Courses in Science and Society at Columbia University

Columbia and Barnard have a constellation of faculty members located in a variety of departments and institutes whose research and interests lie at the intersection of science and the humanities. Among many specializations, include the historical development of scientific knowledge and in the processes—technical, social, political, intellectual, material and cultural—by which knowledge has been acquired, disseminated, and employed.

List of Courses: Past Courses

Archive for Past Courses

HIST G8906: Craft and Science: Making Objects in the Early Modern World | P. Smith

M 10:10-2:00 | 4 Points
This course will study the materials, techniques, settings, and meanings of skilled craft and artistic practices in the early modern period (1350-1750), in order to reflect upon a series of issues, including craft knowledge and artisanal epistemology; the intersections between craft and science; and questions of historical methodology and evidence in the reconstruction of historical experience. The course will be run as a “Laboratory Seminar,” with discussions of primary and secondary materials, as well as hands-on work in a laboratory. This course is one component of the Making and Knowing Initiative of the Center for Science and Society. Thus, in its first years, this course contributes to the collective production of a critical edition of a late sixteenth-century manuscript, Ms. Fr. 640. Students are encouraged to take this course for both semesters (or more) but will only receive full credit once.
Link to Vergil


GU4321: Human Nature: DNA, Race & Identity | M. Pollack

Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology
Undergraduate and Graduate Seminar
W 2:10-4PM

The course focuses on human identity, beginning with the individual and progressing to communal and global viewpoints using a framework of perspectives from biology, genetics, medicine, psychiatry, religion and the law.

Link to Vergil

CPLS W4220: Narrative, Health, and Social Justice| S. Dasgupta

Tu 10:10-12:00, 4 points


Narrative medicine – its practice and scholarship – is necessarily concerned with issues of trauma, body, memory, voice, and intersubjectivity.  However, to grapple with these issues, we must locate them in their social, cultural, political, and historical contexts.  Narrative understanding helps unpack the complex power relations between North and South, state and worker, disabled body and able-body, bread-earner and child-bearer, as well as self and the Other (or, even, selves and others).  If disease, violence, terror, war, poverty and oppression manifest themselves narratively, then resistance, justice, healing, activism, and collectivity can equally be products of a narrative based approach to ourselves and the world.

This course will explore the connections between narrative, health, and social justice.  In doing so, it broadens the mandate of narrative medicine – challenging each of us to bring a critical, self-reflective eye to our scholarship, teaching, practice, and organizing.  We will examine such questions as: How do power and hierarchy – on an interpersonal, institutional, cultural, social, or political scale – impact the work of Narrative Medicine? How can we ‘read’ multiple, simultaneous narratives – ie. the individual and the sociopolitical? What are the intersections of Narrative Medicine with health advocacy and activism on local, national, and global levels? How can the pedagogy of Narrative Medicine enact social justice in health care? In other words, how do we teach Narrative Medicine and why? Finally, how are the stories we tell, and are told, manifestations of social injustice?  How can we transform such stories into narratives of justice, health, and change?

The class will be run in seminar format, and will pedagogically centralize learner participation and presentation.  Texts assigned weekly will be broadly interdisciplinary – drawing from literature, feature and documentary films, post-colonial studies, disability studies, sociology, anthropology, psychology, criminology, public health, and trauma studies. Students should come to class prepared to engage with each other and with the instructor and to offer their questions, comments, insights, and analysis. Students who are able to read texts in the original language are encouraged to do so (and may be required to do so in the case of certain majors).

Link to Vergil

CPLS V3960: Foundations of Narrative Medicine: Giving and Receiving Accounts of Self| M. Spiegel

Narrative competence is a crucial dimension of health-care delivery, the capacity to attend and respond to stories of illness, and the narrative skills to reflect critically on the scene of care. Narrative Medicine explores and builds the clinical applications of literary knowledge. How are illnesses emplotted? Does suffering belong to a genre? Can a medical history be co-narrated in order to redistribute ownership and authority? What does Geoffrey Hartman mean by the term, “story cure”? The objectives of this course include furthering close reading skills, and exploring theories of self-telling and relationality. At the center of this project is the medical encounter. We are interested in situations in which one person gives an account of himself, of herself, and another person is expected to receive it. In examining the complexities of this exchange, to help clinicians to fulfill their “receiving” duties more effectively, we will turn to narrative theory, performance theory, autobiographical theory, psychoanalytic theory, and the nexus of narrative and identity. Readings will include works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, W.G. Sebald, Kazuo Ishiguro, Judith Butler, Arthur Frank, Jonathan Shay, Michael White, and an assortment of the readings in narrative theory, trauma scholarship, and witnessing literature. 

HIST W4588: Communities of Color and Histories of Substance Abuse Politics, Research, and Treatment | S. Roberts

Through a series of secondary- and primary-source readings and research writing assignments, students in this seminar course will explore one of the most controversial aspects of African-American public health history. Readings are primarily historical, but sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists are also represented on the syllabus. With examinations also of alcohol, cocaine, and opium, the principal temporal focus of the course ranges from heroin since its emergence in the 1950s through the era of crack cocaine. Topics of discussion include print and visual media representations; drug policy and the carceral state; the war on drugs and the expansion of the population of women in carceral institutions; methadone maintenance; histories of harm reduction, domestic and international; and urban politics.  See syllabus

PH 8773: A Social History of American Public Health | D. Rosner

Wed. 8:30-11:30, ARB room 532-B

The purpose of this course is to provide students with a historical understanding of the role public health practice has played throughout American history. The underlying assumptions are that disease, and the ways we define disease, are simultaneously reflections of social and cultural values, as well as important factors in shaping those values. Also, it is maintained that the environments that we build determine the ways we live and die. The dread infectious and acute diseases in the nineteenth century and the chronic, degenerative conditions of the twentieth are emblematic of the societies we created. The syllabus has been constructed to focus on a few particular themes and issues. The first part of the course will focus on the social and biological environment and the creation of conditions for nineteenth century epidemics of cholera, typhoid, yellow fever and other epidemic diseases. The second part of the course will trace the changing urban and industrial infrastructure and their relationship to late nineteenth and early twentieth century concerns about tuberculosis, industrial illness and infection. The third part of the course will trace public health practice, and public health campaigns, and the ways that social attitudes towards the industrial worker, the immigrant, African Americans, women and gays shaped the field. The last part of the course will look at the boundaries between public health and medical practice and raise questions about their shifting definitions. As topics indicate, the course will emphasize that public health is intimately related to broader social, political, as well as scientific, changes overtaking the country and will incorporate a very broad range of subjects from changes in urban living and culture, through the transformation of the industrial work place. See syllabus

P8773: The Social History of American Public Health | D. Rosner

T 8:30 – 11:20AM

This course introduces students to the historical development of public health in the United States. The course traces the evolution of public health—as both a conceptual framework and a set of institutions and practices—from its beginnings in the sanitary reform movement of the nineteenth century to its status as a broad and expansive field at the end of the twentieth century. The course is organized chronologically and thematically. It provides an overview of the changing sources of morbidity and mortality in the United States over the past two centuries and the policies and practices that have been undertaken to limit disease and improve health across successive eras. Individual sessions of the course focus on critical issues and episodes that shaped this historical development. Some sessions center on significant diseases, such as tuberculosis, coronary heart disease, and AIDS; other sessions examine public health interventions, such as quarantine and health education; and others highlight populations considered to be especially vulnerable to illness, such as immigrants, racial and ethnic minority groups, and infants and children.

HIST W3523: Histories of Health and Inequality in the Modern United States | S. Roberts

T&TR 10:10-11:25; 313 Fayerweather

Students will gain familiarity with a range of historical and social science problems at the intersection of ethnic/racial/sexual formations, technological networks, and health politics since the late 19th century. Topics to be examined will include, but will not be limited to, women of color & health movements; HIV/AIDS politics, policy, and community response; public health and mass incarceration; “benign neglect,” urban renewal, and gentrification; medical abuses and the legacy of Tuskegee; tuberculosis control; and environmental justice. No course prerequisites or application. See syllabus

HIST W4911: Medicine and Western Civilization | D. Rothman

M 4:10pm-6:00pm | 4 Points
This seminar seeks to analyze the ways by which medicine and culture combine to shape our values and traditions. To this end, it will examine notable literary, medical, and social texts from classical antiquity to the present.


ENGL BC3147: Introduction to Narrative Medicine | C. Friedman

Undergraduate Seminar
Tu 12:10-2PM

Narrative Medicine was designed to give doctors and healthcare professionals a more profound understanding of, and empathy for, the experience of illness. It teaches how to listen and what to listen for. While the skills developed are directly applicable to the practice of medicine, they are also important in any field in which human relationships are central: business, law, architecture, social work, and the creative arts. The multidisciplinary course entails a rigorous integration of didactic and experiential methodology to develop a heightened awareness of self and others and build a practical set of narrative competencies.

Prerequisites: Post-bacc students require instructor permission.

Link to Vergil

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