Review Comment

Rousseau

January 28, 2018

Lilla, Mark Silver_nugget
Rousseau

The seminar entitled “History of the self: Tocqueville” offers the opportunity of a close reading of Democracy in America by Tocqueville. It certainly helps one improving his analytical skills and critical thinking while expanding his/her knowledge in political science. The main focus is on French and American history of the 18th and 19th century as well as political philosophy from Montaigne to Tocqueville. This class helps understanding European and the US political regimes through a refreshing comparative approach.

Mr Lilla is incredibly cultivated and mixes theory with anecdotes and contemporary analysis to make students commit more easily to Tocqueville. His appreciation of French and American cultures is very thoughtful. He also opens the discussion to numerous contemporary debates without imposing any particular view and students have room to express and challenge their opinions. I might have actually enjoyed the class to be a little more theoretical at times. I felt some students were running away from the fascinating political science and close reading through raising contemporary issues poorly.

Workload:

Since Mr Lilla asks for a short essay on each week's readings, I probably worked around 9 hours / week for this class (including the 2 hours of class). It is a very demanding seminar, but that is probably the best way to delve into Tocqueville and remember it well.

I believe Mr Lilla shall introduce the requirements for a final paper early enough in the semester since it represents an important amount of work. I also tend to consider a seminar shall either be evaluated through continuous control or a final research paper, both seeming a little excessive to me. I really enjoyed having to write on Tocqueville each week, but it has been challenging to deal with a final paper on top of that, among other finals and a research thesis.

Am surprised to see that Lilla no longer has gold nugget, since he really hasn't changed and probably won't barring unexpected head injuries. I'd like to focus on the seminars so people who didn't take LitHum with him can get an idea of whether it's useful. Or skip the reviews and read this article for his thoughts on liberal education:
http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/college_week/2005/11/college_makeover_8.html

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If you're concerned about grades and workload (perfectly understandable), you might want to rethink taking his LitHum section. I think that if you're humble and you put in the work into writing your posts (most important part, easiest way to tell if you've done the reading) and participate in discussion, you'll be fine. He is easily one of the best LitHum teachers, and most importantly, he actually really enjoys teaching the class and listening to his students (no, really). Yes, he does tend to guide the class onto certain interpretations, but generally speaking this is much more useful and more interesting than chaotic speculation (never mind the fact that he knows the books better than any student). Broader discussions of themes happen frequently, but only as results of conflicts within the texts themselves. That said, if you have a good grasp of the text or an alternative interpretation, you should definitely be able to contest or augment his own picture, so please do that and don't bitch about the class being an echo chamber. I actually get the feeling he would like it if people were more combative (at least that means you're invested).
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Seminars: they are glorified reading groups. Lilla will select a single main text for the semester (in some instances supplementing it with other readings), which the class will read at a slow pace. The class is divided into halves, which alternate between writing long posts (1000+) and shorter responses (500+) every week. Depending on how good the posts are, Lilla will organize the class around them (inserting topics or passages that he feels are important). Classes go like this: he gives a little intro sometimes, then jumps directly to a passage, which becomes the basis for discussion until time demands that the class move onto another passage, and another topic. On rare occasions, he will lecture a bit when a certain idea comes up (negative theology, for example) or if the class is just lost. Discussion is usually very good at comparing different readings and different angles on the texts; Lilla will also bring up other thinkers and books, which I've always found useful (if merely tangential).
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Lilla has the knack for transforming everyone's comments, both good and bad, into useful observations for the rest of the class. I have found that the quality of other students (and my own, of course) mattered very little to how much I get out of it, since Lilla seems to make it all intelligible. This is especially impressive because his class attracts such a random bunch (people from across the humanities, and a couple outside), who are used to approaching problems in their own fashion. Of course, it also helps that he doesn't take undercooked bullshit - if he doesn't understand you, he will ask you to clarify, and he's really not into patronizing moralists who proselytize instead of analyzing (very rare though). Lilla takes the discussion pretty seriously, and it's not uncommon for him to take notes and learn from students (it's also pretty invigorating to feel like you're being taken seriously, and I haven't gotten that from any other professor).
I will say that some people have told me they weren't a fan of the way he approached texts (whatever they meant), and some have said they appreciated other teachers for allowing them more leeway for personal exploration. I either disagree or do not understand these criticisms (see article), but, they're there...
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In the past, Lilla's done classes on Montaigne, Rousseau, and Pascal - but he will do different texts in the future. It's really probably your best opportunity to spend a lot of time trying to understand the text, and I would recommend it for that reason alone. What really makes Lilla's classes great for me isn't really the discussion or his insight, but the fact that by the time I've turned in my final papers, I will feel like I've come to know these books very intimately, and it would be dishonest to deny that each of time my interests and thinking have shifted. After you take his class, there's just no way you can read philosophy any other way, and no other class will come close to giving you a similar kind of experience. It's because of this that I would take a Lilla class no matter what he taught.
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Finally, I want to put in a good word for the man himself: capital fellow, un bonne homme cause he likes French. He loves teaching and his students, and people across the spectrum of interests and beliefs like his classes (lots of repeat offenders). He also has a great sense of humor - or am I the only one who's noticed he has/had portraits of (I think) Napoleon and Burke in his office?
Intellectually, he is a fantastic resource - he's good on basically any period of Western intellectual history, but he's best on early modern and 20th century Europe, and he's especially good on Christian theology and also on politics. I have yet to receive a bad book recommendation from him.

TLDR: No, fuck you, I put time into this. Damn, it's actually pretty long.

Workload:

Always a lot of work. To be fair, he puts in just as much work (people seem to miss this fact). If you're a senior taking his class in the Spring, then you'll have less time to finish your longer paper. Seems pretty dicey to me. He would give feedback on my writing, but I only got it when I was a sophomore (in other words, when I needed it). Either I really am the shit, or he likes me too much to tell me I suck. Not that concerned, honestly.

November 20, 2003

May, Gita Silver_nugget
Rousseau

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

I truly enjoy the class. It is true that one does not necessarily have to do all of the reading or that there are things that are repeated a few times. However it is really up to you to make the best out of it. I have learned a lot and I enjoyed listening to her as she is indeed very knowledgeable, even though more in-class discussion could add to the course.

June 12, 2003

May, Gita Silver_nugget
Rousseau

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

While Professor May is indeed a nice grandmotherly type, she is just too sweet for her own good. Her in-class lectures don't encourage you to try; reading the material becomes pointless after a while, since she is the only one speaking during class. Forget trying to give your own opinions about the material or bringing in relevant texts; but mention that Rousseau wrote an opera called "Le Divin du Village" (a fact which she re-taught us every day), and she'll praise you for the rest of class. Although I will undoubtedly never forget Rousseau's opera, that he was a hypochondriac, or that he hated Voltaire, I have to agree that the easy A is just not worth it. While Professor May is very nice, you'll spend her class learning what she tells you (sometimes twice) and not learning for yourself.

Workload:

Oral presentation (easy), 15-page paper, (what you make of it) and final (if you have any notes at all it will be fine)

May 19, 2003

May, Gita Silver_nugget
Rousseau

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

Professor May should not be teaching any more. She knows a lot about the subject matter, but she stumbled over her lectures, repeated entire half-hour chunks, got the students mixed up with each other, and did not engage with the texts in more than a reading-comp level. I have no doubt that she was once an asset to the departement, but she is too old, too disinterested, and too confused to be teaching anymore. The easy A or A- will ensure that students sign up for her classes, it is definitely not worth it.

Workload:

Presentation, final, fifteen page paper.

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