Great Conversation

Mary Trull, Rolvaag 417

An integrated sequence of five courses taken over two years, the Great Conversation introduces students to literature, philosophy, history, the arts, and religous studies through direct encounters with significant works. Beginning with the ancient Greeks and the Hebrew Bible, the program traces the development of literary and artistic expression, philosophy, religious belief, and historical reflection through the centuries, extending into the modern world. Students respond to great works, challenging the ideas expressed in them and challenging their own ideas as well, thus joining a conversation through the ages about the perennial issues of human life. These issues include freedom, beauty, suffering, happiness, what it means to be human, what constitutes a good society, and the relation between the human and the divine.

The Great Conversation is open to students of all interests. This program appeals to those who like to read, discuss, and write about ideas; those who believe that learning about the past is profoundly relevant to understanding the present and those who believe that an education ought to cultivate critical minds, inquisitive spirits, and moral sensitivity.

The faculty members who teach a Great Conversation cohort remain with the students through the courses in the standard sequence (Great Conversation 113-218), as fellow participants in the conversation. Students in the Great Conversation live in the same residence hall their first year and enjoy eating meals together, attending films and theater, and going on field trips throughout the program.

Students who complete the sequence can apply to participate in GCON 280, an Interim course that travels to Europe (usually England, France, and Italy) in alternating years.

Intended Learning Outcomes for the Program

Admission to the Program

Students are invited to apply to the Great Conversation program after they are admitted to the college. Selection is based on an essay whose topic is announced in the application form. 


GCON 113-GCON 218 are offered only to first-year students and sophomores enrolled in the Great Conversation. Great Conversation students must take these courses in sequence. Enrollment in subsequent courses is contingent upon successful completion of all prior courses in the sequence.

GCON 113: Heroes, Gods, and Monsters

Students explore the philosophy, arts, and religion of the Ancient Mediterranean through works of the Babylonians, Israelites, and Greeks, usually including the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Sappho, Sophocles, and the Hebrew Bible, with modern criticism providing context. This course requires close reading of texts, critical analysis, engaged discussion, and learning in community. Students complete an intensive research project and reflect on the liberal arts and their positions as modern students of ancient texts. Offered annually in the fall semester. Counts toward ancient studies major.

GCON 115: Emperors, Orators, Disciples

The Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity posed questions about the soul, civic and religious virtue, building and resisting empire, and the use of history for political ends. Students address how Christianity was shaped by Roman culture and shaped it in turn. Works include epic, history, philosophy, oratory, canonical and non-canonical gospels, epistles, and apocalyptic works. Students practice oral presentations and debates and complete a project linking visual arts to Roman culture and religion.
Prerequisite: GCON 113.

GCON 116: Warriors, Mystics, Reformers

Christian and Muslim empires rose and fell in the Medieval and Renaissance Mediterranean world. The end of feudalism and changing social structures offered platforms to marginalized speakers. This course usually includes the Qur’an, Christian and Muslim theology, mysticism, and authors like Augustine, Hildegard von Bingen, Dante, Machiavelli, and Michelangelo. Course themes include journeys, gender, sexuality, faith, and reason. Students reflect on the relevance of premodern Europe to today’s world and their learning process thus far. Counts toward medieval studies major.
Prerequisites: GCON 113 and GCON 115.

GCON 217: Explorers, Rationalists, Revolutionaries

From 1600-1900, classical and Biblical texts spread globally through exploration and colonization. This course addresses how Greco-Roman and Biblical thought informed not only the Enlightenment, science, and Romanticism, but also justifications of colonization and slavery. Typical authors include Shakespeare, Descartes, Milton, Sor Juana, Kant, Equiano, Wollstonecraft, Hegel, and Marx, addressing freedom, the moral life, just war, certainty, and evil. Students discuss how history is constructed from evidence and how its interpretation impacts the present.
Prerequisites: GCON 113, GCON 115, and GCON 116.

GCON 218: Critics, Dreamers, Radicals

In this course, students consider the modern age in light of their Great Conversation experience. Topics include artists and authors from the twentieth century to the present, such as Freud, Picasso, Woolf, Arendt, and Borges, addressing topics such as the rise of nationalism, rejections of colonialism, globalization, migration, and race and racism. Students identify and evaluate their own ethical views in relation to ethical theories, like consequentialism and virtue ethics, encountered throughout the Great Conversation. Offered annually in the spring semester.
Prerequisites: GCON 113, GCON 115, GCON 116, and GCON 217.

GCON 280: What is Europe? The Grand Tour, National Museums, & European Identity

This course critically engages the notion of European identity by exploring the idea of the Grand Tour and the emergence of national museums. Students will experience firsthand some of the sites, artifacts, and works of art encountered in the Great Conversation program and reflect on the ways in which the program, like the Grand Tour itself, delineates cultural borders as well as disrupts them. Offered alternate years during Interim. Apply through International and Off-Campus Studies.
Prerequisite: completion of GCON 217 or permission of the instructor.

Ibtesam âl-Atiyat

Associate Professor of Sociology/Anthropology

Arab society; gender; social movements; Islamic movements

Patricia Z. Beckman

Associate Professor of Practice in Religion

Christian mysticism; history of Christianity; women and religions

Hilary J. Bouxsein

Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics

Greek poetry; classical languages and literature

Brett B. DeFries

Visiting Assistant Professor of English

Jeanine Grenberg

Professor of Philosophy

ethics; Kant; history of modern philosophy

Peder J. Jothen

Associate Professor of Practice in Religion

religious ethics

Karen E.S. Marsalek

Associate Professor of English

medieval and early modern literature, especially drama; history of the English language

Anthony J. Rudd

Associate Professor of Philosophy

epistemology; philosophy of mind; Wittgenstein; Kiekegaard; existentialism

Carlo O.C. Veltri

Associate Professor of Psychology

clinical psychology; psychopathology; psychological assessment; personality; forensic psychology

Charles A. Wilson

Professor of Religion