Spring 2016 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 enroll in a Writing Seminar by ranking your top 8 choices 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.
- Students Assigned to a Term for the Writing Seminar
Friday, July 24
- Students May Request a Term Change Online
Friday, September 11, 9am - Wednesday, September 16, 9 am
- Students Enroll in a Writing Seminar Online
Wednesday, January 6, 9am - Friday, January 15, 5pm
* 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.
- Students Notified by Email of Writing Seminar Assignments
Tuesday, January 19, 5pm
- Students May Request a Writing Seminar Change Online
Tuesday, January 19, 5pm - Tuesday, January 29, 5pm
* 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.
- First Day of M/W Writing Seminars
Monday, February 1
- First Day of T/Th Writing Seminars
Tuesday, February 2
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 enlist the moral philosophy of Adam Smith and David Hume to assess contemporary formulations of “good” ambition, as articulated in graduation addresses by Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and Toni Morrison. 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 second-season opener of Doomsday Preppers was the most-watched premiere in the National Geographic Channel’s history. Survivalism, a movement encouraging active preparation for the end of the world, has been steadily gaining ground in mainstream American culture over the last decade. However, apocalyptic beliefs have shaped debates on art, morality, and politics for centuries. Why does every generation look forward to the apocalypse? How do we define what “the end of the world” means? And how does apocalyptic belief affect our social, moral, or environmental obligations? We begin by reconsidering medieval anticipation of the year 1000, reading a homily from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript in the Princeton collection in light of modern theories of apocalyptic narrative. Next, we investigate post-apocalyptic theories of identity by examining how zombie movies reinterpret medieval anxieties about the fate of the resurrected body. For the research paper, students choose an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic work and make an argument about how it adapts, extends, or reinterprets the apocalyptic tradition to respond to its historical or ideological context. Topics might include disaster films or novels such as The Road, millennialism and revolution, climate change, the 1990s Left Behind book series, Y2K, or the sociology of “prepper” 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.
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 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 we 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.
Fakes, Frauds, and Charlatans
In 1991, Princeton student Alexi Indris-Santana, track team and Ivy Club member, was exposed as 31-year-old confidence man James Hogue. Although Hogue was expelled from the university, his ability to pass as a student for nearly two years raises questions about the relationship between lying, success, and cultural standards. How do lies inform the ways we think about ourselves? In a world where technology increasingly blurs the lines between life and fiction, is deception ever justified? This Writing Seminar examines the appeal of fakes, frauds, and charlatans to consider how the self and identity have been constructed over the last century. We begin with The Great Gatsby, where Fitzgerald reshapes our understanding of the confidence man by turning him into a cultural icon. We then debate the ethics and morality of deception by testing Nietzsche’s and Freud’s notions of truth against the films Chicago and The Prestige. For the research essay, students choose an instance of imposture in contemporary culture or fiction and make an argument that interprets and assesses its significance. Possible topics include false memoirs, identity theft, and race, class, and gender passing. We conclude by reimagining ourselves as confidence men and women, reflecting on the tensions between telling a good story and telling the truth.
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.
Fetishism isn’t just everything that happens in Fifty Shades of Grey – the term names a rich set of ideas in religious, anthropological, Marxist, and psychoanalytic thought. In this Writing Seminar, we ask why the fetish is such an important concept for many of modernity’s foundational thinkers, tracing how the term relates the “modern” to the “primitive,” the monetary to the religious, the sexual to the occult. We begin by asking what fetishism teaches us about modern desires by reading Marx and Freud, who both used “fetishism” to name misplaced desires, desires for what they saw as the wrong thing. We then study the fetishistic desires depicted in Alfred Hitchcock’s sex-obsessed Psycho (1960) and Mary Harron’s money and sex-obsessed American Psycho (2000). Using feminist scholarship of cinema and the fetish, we grapple with these films’ representation of violence, gender, social status, and sexuality. For the final essay, each student selects a practice, text, or object and researches the ways it reshapes our understanding of fetishism. Examples include: Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Anais Nin’s stories, an Apple advertisement, Zuni religious fetishes, the culture of body building, the history of medical accounts of the fetish, voodoo, Surrealist art, and Andy Warhol.
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.
Ghosts in the Machine
Ghosts have long kept apace with changes in technology. A decade after the telegraph’s 1837 invention, two girls in upstate New York convinced their sister that spirits communicated to them through Morse code. The infamous “Rochester Rappings” soon transfixed the nation. In our own era, paranormal messages arrive through Gmail and Skype, at least according to recent thrillers like Unfriended. As media theorist Friedrich Kittler has argued, “The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture.” This Writing Seminar explores how and why new technologies so often mediate our fears of—and desires for—the unknown. We begin by investigating contemporary horror films and the afterlife of the spectral selves we project through text messages, video footage, and photo sharing sites. Next we turn to Colson Whitehead’s afrofuturist novel The Intuitionist, considering how America’s long history of racism haunts debates about innovation. In the research paper, students analyze the cultural or scientific implications of a technological development that has felt “haunted,” whether because it provoked investigations into the existence of a supernatural world (as in the case of turn-of-the-century spirit photography) or because it incites profound cultural anxiety (as in the case of domestic surveillance).
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 likeAlice 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 which 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.
Life and Death Online
Is the internet making us smarter or dumber? Does it bring people together across vast geographical expanses, or does it isolate us in bedrooms and basements? Does it open up space for political activism, or does it expand the surveillance and control capabilities of those already in power? Does the Internet combat or enflame racism, sexism, and homophobia? To answer questions like these, we need to move beyond the oversimplified, black-and-white thinking implied by all of them, and look instead for the nuances and subtleties that animate our digital lives. Since these are such complicated issues, we will confront them through careful research and written argumentation. We begin by critically analyzing Nicholas Carr’s essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” through the lens of media ecology theorists like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman. Next we examine the documentary We Live In Public with the help of sociologist Erving Goffman, social historian Michel Foucault, and philosopher Helen Nissenbaum. The class culminates in a research paper in which students investigate an online social practice of their own choosing. This seminar thus takes a broad, interdisciplinary approach in order to more fully understand the ubiquity of digital technology in everyday life.
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.
Mitigating Climate Change
Around the world, concern about global warming is increasing as carbon dioxide emissions accelerate and extreme weather events become more frequent. Climate change, in the words of President Barack Obama, is “the global threat of our time.” Reflecting widespread consensus, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon declared last year, “We know the nature of the problem, and the options for addressing it.” If this is the case, why have efforts to mitigate climate change failed so far? What does this failure say about the nature of the problem? This Writing Seminar will investigate the standard technical and economic approaches to understanding and mitigating climate change. We begin by evaluating the social and political implications of one proposed controversial solution: capturing the carbon dioxide emitted by coal and natural gas plants and burying it underground. Next we critically analyze an economic proposal for mitigating climate change using ethical criteria as well as a theoretical understanding of the properties of the underlying economic system. For the research essay, students will interrogate this ongoing debate about different aspects of climate change using disciplinary lenses or in an interdisciplinary fashion, exploring how the problem or its consequence is conceived or how potential solutions are formulated.
In his seminal essay on Beowulf, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that "myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected." In other words, myth can only be appreciated holistically–any attempt to study the details of the narrative destroys the myth's essence. "Dissection," though, is a prerequisite of analysis, and the academic study of myth depends on the ability to reduce mythic narratives to their component parts. How, then, can scholars develop a rigorous approach to myth without "killing" the very stories they hope to understand? This Writing Seminar investigates myth beginning with Tolkien's own essay, which formulates the problems within the context of the Germanic tradition. We then consider the Franks Casket, a rune-inscribed chest whose juxtaposition of early English myths with stories from the Classical and Christian traditions challenges the viewer to understand how myth functions as a language. The research essay allows students to pursue their own interests in writing about the origin, use, or abuse of myth, from modern adaptations of the Greek gods, to the Confucian rationalization of early Chinese myth, to “myths” (like the American Dream or Manifest Destiny) that shape American political discourse. The final assignment casts students as apprentice mythographers crafting their own mythic narratives.
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.
The Photographic Imagination
Shannon K. Winston
With the popularity of Instagram, Snapchat, and “selfies,” photographs seem to be the privileged medium for capturing memories and lived experience. Yet, since its inception, photography’s purpose and value have been hotly contested. Praised for its detail and beauty and dismissed as mere mechanical reproduction, photography has inspired debates about what it means to understand the world. What kinds of narratives and histories do photographs communicate? What is photography’s role in scientific inquiry? How do photographs illuminate different cultural practices? This Writing Seminar studies the foundational photographic debates in art and science. Readings by Louis Daguerre, Edgar Allen Poe, and Charles Baudelaire provide the basis for a key-term paper in which students refine and expand our working definition of “photography.” In the second paper, we consider photography’s relationship to narrative, using the theories of Benjamin, Cadava, Barthes, and others as a lens though which to read Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir In the Shadow of No Towers, and Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Students then write a research paper on a topic of their choosing; possibilities include: photography’s relationship to criminal investigation, social networking, fashion, tourism, food, war, political campaigns, or global warming.
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 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.
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 cultural studies and anthropology in order to explore how humorous objects and nonserious practices illuminate the broader logics of neoliberal democracy and capitalist consumption. We begin by considering how shows like South Park and American Dad! contest the legitimacy of the state after 9/11. We then consider how the ironic lifestyles commonly associated with hipsters challenge scholarly understandings of resistance and conformity. 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.
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.
“Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope.” These famous words frame the serial adventures of Superman, the comic book hero inspired by ancient myths of the natural world and modern concerns about society and technology. What do stories about the supernatural—from magically transformed bodies to telepathic minds—tell us about the aspirations and fears of their audiences? How do representations of popular vigilantes both reinforce and interrogate social assumptions about individuality, gender, race, and sexuality? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the cultural meaning of popular representations of superheroes who dramatize in grand scale contemporary acts of selflessness and sacrifice. We begin by using the theories of Campbell, Turner, and Barthes to offer new interpretations of heroic figures in Superman comics, cartoons, and television shows. We then examine how Batman and a next-generation of heroes—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, X-Men, Power Man, and an Hispanic Spider-Man—re-imagine a public conversation about the multiplicity of American identities. In the semester’s second half, students select a superhero to research and write about in a political, cultural, or mythological context. We conclude by pitching a proposal to a publisher for an original 21st-century superhero who speaks to these human concerns.
Taboo and Transgression
One of the fundamental building blocks of every human society is the shared belief in various cultural taboos: taboos against eating certain things, doing certain things, and saying certain things. As members of our society, we constantly police the line between what we consider acceptable and unacceptable behavior. However, our relationship to the taboo is complicated by the fact that behavior deemed to be intolerable in one era—like interracial marriage or women in the military—can become normal and accepted in another. Ultimately, how can we reconcile our imperatives both to maintain and to transgress social taboos? We begin by examining two texts, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Michel de Montaigne’s “Of cannibals,” in order to make an argument about these overlapping efforts to understand a taboo that is shared by most, but not all, societies: the eating of human flesh. We then turn to recent debates—largely prompted by feminist and LGBT activism—over the advantages and risks of ending the sex-segregation of public restrooms. In the second half of the semester, students research a taboo of their choice through the lens of their own academic interests. Finally, students will draw on their independent research to write an informative blog post aimed at a popular audience.
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.
Americans claim to cherish their right to the ballot, fiercely debating politics, branding their cars with bumper stickers, and proudly donning “I Voted” stickers after going to the polls. However, nearly half of eligible voters did not exercise this right during the last presidential election. In this Writing Seminar, we consider the ballot—both struggles to attain it and efforts to limit it—in American politics, history, and culture more generally. What did the vote represent to disenfranchised Americans? How is the ballot related to citizenship, democracy, and equality? How significant is voting today? We begin by reading Anne Moody’s gripping memoir about her experience registering African American voters in Mississippi in the 1960s. How do her experiences support, complicate, or challenge theories of democratic citizenship? We then evaluate the radicalism of the women’s suffrage movement by investigating a 1913 suffrage film, a utopian short story, political cartoons, and newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For the research essay, students will interrogate the relationship between voting, citizenship, and equality. We finish the semester by presenting our findings to a broader audience through such channels as blog posts, newspaper op-eds, or short documentary films.
What Is Art?
In 1917 Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal, titled Fountain, to New York's progressive Society of Independent Artists for its inaugural exhibition. The group refused to display the “indecent” piece on the grounds that it wasn’t art. Yet today it is considered a seminal work of the 20th century avant-garde. This Writing Seminar will explore the issues raised by a work like Duchamp’s: what counts as art? How do we define art and its purpose in society? How much art knowledge does a viewer need in order to “properly” appreciate a work of art? We start by using selected works from Princeton’s museum to analyze Plato’s theory of art as imitation. Next we engage a foundational debate in anthropological, art historical, and philosophical scholarship: how do cultural practices and assumptions relate to universal conceptions of art? For the research paper, students place the aesthetic in historical, social, economic, scientific, or philosophical context. Possible topics include the popularity of Antiques Roadshow or Auto-Tune, how the price of wine or paintings affects perceptions of quality, and art as an evolutionary adaption to attract a mate. Finally, students create artwork of their own—or judge what kinds of pieces merit display a century after Duchamp.