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First-Year Seminar

Fall Section Descriptions

Numbers

MWF - late morning* 

either MWF 11:40am-12:40pm OR

MWF 11:45am-12:45pm

* Times revised July 24, 2020

Space, Time, Spacetime

Dave Galaty

  • Core 121-01 – MWF 11:45am – 12:45pm

In this course we will explore major attempts of scientists to understand and measure space and time. We will start with the scientific revolution of the 1600s when scientists (Galileo, Newton) invented the structure, method, and limits of physics. We will then examine the ways that mathematicians (Gauss, Lobachevsky, Riemann) reinvented geometry in the nineteenth century. We will then proceed to see how scientists and mathematicians (Einstein, Minkowski, Poincare) came to conclude that space and time can most effectively be considered as aspects of a single entity: spacetime.

This focus of this course is not on the mathematical details of these theories, but on the ideas behind the mathematics, and the implications of those ideas. A mathematician (Dr. Paul Allen) and a historian of science (Dr. David Galaty) will work from a common syllabus and where useful will combine classes so students can see how both fields approach the questions raised in the class. By the end of the course we expect that each student will have had an opportunity to reconfigure their own understanding of space, time, and spacetime as they ask questions about matters involving their place in the universe.

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Biodiversity Through Eight Eyes

Greta Binford

  • Core 121-02 – MWF 11:40am – 12:40pm

We are surrounded by, and dependent upon, an extraordinary diversity of life that is threatened by habitat loss and climate change. Using biodiversity as a model, in this class we will focus on how data are collected, managed, interpreted and used to inform decisions. While the class will consider biodiversity as a whole, we will have a particular focus on arachnids. These animals surround us (like it or not), inspire discovery through things like venoms and silks, and are important contributors to ecological balance while being relatively poorly known. Through an arachnological lens, we will consider the data involved in identifying and managing biological diversity.

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American Inequality

Maryann Bylander

  • Core 121-10 – MWF 11:40am – 12:40pm

This course explores social and economic inequality in America. The course will be organized into three sections. In the first, we will learn to summarize, analyze, visualize and discuss numerical data. Next, we will explore the basic ideas of statistical inference and elaboration models which examine the causes and consequences of inequality. Finally, we will discuss how to assess social statistics presented in the media.

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MWF - afternoon*

either MWF 2:10-3:10pm OR

MWF 2:15-3:15pm

* Times revised July 24, 2020

Space, Time, Spacetime

Dave Galaty & Paul Allen - POD

  • Core 121-04 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm
  • Core 121-07 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm

In this course we will explore major attempts of scientists to understand and measure space and time. We will start with the scientific revolution of the 1600s when scientists (Galileo, Newton) invented the structure, method, and limits of physics. We will then examine the ways that mathematicians (Gauss, Lobachevsky, Riemann) reinvented geometry in the nineteenth century. We will then proceed to see how scientists and mathematicians (Einstein, Minkowski, Poincare) came to conclude that space and time can most effectively be considered as aspects of a single entity: spacetime.

This focus of this course is not on the mathematical details of these theories, but on the ideas behind the mathematics, and the implications of those ideas. A mathematician (Dr. Paul Allen) and a historian of science (Dr. David Galaty) will work from a common syllabus and where useful will combine classes so students can see how both fields approach the questions raised in the class. By the end of the course we expect that each student will have had an opportunity to reconfigure their own understanding of space, time, and spacetime as they ask questions about matters involving their place in the universe.

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Measuring Up

Peter Drake & Liz Stanhope

  • Core 121-06 – MWF 2:10-3:10pm
  • Core 121-08 – MWF 2:10-3:10pm

What is your place among the world’s billions? What is your role as a consumer, producer, and subject of data? This section explores people — our variation, our activities, and our resources — using data at all scales, from the vast summaries of the US Census Bureau to the moment-by-moment tracking of your mobile device. You will learn to analyze data with simple statistics and sophisticated visualizations, using the Python language to make a computer do the boring parts. (This section is intended for students with no previous experience in statistics or coding.) In the later part of the semester, you will work with a team to develop and present a data-based analysis of a question about which you are passionate.

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Biodiversity Through Eight Eyes

Greta Binford

  • Core 121-05 - MWF 2:10-3:10pm

We are surrounded by, and dependent upon, an extraordinary diversity of life that is threatened by habitat loss and climate change. Using biodiversity as a model, in this class we will focus on how data are collected, managed, interpreted and used to inform decisions. While the class will consider biodiversity as a whole, we will have a particular focus on arachnids. These animals surround us (like it or not), inspire discovery through things like venoms and silks, and are important contributors to ecological balance while being relatively poorly known. Through an arachnological lens, we will consider the data involved in identifying and managing biological diversity.

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Electoral Math

Ben Gaskins

  • Core 121-09 - MWF 2:15-3:15pm

This section will engage quantitative reasoning via the use of American elections, public opinion, and survey data. When trying to understand problems of social choice and democratic outcomes, scholars employ a wide variety of quantitative approaches. We will examine common problems associated with figuring out what citizens want, how they express their preferences, and how elections ultimately turn those preferences into policies.

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How to Build a Moral Machine

Joel Martinez

  • Core 121-11 - MWF 2:15-3:15pm

In this course, we will study the history and current development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is increasingly playing a role in decision-making that influences almost every aspect of our lives. We want AIs to make rational decisions. We also want them to make decisions that align with human values. But, to do this we need to quantify both rationality and our values. How can we do this? In this class we answer the question by studying models both of rational and moral decision-making. These models have already been used by philosophers, psychologists, economists and even in advertising. Some of these quantitative models have been used by AI researchers and some have not. So, in this class we will also investigate which quantitative models of decision-making hold out the most promise for making moral machines.

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Politicians Lie, Numbers Can Mislead: The Politics of Numbers

Matt Scroggs

  • Core 121-03 - MWF 2:15-3:15pm

People have complex, nuanced political beliefs, so how can we figure them out? People aren’t always truthful about what they believe in or why they vote the way they do. As countries become more democratic, are they less likely to fight wars or more likely to win them? There are serious disagreements about how to measure concepts like “democracy” and “war.” How does partisanship influence the way that people interpret information? During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen that Democrats and Republicans respond very differently to pronouncements from places like the World Health Organization or Center for Disease Control, presumed experts in their field. In studying the political behavior of humans, we are dealing with subjects that can respond and change their actions based on the very research that we conduct! But deciphering the political behavior of individuals, parties, and countries, among other actors, allows us to understand patterns from past events, predict future outcomes, and learn how to improve those outcomes. This course will explore various quantitative approaches to understanding the actions and decisions of political actors from individuals at the micro-level all the way to how countries interact at the macro-level. Students will not only become capable consumers of quantitative analysis, but also learn how to conduct research of their own and present their results in a clear and refined manner.

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Words

MWF 11:45am – 12:45pm*

* Time revised July 24, 2020

 

Curiosity, Knowledge, and the Vindictive Divine

Joel Sweek

  • Core 120-01 - 11:45am-12:45pm

Texts from earliest times record a human frustration with the ostensible limits to knowledge. This frustration early on gave rise to resentment toward the gatekeepers of that inaccessible knowledge: the gods. In our Promethean impatience, we have deployed various alternative means of obtaining knowledge, from necromancy to Faustian bargain. This course reads in this historical-literary frustration with the gods over knowledge, from the Garden of Eden to deals with the Devil: in Mesopotamian and Hebrew biblical literature; in Greek, Roman, and Christian sources; in the Medieval and Renaissance texts of the Faust legend; and in modern writers like Goethe, Conrad, and Mann.

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MWF - afternoon*

either MWF 2:10-3:10pm OR

MWF 2:15-3:15pm

* Times revised July 24, 2020

 

Communication and the Environment

Kundai Chirindo

  • Core 120-09 - MWF 2:10-3:10pm

“Parties [to the Paris Agreement] shall cooperate in taking measures, as appropriate, to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information, recognizing the importance of these steps with respect to enhancing actions under this Agreement.” Article 12 of the “Paris Agreement.”

Sensitive to Article 12 of the “Paris Agreement,” this section seeks to improve our understanding of the dynamics that affect the spread and acceptance of information about climate change among different groups of people. Good and effective communication is essential to any effort to manage the ecological crisis we now live in (known as the anthropocene). This is because communication and the environment (however you understand both terms) are inextricably bound up in each other. Communication affects (and effects) ideas we have about the environment at the same that environments shape and influence communicative practices, products, and outcomes. This section explores how communication shapes and shifts different ideas of human relations to “the environment” across different societies. We will begin by learning some approaches to the study of communication that illuminate how communication shapes and is shaped by environments. Then, using rhetorical-critical methods, we will practice analyzing environmental communication from the perspectives of communities in different parts of the world. Stated differently, we are going to use rhetorical criticism to explore the mutual effects that communication and environments have on each other through the analysis of environment related communications.

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The Greatest American Novels: 2010-2019

Rachel Cole

  • Core 120-04 - MWF 2:10-3:10pm

Each November, five distinguished judges choose one novel or story collection as the winner of that year’s National Book Award for Fiction. Each panel of judges is free to set its own criteria for the award, and as such the list of winners through the years represents an evolving sense of what can and should count as the very best of American literature. In this course, we will read and study some of the novels that have won the National Book Award over the last ten years. As we read, we will try to answer three questions: What stories and characters, what questions and concerns, occupy the “best” American literature today? How consistent are these novels in their interests and preoccupations—do they converge in their understandings of what it means to be American in the second decade of the twenty-first century? Finally, to what extent do each of us recognize their questions and concerns as our own? Do these, publicly celebrated novels represent our own Americas—our cultures, our present moments, our worries and joys?

Texts may include: Jaimy Gordon, The Lord of Misrule(2010); Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones(2011); Louise Erdrich, The Round House(2012); James McBride, The Good Lord Bird(2013); Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad(2016); Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing(2017); Sigrid Nunez, The Friend(2018); Susan Choi, Trust Exercise(2019).

Note: Several of these texts engage difficult topics, including racial violence, sexual violence, and suicide. If you would find reading about and discussing such topics traumatic, this may not be the section for you. If you have any questions or would like to talk before selecting this section, please let me know—I would be happy to chat over email or meet via videoconference.

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Narrative Crossroads: Discovering Knowledge

Kurt Fosso

  • Core 120-05 - MWF 2:15-3:15pm

This section will focus upon the discovery and production of knowledge and its relationship to narrative and authority. We’ll consider how literary and other narratives indeed produce knowledge—of ourselves and our world—and what roles language, interpretation, and authorship play in both articulating and constraining what we deem to be real and true. What indeed istruth when it can be (and even must be) narrated and so structured? All the works we read will explore these and other challenging aspects of knowledge and ignorance, from eating forbidden fruit to reading wrong-headed books to testing the difference between human and machine. We’ll examine texts ranging from the Bible and Plato to Ishmael and Blade Runner, and including, along the way, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, and Reza Aslan’s God: A Human History. Hang onto your seats.

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Undead Texts

Fritzman

  • Core 120-11 - MWF 2:10-3:10pm

We’ll read four books that won’t die. They’re classics. But seldom read. They’re ambitious and anti-disciplinary. They’re too radical, go too far, and don’t stay in their lanes. We’ll read: Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and Clifford Geertz’s Interpretation of Cultures.

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The Space Between: Writing Across Difference in American Literature

Kristin Fujie

  • Core 120-06 - MWF 2:10-3:10pm

What is it then between us?

What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

—Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

This course is all about in-between spaces. We will immerse ourselves in works of literature, mostly American, that evoke and explore the sometimes infinitesimal, sometimes vast, always difficult spaces that exist between bodies, generations, cultures, and even species. It is common enough to say that language is a “bridge,” but our writers test the idea that words connect. If language is a bridge, they ask, what are its dimensions and architecture? Might language constitute, instead, an obstacle? An evasion? A wound? Our readings will take us from the American South to New England to the U.S.-Mexican border, with detours abroad to Europe and Asia. Reflecting on the U.S. vis-a-vis global histories of (im)migration, colonialism, slavery, and war, and through the intimate perspectives of family, sexuality, and identity, our syllabus resembles a mosaic—one that highlights the internal gaps or interstices within American selfhood, American culture, and the American dream. Readings will include poetry by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Layli Long Soldier; short fiction by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Haruki Murakami; non-fiction or genre mashups by Gloria Anzaldúa, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Ocean Vuong; film by Lee Chang-Dong.

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A Mind of One’s Own

Susan Glosser

  • Core 120-10- MWF 2:10-3:10pm

Since grade school we’ve all been told “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but over the centuries many have died or been ostracized for what they have had to say. In this class we’ll read biographies, essays, and fiction by and about people who challenged their societies’ preconceptions, disregarded their taboos, and undermined their sacred beliefs. The underlying assumptions of this course are that freedom of thought and speech are essential to the health of all communities and polities, and that college should encourage and protect that freedom. In each of the readings, we will consider who or what the author challenged, how opponents and critics reacted, and what thought and action the author’s iconoclasm made possible. Our readings will take us from the time of Socrates to the 19th and 20th centuries, and on to the issues that preoccupy us today, such as race, religion, gender, and hate speech. We’ll conclude with readings that are likely to challenge our notions of free speech and when, or whether, we should limit it.

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Mixing It Up: Asian American Experience, Perception and Popular Culture

Kabir Hemsath

  • Core 120-15 - MWF 2:10-3:10pm

This course engages with Asian American studies as way to open up new approaches to contemporary popular culture. We explore broad concepts such as identity, globalization, gender, education, and racial perception with a mixed approach that crosses boundaries of historical, literary, social and media analysis. Class material will include fiction, memoir, film, art, social media and physical objects in addition to more conventional academic texts. Students are encouraged to use theoretical concepts and methodological approaches suggested by Asian American studies, but urged to work on specific topics of special interest to them (that is, papers do notneedto focus exclusively on Asian American topics and no prior background is expected).

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Preparing for a Post-COVID-19 World: Lessons from Antiquity

Rob Kugler

  • Core 120-13 - MWF 2:10-3:10pm

We live in a time when distinct identities have become paramount. We place enormous value on declaring who we are, what we stand for, and how we are different from those around us. There is a downside to this. Our passion to stake out our unique identities has often led to a deeply divided society. We struggle to live peaceably with the increasing pluralism of society in America and around the globe. As we look to a post-COVID-19 world the social fragmentation such an approach to identity creates is not tenable. We need to find better ways to live together.

In this course we will study the Jews of Hellenistic Egypt, an ancient community that peaceably maintained a distinctive identity amidst especially intense pluralism. Their daily cares and the way they related to non-Jews are accessible to us in discarded documents preserved by the dry sands of Egypt and in literature handed down through generations. We will frame our study of these ancient Jews with a look at how Americans negotiated identity amidst cultural pluralism in the years leading up to the pandemic and how, taking lessons from the Jews of Egypt, we might do so more cooperatively in the generation that will follow.

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Conceptions of Justice: God, the State, and Outcasts

Todd Lochner

  • Core 120-12 - MWF 2:10-3:10pm

This course examines the concept of justice and its relationship to human affairs. Questions to be addressed include: Does justice flow from divine providence? The state? Reason? What is the relationship between society and justice? How do we balance the desire for justice with other values such as love or compassion—or are the latter an intrinsic element of the former? Is justice as a concept fixed, or does it change depending on time and culture? How should we approach people whose actions offend our sense of justice? In order to explore these questions, we will examine readings from the fields of literature, philosophy, and religion.

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Paradoxes of Reading

Michael Mirabile

  • Core 120-02 - MWF 2:10-3:10pm

This section will be devoted to the processes and paradoxes of reading. Why do we read? What, exactly, is involved in the activity known as “reading”? According to several critics, this activity is fundamentally paradoxical: while authors often invite us to interpret their writings, they also construct or frame those writings in ways that resist totalizing or conclusive explanations. What is meant by “textual analysis,” “close reading,” “critical reading,” “symptomatic reading,” etc.? How do we understand the related tasks involved in reading for the subtexts and contexts of a work? Some of the topics we will explore are: irony, ambiguity, metafiction (i.e., fiction about fiction), figurative language, tropes, codes, narrative (i.e., narrative closure vs. narrative openness). Additionally, our class discussions will provide an opportunity to introduce and familiarize ourselves with complex concepts such as ekphrasis, semiotics, historicity, exegesis, and hermeneutics. We will emphasize literary works (but will include non-fictional, philosophical, and theoretical works) with the purpose of considering the challenges of approaching texts that may have multiple meanings and may be interpreted in many ways. Our readings will be drawn from some of the following authors: Plato, Frederick Douglass, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Franz Kafka, Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison, Jorge Luis Borges, Jennifer Egan, and Walter Benjamin. We will also examine selected works of criticism.

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Fictions of Identity

Will Pritchard

  • Core 120-08 - MWF 2:15-3:15pm

In this class we will be reading, discussing and writing about texts that investigate the nature of personal identity. More specifically, we will consider works that depict identity as arbitrary, artificial, fictional, malleable and even multiple: tales of impostors, stories of “passing,” narratives of assimilation and accounts of divided selves. Some key questions will be: To what extent are identities, in these texts and in our own lives, innate (determined by birth) and to what extent are they up for grabs (forged in performance)? Is your identity defined by who you feel you are or is it determined by who others say you are?

Tentative reading list: William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, or What You Will(1601-02); Eliza Haywood, Fantomina, or Love in a Maze(1725);Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1886); Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson(1894);Nella Larsen, Passing(1929); Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (1982); Julia Alvarez, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents(1991); andDanzy Senna, Caucasia(1998).

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The Art of Solidarity

Magalí Rabasa

  • Core 120-16 - MWF 2:10-3:10pm

From the steps of the Supreme Court to the US-Mexico border to NFL stadiums and beyond, in recent years, the concept of solidarity has become a staple of our collective political vocabulary. In its most basic definition, solidarity is an expression of unity and mutual support between groups, communities, or individuals. In practice, solidarity means taking sides to support a struggle. In this course, we will examine the artof solidarityin two senses. First, we will explore what solidarity looks like, which is to say, its aesthetics. How is solidarity expressed visually, artistically, expressively, and materially? Second, we will explore how solidarity works by examining its praxis (theory + practice). How is solidarity practiced and what are the theories and ideas that propel it? The course will examine a diversity of case studies of twentieth and twenty-first century political struggles and social movements from different parts of the world, and will focus on the diverse media produced through practices of solidarity, including books, zines, poster art, music, film, video, graffiti, fashion, public protest, social media, and performance art.

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Insiders/Outsiders: Belonging and Alienation in Literature and in Life

Molly Robinson

  • Core 120-07 - MWF 2:15-3:15pm

Many of the joys and hurts of human life revolve around the need for belonging. In recent years, we have become more aware of the ways in which systemic power and privilege are based in long-standing cultural norms that classify some people as “insiders” and others as “outsiders.” Although usually unspoken and sometimes even unconscious, these norms teach us from an early age that certain opportunities (education, suffrage, power, and leadership for example) are appropriate and expected for certain groups of people, but inappropriate and unexpected for others. When these lines are crossed, discomfort, resistance, and even violence can emerge. Whether the groups of people are defined by gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, or some other category, humankind tends to divide itself into those who are seen as belonging in the arena, and those who are seen as too different to fit in. In this course, we will read a selection of works showing different facets of the insider / outsider dynamic, gaining a broader and more informed understanding of its historical and intersectional resonances. Work to be read include Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and more.

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The Ancient City

Joel Sweek

  • Core 120-03 - MWF 2:15-3:15pm

Why and how did people begin to build and live in cities? Modern ambivalence toward “civilization” notwithstanding, once upon a time people turned toward the city on purpose. How and when did this happen, where, and why? In what ways did we express our joy or dismay at this move from foraging to the densely-packed confines of the city and living among strangers? In this course on the material, demographic, and cultural features of what has been called “the urban revolution,” we examine five prominent instances: the Mediterranean Late Palaeolithic-Neolithic, Early Bronze Age Mesopotamia, a New Kingdom Egyptian utopia, Periclean Athens, and earliest Rome. Familiarizing ourselves with the archaeological record of the material culture and with the very earliest literature bearing upon the city, we study the origins, emergence, and flourishing of the ancient city.

First-Year Seminar

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