is Beauty? Collecting More Data on our Own Experiences
Write up one paragraph in course web forum by 5 p.m. on Wed, 1/21:

If you are so moved, bring something beautiful to class with you on Thursday.

Week Two
By 5 p.m. Mon 1/24, post your response to these readings in the course forum:

1/25 John Dewey, Preface. "The Live Creature." "The Live Creature and 'Etherial Things.'"Art as Experience (1934; rpt. New York: Perigee, 1980. vii-viii, 3-34.

Walker Percy, "The Loss of the Creature." The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. 46-63.

James Elkins, "The Ivory Tower of Tearlessness." The Chronicle Review. The Chronicle of Higher Education. November 9, 2001.

Reading "Interface"

"We the Creatures": Our Responses to Dewey, Percy and Elkins

1/26 First (5-pp.) essay on your own experience of beauty due on the web by Wednesday @ 5 p.m.
Bring your hard copy to class for discussion.

1/27 In-class discussion of essays, which can be viewed @ First Web Papers.

"In truth war is also beauty. For all its
horror, you can't help but gap at the
awful majesty of combat.... It's astonishing.
It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it,
yes, but your eyes do not." Tim O'Brien,
The Things They Carried. New York:
Penguin, 1991: 87.

1/29: First Saturday morning trip to the Barnes Foundation: lessons on reading a picture

Week Three
2/1 John Dewey,"Having an Experience" and "Substance and Form." Art as Experience. 35-57, 106-133.

Albert Barnes. Preface and Book I: Introduction. The Art in Painting. 1925; rpt. Merion Station, Pa: The Barnes Foundation Press, 1997. x-xii, 3-50.

Roger Kimball. "Betraying a Legacy: The Case of the Barnes Foundation." Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003. 34-46.

"The Barnes Foundation, RIP. Notes and Comments." The New Criterion. January 2005: 1-3

"The Barnes: New Home, New Problems." The Philadelphia Inquirer. December 29. 2004. H1, H8, H9.

2/3 Division into small groups to select two "beautiful" texts apiece
Color: An "Event," Not an "Object"

Body Image Awareness Month, sponsored by the Body Image Council
A Film Series (All in Thomas 224 @ 7pm)
Feb 2: "The Truth About Cats & Dogs"
Feb 9: "Real Women Have Curves"
Feb 16: "Eating" (A 1990 film by Henry Jaglom)
Feb 15, @ 8pm in the Quita Woodward Room: Embodiment/Movement Workshop--to help women inhabit (rather than disassociate from) their bodies

"Beauty is...something that originated in the
renunciation of what was once feared, which
only as result of this renunciation...became the
ugly." Theodor Adorno,
Aesthetic Theory,
trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1997: 79, 84.
II. Apprehending the Physical World: The Structures of Nature
Week Four
2/8 Roald Hoffman, "Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry." Preface. Issue on Aesthetics and Visualization. Hyle.

Roald Hoffmann, "Narrative." American Scientist On-line (July-August 2000).

A Discussion with Sharon Burgmayer, Molecular Aesthetics: Making the World More Beautiful

2/10 Chemistry experiments, PSB 227

Week Five
2/15 A. Zee. Preface, "In Search of Beauty" and "Symmetry and Simplicity." Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Physics. 1986; rpt. Princeton, New Jersey: Princton University Press, 1999. xiii-xiv, 3-21.

Kenneth Chang. "What Makes an Equation Beautiful." The New York Times. October 24, 2004. 12.

James McAllister. "Is Beauty a Sign of Truth in Scientific Theories?" American Scientist 2 (March-April 1998), 174-184.

A Discussion with Peter Beckmann of Al Albano's How a Physicist Sees Beauty

2/17 In-class physics demonstrations

Week Six
Revised Assignments
No forum postings due this Monday (because papers are due Wednesday!)

2/22 Philip Fisher. "The Rainbow and Cartesian Wonder" and "Wonder and the Steps of Thought." Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998. 33-85, 104-107.

Instead of coming to class, give yourself the gift of 1 1/2 undirected hours on Tuesday morning of "being hyperaware" of the world: go wandering (not seeking) and see what you can find.

2/23 Second (5-pp.) essay, on "Seeing Beauty as a Scientist," due on the web by Wednesday @ 5 p.m.
Bring your hard copy to class for discussion.

2/24 In-class discussion of essays, which can be viewed @ Web Papers 2 Forum.

"The judgment of an intimation that
what stands before us is valuable...We find things
beautiful..when we sense we have not exhausted
them...Beautiful things are those we still desire, in
every sense, to possess and know better. The
perception of beauty is inseparable from yearning."
Alexander Nehamas, "The Return of the Beautiful:
Morality, Pleasure and the Value of Uncertainty."

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58, 4 (Fall 2000): 402.

III. Appreciating Beautiful Objects: What Moves Us, How and Why
Week Seven
3/1 Small group discussion of "beautiful texts"**

3/3 Small group discussion of "beautiful texts" continued

3/8-3/10 Spring Break

Week Eight
3/15 & 3/17 Class presentations of "what constitutes beauty" (to be posted on the web)

3/19 (Saturday) Second trip to the Barnes Foundation

Week Nine
3/22 Karl Kirchwey, Aesthetics: An Exchange Between a Poet and a Dramatist

Discussion with Mark Lord, Beauty Marks: An Artist Reflects on Beauty

3/24 Discussion with Susan Levine, Beauty Treatment: The Aesthetics of the Psychoanalytic Process. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly.October, 2003.

(See also the list of definitions from Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts: analysis, transference, countertransference, therapeutic alliance, instinct theory, object, object relations theory, paranoid-schizoid position and depressive position.)

3/25 Third (5-pp.) essay (due in hard copy and on the web): on reading a picture

"To be born a woman is to know--
Although they do not talk of it at school--
That we must labour to be beautiful."
William Butler Yeats, "Adam's Curse"
IV. The Shaping Work of Politics; or The Ethical Turn: On Beauty and Being Just
Week Ten
3/29 A Discussion with Christine Koggel about
Christine Koggel, Concepts of Beauty: A Feminist Philosopher Thinks about Paradigms and Consequences.

No More Miss America! (1968). The CWLY Herstory Website Archive

Elayne A. Saltzberg and Joan C. Chrisler, "Beauty Is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body." Women: A Feminist Perspective, edited by Jo Freeman. Fifth Edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1995. 306-315.

3/31 Further Discussion of your essays on reading pictures, on paradigms and consequences, and on the "beastly" nature of beauty (what are the connections?):

Teresa Riordan. Introduction and Conclusion. Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations That Have Made Us Beautiful. New York: Broadway Books, 2004: xv-xxv, 276-278.

Week Eleven
4/5 A Discussion of Paul Grobstein's Biology, Brains and Beauty: How Do They (and We) Relate? and Ted Chiang's "Liking What You See: A Documentary." Stories of Your Life and Others. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2002: 281-323, 331.

4/7 Further Discussion of "Biology, Brain, Beauty" and "Liking What You See"

Week Twelve
4/12 Ivone Gebara. "Yearning for Beauty." The Other Side. July-August 2003. 24-25.
Elaine Scarry, "On Beauty and Being Fair." On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999: 55-124. 127-132.

4/14 In Goodhart Music Room-- sharing some other beautiful forms,
and discussing what it feels like both to create and receive them:

Sharon Burgmayer playing the piano,
Lauren Sweeney on point,
Tanya Corder hula dancing,
Liz Paterek demonstrating Tae Kwon Do (martial arts), and
Annabella Wood on the guitar.

4/15 Fourth (5 pp.) essay (due in hard copy and on the web): on the political implications of beauty
(Alternative: replace fourth paper with 10-pp. final paper.)

Weeks Thirteen-Fourteen
4/19 Rafe Jones, Doctor May Have Beauty's Number
Marquardt Beauty Analysis
The Human Face Is Based Entirely on Phi
Julian Robinson, Preface, "Traditions of Adornment," The Quest for Human Beauty: An Illustrated History (New York: Norton, 1998): 9-56.
[In class:] selection from The Gods Must Be Crazy. Dir. Jamie Uys. Videorecording, 1980. 109 minutes.

4/21 (selections from) Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Whitney Chadwick, "An Infinite Play of Empty Mirrors: Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation." Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self Representation. Ed. Whitney Chadwick. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998. 2-35.
Janice Helland, "Culture, Politics, and Identity in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo." The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History Ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard. New York: Harper Collins, 1992. 396-407.
[In class:] Selections from
Frida Kahlo. Dir. Julie Taymor. Videorecording, 2002. 123 minutes.
Frida, naturaleza viva. Dir. Paul Leduc. Videorecording, 1986. 108 minutes.

4/26 [In class:] Selections from
A Beautiful Mind. Dir. Ron Howard. Viedeorecording, 2001. 135 minutes.
Life is Beautiful. Dir. Roberto Benigni. Videorecording, 1997. 116 minutes.

4/28 A Beauty Surround, created by all....

5 p.m. Saturday, 5/7 (for seniors), 12:30 Friday, 5/13 (for all others)
Final (5 pp.) essay (due in hard copy and on the web)
Portfolio Due

"Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires."
Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning"
**Suggestions of "beautiful texts" from members of the English Department (and associated others) include Gloria Nayler's Mama Day, The Song of Songs (The Bible), Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Walker's The Color Purple, Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra or The Winter's Tale, Chaucer's Troilus and Creiseyde, Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans, Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray, Linda Hogan's essays, Woolf's The Waves, Heaney's "Post Script," Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Guillermo Gomez-Pena's Codex Espangliensis, Santos-Febres' Urban Oracles, Monette's Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, Arenas' Before Night Falls, Barthes' S/Z, the introduction to Mythologies, Camera Obscura, Foucault's "War in the Filigree of Peace," Mailer's The Executioner's Song,poetry by ee cummings, Walt Whitman and Kenneth Patchen, and a range of cinematic moments (close-ups of Maggie Cheung, Gong Li, Montgomery Clift ; shots of massive crowds moving as a single body: Berkeley's Gold Diggers of 1933 or Dames, Yimou's Hero;W. C. Fields in It's a Gift, Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor.)


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