Work and the Human Condition

Fall 2016
Winter 2017
Spring 2017
Class Size: 50
Credits per quarter

Compare offerings and share your lists with others.

Taught by

This class will examine the nature and place of work in human life and culture. Studying literature, philosophy, and history in the Western tradition, we will develop an understanding of work that goes well beyond the concept of work as a way to pay the bills. We will consider important questions: Why is work important in a complete human life? What roles can it play both for an individual and for the whole social system? What meaning does, or can, work have in a person's life and in a society? What ways of working should a person strive to practice? Who does what work, and why? To better understand and critique challenging material, we will spend time improving skills in close reading, critical reasoning, writing clearly and well, and engaging in focused research. We will examine the ways in which approaching an idea through different disciplinary lenses allows us to deepen our understanding of it—often complicating the picture in generative ways.

During fall quarter , we begin our study of ideas about the place of work in human life and the concept of labor , which concerns how humans stay alive; that is, what we do to provide ourselves with food, clothing, shelter, and warmth.  We will begin with an introduction to Hannah Arendt’s classic text, The Human Condition , and focus on the historical changes that lead to industrial labor and erosion of the common world.  We will examine the ways in which the new industrial economy changed where people lived, the work they did, and the ways in which some challenged the capitalist model. We will read primary texts in literature, philosophy, and history. We’ll also use film, visual art, and poetry. 

Winter quarter’s studies will shift our focus to the creation of the artificial world and the durable objects in it. We will continue working with Arendt’s text, and think about the made world and the art and use objects that make it up. Historically central to human labor has been the laboring of women and of slaves, whose place was in the home: in the private rather than the public sphere. In the winter, we’ll read work from Frederick Douglass, as well as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin , and George Eliot’s Middlemarch .

We will conclude the program in spring by examining the idea of action ; that is, the ways in which people interact with each other in politics, science, art, and the public sphere generally. Coming out of the labor experience of women and slaves, political action in the United States will be our focus. We will continue our study of Arendt's  The Human Condition  and read literary and philosophical texts that inform our ideas of action. We will study liberatory movements as well as action in the arts and sciences.  In their major project work, students will focus on one area in which people engage in action today, such as in liberation movements, in artistic endeavors, and in scientific inquiry.

Credit may be awarded in Philosophy, Literature, Cultural Studies and American Studies.


Work and the Human Condition: 12 Credit option

Students taking Work and the Human Condition for 12 credits will focus their work on library research that engages concepts and history they will read about in two required texts. The first is The Return of Martin Guerre , by Natalie Zemon Davis; the second is the classic historical analysis of E.P. Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class . Students will meet with program and library faculty on Thursday, October 6 and Thursday, October 13 in the Library classroom. During weeks 3-9 of fall quarter, these students will participate in a “real time” on line seminar. Each week, a student will facilitate the seminar discussion, which will take place in a structured format accessed on the program’s Canvas site. The seminar discussions will focus on the assigned reading for that week. In addition, students will begin a research project connected to the history of labor and work presented in both the The Return of Martin Guerre and The Making of the English Working Class .  At the end of fall quarter, they will have completed an annotated bibliography on their topic. They will use their bibliographies as background for their work winter quarter. The 12 credit option will continue for winter quarter, but only for those students who began this work in the fall.


Credits per quarter

Fields of study: 
Online learning:
  • Hybrid Online Learning - This offering delivers < 25% of its instruction online, rather than via face-to-face contact between you and your instructors.
Class Standing: Freshman–Senior
Class Size: 50

Scheduled for: Evening

Advertised schedule:

Monday and Wednesday: 6:00-9:30. First Winter class meeting Mon, January 9, 6pm, Seminar 2 B1105.

Located in: Olympia

2016-05-09Description updated and 12 credit option added