First-Year Studies:
Achilles, the Tortoise, and the Mystery of the Undecidable

Sarah Lawrence College

Course Description

In this course we will take an extended journey through Douglas Hofstadter's Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Gödel, Escher, Bach, which has been called "an entire humanistic education between the covers of a single book". The key question at the heart of the book is: how can minds possibly arise from mere matter? Few people would claim that individual neurons in a brain are "conscious" in anything like the normal sense in which we experience consciousness. Yet self-awareness emerges, somehow, out of a myriad of neuronal firings and molecular interactions. How can individually meaningless physical events in a brain, even vast numbers of them, give rise to meaningful awareness, to a sense of self? And could we duplicate such a process in a machine? Considering these questions will lead us to explore a wide range of ideas from the foundations of mathematics and computer science to molecular biology, art, and music, to the research frontiers of modern-day cognitive science and neuroscience. Along the way, we will closely examine Gödel's incompleteness theorem, mathematical logic and formal systems, the limits of computation, and the future prospects for artificial intelligence.


Prof. Jim Marshall
Office: Alice Ilchman Science Center 100
Phone: 2673 (from off campus: 914-395-2673)
Email: j + my last name +

Class Meeting Time

Required Books

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
by Douglas R. Hofstadter
MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th edition
by the Modern Language Association of America


I will often send out announcements to the class through email, so you are expected to check your Sarah Lawrence email account at least once per day. I will use your account because it is reliable and is easiest for me to remember. You should also check the course web pages frequently. I will be happy to answer your questions by email and will try to respond quickly to messages that pertain to the course material.

Course Format

This is predominantly a discussion seminar. As students, you will bear a great deal of the responsibility for its success. The course will require significant amounts of reading, thinking, written analysis, and class participation. I want everyone to participate at least once in every class; I want everyone to want to participate; and I want everyone to want everyone to participate. You will be expected to actively investigate the course material and to express yourself clearly and respectfully in class discussions, papers, and presentations. Students will be responsible for leading class discussions, for giving presentations on the readings or other material, and for providing feedback on presentations through a process of informal peer-review. Your presentations and papers will be judged for their clarity, organization, and thoroughness. All students will be expected to come to class prepared to discuss the readings and homework assignments, having thought about the ideas in advance. Students will also be responsible for writing short responses to the readings. A major objective of the course is for you to strengthen your written and oral communication skills, and to sharpen your ability to think in a logical, precise, and clear way.


It is difficult to have a seminar class if students don't show up, so on-time attendance is expected for all class meetings and conferences. I realize that occasionally you may need to miss class, but missing more than 2 classes or more than 1 conference per semester will put you at risk of losing credit in the course. If you are unable to attend class or conference due to illness, please contact me about it as soon as possible. If you must miss class or conference for any other reason, please let me know well in advance. Special note: Everyone is required to attend class on Friday, December 21 — the last class meeting of the fall semester — so plan accordingly (e.g., no early plane tickets home for the holidays). No make-up conferences will be scheduled under any circumstances, except possibly if you have a really compelling reason (e.g., a medical emergency). Examples of unacceptable reasons (all of which, sadly, I have heard) include: "I forgot!", "I got held up and couldn't make it!", "I thought this was B week!", "I had to pick up my best friend at the airport!", and "I fell asleep on the couch and woke up at 8 pm!"

Assignments and Evaluation

For each seminar meeting, the assigned readings or homework exercises will form the basis of our class discussions. Thus it is very important for everyone to complete the assignments on time, and to spend some time thinking about the issues before coming to class. To facilitate this, you will be required to post a short written response (typically a few paragraphs) to the readings on our MySLC discussion board by 8:00pm the day before class. Your responses should not be summaries of the readings; rather, they should be the product of the reading process itself — questions that occurred to you, ideas that you found particularly interesting, points that were not clear, connections to previous material we've read, and so on, and should include one or two questions for class discussion. They must also be well written using correct grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.

In addition to the reading responses, we will have a variety of other homework assignments, including papers, problem sets, and even some computer programming. For some assignments, students will evaluate each other's work in class and provide feedback, and will have an opportunity to revise and resubmit their work. Writing exercises may occasionally be assigned in class as well. You will always be expected to carefully proofread your written work for grammar and spelling. (I do not look kindly on sloppily-written papers or reading responses full of typos or awkward, convoluted grammar!) Late work will not be accepted.

From time to time, students will give oral presentations on topics related to the course material. This will give you the opportunity to practice your oral communication skills. Your final course evaluation will be based on the quality of your written work, the quality of your oral presentations, your level of preparation and participation in seminar discussions, and your conference project. There will be no formal examinations.

Conference Work

For your conference project each semester, you will research a topic related to the course material and analyze it in depth. The topic and design of your project will be up to you, subject to my approval, and will give you the opportunity to focus in detail on an area of particular interest. You will be expected to develop an annotated bibliography of books, articles, web sites, etc. on your topic and to do in-depth background reading on your own. The goal will be a well-written final paper approximately 15-20 pages in length. The quality and clarity of your writing, and the depth of your analysis, will play a major role in the evaluation of your project. In addition, each student will give a brief (10 minute) presentation of their conference work to the class during the last week of the semester.

Individual conference meetings will be held every week in the fall, and every other week in the spring, and will be devoted to developing and reviewing your direction and progress on your project, as well as discussing your progress at Sarah Lawrence in general and any questions or concerns you may have. Conferences are meant to be very informal and relaxed — they are not examinations or inquisitions, nor are they intended to be simple outlets for angst. Please try and come to your first conference meeting with at least two or three ideas about potential areas of interest you would like to explore for your project.

Getting Help

You are strongly encouraged to come talk to me whenever you are having difficulty with the course material, or for any other reason. If you are confused about something, don't stay that way! Staying confused will only make things worse later. Come talk to me as soon as possible so that we can clear up the problem. I'll be more than happy to schedule an appointment, or answer your questions by email. You can also try to catch me on the fly, though I can't always guarantee that I'll have time to meet with you right then.


If you have a disability that may interfere with your ability to participate in the activities, coursework, or assessment of the objectives of this course, or any of your other courses, you may be entitled to reasonable accommodations. Please contact Polly Waldman, Associate Dean of Studies and Disabilities Services located in Westlands 116. You may also call Disability Services at 914-395-2235 or email Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, all students, with or without disabilities, are entitled to equal access to the programs and activities of Sarah Lawrence College and the College will make reasonable accommodations when appropriate and necessary.

Academic Honesty

The highest level of academic integrity is expected of every student. You are strongly encouraged to discuss ideas and approaches to solving problems — on a general level — with your fellow classmates, but all of your written work must be exclusively your own. Effective learning is compromised when this is not the case. Always credit your sources using accepted standards for citation, quotation, and attribution. This also goes for any information obtained via the Internet. If you are ever unsure about what constitutes acceptable collaboration or how to appropriately cite a source, just ask. You should carefully read the College's official Policy on Academic Integrity in your Student Handbook. Failure to abide by these rules is considered plagiarism, and will result in severe penalties, including possible failure in the course. Please do not put me, yourself, or anyone else in this unpleasant situation.