Understanding the Contemporary - SE311

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Module delivery information

This module is not currently running in 2020 to 2021.


'Understanding the Contemporary' will enable students to think critically about their own period, and analyse the forces and events shaping contemporary culture and society. Students will consider texts from a range of disciplines and will be selectively introduced to key ideas in contemporary theory and philosophy. They will furthermore apply insights drawn from their readings and discussions to practical analysis of contemporary situations, not only through developing awareness of current events but also through designing and carrying out field analysis of social and historical changes in local communities (linked both to the research plan designed in Modes of Reasoning and to SSPSSR's quantitative teaching methods programme). The focus of the module will be on the period since 2000, though clearly it will be necessary to reach back before that date to contextualise current issues. Students will be required to think critically about the ways different disciplines are formulating representations of the contemporary period, and to discuss themes and ideas that cross disciplines. Week by week, seminars and lectures will address topics that define the present period, for instance, migration, environmental change, financial crisis, democratic agency, and new media. The module will consider how different disciplines and intellectual traditions are responding to and framing such issues and developments so developing skills of comparative and cross-disciplinary reading. It is in the nature of the module that its study topics will vary from year to year. Overall, the module will develop multi-disciplinary understandings of the contemporary world and will encourage students to consider their role in shaping it.

Complimentary modules: Modes of Reasoning (Autumn and Spring), Roots of Transformation (Autumn)


This module appears in the following module collections.

Contact hours

20 hours


The programmes of study to which the module contributes:
BA in Liberal Arts (Honours)

Method of assessment

Essay plan of 500 words (10%)
Reading diary of 500 words (10%)
Essay of 2000 words (80%)

Indicative reading

There is no set text for this module. It will feature a topic driven approach, with sample texts and extracts being introduced to address the given issue from a range of disciplines. This is an intentional strategy to place students at the heart of the creation of knowledge. As such, original essays, journal articles and extracts from books will be selected from existing library provision and will provide the focus for bi-weekly discussions.

The following list is indicative of the kind of reading students will be introduced to:
Giorgio Agamben, ‘What is the Contemporary’, in What Is An Apparatus (Stanford University Press, 2009)
Michael Agar, The Professional Stranger: an Informal Introduction to Ethnography (Academic Press 1996)
Alain Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy (Verso, 2010)
Tim Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (Yale 2001)
Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis (Picador, 2011)
David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (Verso, 2011)
Arundhati Roy, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers (Haymarket Books, 2009)
Hulme, Mike, Why we disagree about Climate change (Cambridge, 2009)

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

On completion of this module, students will be able to:
Demonstrate a knowledge of the forces and events shaping contemporary thought and behaviour across a range of practices and disciplines.

Demonstrate an awareness of key ideas informing representations and critiques of the contemporary period.

Demonstrate an understanding of the varying ways in which different disciplines and practices – across the arts, the social sciences, history and politics - conceptualise the contemporary period and its concerns.

Demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of forms of representation that have emerged in the contemporary period.

Show an ability to relate issues in contemporary politics and society to developments in contemporary arts and culture.

Demonstrate an ability to formulate and intellectually respond to the problems and challenges shaping contemporary culture and society.


  1. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  2. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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