Approaches to Modernity

When was it that people first had the sense of living in new and different times— Modern Times? Charlie Chaplin’s famous 1936 film of that name suggests one answer, but scholars have different view of the beginning of modernity. Some recall the journalism and novels of the early eighteenth century, while others go back much further, and refer to what we used to call “the Renaissance” as the “Early Modern” period. Cultural historians invoke Wordsworth on the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”; art historians date the dawn to Paris in the 1860s, when Manet and his followers took to painting modern life. Was it modernity or modernism that dramatically emerged at a certain moment on or about December 1910, when according to Virginia Woolf human nature changed? Or did the shift occur deliberately, when his fellow poets followed W.C. Wiliams’s injunction to “Make it new”? Students in the MALS concentration in Modernity consider the differences and similarities between modernity and modernism–and post-modernism as well—as they pursue a rich variety of graduate courses in literature, history, art history, film studies, sociology and other disciplines.

Degree Requirements

MALS students take four classes within the program — Seminar in Interdisciplinary Studies, two core courses in their chosen concentration, and the thesis/capstone project — and choose their remaining electives from among courses offered across the doctoral and certificate programs in the Social Sciences and Humanities at The Graduate Center.

This master's degree program requires the following coursework for a total of 30 credits:

  • A required introductory course [MALS 70000: Seminar in Interdisciplinary Studies] (3 credits).
  • Two required core courses to introduce students to Modernity topics [MALS 70700 and MALS 70800, 3 credits each].
  • 18 credits from courses of the student's choice that are relevant to the student’s concentration or studies
  • A master's thesis/capstone project [MALS 79000, 3 credits].

Core Courses

MALS 70700 The Shaping of Modernity, 1789-1914
In 1800 the rhythm of rural European life, ruled by the movement of the seasons, had barely changed since ancient days. Yet within a hundred years, a new world was born.  Industrialization and urbanization transformed the lives of millions.  A transportation revolution promised to annihilate distance.  Traditional beliefs, already weakened by eighteenth century science, were exploded by the work of Darwin and others in the nineteenth.  A crisis of belief, combined with an emergence of democratic, revolutionary ideologies, had begun to turn the world upside down.   A whole continent was suddenly faced with the need to adjust to this unprecedented and terrifying economic, political and social change.  How millions were able to do this is largely the story of the nineteenth century, and a salutary (and necessary) tale for our own time.  It is a lesson that can be learned in MALS 70700 The Shaping of Modernity, 1789-1914. 

MALS 70800 Transformations of Modernity, 1914-present
The twentieth century was a time of contradictions. Unprecedented scientific achievements revolutionized our understanding of the world, and the universe.  Industrial manufacturing created the possibility of unlimited plenty. Mass politics in a democratic age promised greater equality and freedom.  The development of new art forms promised to expand consciousness in previously unimagined ways.  Unfettered by the restraints of traditional beliefs, there was a new appreciation of the limitless potential of human beings to achieve the utopian dreams of previous generations.   Reality proved somewhat different. New ideologies - Communism, Fascism, Nazism - that promised new worlds won the fanatical support of millions. By mid century, an era of mass consumerism and  mass entertainment had been punctuated with two world wars and mass murder. Although peace and prosperity had begun to be achieved at the end of the century, even this was soon threatened by a capitalist world revolution that even now is fundamentally transforming the world economic landscape.  It's been a bumpy ride, and it's not over yet, as the hopes and sorrows of the past continue to inform our world today.  Where we have been, and where we are going can be better understood through MALS 70800 Transformations of Modernity, 1914-present.

Elective Courses

Electives can be chosen among courses offered across most of the doctoral and certificate programs in the Social Sciences and Humanities at The Graduate Center.
For related coursework in Approaches to Modernity, students may look to offerings in the doctoral programs in EnglishComparative Literature, and History.

Library Resources

Visit the GC Mina Rees Library's Liberal Studies Research Guide.
Students' contact for Approaches to Modernity research is reference librarian Stephen Klein.

Associated faculty

Other faculty, who have taught core courses or electives for this concentration or supervised theses and capstones, include Richard Kaye (English).

Approaches to Modernity Concentration Faculty