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 consciousness and self-awareness emerge, 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, the drawings of M.C. Escher, the music of J.S. Bach, mathematical logic and formal systems, the limits of computation, and the past history and future prospects of artificial intelligence.

During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences. In the spring, we will meet weekly or every other week, depending on students' needs.


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

Class Meeting Times

Required Book

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Course Structure and Expectations

This course is predominantly a discussion seminar, and as students, you will all share in the responsibility for its success. I will expect significant amounts of reading, thinking, written analysis, and class participation from you. 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 should be prepared to actively investigate the topics we discuss, to do follow-up research outside of class, to give short presentations in class on your findings, and to express yourself clearly and respectfully in our class discussions. I'll expect you to come to class prepared to discuss the readings, having thought about the ideas in advance, and to post short written responses to the readings on our MySLC discussion board. We will also have several other homework assignments and papers, including some problem sets and computer programming exercises, but no exams. Your postings, presentations, homework assignments, and papers will be evaluated for their clarity, organization, and thoroughness. A major objective of this course is for you to strengthen your written and oral communication skills, and to sharpen your critical thinking abilities.

Together we will strive to make the classroom an open and welcoming environment where everyone is mutually respected no matter their race, gender, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin. If you feel this goal is not being met or you have any suggestions as to how to create a more positive and open classroom environment, please do not hesitate to let me know.


It is difficult to have a successful seminar class if students don't show up, so on-time attendance is expected for all class meetings. Although I realize that missing class sometimes cannot be avoided, missing more than 3 classes or conference meetings will put your grade in serious jeopardy. If you are unable to attend class or conference, please contact me about it as soon as possible.


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

Conference Work

For your conference work this semester, I would like you to choose some topic related to the course material that you find interesting (subject to my approval), research it thoroughly, and write an expository paper about it. The idea is to gain some practice researching and writing an SLC-style conference paper, while learning more about a topic that is of particular interest to you. I will expect you 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 12-15 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, you should plan on giving a brief (10-15 minute) oral presentation of your 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 project work, as well as discussing your academic progress at Sarah Lawrence in general and any questions or concerns you may have. Please try and come to your first conference meeting with at least a few ideas about potential areas of interest that you might 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 happy to schedule an appointment in person or via Zoom, or to 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.

Reasonable Accommodations

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 Dan Chan, Director of Access and Disability Services in the Dean of Studies Office. You may call Disability Services at 914-395-2235 or email dchan at 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. Under no circumstances may you turn in work under your own name that was done by someone other than yourself. The one exception is if you are collaborating jointly on an assignment or project with a partner, with my prior approval. In all cases, you should 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 are also responsible for carefully reading the College's official Policy on Academic Integrity in your SLC 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!