Humanities Courses

HSS offers students a broad sweep of humanities courses from which to choose, designed around a common philosophy and set of goals. Core courses are complemented by a shifting assortment of offerings that highlight the research interests of visiting scholars, thanks to the division's postdoctoral instructor program and the Searle Visiting Professorship.

In addition to the humanities options (English, History, History and Philosophy of Science, and Philosophy), students can take courses in at least five foreign languages as well as in film studies, music studies, art history, and creative writing. Caltech's course catalog provides further details about the humanities curriculum. Many of these classes include field trips designed to enhance what students learn in the classroom and take advantage of the region's historical and cultural richness.

For information on the 2021-2022 humanities course offerings, please click here (listing of all courses) and here (descriptions of new courses).

Foreign Language Studies

HSS currently offers foreign language classes in Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish. The two- to three-year language sequences emphasize the acquisition of oral, aural, writing, and reading skills.

Beginning classes are designed for students without previous knowledge. Students can then progress to intermediate and advanced classes, which are also available by permission of the instructor to students who enter Caltech knowing a foreign language.

In addition to standard language-acquisition classes, HSS offers courses that explore the literary masterworks of various linguistic regions, taught in the language of origin. Themes and readings vary from quarter to quarter in accordance with the specialty background of the instructors and interests of the students.

Latin language and literature courses, as well as advanced conversational or reading work in all other offered languages, may be available if a sufficient number of students voice interest.


HSS offers a four-year course sequence, from introductory classes (about 800 compounds and 700 characters) to elementary through intermediate levels. Students' linguistic proficiency and cultural literacy are enhanced by the study of a wide variety of materials of different styles and genres, from newspapers and magazines to selections from the works of major writers from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.


French instruction in HSS includes a two-year multimedia course sequence, from beginning to advanced intermediate levels. At the advanced level, special courses in French cinema and French literature are offered with instruction in French. In addition, several French literature courses conducted in English are offered regularly.


A two-year course sequence provides elementary to advanced intermediate levels of all skills, including coverage of all relevant grammatical material. The sixth quarter emphasizes more advanced reading and discussion of literary, scientific, and technical texts. A variety of courses covering German literature in translation are offered, as are courses on special topics such as German exile literature and film.


HSS offers a series of courses at elementary, intermediate, and advanced levels. At the intermediate level, fundamental grammar and several hundred kanji characters are mastered, enabling students to read a variety of native materials. The advanced program emphasizes vocabulary building and exposure to a wide range of materials. Each spring term, invited visitors from Japan introduce students to specific topics in culture, science, business, etc. Advanced-level students are encouraged to participate in the Japan Internship Program in Japan during their summer vacation.


A three-year program of sequential classes takes students from an elementary level to advanced study of the Spanish language. In addition, students are introduced to the wide variety of Hispanic literature and cultures. The program emphasizes autonomous learning in a proficiency-oriented setting and relies heavily on audio-visual material delivered through the Internet. Several classes in Hispanic literature in translation, conducted in English, are also offered.

Film Studies

With Frank Capra as one of Caltech's most famous alumni, film studies have always had a special place at the Institute. HSS provides students with the opportunity to learn about the historical, aesthetic, and technical aspects of film in the context of the business practices that made the movie industry one of the most complex and fascinating modern industries.

The course offerings in HSS focus on classical and post-classical Hollywood cinema, from the advent of sound in the late 1920s through the rise of the "blockbuster" in the 1970s. We periodically also offer, for example, courses in French cinema, science fiction, and film and history, as well as Ethnic Visions, a special course that brings filmmakers to class to discuss their work. Additionally, films are often incorporated into courses in other disciplines within the humanities.

Our students develop an understanding of the social function and historical importance of film as an art form and as a business; the technological developments that shape film style; film aesthetics and theory; and the role of audiences in shaping the making and marketing of films. Along the way, students acquire the necessary vocabulary with which to talk and write about films.

Part of the value of film courses is their capacity to foster new kinds of literacy in an age dominated by visual and electronic media. Many Caltech students, especially in computer science and engineering, are interested in pursuing careers in the film industry, and these courses provide an important historical and aesthetic context for their future work.

Music Studies

A recent survey of the Caltech student body revealed that nearly 25 percent of undergrads and graduate students are involved, in some way, in the study or performance of music. Clearly, music plays a significant role in the lives of a large number of students, and the faculty and staff who teach and coach music on campus are proud of the diverse and active programs that Caltech offers.

HSS offers a number of courses in music, all of which are taught by Thomas Neenan, lecturer in music history and music theory. These include a three-term music history sequence, offered annually, that gives students the opportunity to study the major periods in music history in considerable depth. In addition, a three-term music theory sequence is offered in alternate years. Beginning with music fundamentals, students progress to analysis of musical form and chromatic harmony. The third term gives students the opportunity to compose in a variety of styles, from classical to pop.

Other courses include Listening to Music (a survey of the history of music in a single term, with emphasis on the art of listening and discerning musical style) and more specialized courses such as History of Opera, Jazz History, and History of Chamber Music.

Art History

HSS offers both introductory and advanced courses in art history, including non-Western art history. Courses make use of the museums, art galleries, and artistic resources of the greater Los Angeles area. Recent courses include Spectacle: From the Court Masque to the Great Exhibition of 1851; Modernism in the Visual Arts, 1850–1945; and Collaborations between Art and Technology.

Creative Writing

Most courses in the humanities at Caltech seek to improve students' analytic writing skills, but courses in the writing of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction enable students to develop their talents as writers in other forms. Instructors of these courses are well-respected and award-winning writers. In these courses, students read and analyze important literary texts in the relevant genre and produce their own creative work. Much time is devoted to in-class workshops of student writing, which not only provide students with valuable feedback from their peers and the teacher but also teach them to become insightful critics of others' work.

Students in the poetry course write in a variety of forms, including the sonnet and blank verse, while students of nonfiction experiment with satire, memoir, etc. The fiction courses cover either realism, which encourages students to make art out of what they know, or imaginary writing (in the tradition of Poe, Borges, and others), which is designed to give students more creative freedom. Caltech's long-running publication for creative writing and art, Totem, is run by students, and it is a venue for publication of creative works produced both inside and outside of these courses.