21L.017 | Spring 2008 | Undergraduate

The Art of the Probable: Literature and Probability


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 1 hour / session

Discussions: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session

Course Organisation

21L.017 is structured to balance two sorts of learning experiences: while building upon a knowledge-base shared by everyone in the class, it seeks to replicate the environment of close small-group interaction that is distinctive of literary study at MIT. The class is divided into three roughly equal-sized sections, each led by one the three professors teaching this class. The entire class will meet on Fridays to attend the weekly lecture (we will be rotating the responsibility for the lecture among ourselves). On the subsequent Mondays and Wednesdays, you will attend your own discussion section. Since what each discussion section covers will vary depending on who teaches it, you are not allowed to change discussion sections once you have been assigned to one. You will work throughout the term primarily with the faculty member in charge of your section. He will be responsible for reading and commenting on your papers, holding office hours for you, and so on — as well, of course, for assigning your final grade. But you are always welcome to meet with the other faculty members teaching the class should the need arise — should you wish, for instance, to discuss in more detail lecture material for which one of them was responsible.

Each week this subject pairs a literary text (or texts) with primary material relevant to the development of ideas related to probability. The schedule above lists the material to be covered in each class. Students are expected to read the indicated lecture readings before the Friday lecture. Likewise, you should have finished reading the additional texts assigned for the sections that follow the lecture before coming to section, so that you can explore in more detail both the literary text and the accompanying primary material.


There are two sorts of readings: texts to be purchased and other readings that are provided in the readings section.

Note: You will be expected to print out the downloaded readings, read them in hardcopy, and bring the printed texts to class. You will not be allowed to use your computer in class to access them: reading texts off the screen is generally not conducive to active and careful reading; you need to be underlining and taking notes as you read. And neither does speaking to a bank of laptops make for good class discussion.

The following texts are to be purchased.

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. In The Three Theben Plays. Introduction by Bernard Knox; translated by Robert Fagles. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2000. ISBN: 9780140444254.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2005. ISBN: 9788589533386.

Pope, Alexander. Essay on Man and Other Poems. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1994. ISBN: 9780486280530.

Voltaire. Candide. Translated by John Butt. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1950. ISBN: 9780140440041.

Sterne, Lawrence. A Sentimental Journey. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2002. ISBN: 9780140437799.

 Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Notes From Underground.” In Notes from Underground, The Double and Other Stories. Edited by D. A. Martinsen, translated by C. Garnett. New York, NY: Barnes Noble Classics, 2003. ISBN: 9781593080372. [Public domain version (PDF)]

Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. New York, NY: Signet Classics, 2005. ISBN: 9780451529893.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2006. ISBN: 9780060913076.

Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1994. ISBN: 9780802132758.

We strongly prefer that you use these editions.

Class Objectives

In addition to our group participation in lectures and discussions, students should keep these four objectives of the subject in mind:

  1. To provide the tools and nurture your ability to read a variety of genres (including drama, philosophical essays, and scholarly writing) more seriously, pleasurably, and critically; we hope this will encourage you to remain a reader of challenging material throughout your life.
  2. To increase your consciousness of the interconnections and divisions between scientific and literary texts, and thereby to encourage your understanding and enjoyment of the past and present, of art and science, of individual achievements and the shared collaboration around key ideas.
  3. To improve and refine your abilities to express and communicate ideas, feelings, and arguments effectively and persuasively, so that you can know what you believe and can contribute and lead as a member of a team or community.
  4. To accustom you to the discipline of digesting new material and taking responsibility for communicating it clearly in a collaborative setting.

Course Requirements and Grading

21L.017 is a HASS-D/CI subject. In this class, CI requirements will be satisfied by

  1. A minimum of 20 pages of writing, in 3 assignments.
  2. Revision and resubmission of one of the essays.
  3. An oral component, to be satisfied by active classroom participation and one more formal oral assignment (details forthcoming).
  4. Students will be required to meet with a writing tutor prior to each essay assignment (schedule of meetings to be announced). Guidelines for working with tutors will be available on the Web site.

Grading Policy

Essays 1 and 2 (6-7 pages each) (25% each) 50%
Essay 3 (8-10 pages) 35%
Attendance/participation, oral assignment 15%

You will be asked to revise either Essay 1 or Essay 2, depending on your section. The exact breakdown and distribution of grades will depend upon your particular section.

Schedule of Classes and Readings

Note: The discussions in the individual sections will vary from section to section, so the chart below is indicative and approximate — the exact reading for that week will be further specified by your section instructor.

Further, the schedule does not mean that the lectures will focus entirely on the readings listed — their content and emphasis will vary from week to week, depending on the nature of the topic being covered and which of three faculty members is responsible for that week’s lecture. But you are expected to keep up with the reading as described in the schedule.

0 Introduction  


Lecture: Aristotle

Two discussions: Sophcles: Oedipus Rex; Aristotle



Lecture: Pascal and Hamlet

Two discussions: Shakespeare, Hamlet; Pascal; Cardano



Lecture: Newton and Leibniz

Two discussions: Pope: An Essay on Man (selections); Newton; Leibniz; Huygens, de Moivre



Lecture: Leibniz and Voltaire’s Candide

Two discussions: Leibniz, Port Royal Logic, Candide



Lecture: Hume and Sterne’s Sentimental Journey

Two discussions: Leibniz, Hume, Sentimental Journey

Essay 1 due (6-7 pages)


Lecture: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron

Two discussions: Sentimental Journey, Hume, Wordworth et al., Hartley



Lecture: Wordsworth (cont.), Bernoulli

One discussion: Bernoulli, Laplace



Lecture: Bernoulli (cont.), Bayes, Quetelet

Two discussions: Dostoevsky: Notes from the Underground



Lecture: Darwin

Two discussions: Darwin; Wells: The Island of Doctor Moreau

Essay 2 due (6-7 pages)


Lecture: Darwin, Arbuthnot, Galton

One discussion: Wells: The Island of Doctor Moreau



Lecture: C. S. Peirce, Borges, Mallarmé

Two discussions: Peirce, Borges (short stories)



Lecture: Maxwell’s Demon and Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49

Two discussions: Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49



Lecture: Quantum Mechanics: Bohr

Two discussions: Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Final essay due in the last class (8-10 pages)

Working with the Tutor

Each section of The Art of the Probable is supported by an able tutor with whom you will be meeting individually throughout the semester. The tutor is there to help you improve your writing. Each tutor is knowledgeable about the craft of composing essays, and is eager and willing to help throughout the semester. Beyond the conferencing itself, tutors are also available to meet with you about questions and other concerns relating to the writing process. They will be following the reading and will be able to help you hone your arguments, deepen your inquiry, and better articulate both your ideas and evidence. Other than marking your attendance at a conference, the tutors will not assign grades to your work.

All students will be required to meet with their assigned tutor at least three times during the semester, once for each paper. The exact sequence of these meeting will vary from section to section. However, you are encouraged to schedule additional meetings (depending on the tutor’s availability), should you need further assistance.

When conferences are required, your tutor will arrange the meeting logistics. The conferences will generally take place the week before the assignment is due. While it is understood that you are presenting the tutor with work in progress, you must keep in mind that the more polished, finely tuned and developed the material you bring, the better the tutor will be able to help you develop it. Granted that the tutor will be helpful in focusing your ideas and in getting you past the points at which you feel stuck, the majority of your work with her should be on writing that is well underway. That is: do not show up empty handed!


You will write two brief self-assessments, a preliminary one towards the beginning of the term, and a final, reflective one towards the end.

Think about your skills, confidence, and background in relation to the four class objectives or goals for our subject, described below. Then write out those thoughts in a coherent, lucid way, presenting as well your own (prioritized) goals for the class: this is your preliminary self-assessment. (Due Week #2, in class.)

Your final self-assessment asks you to turn back both to your initial assessment and to the goals above; reflecting upon these at the end of the journey, write out in a coherent and lucid way your sense of where you were then and where you are now. (Due Week #13, in class.)

Literature Section Policy on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else’s work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student’s own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available at MIT’s Writing and Communication Center and useful citations links.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2008
Learning Resource Types
assignment Presentation Assignments
assignment_turned_in Written Assignments with Examples