Spring 2017 Writing Seminars
Writing Seminars have a common goal—for students, through practice and guidance, to master essential strategies and techniques of academic inquiry and argument. Writing Seminars also have a common structure: unlike most other courses, which are organized around readings, Writing Seminars are organized primarily around writing—specifically, a series of four assignments, totaling about 30 finished pages.
While Writing Seminars all focus on the skills necessary for effective critical reading and writing, they differ in the topics and texts assigned. Below are topic descriptions of the many different Writing Seminars being offered this term.
As described in How to Enroll, you will rank your top 8 seminar preferences online at any time during the enrollment period. To read a full description of the course, click on the course title. To increase your chances of being assigned to one of your top preferences, choose seminars that meet at a range of times, including morning and evening. Be sure to keep in mind your class schedule and extracurricular commitments.
|Friday, July 22||Students Assigned to a Term for the Writing Seminar|
|Friday, September 9, 9am - Wednesday, September 14, 9 am||Students May Request a Term Change Online|
|Wednesday, January 11, 9am - Friday, January 20, 5pm||Students Enroll in a Writing Seminar Online
This process is not first come, first served. Enroll anytime during the enrollment period, and your chance of receiving one of your top choices is as good as everyone else's.
|Tuesday, January 24, 5pm||Students Notified by Email of Writing Seminar Assignments|
|Tuesday, January 24, 5pm - Tuesday, January 31, 5pm||Students May Request a Writing Seminar Change Online
No requests to change a Writing Seminar will be accepted after the deadline without the special permission of the Writing Program Director and your Director of Studies.
|Monday, February 6||First Day of M/W Writing Seminars|
|Tuesday, February 7||First Day of T/Th Writing Seminars|
Seminar meeting times will be posted in December 2016.
Dream big. Aim high. Reach for the stars. From tumblr memes to TED talks, the language of ambition pervades the American cultural landscape, carrying with it the idea that hard work and persistence overcome all obstacles. What are the consequences of this rhetoric, and what are we to make of a recent study that found little correlation between its subjects’ ambition and their estimation of their own fulfillment? What values organize our imaginings of success? How do we differentiate between aspirations for the common good and those serving private interest, and how should government intervene in the conflicting ambitions of its citizens? This Writing Seminar investigates the complexities of an apparently straightforward feeling: the desire to succeed. First, we look to the 19th-century rags-to-riches fiction of Horatio Alger for help situating ambition in relation to foundational American values. Next, we draw on sociology, psychology, and cultural studies to analyze depictions of merit and success in popular films. In the semester’s second half, students pursue research related to ambition in a discipline of their choosing. Topics might include hip-hop’s aspiration narratives, the privatization of space travel, social mobility in Cuba, or the neuropsychology of competitiveness.
The Art of Adventure
Anne Hirsch Moffitt
“For an occurrence to become an adventure,” existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it.” In other words, adventures are made in their telling. But if this is so, what sets adventure apart from other forms of narrative and artistic expression? And why are we so drawn to adventures in the first place—in stories and in life? Do adventures take us away from our everyday world or provide insight into it? In this Writing Seminar, we investigate the complex cultural meanings of adventure in literature, film, and everyday life. We begin by using the writings of sociologist Georg Simmel to assess the role of adventure in Miguel de Cervantes’s classic tale of chivalry and fool-heartedness, Don Quixote. Next, we study theories of empire and conquest to offer new interpretations of the politics of adventure in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. For the research paper, students study the cultural meaning of adventure in art or life. Possible topics include summer camp, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, climbing Mount Everest, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. We conclude by creating adventures from our own real-life episodes.
The Big Apple
“The city that never sleeps.” As Frank Sinatra so famously sang, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” What is it about New York City that has earned it such a legendary reputation? How has the metropolis’s geography shaped it? And how have tourists and residents, the elite and the struggling, conservatives and liberals, left their imprint on the urban environment? What distinguishes New York’s identity—its reputation and sense of itself? In this Writing Seminar, we use Gotham as our text to interrogate the relationship between urban space, place, and people. We begin by analyzing urban theorists Henri Lefebvre and Jane Jacobs to understand the ways in which television and film—from Sesame Street to Ghostbusters—tell stories through the medium of New York City. Next, we travel to Manhattan for a historic walking tour and employ a georeferenced mapping database to discern new insights about everyday life in 1920s Harlem. For the research paper, students analyze an urban event, trend, or issue of their choosing. For example: Occupy Wall Street’s “right to the city” rhetoric, subway station art, smoking regulations and changing notions of urban etiquette, or the threat of rising sea level.
Dannelle Gutarra Cordero
“I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.” The film Taken portrays the struggle against human trafficking as the conflict of one man against a hidden but thriving economy. In reality, Liam Neeson’s role is claimed by overlapping political and nongovernmental organizations, which in turn are guided by careful scholarship seeking a better understanding of the crisis. This Writing Seminar asks how should we conceptualize, and combat, the phenomenon of human trafficking in the 21st century. We begin by reading the 1926 Slavery Convention and the 2000 UN Palermo Protocol to analyze the usefulness of historical definitions of slavery as a lens for thinking about this human rights violation. Students then participate in interactive video conferences with international leaders and attend a briefing at the United Nations in New York to collect firsthand sources for a close reading. In the second half of the semester, students make a researched argument on a specific topic related to contemporary slavery, like the black market in organs, representations of sex trafficking in Lifetime movies, or the use of child soldiers in the drug trade. Lastly, students will coordinate a symposium and deliver brief presentations on their research.
Would you wear a sweater that had once belonged to Adolf Hitler? What if the sweater had been laundered first, or then been worn by Mother Teresa? Human beings have and are bodies, but more specifically are dressed bodies. Worn garments may contain the vital essence of a person, as they do for the Hua people of New Guinea, or may provide a residence for demons, as televangelist Pat Robertson warns. This Writing Seminar explores the relationship between dress, social communication, and identity formation, defining dress broadly to include any bodily supplementation or modification such as piercings or tattoos. We will employ a variety of disciplinary perspectives including psychology, sociology, religion, and economics. We begin by analyzing the role of dress in reality television using Judith Butler’s theory of bodies and performativity. Next, using American icons of dress such as blue jeans and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as examples, we consider the intersection of visibility and visuality, examining the ways in which items of dress have a profound political impact on our construction of personhood. For the research essay students will each choose an item of dress and make an argument about how this item has generated, negotiated, or complicated meaning. Finally, we reflect on our own experience of dress on the Princeton campus through a short reflective piece or a contribution to Princeton’s Stripe magazine.
Disability and Difference
Today terms like “handicaps” have been replaced by “developmental disabilities” and “special needs,” while “autism,” “biogenetics,” and “bipolar” litter popular discourse. Do these changes in the way we talk about persons with disabilities and their enhanced visibility reflect an increasing tolerance of difference or a tendency to devalue divergent experiences? If disabled people understand their disabilities differently, is there such a thing as disability, and what, if anything, does it teach us about being human? In this Writing Seminar we begin by exploring medical, sociological, and phenomenological theories of disability alongside popular representations in documentary film. Next, we examine how local and international depictions of disability, from autism in Korea to wounded African American gang members, as well as theories of culture and difference, challenge, conform, or conflict with the WHO’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health. In the semester’s second half, students research representations and phenomena particular to disability, such as deaf communities, the public debate regarding vaccines and autism, and the medicalization of bipolar disorder. We end the semester by writing narratives that reflect on our growing understanding of disability, difference, and what it means to be human.
The Ethics of Persuasion
“Writers are always selling somebody out,” confessed Joan Didion in the preface to her revolutionary book of journalism Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Centuries before, Aristotle argued that the most important element of persuasion is the writer’s “ethos”: our sense of his or her fair-mindedness and character. If writing nonfiction means selling others out, is ethos always a fake? Or can writing be an ethical act—honest, generous, even redemptive? In this Writing Seminar, we reckon with the problem of ethos and the ethics of representing the self and others in journalistic and academic essays. We study great American nonfiction writers from a range of genres, including Didion, Leslie Jamison, Mark Greif, Janet Malcolm, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Richard Rodriguez, and David Foster Wallace. We begin by examining essays that make political or cultural arguments and then turn to essays that depict the experience of others, testing Didion’s critique of writing. In research projects, we craft ethos in academic writing, borrowing from the techniques of literary journalism and drawing on scholarly research from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences to make arguments about current political or cultural events or controversies. Our final essay is a brief creative essay from personal experience.
The Experience of Consumer Culture
“You are the product. You feel something. That’s what sells,” argues fictional advertising executive Don Draper in the TV series Mad Men. In this Writing Seminar, we explore the complex ways that consumer culture stymies, energizes, and distorts forms of creativity. What are the possibilities for artistic expression when it must embrace or resist the pressure to be marketable? How do practices of consumption shape us socially and culturally? We begin by analyzing advertisements and consumer products through the lens of Sianne Ngai’s aesthetic theory of cuteness. We then read Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a novel about a Londoner who spends millions of pounds to reconstruct the memories and moments when his life felt authentic rather than imitative, putting the story in conversation with theories of nostalgia, lifestyle marketing, and the comfort of repetition. For the research project, students investigate either a contemporary phenomenon in consumer culture or the representation of consumer culture in a creative work. Possible topics include fashion and design blogs, Flash Tattoos, the Museum of Modern Art’s collaboration with clothing retailer Uniqlo, Andy Warhol’s silkscreened paintings, global branding in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, and screen adaptations of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The Fantastic and the Real
Novelist Ursula Le Guin has argued that “realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence.” The popularity of the Harry Potter franchise, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, and fiction by Kelly Link and Haruki Murakami seems to underscore Le Guin’s claim. In this Writing Seminar, we’ll examine sources that embody the “fantastic,” a space where reality meets the marvelous, to consider how such tales offer new insight into the unique complexities of seemingly ordinary life. What role does language play in dissolving or reinforcing boundaries between the real and unreal, reason and imagination, and the self and the other? We begin by examining dark cinematic fairy tales, such as Spirited Away and Pan’s Labyrinth, that challenge us to reevaluate commonplace notions of what constitutes reality. Next, we’ll enter into political and sociological discussions about diversity by considering how fantastic irruptions facilitate cross-cultural communication and negotiate divides of race, class, and gender. For the research project, students develop an argument about the implications of an instance of the fantastic. Possible topics include the “Wizarding World” theme park, the social dynamics of cosplay, or pseudo-science theories such as mesmerism and cryptozoology. Finally, students create fantastic confabulations of their own.
The Fragmented Past
Indiana Jones is adamant: historical objects belong in a museum so we can properly study the past. But that principle isn’t confined to the movies. Thus, the Parthenon frieze finds itself in no fewer than eight European museums, while the Parthenon temple still stands in Athens, separated from the frieze that communicates its meaning. In this Writing Seminar, we interrogate Indiana Jones’s position. What happens to our understanding of the past when its physical remains are removed from their original context? How do we set about making sense of a fragmented past? First, we assess how international charters complicate architectural conservation at sites like Egypt’s Deir el-Hagar. Next, we use the Princeton Art Museum’s collections to evaluate problems in the trade or display of cultural objects outside their original context. For the research project, students investigate a specific case of their choosing to illuminate a larger debate or puzzle regarding the fragmented past, for example: the Euphronios krater and the repatriation of antiquities, the intentional destruction of heritage sites and the rise of non-state actors like ISIS, or Nazi monuments in contemporary Germany. Finally, students evaluate a fragment of Princeton’s past, or invent a cultural object, with accompanying history, of their own.
How We Learn
Recent studies show that the United States spends more than $11,500 per student every year for elementary and secondary education. And by the time students arrive at college, they’ve spent at least three-quarters of their life in school. Given this investment, there’s a lot at stake in understanding how learning happens. What have psychologists and neuroscientists discovered about what makes us good at it and how we might get better? How well does academic performance reflect learning, and how well do standardized tests measure it? In this Writing Seminar, we examine learning and education in an interdisciplinary context. We begin with the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, using Carol Dweck’s theory of growth mindset to consider how beliefs about intelligence influence learning. Next we apply cognitive science to evaluate classroom teaching and learning strategies. For the research essay, students investigate an education issue of their choice from a particular disciplinary perspective. Possible topics include homeschooling through the lens of of moral philosophy, the intersection between neuroscience and educational technology, or the economics of affirmative action in college admissions. Finally, students will reflect on their own educational trajectories in light of the theories we’ve studied.
Illusions, Delusions, and Neuroscience
Albert Einstein famously stated that “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Popularly associated with entertainment such as ventriloquism and magic shows, illusions are surprisingly widespread in our everyday experience. This course investigates the science underlying a range of illusions from the relatively simple optical to delusions we hold about our own cognitive abilities. Why do we perceive illusions? Can we prevent them? Are we really in control of our own behavior? By bringing together research from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics, we identify common illusions and misconceptions and study the latest scientific theories about them. Using sources from the scientific literature, we begin by studying the neurological mechanisms behind common optical and auditory illusions, including work by Escher and more contemporary artists. We then use these concepts to investigate parallel research from scientists such as Daniel Simons into the beliefs individuals hold about themselves. By using both science and philosophy to look at behavior, we question to what extent consciousness and free will are real or illusory. We conclude by reflecting how we can modify expectations and beliefs to reduce the effects of persistent illusions.
Patrick W. Moran
The Museum of Modern Art called the 20th century “The Century of the Child.” If that’s the case, what was the status of the child previously, and what has happened to it since? How has childhood as a social category been defined and redefined in different times and different cultures? In this Writing Seminar, we consider the constantly changing perceptions of those earliest years of human development. We begin with an examination of how dominant ideas in a society find expression in children’s toys, from the dollhouse to the Rubik’s Cube. We then visit the Cotsen Children’s Library to explore how the mental world of the child has been continually reimagined in literature. What does the success of books like Alice in Wonderland or Where the Wild Things Are tell us, for example, about changing concepts of childhood? Students then make researched arguments about an event, controversy, or product of their choice that illuminates the perspective on childhood in a particular era. Topics could range from Japanese Children’s Day to the banning of violent American video games. Lastly, students propose a new book, toy, or game and theorize how it would influence a child today.
Into the Deep Past
Christopher M. Kurpiewski
Herodotus may be the “Father of History,” but history that begins with an Athens or a Troy obscures thousands of millennia of the human story. Fossils and genomes, linguistics and evolutionary psychology suggest deeper histories; we find ancestors exchanging traits and technologies with Neanderthals, traders carrying amber and obsidian across continents, and steppe warriors displacing matriarchal societies in Europe. Yet how are voices given to silent bones and stones? This Writing Seminar explores the science and imagination involved in recovering the deep past of genus Homo. We begin by examining Celtic and Aboriginal folklore as shards of cultural memory, as we try to reassemble fragments of prehistorical life. We turn next to the co-evolution of culture and our genome as we complicate what counts as “human nature” in terms of sexuality, power relations, and belief in the divine. For the research project, students critique a reconstruction of the deep past—fiction like The Quest for Fire, or scholarship like Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene—as they develop an original argument about its implications. We conclude by visiting New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where students work in groups to reimagine a current exhibit and its depiction of early humans.
From Kung Fu Panda to The Matrix, Chinese martial arts are as present in Western popular culture as they have been crucial to China’s history. Used as individual discipline, self defense, military technology, spiritual exercise, the same set of practices and traditions lie behind the tragedy of the Boxer Rebellion and the ongoing controversy over the practice of Falun Gong in China. What is kung fu’s future in an increasingly globalized society? Students will begin by exploring scholarly conversations about violence, race, and cultural appropriation inspired by the films Enter the Dragon, Once Upon a Time in China, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We will then take an ethnographic approach in analyzing The Magus of Java, a memoir chronicling one man’s search for healing and enlightenment in the esoteric practices of the Mo Pai, a Daoist school of internal martial art. The research essay invites students to explore their own interests in the martial arts through the lens of any academic discipline, from interpretive discussions of martial fictions to psychological and philosophical investigations of Eastern theories of consciousness and the body. Students will conclude the semester with a creative project that confronts the changing roles of martial practices in modern society.
Madness and Culture
What’s the relationship between “the crazy ones” whom Steve Jobs famously saluted as the source of "disruptive" cultural innovation, and those who suffer from debilitating mental illness? In this Writing Seminar we join anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, and cultural critics in asking how culture shapes the perception, experience, treatment, and representation of mental illness. In the first half of the semester, we consider depictions of mental illness in popular culture: we begin by analyzing the recent film Silver Linings Playbook through the lens of Emily Martin’s study of bipolar disorder in America; next, students use philosopher Ian Hacking’s provocative theory about medical diagnoses to interpret a work of fiction (of your choosing) about mental illness. In the second half of the semester, we introduce empirical and cross-cultural perspectives through works like Jonathan Metzl’s investigation of The Protest Psychosis, Joseph Laycock’s study of contemporary vampires, Andrew Lakoff’s examination of antidepressants in Argentina, and Gananath Obeyesekere’s inquiry into “Depression, Buddhism, and the Work of Culture” in Sri Lanka; students will then research an issue at the conjunction of madness and culture—topics like psychopathy among CEOs and entrepreneurs, “awareness" campaigns sponsored by groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or the ever-increasing number of psychopharmaceuticals prescribed to children.
A Nation of Immigrants
In 1958, John F. Kennedy celebrated the United States as a “nation of immigrants” in both its past and its imagined future. Today, however, the very idea of an immigrant nation is often viewed with suspicion––both in the United States and around the world. How do we choose who belongs to a nation? How do we distinguish among a citizen, an immigrant, and a foreigner? How and why do these distinctions shape personal experiences, mobilize communities, and drive policies and politics? This Writing Seminar examines the connections among immigration, society, and identity in our interconnected world. We begin by analyzing Georg Simmel's conceptualization of "the stranger" in light of Kennedy's vision of American identity, as well as Farmingville, a documentary about the sharp tensions over immigration in suburban Long Island. We then turn to scholarly texts in history, sociology, and policy to explain immigration-related controversies in the United States and around the world. For the research essay, students investigate any issue related to immigration. Possible topics include immigrant and “normal” childhoods, return migration as reaffirmed loyalties, labor-market competition, and border security. We conclude by writing commentaries inviting the public to reconsider contested issues in immigration.
Politics and Identities
In the runaway Broadway hit, Hamilton raps to Jefferson: “Thomas. That was a real nice declaration/Welcome to the present, we’re running a real nation/Would you like to join us, or stay mellow/Doin’ whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello.” While a battle rap can make any debate more sensational, the musical Hamilton demonstrates that the politics of the U.S. Constitution’s framers were every bit as contentious as the politics of the present. In this Writing Seminar, we use American politics as a point of departure to ask why bright boundaries between identities form and why these boundaries at times engender bitter conflict. We begin by investigating the historical roots of polarization through the lens of Hamilton and Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10. We then grapple with Tajfel and Hobsbawm’s constructivist theories to explain real-world cases of political identities in conflict, from the millennial/baby boomer divide to the black/white divide. For the research essay, students make an argument that intervenes in an important scholarly conversation about political or social identity. Topics might include evolving white attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement, the construction of British nationalism during the Brexit campaign, or the effect of women’s suffrage in 1920 on public portrayals of femininity.
The Politics of Intimacy
Sexting, BDSM, affirmative consent, online dating, cohabitation, and polyamory. Romantic and sexual practices such as these constitute some of the most personal choices we might make. Yet each of these issues has also emerged on state legislative agendas or federal court dockets in the past year, making it clear that intimate decisions are as public as they are private. What are the interconnections between public policy and private desires? How do people sustain sexual practices or family forms that defy existing laws? And under what conditions can the transformation of social mores and legislative dictates around sexuality be accomplished? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the political and cultural regulation of sexuality in the United States––and the pushback against that regulation. We first consider how landmark Supreme Court cases such as Loving v. Virginia and Lawrence v. Texas (re)construct the meaning of family and sexual privacy in the law. Next, we analyze the everyday lived experiences of non-normative relationships, using popular depictions like the television program Sister Wives or the film Her. For the research paper, students investigate a historical or contemporary sexual controversy of their choice. We conclude the semester by adapting our research findings for a more public audience.
In June 2014, the artificial intelligence program “Eugene” passed the Turing test: in a blind conversation, it convinced a third of human participants that they were talking to a 13-year-old boy. Scientists and the public perceived this breakthrough as both fascinating and alarming. But what is so unsettling about a machine’s ability to impersonate a human? In this Writing Seminar, we will consider the ways our relationships with the nonhuman both define and challenge our fundamental understanding of ourselves. We begin by questioning our conceptions of the self-contained human subject as we read science fiction by Octavia Butler and Charles Stross through the lens of symbiogenesis theory. Next, we analyze the films Ex Machina and Blade Runner to discover how ideas about body and mind in the sciences and the humanities circumscribe the category of the human. For the research project, students will analyze specific posthuman phenomena to make an argument about the ways they are changing our notions of identity and belonging. Examples might include the personhood of nonhuman entities, biohacking, and the controversies surrounding AI. For the final project, students will create multimedia narratives of themselves as posthumans, drawing on the theories they will have studied in the course.
Property, Wealth, and Equality
Are "one percenters" entitled to their fortunes? Or should we spread the wealth? The philosopher John Locke famously called for individual rights to “Life, Liberty, and Property,” so he is often invoked by the wealthy. But “occupiers” have also claimed him as their own. What gives the concept of property the flexibility to serve free-market libertarians and social egalitarians alike? In this Writing Seminar, we begin with Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, analyzing tensions in the text between the individual right to amass a fortune (or to inherit one) and the equal opportunity of each person to acquire property of one’s own, on one’s own. We then assess divergent ideas of property in the supply-side economics of Milton Friedman, the “social business” model of Muhammad Yunus, the U.S. eminent domain case Kelo v. New London, and the documentary film The Garden. In their own research, students will analyze an issue in which property rights are at stake: for instance, water, mineral, and grazing rights in the American West; the protection of property for the poor in the developing world; intellectual property in the era of e-commerce; or the efforts of native American and Canadian nations to allow private ownership on reservations
From Ferguson to Cairo, millions of citizens are pouring into the streets to participate in protests. Motivated by such diverse factors as police brutality and economic inequality in the United States, to corruption and human rights abuses in Brazil and Ukraine, these demonstrations have sparked a resurgence in studies of protests. This Writing Seminar will draw from research across the social sciences to understand the contemporary eruption of protests. What explains when and where protests take place? Why do individuals participate in protests? And how can we understand government responses? To start, we explore how grievances help us explain contemporary protest movements, including the rise of the Tea Party and the Arab Spring. Next, we grapple with theoretical explanations of protests from political science, sociology, anthropology, and economics. For the research essay, students choose a protest—from the storming of the Bastille in revolutionary France to contemporary global climate change marches—and explain how it can help us better understand either the causes or consequences of protests. For the Dean’s Date assignment, students will produce either an ethnographic account of a protest or a policy memo advising politicians how to respond to one.
Religion and Secularism
Throughout the 20th century, influential social theorists such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Sigmund Freud subscribed to the secularization thesis, which held that religion would inevitably wither away under the forces of modernity. As of 2014, however, 92% of adults in the United States continue to believe in the existence of God. If anything, developments in the past few decades—such as the rise of the religious right in American politics, the violent religious nationalism of ISIS, and the growing claims of religious liberty in opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage—suggest a global religious resurgence is underway. Yet this resurgence raises questions regarding the place of religion in public life. What role should religion play in our social and political lives? Does democracy require secularism? If we claim to be “secular” and practice “tolerance,” what do these concepts actually mean? We begin by investigating the sources of secularism in the West, including the philosophy of John Locke and Immanuel Kant. We then refine the concept of secularism in light of recent critiques from multiple disciplines. For the research paper, students analyze an intersection of religion and secularism, such as the debate surrounding “New Atheism” or the controversy over anti-Islamic cartoons.
Remembering the Future
What does it mean to imagine the future? In the decades following World War II, literature and popular culture took pleasure in conjuring the future as a place of possibility, even hope. However, critics argue that contemporary popular culture now gazes backward, recycling the past. It imagines the future only as dystopia. What does this shift say about our changing understandings of time? This Writing Seminar examines the vexed meanings of futurity. We begin with the popular British television program Doctor Who in order to analyze its representation of the future. We turn to controversial plays by Sarah Kane and Adam Rapp, and put these texts into conversation with theories about the literature of utopia and dystopia. As a prelude to the final essay, we consider time in avantpop music, listening to the futurism of Kraftwerk and the haunted techno of Leyland Kirby. Students research a set of texts, cultural objects, phenomena, or data of their choosing in order to create an argument about temporality. Possible topics include the literature of steampunk, the reboot of Star Trek, speculation in global financial markets, or ideas of salvation and redemption in religion. We conclude by writing brief speculative nonfiction imagining life in 2046.
Can we right the wrongs of history? Should we? If so, how? As a form of economic, legal, and political compensation, reparations involve making amends: the bill of history comes due and must be paid. Yet how else might reparations be understood, as a historical process, a cultural reckoning, or a political necessity? This Writing Seminar considers the remedy of reparations from an interdisciplinary context, drawing on methods from the humanities and social sciences. We begin by evaluating the apology from the U.S. government to native Americans in 2009. We then consider reparations for African Americans while listening for the echoes of slavery in 19th-century blackface minstrelsy and contemporary pop culture through Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. In the second half of the semester, students research a topic related to reparations anywhere in the world, in any form: whether as a legal case based on historical acts (lawsuits by Caribbean nations against Europe, for example, or after apartheid in South Africa), calls for memorialization, or cultural projects (interpreting the musical Hamilton or movie The Revenant as reparative). The final project invites students to meditate on a more immediate, local injury and propose a possible solution.
From the “waggle dance” of honeybees that tells the hive where to find food, to the foot-thumping seismic messages of kangaroo rats, to human babies orienting to their mother’s breast, animals and humans have evolved myriad ways to send and receive signals. Beyond words, communication takes place through movements, chemicals, vibrations, and even electric fields. But what happens when different modes of signaling seem to send contradictory messages? And what, if anything, sets human communication apart from animal communication? We begin by analyzing recent scientific studies of animal communication, testing the theory advanced by Richard Dawkins and John Krebs that the purpose of signaling is to manipulate the receiver rather than to convey information. We then dive into the mystery of human pheromones, asking what happens to free will if chemical signals are influencing our choices. For the research essay, students will choose a type of human sensory communication and make an argument about its intersection with culture. For example: why do Western cultures value hygiene—washing away our body chemicals—yet use other animals’ chemicals (e.g. musk) for attraction? What do the sinuous movements of belly dancing convey to onlookers, and how does this compare to visual cues in other species?
Sex on the Brain
It’s a girl! It’s a boy! He and she, Mr. and Mrs.—I now pronounce you man and wife. From the beginning, the language of sex and gender permeates our social customs, defining our identities and delineating acceptable forms of love and emotion. Historically, these cultural norms of sexuality have been considered natural—established and supported through science and technology. Today, this conception of a natural sexuality is simultaneously contested and maintained, fueling political debate: from the decades-long battle over gay marriage to the current controversy around childhood sex reassignment surgeries. In this Writing Seminar, we investigate how science and technology are used to evaluate, characterize, and politicize notions of sexuality and gender—and how other social institutions like mass media and religion perpetuate, challenge, and complicate these norms. With help from philosopher Michel Foucault, we first consider how a short film represents the use of technology to measure love. We then examine current scientific, anthropological, and literary theories of masculinity and explore how contemporary media responds to these notions of gender. For the research paper, students generate a scholarly argument on an aspect of love, sex, and gender. Finally, students write opinion pieces that disseminate their research beyond academia.
The Social and Political Lives of Humor
Anthropologist Mary Douglas expressed a common view of humor when she claimed, “whatever the joke, however remote its subject, the telling of it is potentially subversive.” Such understandings of humor’s subversive character assume that power is embodied in repressive formality—the ability to dictate and rigidly enforce a particular order. But can this be true in an American context where the President has invited Alphacat, a Youtube comedian specializing in Obama impersonations, to the White House to encourage enrollment in health care? Or where corporations like GEICO and Dos Equis spend billions on humorous advertising? In this Writing Seminar, we draw on political and psychoanalytic theory in order to explore humor’s subversive potential, which might offend as much as it delights. We begin by considering how shows like South Park and American Dad! contest the legitimacy of the state after 9/11. We then analyze the fraught relationship between body and culture in Adrienne Truscott’s provocative standup performance, “Asking for It,” joining the scholarly debate on sexual violence and humor. For the research essay, students choose a humorous performance, text, or practice—a film like Doctor Strangelove or political campaign humor—and investigate how it reflects and shapes human relations. Finally, students practice humorous subversion by writing articles modeled on The Onion.
When the Westboro Baptist Church protested the funeral of an American soldier killed in Iraq, it was because its congregants interpreted his death as a sign of God’s disapproval of U.S. policies. His father sued for emotional damages and lost, illustrating the way that freedom of speech and expression is typically prioritized over other concerns in the United States. This Writing Seminar will examine both long-standing and recent arguments that address whether speech should be prioritized in this way. We begin by considering how words can harm, evaluating arguments from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Plato’s Republic. Next we will consider whether the “free” marketplace of ideas we encounter online fosters truth. That is, given market forces and the psychological principles that govern belief formation, what reasons are there for thinking that truth will prevail over falsehood in unregulated internet communication? For the research paper, students will examine the value of speech in a variety of contexts. Possible topics could include Senator Rick Santorum’s “Google problem,” the “right to be forgotten,” or regulation of the adult film industry. Finally, students have the opportunity to reflect on free speech and campus culture in light of the theorists discussed in this course.
Bikers, Goths, and skinheads, hippies, mods, and skaters—typically, we associate late 20th-century subcultures with styles of clothing, hair, and other superficialities. One reason for this is because commodity culture is so adept at recognizing, repackaging, and selling various “looks,” popularizing little beyond a subculture’s visual appeal. Yet a second, lingering glance at many subcultures suggests style is often employed for a variety of purposes: to resist perceived threats to individuality, to create solidarity among the disenfranchised, or even, more conservatively, to ensure the continuation of the status quo. In this course, we examine subcultures to understand their nuanced, complicated, and often surprising meanings. We begin by sharpening our definition of what exactly a subculture is, analyzing the rise of southern California skateboarding through the lens of contrasting theories of subcultural identity. Next, we focus on the music of The Sex Pistols to reassess the meaning of British punk in the 1970s, drawing on academic scholarship and the 2000 documentary film The Filth and the Fury. For the research essay, students take on a subculture of their own choosing. Possible topics include Deaf culture, rave, and bodybuilding, Trekkies, Juggalos, and Bronies. We end by composing op-eds.
According to a recent survey, only 20% of American citizens think that too little is spent on “welfare,” while 65% think too little is spent on “assistance to the poor.” How can we make sense of these curious responses? One way of approaching this puzzle is to take words seriously and interrogate how language plays a crucial role in how we think and act. If speech is essential to politics, what does this mean for how we should talk to one another? And how do the dynamics of language affect the practice of American democracy? In this Writing Seminar, we study how language shapes the issues, identities, and ideas that constitute the public sphere. We begin by considering Plato and Aristotle’s classic debate regarding the meaning and ethics of persuasion. We next examine political speeches with the aid of theoretical frameworks from rhetorical studies, communication studies, and political science. For the research paper, students investigate an instance of linguistic change in the United States, such as the shift from “employers” to “job creators” or the metaphor of a “war on women.” Students conclude the semester with an editorial in which they challenge or redefine a term in contemporary political language.
The Uses of Photography
Shannon K. Winston
Photographic images seem to be everywhere: from drones and X-rays, to Instagram and web cams. By turns praised for its useful detail or artistic beauty and dismissed as mere mechanical reproduction, photography has long inspired heated debates about its relationship to the world we live in. What kinds of narratives and histories do photographs communicate, and how do they illuminate different cultural practices? What is photography’s role in scientific inquiry and the politics of surveillance? This Writing Seminar examines the uses of photography from multiple disciplinary perspectives. We begin with the close reading of a photograph through Walter Benjamin’s famous concept of the aura in “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” We then investigate photography’s diverse functions across a wide variety of contexts, including the archive of The Carlisle Indian School Project, NASA images of the Hubble Spacecraft, and National Geographic photos of the National Parks. In the second half of the semester, students choose a topic about which they are passionate and write a research paper. Possibilities include: photography’s relationship to criminal investigation, social networking, fashion, tourism, food, war, political campaigns, or global warming.
Villains and Villainy
King Arthur and Iago. Hitler and Mother Teresa. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Protestors and police. These figures, imagined and real, have one thing in common: at some point they’ve all been vilified—though not always for the same reasons. We like to think that we know evil when we see it, but then why do we so often disagree about who should be marked out as a villain? How does the concept of villainy facilitate and obstruct our judgments? Drawing on disciplines as various as philosophy, psychology, religious studies, and literary theory, in this Writing Seminar we critically examine the cultural logics of evil and villainy. We begin by testing the theories of Hannah Arendt and Vladimir Propp, among others, against a selection of Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Students then choose a television show and make an argument about its conception of villainy. For example: Why does prestige television, like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, want to make heroes out of villains? How is villainy gendered in Game of Thrones? In the second half of the semester, students research the scholarly and public debate around a controversial attribution of villainy: in the context of victim-blaming, for instance, or of religious struggle or political campaigning.