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First-Year Seminar

Spring Section Descriptions

The majority of Words and Numbers sections are taught in time period 6 (either MWF 2:10-3:10pm or 2:15-3:15pm).  Two sections each of Words and Numbers are taught mid to late morning.  The morning sections are listed before the afternoon sections for each course (Numbers and Words).

Numbers

MWF - morning

 

What do numbers sound like? An exploration of digital sound and music.

Stephen Tufte

  • Core 121-11 – MWF 10:30-11:30am - Hybrid

One of the primary ways that we receive information about the world around us is through our ears. Since the late 1800s we have been able to measure, record, and play back sound information using mechanical devices. In the last 50 years we have dramatically shifted the way that we measure, record, transmit, and consume sound. The vast majority of the information that currently barrages us is now digital.

This course will present the physical basis of sound (pressure waves in air) and will discuss how we can measure sound waves, with a strong focus on the modern approach of digitizing sound; in other words, turning sounds into numbers. We will learn how to use digital sound recorders along with powerful computer software to measure, store, transmit, and mathematically process this sound information into more meaningful forms.

By learning how to quantitatively assess the sounds that surround us, we can address a wide range of interesting and important questions. For example, how has the shift to digital music affected how music is recorded, distributed, and consumed? What is high-fidelity and how is this affected by compression algorithms? Does vinyl sound better? What is a sound spectrum and how is it useful? How are sounds used to investigate nature (e.g. seismology, echolocation, ultrasonic imaging, animal communication)?

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Space, Time, Spacetime

Dave Galaty

  • Core 121-01 – MWF 11:45am – 12:45pm - Online (also offered in the afternoon, see below)

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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MWF - afternoon (time period 6)

 

Space, Time, Spacetime

Paul Allen & Dave Galaty - POD

  • Core 121-03 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm - Online (also offered in the morning, see above)
  • Core 121-07 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm  - Online (also offered in the morning, see above)

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 - POD

  • Core 121-06 – MWF 2:10-3:10pm - Hybrid
  • Core 121-08 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm - Online

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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Food for Thought

Casey Jones

  • Core 121-05 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm - Hybrid

You may be a foodie, a gardener, a junk food snacker, or all of the above. This section is designed to get you thinking about your food and the numbers that go into it. We will use quantitative tools to explore the complex cycle of food production, availability, consumption, and waste. Using publicly available data, we will quantify the magnitude of money and energy that fuels the food cycle using tools of dimensional analysis and estimation. We will identify intended and unintended consequences and byproducts of the American food cycle including impacts on global warming and immigration. We will interpret and construct graphical representations of data and work to produce infographics to clearly communicate our findings.

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How to Build a Moral Machine

Joel Martinez

  • Core 121-09 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm - Hybrid

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 121-04 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm - Hybrid

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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Election Science

Ellen Seljan

  • Core 121-10 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm - Online

This section will teach quantitative reasoning skills usingapplications related to elections. Topics and data examined includethose related campaign finance, redistricting, voting algorithms,voter turnout, polling, and election prediction models. Students willlearn the production and interpretation of data visualizations, statistics, and how to design research for causal inference.

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Words

MWF - mid morning (time period 3)

 

Suspense / Horror / Paranoia

Michael Mirabile

  • Core 120-01 – MWF 10:25-11:25am - Online (also offered in the afternoon, see below)

This course will be devoted to examining varieties of fear from a number of distinct but related perspectives: cultural, psychological, historical, and social. Special attention is given to how these fears correspond to genre categories in literature and film: namely, the thriller, the Gothic or horror story, and the conspiratorial narrative (often cited as an example of a general “paranoid style”). Does the mechanism of suspense change over time? Do objects of horror also change? Why do collective expressions of suspicion and paranoia undergo periodic renewals, such as during the Cold War era in the United States? Our goal in this course will be to look closely at shifts in perspective and at the contexts within which are found powerful inducements to anxiety. Our primary materials for analysis and discussion will be twentieth-century films and works of literature.

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Curiosity, Knowledge, and the Vindictive Divine

Joel Sweek

  • Core 120-02 – MWF 10:30-11:30am - Online (also offered in the afternoon, see below)

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 (time period 6)

 

Death and the Afterlife

Andy Bernstein & Susanna Morrill

  • Core 120-08 – MWF 2:10-3:10pm - Hybrid
  • Core 120-13 – MWF 2:10-3:10pm - Hybrid

Death is universal, but how people experience and imagine it is not. In this course we will explore how humans from a wide range of times and places have dealt with death and its consequences. Topics include funeral rituals, ghosts, realms of the dead, the aesthetics of death, and the quest for immortality. Readings will include ancient texts such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Bhagavad Gita as well as more recent works like Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. We will also hear from funeral providers, clergy, and physicians about their experiences working with both the dying and the bereaved. In addition, we will visit nearby Riverside Cemetery to see what gravestones from different eras tell us about changing attitudes toward death.

Two sections of this course will be offered, one taught by Professor Andrew Bernstein and the other by Professor Susanna Morrill. Although there will be considerable overlap, some of the assignments and readings will differ.

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The Greatest American Novels: 2010-2019

Rachel Cole

  • Core 120-09 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm - Hybrid

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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Memory as Representation

Ben David

  • Core 120-05 – MWF 2:10-3:10pm - Online

This first-year seminar will explore the many fascinating intersections of art, literature, and memory. The point of this course, which seeks an interdisciplinary approach to the concept of memory, is to learn how art—both texts and images—might help us to understand the process by which memories are not merely recalled or retrieved, but are assembled and constructed in a complex and mediated process of representation. Memory makes images of our personal and collective past. Memory depends not only on the encoding of actual experience, but also on the imagination. We will engage the problems of memory through the lens of art, such as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorialor Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel In the Shadow of No Towers. We will consider autobiographies such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglassand Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. Our study of memory also includes fictional memoirs such as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. We also investigate historical studies concerned with memory such as Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory. Some areas of focus will include trauma, memorials, museums, archives, the genre of self-portrait, the “accuracy” of memory, and forgetting.

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This American Language

Keith Dede PhD, Chinese Language and Linguistics

  • Core 120-14 – MWF 2:10-3:10pm - Hybrid

From the texts, emails, and essays we read and write to the lunch chats, lectures and dorm-room deep-dives we participate in, we spend our days swimming in language. What patterns can be discerned in this ocean of communication, and what do those patterns say about our country, our community and ourselves? In this class we will turn a scientific eye to language itself, asking such questions of it as, “Who speaks what to whom?”, “What influences our language choices?”, and “What judgments do we all make about language use?”. The major issues discussed will be linguistic diversity, linguistic discrimination, language evolution, language endangerment and language revitalization. Through essays (such as Rosina Lippi-Green’s “Language Ideology and Language Prejudice”), films (such as, The Linguistsand Do You Speak American), and podcasts (Lexicon Valley), we will explore the rich diversity of language in North America with the aim of understanding some of the many issues with which it is entangled.

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The Space Between: Writing Across Difference in American Literature

Kristin Fujie

  • Core 120-06 - 2:10-3:10pm - Hybrid

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 texts 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 probe, question, and in some cases upend the idea that words connect.If language is a bridge, they ask, what are its materials, dimensions, and architecture?Might language constitute, instead, an obstacle? An evasion? A wound?Our syllabus consists mostly of American literature (my specialty!) and mixes canonical texts with contemporary works by Native, Asian, Mexican, and African American writers.Reflecting on America and Americanness 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 to include poetry by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Layli Longsoldier; fiction by Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Haruki Murakami; non-fiction by Valeria Luiselli and Ta-Nehisi Coates; genre mashups by Gloria Anzaldúa, Maggie Nelson, and Ocean Vuong; film by Lee Chang-Dong.

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Protest, Politics, & Putin

Leah Gilbert

  • Core 120-12 – MWF 2:10-3:10pm - Online

In the past year, Vladimir Putin both celebrated his 21st year at the helm of Russia’s political institutions and saw Russia’s electorate approve constitutional amendments making him eligible to serve as Russia’s president until 2036. Despite this apparent stability, Russia’s politics are anything but static, as the political, economic, and social status quo has been and continues to be contested. This course delves into this contested space by examining the sources of Putin’s popularity, the role of protests in Russia’s political system, and how and when protests occur and either undermine or support Putin’s authority. The topics will primarily be investigated by drawing on works from the social sciences (political science and sociology), but students will also be exposed to various materials from novels, news media, and films. At the conclusion of the course, students will have a solid understanding of the dynamic nature of Russia’s political regime and how this impacts the United States and the world.

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“The War to End All Wars”: The First World War and Its Legacies

Mo Healy

  • Core 120-10 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm - Hybrid

BETWEEN 1914 and 1918 the conflict that has come to be known as the First World War spread across the globe and unleashed death and destruction on an unimaginable scale. In many ways we still live with the legacies of this war even though today there is no one left with a living memory of it.

While its focus is on an historical event, this is much more than just a history course. We will take a broad and interdisciplinary approach to our subject. The semester begins by looking at the war’s origins in a series of imperial rivalries and a breakdown of the international system that had kept peace in Europe for nearly a century. From there we will ask how did the psychology of individuals and societies respond to the upheaval and trauma of the war? How did science and industrial technology make this war different than those before it and cause people to question the value of scientific progress? How did religion and philosophy inform moral arguments in favor of or against the war? How did the war influence human expression in literature, visual art and film, both during the conflict and in its aftermath? Finally, how did the peace agreement that followed “the war to end wars” shape the world we live in today and sow the seeds of future conflicts?

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The Art of War

Bob Mandel

  • Core 120-11 – MWF 2:10-3:10pm - Hybrid

This course covers the historical, strategic, and moral dimensions of war in order to give entering students an understanding of the most important challenge faced by humankind. The central questions revolve around the nature, purpose, and limits of warfare. The approach has students study conceptual insights largely through reading about the actual experience of warfare, viewed through the eyes of participants or direct observers. The emphasis is on interdisciplinary readings interpreting patterns across culture and time. Views of diverse groups, both powerful and oppressed, are fully represented. Students ponder and analyze the fundamental controversies surrounding organized armed international violence throughout the ages.

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Suspense / Horror / Paranoia

Michael Mirabile

  • Core 120-03 – MWF 2:10-3:10pm - Online (also offered in the morning, see above)

This course will be devoted to examining varieties of fear from a number of distinct but related perspectives: cultural, psychological, historical, and social.Special attention is given to how these fears correspond to genre categories in literature and film: namely, the thriller, the Gothic or horror story, and the conspiratorial narrative (often cited as an example of a general “paranoid style”).Does the mechanism of suspense change over time?Do objects of horror also change?Why do collective expressions of suspicion and paranoia undergo periodic renewals, such as during the Cold War era in the United States?Our goal in this course will be to look closely at shifts in perspective and at the contexts within which are found powerful inducements to anxiety.Our primary materials for analysis and discussion will be twentieth-century films and works of literature.

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Fictions of Identity

Will Pritchard

  • Core 120-07 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm - Hybrid

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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Curiosity, Knowledge, and the Vindictive Divine

Joel Sweek

  • Core 120-04 – MWF 2:15-3:15pm - Online (also offered in the morning, see above)

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.

First-Year Seminar

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