Review Comment

[HIST 4358] Montaigne & Skepticism

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.

May 19, 2013

Lilla, Mark Silver_nugget
[HIST 4358] Montaigne & Skepticism

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

Note: Prof. Lilla asked us to write a review about this class so that people will get an idea of what the class is like – a fair amount of people dropped the class both semesters, so it might help if people had a better idea of what the class is like before trying it.

The gist: Lilla is an extremely capable discussion leader, and he gives you free reign to pursue any ideas you have about Montaigne’s Essays. Very thought-provoking experience and rewarding for anyone who enjoys philosophy, history, and literature combined into a single class. Not for people who aren’t prepared to work a lot.

Course Summary: The class is a year-long course on the Essays, but you don’t need to take both semesters. From what I gathered, first semester focused on a lot of different topics – virtue, politics, leadership, the self, customs, friendship, vanity, education, human nature, and some more. Second semester was definitely more focused on human nature and our relationship to knowledge, so the main chunk of the course dealt with the Apology for Raymond Sebond and related. While this course sounds like it should be offered in a lit department, Prof. Lilla really focuses on the philosophical aspect of Montaigne’s writing instead of the literary issues that make the Essays unique, and I can see why after finishing the course. Montaigne’s thought is truly unique, blending a whole bunch of ancient schools of philosophy in different parts of the Essays in order to produce a philosophy that has remarkable connections to later thinkers such as Pascal, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. Useful for people interested in that sort of stuff.

Now, Lilla’s classes all revolve around the same format: each week, half of the class will post an essay of around 1000 words (some people write more), and the other half will have 24 hours to write a response of about 500 words. These posts are very important: they ensure that everyone does the reading and has a chance to discuss it online before coming to class. Lilla can then see what issues pop up and build the class around them, which really makes for fluid discussion (or pontification). It must also be said that Lilla has a knack for understanding and clarifying students’ points when they aren’t clear, so if you zone out during someone else’s speech, Lilla can quickly bring you up to speed. That being said, Montaigne can be difficult to unpack sometimes – he’s tricky, and often changes positions within the same essays, leading to confusion once in a while (hence the necessity for pontification). Also keep in mind that Lilla is one of those professors who learn from students just as much as they learn from him. It is a little hard to disagree with his reading, but he’s always interested to hear your opinion and interpretation, so he usually tries to refrain from ‘pontificating’ in class (although whenever he does so it’s usually extremely helpful). He’s also (obviously) extremely well read, and you will emerge from this class with a plethora of other books and venues to explore.

I would try to offer some criticism of the course but I would end up sounding petty...
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Note: the poster below who complained about Lilla’s focus on the European cannon will be pleased to know that he’s taken up some Chinese philosophy – which actually has some stuff related to Montaigne (see what I mean? All these connections to explore…)

Workload:

Grades: Because discussion is so important, it officially counts as 2/3 of your final grade – the other 1/3 comes from a paper due about 3 weeks after break. There’s no size range, and it can be on any subject you desire, so long as it’s cleared with him during the semester. Students tend to focus on certain elements of Montaigne throughout the semester, so the paper is really just a deeper exploration of what attracts you the most during the semester. Now, a lot of people comment on how tough of a grader he is, but I don’t think he is. Maybe he’s harder on freshmen, but I don’t remember anyone being called out in class. As long as you put in effort it’ll be fine.

October 20, 2010

Lilla, Mark Silver_nugget
[HIST 4358] Montaigne & Skepticism

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

I am disappointed to see that Mark Lilla no longer has a Gold nugget (star?), because if anyone in Columbia's faculty warrants such a rating, it is this professor. If you want the intellectually rigorous experience Columbia touts in its prospective student brochures, take any -- or all -- of his classes. Lilla conducts his classes seriously: the workload is manageable, but intense. As mentioned in the earlier reviews, you will inevitably become engrossed in the reading, discussion, and writing his classes demand. The level of engagement with the texts and your classmates will prove to be beneficial if you are interested in expanding your thinking or improving your writing. Regardless of the course topic, you will learn more than you signed up for -- his methods focus on in-depth analysis of one or two texts rather than a superficial skimming of various works. Even if taking Lit Hum, the practice of quality over quantity remains paramount, a feat difficult to achieve in the Core.

Bottom line: if you want to take a course at Columbia that will stay with you years after graduation, then go outside your preferred discipline and register for any class Mark Lilla is teaching. If you do, you will find a professor who will test your ability to think and write, as well someone who is genuinely interested in who you are as a student and a person. If you want a challenge, and ultimately a rewarding experience, then this is your guy.

Workload:

Courseworks postings in addition to each in-class session; expect to read a decent amount -- especially for Lit Hum. Postings are formal short papers, and constitute the bulk of the grade. No midterm. Final papers are the other determining grade factor, and can be lengthy.

September 06, 2010

Lilla, Mark Silver_nugget
[HIST 4358] Montaigne & Skepticism

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

Lilla broke me, but it was for the best. I became a better writer.

You will also become a better writer, since he's not afraid to tell you if you're doing a terrible job. His criticism isn't spiteful; it's constructive. You should take a class with Lilla if you actually care about what you study, and you want to test your ideas against someone who doesn't suffer big egos lightly.

Do not take this course if you believe in your own genius and know you would crumble if certain fault lines are exposed and prodded. You may not like the feeling of being humbled, or having to actually think about what you say and write. Again, this isn't aimed to humiliate (although it can feel that way), but to make you a better thinker.

Lilla will occasionally impress with what seems to be a boundless knowledge of European intellectual history. These moments are stand out because they seem to extend beyond philosophy, into poetry and other arts. These moments reinforce the sense that the ideas being discussed mattered then and now.

If you're interested in an easy A, I can't tell you about the grade distribution. While my GPA is better after having taken his class, that wasn't the point at all. Lilla will challenge you as a human being. All in all, Lilla pulls no punches, and neither should you. Take a class with him if you're intellectually flexible and confident that you can string together comprehensible sentences.

Workload:

Lilla assigns a manageable reading load. This is helpful, because it allows for ample time to re-read the essays. Coupled this with an alternation between 1000-word responses to the text and 300-word rebuttals to the responses. A final paper that can be any length above 20 pages.

May 09, 2010

Lilla, Mark Silver_nugget
[HIST 4358] Montaigne & Skepticism

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

Professor Lilla doesn't really belong to a department, but floats somewhere between philosophy, history, and English, teaching courses that intensely examine some topic or author he's interested in. If it's someone/something you're obsessed with, too, his courses are great.

This was an intense, ridiculous, and wonderful seminar. Two semesters focused on Montaigne's Essais, with no background reading, but just the pure (translated) essays and arguing over our interpretations of them. He sets it up as two "classes" each week: one through posted essays and responses on courseworks, then our seminar discussion. He's a great professor, excellent at drawing out discussion and points of contradiction. He guides us through the week's essays in class, usually posing a thesis on them that we're free to attack or support. He's interested in our ideas, and willing to think them through with us.

This course felt like grad school, and if it and the professor weren't so great, it'd be a parody of Academia. It's impossible to take (and survive) this class without getting really involved in it; you have no choice but to write and think and talk about Montaigne non-stop. If obsessive discussions of philosophy, intellectual history, line-by-line close-reading of dead white men, etc, are your thing, then, well, enjoy. If not, probably won't be fun.

Workload:

Montaigne's Essais are 1000 pages. We read most of them. Divide that over a year, and write a 1,000-word essay for half of those weeks and a 300ish-word response to someone else's essay for the other half. Add two seminar papers. Manageable if you get really into Montaigne.

Directory Data

Dept/Subj Directory Course Professor Year Semester Time Section
HIST / HIST HIST HIST W4127: Enlightenment & Its Critics: Montaigne & Skepticism Mark Lilla 2010 Spring F / 11:00-12:50 PM 1