CSTS 119: Culture & Crisis in the Age of Athens

Course Description

The object of this course is for you to learn what it is like to walk in the past: in particular, the turbulent, dynamic past of the “Age of Athens”. In the fifth century BCE, Athens experienced a remarkable period of political, military, and intellectual ascendency. Against the background of establishing a democracy, spearheading Greek resistance against an expansionist Persian Empire, and forging (and losing) an empire of their own, Athenians produced stunning achievements in philosophy, tragedy, comedy, rhetoric, political theory, sculpture, and architecture.

The ancient Athenians were a people defined by striking contradictions. They invented one of the most radical forms of democracy the world has ever seen, yet kept a large portion of their population enslaved. They prided themselves on welcoming all refugees, yet took every opportunity to conquer their neighbors and expand their empire. Their city stood at the epicenter of Greek art, thought, and religion under the watchful gaze of an imposing warrior goddess of wisdom, yet the women of the city were among the most oppressed in the Greek world. Cosmopolitan and parochial, pious and brutal, vulgar and elegant, the Athenians suffered and wrought horrors; they reveled in scandal and scatological humor; they forged works of timeless beauty while developing ideas of lasting relevance. In short, they were people: eerily like us; yet also radically alien from our experience.

The works of Athenians and their contemporaries will be the main sources for our inquiry in this course. As we learn about the important events and developments of this time and place, we will examine the workings of Athenian democracy, economy, love, art, science, education, religion, and more always with an eye on the tensions, conflicts, and contrasts inherent in Athenian culture. We will explore categories of Athenian identity, including gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, freedom and enslavement. We will confront Athenian civilization in all its messy reality, and uncover the ways Athenian ideas and ideas about Athens continue to shape our lives today.


Prof. Shirazi

Hi! I’m Prof. Ava Shirazi (she/her/hers pronouns), and I’ll be one of your instructors this semester. I prefer to be called “Prof. Shirazi” or “Dr. Shirazi”. You can read all about my research and teaching here, if you’re curious. If you ever have any questions this course or just want to chat and get to know each other better, you can email me by clicking here, or you can click here to schedule an appointment.

Prof. Farmer

Hi! I’m Prof. Matt Farmer (he/him/his pronouns), and I’ll be your other instructor this semester. I prefer to be called “Prof. Farmer” or “Dr. Farmer”. You can read all about my research and teaching here, if you’re curious. If you ever have any questions this course or just want to chat and get to know each other better, you can email me by clicking here, or you can click here to schedule an appointment with me.

Plan for the Semester

Our work this semester is structured into two halves. In the first half (Part One: The Ancient Athenians), we’ll get an overview of the world of the classical Athenians, exploring aspects of their identity and daily life. We’ll focus on topics like citizenship and slavery, or gender and sexuality, and investigate them through reading a set of carefully selected primary texts. Our ancient guides to Athenian life will be a pair of authors: the comic poet Aristophanes, and the philosopher Plato. We’ll witness their opposing views of a key figure of this period, the public intellectual and teacher Socrates, and explore their fantastical and utopian visions of how their home city of Athens could be reimagined.

In the second half of our semester (Part Two: The Game), we’ll turn from learning about the Athenians to learning to become Athenians ourselves. Each of you will take on the character of a historical Athenian of the late fifth century BCE, and we’ll play our way through a simulation of certain key moments of crisis in Athenian history. You’ll join a faction with distinct hopes for the city’s future, make speeches to promote your agenda, plot secret alliances, conspirancies, and betrayals, and do your best to guide your city into its future.

For the full details of our schedule this semester, click here.


Most days of this semester, you will need to complete a set of assigned readings to prepare for class. In the first half of the semester, everyone will read the same texts; in the second half, your readings will be shaped by your character, faction, and agendas in the game. You won’t need to purchase anything; we’ll provide scans of all assigned readings, which you can print out or read on a device. You can find all the assigned readings for the course here.

Assignments and Grading

Specifications Grading

This course utilizes specifications grading. This means that there are a variety of assignments available for you to do throughout the semester, and it’s up to you to decide what grade you want to earn and to do the requisite number of assignments for that grade. Individual assignments will not receive a score or grade: if you fulfill the instructions and the high standard we will set together for our work, you will receive credit.

The goal of this method is to increase transparency around grading and to provide students more agency in determining how they’d like to participate in the course; it can be a little complicated, however, so if this is the first specifications course you’ve taken, make sure you understand how the system works early in the semester. In the first weeks of the term, you’ll be asked to complete a plan for the course that will help us both have a clear sense of your intentions and expectations for the semester.


Your final grade this semester will be based on the following:

  • Course Contribution: Throughout the semester, you’ll be expected to contribute to the course by attending class, doing the reading, participating in class activities and conversations, asking questions, and otherwise engaging with our communal work. Every two weeks, you’ll submit an online form to assign yourself a contribution score based on these activities.
  • Online Forum: Each week of class, this website will host conversations related to that week’s course material.
    • During Part One, we’ll post prompts for you to respond to; you’ll be expecting to post at least one comment between the end of class Monday and the start of class Wednesday.
    • During Part Two, you’ll post your speeches and laws on the website.
  • Erga: Erga (singular “ergon,” meaning “works” or “accomplishments”) are a flexible set of assignments you’ll complete throughout the semester. The semester is broken down into a set of submission windows; you can only submit one ergon per submission window, so you’ll need to plan to space these out through the semester.
    • During Part One, you’ll select from an open list of options
    • During part two, your Erga will take the form of creative research notes about your character.
  • Final Reflection: During the finals period, you’ll look back over your work this semester, and compose a short essay drawing together themes and questions from throughout the course.

Your final grade in the course will be based on how many and what kinds of assignments you completed. These represent minimum benchmarks; to earn the indicated grade, you need to complete the required number of each type of assignment.

Final Grade:
Online Forum
Final Reflection001111


The grading system outlined above is designed to give you some flexibility to make your own choices during the semester. For example, even if you are aiming for a 4.0, you could miss one week of the online forum. If you are starting to feel concerned that you are not on track to earn the grade you would like in the course, please share those concerns with us as early as possible. The grading scheme of this course is designed to give you different options, but we might need to tailor that to fit the circumstances each of us face this semester, and that’s alright.

There are two key aspects of this course flexibility that we want to draw your attention to. The first is self-assessed contribution. We won’t be tracking attendance or participation in class ourselves; instead, every two weeks you’ll submit a contribution self-assessment, where you’ll consider whether you were able to do things like attend class regularly, do the reading, and participate in class activities. If you’re unable to contribute in the expected ways, we’ll invite you in your self-assessment to be creative in suggesting other ways you found to contribute, such as meeting with the TA or professors, studying with other students outside of class, or otherwise finding ways to contribute.

The second is the opportunity to revise. When you submit work in this class, if you have made a good faith effort to follow the instructions but have not achieved the high standard we’ll set for each other, you’ll be offered the opportunity to revise your work and submit it again for credit. We’ll be very specific about what revision will entail. Unless otherwise specified, revisions are always due one week after the original assignment.

Important Statements and Policies


I am committed to partnering with you on your academic and intellectual journey.  I also recognize that your ability to thrive academically can be impacted by your personal well-being and that stressors may impact you over the course of the semester.  If the stressors are academic, I welcome the opportunity to discuss and address those stressors with you in order to find solutions together.  If you are experiencing challenges or questions related to emotional health, finances, physical health, relationships, learning strategies or differences, or other potential stressors, I hope you will consider reaching out to the many resources available on campus. These resources include CAPS (free and unlimited counseling is available), the Office of Academic Resources, Health Services, Professional Health Advocate, Religious and Spiritual Life, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the GRASE Center, and the Dean’s Office.  Additional information can be found at

Additionally, Haverford College is committed to creating a learning environment that meets the needs of its diverse student body and providing equal access to students with a disability. If you have (or think you have) a learning difference or disability – including mental health, medical, or physical impairment – please contact the Office of Access and Disability Services (ADS) at The Director will confidentially discuss the process to establish reasonable accommodations.  It is never too late to request accommodations – our bodies and circumstances are continuously changing. 

Students who have already been approved to receive academic accommodations and want to use their accommodations in this course should share their accommodation letter and make arrangements to meet with me as soon as possible to discuss how their accommodations will be implemented in this course. Please note that accommodations are not retroactive and require advance notice in order to successfully implement.

If, at any point in the semester, a disability or personal circumstances affect your learning in this course, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. I want to be sure you are aware of the full range of resources and options available to you.

It is a state law in Pennsylvania that individuals must be given advance notice that they may be recorded. Therefore, any student who has a disability-related need to audio record this class must first be approved for this accommodation from the Director of Access and Disability Services and then must speak to me. Other class members need to be aware that this class may be recorded.

Academic Integrity

In a community that thrives on relationships between students and faculty that are based on trust and respect, it is crucial that students understand a professor’s expectations and what it means to do academic work with integrity. Plagiarism and cheating, even if unintentional, undermine the values of the Honor Code and the ability of all students to benefit from the academic freedom and relationships of trust the Code facilitates. Plagiarism is using someone else’s work or ideas and presenting them as your own without attribution. Plagiarism can also occur in more subtle forms, such as inadequate paraphrasing, failure to cite another person’s idea even if not directly quoted, failure to attribute the synthesis of various sources in a review article to that author, or accidental incorporation of another’s words into your own paper as a result of careless note-taking. Cheating is another form of academic dishonesty, and it includes not only copying, but also inappropriate collaboration, exceeding the time allowed, and discussion of the form, content, or degree of difficulty of an exam. Please be conscientious about your work, and check with me if anything is unclear.