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Morrissey College of Arts and Science

UN510 Conflict/Decision

capstone program

Anne Marie Barry

Associate Professor of Communication

Course is also offered as CO470


Description, Objectives

This course focuses on inevitable questions which underlie most undergraduate study and which form the basis of critical decision making throughout our lives.

The ultimate goal of this course is to explore meaningful questions in understanding conflict and making appropriate decisions, and to underscore the importance of communication as a dynamic process which shapes, reflects and conveys our attitudes and lifestyles as well as our values and beliefs.

Like all Capstone courses, it invites students to review the multiple aspects of their education at Boston College in order to reflect seriously on the lifelong task of integrating their commitment to four principal endeavors: to work, to personal relationships, to duties of citizenship, and to spiritual development. This review will take the form of both class discussion and writing assignments where students will be asked to reframe knowledge within newer, wider perspectives.

The course is cumulative and built as an ever-expanding spiral for reflection, both in terms of the process by which we come to discover ourselves and the intellectual process which analyzes, measures, and interconnects.

We begin by looking at the meaning of education and change within the context of decision making by discussing Toqueville and Rousseau. We look at the form and function of what government means in relation to human freedom and what it means to be a civilized human being. We then try to discern the difference between productive and unproductive conflict, and go on to examine the existential questions related to self-creation, and personal responsibility to ourselves and others primarily through the writings of Sartre and Marcel. We end by asking the ultimate questions asked in religion to explore our own spirituality. Our ultimate quest is for what Eliot called the still point at the center of the turning world. Each unit of reading, viewing and discussing opens onto the next, until, again in Eliot’s words, we end where we began and come to know the place for the first time.


Seminar size: Limited to 16

This course is a seminar, which means that everyone is equally responsible for doing research and presenting it to other participants for consideration. Class format will consist of initial informative lecture, followed by open discussion of universal issues raised within the works (with specific attention to how the method of communication impacts the meaning of the message), and student discussions.

During the second week of class, students will be divided into study groups for discussion of materials prior to class, and will be expected to participate fully in discussion of issues raised within works studied.

Each group of students will choose one of the four units to develop more fully through additional reading and discussion with the class; each student in the group will choose a different aspect of the unit for further research and discussion. This topic may be developed individually as the critical research paper required in the course.

The group as a whole will be responsible for “becoming expert” in their particular unit, reading more widely in the area, finding materials which focus on areas of conflict, which become the basis for ethical decision making. This is where we will make the background reading come alive by applying it to our everyday lives.

For each of the units except the first and last, students will provide visual and print materials such as print articles, video vignettes, music, etc. which exemplify, clarify, or develop unit ideas. After the opening lecture (by m) and a general discussion, the group will be responsible for leading a thought-provoking class discussion centered around the basic concepts of the unit. Each person in the group may take individual responsibility for leading one of the class meetings, or the group may work as a whole throughout the unit, trying to get at the heart of the meaning within it.

You will begin discussion by presenting the additional research you have uncovered, stating what you find so interesting or provocative in it, and opening up the consideration of these ideas in relation to the reading and viewing which everyone in the seminar shares in common. You should not lecture or feel obligated to give the rest of the class “the answer.” Rather you should bring to the group the problems, concerns, complexities and paradoxes which happen when we try to apply philosophy to real life and get a good discussion going. The goal is intelligent conversation and opening up ideas. It is not a group presentation. It is a discussion.

This means, however, that you must prepare the main points of discussion ahead of time. This means thinking through how to pose specific questions to get maximum response (not: "So what do you think about Sartre?"), gathering relevant materials which illustrate the main points of discussion (news items, TV ads, campus incidents, personal experiences, etc.), and posing problematic situations for the class to consider and discuss. Time will be limited, and you must seek out and plan so that you work will fit within our limited time frame.

If for some reason I am unable to meet with the class, the group responsible for that particular unit should simply conduct business as usual. When it comes to class discussion led by the student group, I will act as simply another participant in the discussion, and also as a gadfly when necessary to keep it on the right track.

Writing (see Addendum)

The relationship between writing and class discussion is expected to be parallel and reciprocal.


In conjunction with study sessions, each group will jointly write a 1-2 page brief (precis) on central issues discussed in relation to the topic, as described above. These precis concise summaries of central issues and essential points will be handed in to me and checked in the same manner as the journals.


In addition, students will keep a confidential, introspective, non-utilitarian journal throughout the semester as a thoughtful, generative response to motifs and issues raised in the class, after the manner of Thoreau’s Journal or Hopkins’ Note-Books.

Journal entries should be made the day of each class meeting and respond in a personal and intellectual way to the issues raised. In keeping with Plato’s conviction the “the unexamined life is not worth living,” the journal is a major step in living deliberately and examining the meaning of your own life. It is a personal, serious consideration of ideas raised in class and in readings.

Journals will be checked and ultimately graded on the basis of quality and depth of insight, response and analogy, rather than on style, grammar or mechanics. Their focus will be on the application of principles, rather than on discussion of principles in the abstract. Their specific content will not be shared or discussed.

Critical Research Paper

Students will also produce a 15-20 page formal paper on a topic area related to class discussion. These are due within two weeks of the onset of study days before exams. Recommended Stylebook: Kate Turabian’s A Manual for Writers. APA, MLA are fine also.


  • Journal 20%
  • Discussion Briefs 20%
  • Class Discussion, Quizzes 20%
  • Research Paper 20%
  • Final Exam (essay) 20%


Periodically surprise quizzes may be given at the beginning of various units to ensure that students keep up with the reading and viewing, especially if precis seem to be incomplete or superficial. They will cover all of the reading and viewing due at that time, so read ahead while we are still discussing the previous unit.

Required Reading and Viewing

  • Wheeler, The Good Citizen (handout)
  • Thoreau, Life Without Principle, Civil Disobedience (Dover)
  • Higher Laws (Walden handout)
  • Zimbardo, The Human Choice (handout)
  • Emerson, Self-Reliance; Friendship;The Over-Soul (Dover)
  • Bloom, Preface; Introduction: Our Virtue from The Closing of the American Mind
  • Stephen Crane, The Open Boat (Dover)
  • Eliot, The Hollowmen
  • Marcel, The Philosophy of Existentialism (Citadel)
  • Peck, The Road Less Traveled
  • Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions (Citadel)
  • The Bhagavad Gita (Dover)
  • Searching for Bobby Fischer
  • Josephson & Moyers, Greed
  • Gandhi
  • Do the Right Thing
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still
  • Sophie’s Choice
  • Harold and Maude

Discussion Units

All critical life decisions begin in conflict. We begin the course by looking at the conflict of ideas associated with good citizenship, examining the nature and consequences of this conflict, and the relationship between social influences and conflict. We then go on to look at crucial areas of difference within our personal lives, personal integrity and decision making.

Within these discussion areas, focus will be on examining various perspectives, utilizing former learning, analyzing underlying assumptions and ideas, and examining how the form of messages influences how they are received and interpreted, and critically applying the principles raised in discussion to real-life experience and contemporary view points.

September 17, 19

Justice and Integrity: Nature, Citizenship, Conscience, and Change

Read: Wheeler, The Good Citizen (DeToqueville/Rousseau); Thoreau, Life Without Principle; Civil Disobedience; Emerson, Self Reliance; Zimbardo, The Human Choice

September 24, 26—Group #1

Justice and Integrity: Productive vs. Unproductive Conflict
Causes of Conflict; Conflict Escalation, De-escalation
Justice: Specialized Interests vs. Citizenship, Group Responsibility and Individual Integrity

View: Lee, Do the Right Thing (1989) (in class)

Suggested reading: Sophocles, Antigone; Melville, Billy Budd

Suggested viewing: Kasdan, Grand Canyon (1991); Zwick, Glory (1989)

October 15, 17, 22, 24—Group #2

Competition, Conflict, and Decision Making

View: Michael Josephson/Moyers Greed (in class); Searching for Bobby Fischer

Read: Halberstam, Competition

Suggested reading: Tan, The Joy Luck Club; Helgeson, Web of Inclusion

Suggested viewing: Nichols, Regarding Henry (1991); Lumet, Network (1976); Uys, The Gods Must Be Crazy (1984); The Gods Must Be Crazy II (1990); Costner, Dances with Wolves (1990); Scott, Thelma and Louise (1991); Spielberg, The Color Purple (1985); Musher and Clements, The Little Mermaid (1989); Tan, The Joy Luck Club

October 29, 31; November 5, 7—Group #3

Existential Freedom and Responsibility: Internal and External Constraints; the Listening Heart

Read: Crane, The Open Boat; Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions "A Note on Understanding Existentialism"

Suggested reading: MacIntyre, After Virtue; Thoreau, Walden; Fromm, Escape From Freedom; Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity; Walden Two

Suggested viewing: Sophie’s Choice; Wiseman, Titicut Follies; Forman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); Petersen, The Never-ending Story (1984)

November 12, 14, 19, 21—Group #4

Existential Freedom and Responsibility

Read: Marcel, The Philosophy of Existentialism; Peck, The Road Less Traveled; Eliot, The Hollowmen; Thoreau, Higher Laws; Walden

View: Wise, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Suggested reading: MacIntyre, After Virtue; Thoreau, Walden; Fromm, Escape From Freedom; Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity; Walden Two

Suggested viewing: Sophie’s Choice; The Music of Chance; Wiseman, Titicut Follies; Forman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); Petersen, The Never-ending Story (1984)

November 26, 28; December 3, 5

The Wider Imagination: the Cosmic Dance

Read: "Notes on Understanding The Bhagavad Gita" The Bhagavad Gita; Emerson, The American Scholar

View: Ashby, Harold and Maude (1971) (in class)

Suggested viewing: Like Water for Chocolate; Ghandi; Groundhog Day; Defending Your Life

Suggested reading: Scott Ferris, The Mind's Sky; Tao Te-ching; The Analects of Confucius; The Bible; E.A. Burtt’s The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha

Final Exam (Due TBA)

The final exam will be a take-home essay exam covering all of the written and visual materials assigned during the semester. Exams will be distributed on the last day of class and will be due during the scheduled exam, when we meet for the last time. These should be handed in inside a large self-addressed envelope for return through campus mail.

Humanities Series

February 6—Patricia Hampl; February 13—Robin Becker; March 12—Jonathan Lear; March 12—bell hooks; March 20—Jill Ker Conway; March 26—Mary Gordon; April 10—Erica Funkhauser