Syllabus: Evans, “Madness and Melancholy”

This is another installment in our series on university and college courses dealing with the history of madness, mental illness, and psychiatry.

Gareth Evans has a Ph.D. in English and a Master’s in Library and Information Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  For some time now, he has been contemplating writing essays about The Bostonians, teaching “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” and the cultural and political significance of the fiction reprinted in the Voice of Industry, an American labor newspaper published in the 1840s. He is currently a Lecturer in the Hutton Honors College at Indiana University Bloomington, where, in addition to his class on Madness and Melancholy, he has taught classes on Henry James, Herman Melville, and 21st-Century American Fiction.

The syllabus for “Madness and Melancholy” is for a revised version of a class I taught four times during the 2009-2010 academic year. In its original version, the class was a sexed-up version of a Western Civilization class that spanned the period between ancient Greece and the Renaissance.  In addition to the readings from and about that period you see below, the class also included extracts from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations and all of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly.  As it was initially taught, the class did what it was designed to do: fulfill the requirements of the first half of the modernized two class version of the Great Books program offered by the Hutton Honors College at Indiana University Bloomington (IUB); that is, focus solely on work written before and during the Renaissance.   Many students found the reading repetitive in its concerns, and given how little definitions of madness and melancholy change between ancient Greece and the Renaissance, they were correct to do so.  To add variety to the class, and to give students a sense—a sense many of them sorely lack—of how much experts on psychology and psychiatry disagree about how depression and other real or supposed mental disorders are diagnosed and treated, I have added a two-week section that focuses on: (1) contemporary debates about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV); and (2) a recent discussion of an essay by Paul Andrews and Andy Thomson that reiterates age-old claims about the connection between depression and intellect, while also suggesting depression is “an evolved emotional response to complex problems, and its function is to promote changes in body systems that promote analysis of those problems” (

In its original version, the class worked well with students who excelled in the class.  And in the Honors College “excelled” means received an A. Such students excelled largely because they matched their ability to respond to Euripides and Shakespeare with their ability to understand, pick apart, and analyze the arguments made by Burton, Erasmus, Ficino, and Plato.  As that comment suggests, what separated, and is likely to continue to separate, the excellent from the good and the mediocre, is the ability to comprehend, engage with, and thoughtfully analyze the philosophers of madness and melancholy.  Students who excelled also did so because they were able to set aside the widespread contemporary assumption that mental disorders of all kinds are bred in the brain, passed down from generation to generation in the same way forms of cancer and heart disease seem to be. That assumption has been an issue in the class, and I attempt to address it with the contemporary material I have added to the syllabus.  I chose madness and melancholy as a topic in part because I wanted students to read material they had not read before.  What is more, even if they have read the material–and many of the students have already read Hamlet and King Lear–the nature of the course forces them to read and write about the material through the lens provided by the other work—work concerned with madness and melancholy, anger and folly—they have read during the class.  Some students coped well with the demands of the class last year, but others flounder because they are unable to cope with material that makes assumptions so alien to their own.  Once again, then, the material I’ve added to the class seeks to bridge that gap, make students engage with the significance of that gap, between what passes for common sense in contemporary American discussions of, say, depression, and what passed for common sense in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance reflections on melancholy.  What I want students to do is feign the impossible and think like an ancient Greek, a medieval Abbess, or a renaissance philosopher.  Whether the changes to the syllabus will enable more students to perform such a trick remains to be seen.

I’ll return to the reading for the class later, but now I am going to write a little about the writing workshops, the abstract presentations, and the visits to libraries that are part of “Madness and Melancholy” and of almost every class I teach.  The number, HON H-211, under which “Madness and Melancholy” is taught, is defined by the Hutton Honors College as a “writing intensive” course, which means that every student in the class must write at least twenty pages during the semester—a breathtaking amount to be sure.  In the version of the syllabus my students receive, I explain that I expect them to write analytical essays that support their claims by quoting and paraphrasing the work they are analyzing.  Before the first writing workshop, I also hand out, and discuss with, my students, a writing sample that contains all of the features I expect an essay to contain if I am to give it an A.  If they worked as they are intended to work—and how rarely they do—the writing workshops would help students learn how to write the kind of essay I want them to write. The workshops are peer response sessions in which students are divided into groups of three or four. Each student brings a copy of his/her essay for the other members of the group and then twice reads that aloud, before listening to the responses and suggestions made by the other students in the group. The workshops are, in addition to their primary intent, a way of getting students to make an early start on their essays, while they also point to the process by which writers revise their work in response to the suggestions of people who read it in draft form or listen to it as a conference presentation.  The five minute abstract I ask each student to present at the end of the semester is, again, partly an attempt to get students to make an early start on an essay, but it is also designed to get them to do what graduate students and faculty do every time they propose a conference paper: summarize their argument, explain how they will make that argument, and clarify the relationship of that argument to current arguments made about the topic they are addressing.

In addition to its emphasis on writing, the class seeks to promote information literacy through visits to the main university library and to the Lilly Library, which is the special collections library at Indiana University Bloomington. In their visit to the Lilly, students learn about the policies of the library and its collections as a whole are shown. During much of the class, however, they are able to look at and handle some of the primary sources for the course, including a First Folio of Shakespeare, and first editions or first English translations of material they read for the course.  In their visit to the main library, I show students how to search the university catalog, WorldCat, and a variety of subject specific databases. The class is accompanied by a ten-question exercise designed to enable students to demonstrate they know how to use and search the catalogs and databases they are shown during the class.  I only began to teach such classes after I got a Master’s in Library and Information Science.  It was only while I was getting that degree that I realized that I, like most of the current and former academics I knew, had taught themselves how to use a library.  That academics had been forced to teach themselves how to use a library struck me then, and now, as an unconsciously constructed barrier to student learning. By taking my students to the libraries, I try to make drown that barrier. It also seems to me particularly important now, in the day of rampant plagiarism and Wikipedia, that students be shown how to use and find reputable sources, the kind of sources that academics and students should routinely use when they work.

Since I demand clarity from my students, I will be honest and say that, last year, my description of “Madness and Melancholy” was not as clear as it needed to be.  Much of the material was new to me when I first taught the class, and it was only through teaching the class that I was able to clarify and describe all of its central concerns. My emphasis on context, however, has been clear from the start in the class description and in the opening reading from Padel and Watters, both of whom stress the centrality of context to the ways in which madness, melancholy, and contemporary American mental disorders are described, treated, and defined. That said, my current class description differs from its predecessor by making it clear: (1) that the class is far less concerned with psychology and psychiatry as they are currently defined than it is with questions of moral philosophy; (2) that students will learn as much, or more about ancient and Renaissance medicine as they do about contemporary science; (3) that for much of its history, doctors, philosophers, and playwrights were far less interested in genetics than they were with the humors, the planets, the gods and God; and (4) that much of the writing on madness and melancholy is far less focused on what it means to be well than on what it means to be “good.”  It is now clear, too, that “Madness and Melancholy” is not a class that uncritically endorses any of the ways—ancient, medieval, renaissance, or contemporary—madness or melancholy, depression or anger, mood disorders or social phobia have been viewed, treated, and defined.   Instead, the class description now makes it clear that debate and disagreement are at the heart of the class.

  1. Dr. Gareth Evans is interested in Herman Melville, and I applaud his choice. Melville’s oeuvre and biography may be more relevant to this list’s interests than anyone imagines. I summarized my book on the twists and turns of the Melville Revival here: As for Bartleby, my own reading is that Melville was lamenting the failure of his weighty, symbolist works that did not arouse the interest and book sales of his earlier more derivative work (Typee and Omoo). Hence Bartleby’s sudden switch away from copying to suicide. In Melville’s writing that translates into the books that are guaranteed to fail.
    Also, readers here may be interested in attempts to construct him as a wife-beater and nutcase by left-wing social psychologists and Stalinists, especially in the interwar period; also the psychosomatic symptoms that leading Melville scholars experienced while doing their Melville research and writing.

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