Spring 2018 Writing Seminars
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 21||Students Assigned to a Term for the Writing Seminar|
|Friday, September 8, 9am - Wednesday, September 13, 9 am||Students May Request a Term Change Online|
|Wednesday, January 10, 9am - Friday, January 19, 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 23, 5pm||Students Notified by Email of Writing Seminar Assignments|
|Tuesday, January 23, 5pm - Tuesday, January 30, 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 5||First Day of M/W Writing Seminars|
|Tuesday, February 6||First Day of T/Th Writing Seminars|
The schedule for Spring 2018 Writing Seminars will be posted in early December.
“She said he had made love to her like an intellectual,” writes the novelist Milan Kundera about one character’s dissatisfaction with her lover. While this image of intellectuals as aloof and incompetent in human affairs predominates in culture, those with significant intellectual training are leaders in nearly all sectors of public and private life. How are we to square this contradictory figure, one both enviably powerful and pathetically out-of-touch? Is the process of gaining knowledge and cerebral expertise at odds with living a grounded life as an engaged citizen? And how do universities and other institutions perpetuate and even exploit these supposed divisions? In this Writing Seminar, we examine the fraught role of U.S. intellectuals in public life. We begin by assessing a founding document of American intellectual culture, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” in terms of its contemporary relevance. Next, students engage Cold War case studies—about free markets in Chile, abstract expressionism, and nuclear war—debating the responsibility of intellectuals who align themselves with powerful institutions. We end by making researched arguments about the movement of figures and ideas between intellectual and public spheres. Possible topics include biomedical research and Barack Obama’s trajectory from professor to president.
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.
Authenticity and Performance
From the hit Broadway musical Hamilton to trick-or-treating on Halloween, performance takes place both on and off the stage. We perform in more subtle ways, too, polishing our professional look for job interviews or fashioning a Tinder profile so users will swipe right. Yet at the same time, we value “genuine” moments on Instagram and worry about whether or not our news is “real.” What, then, does authenticity mean in this age of performance? How do we distinguish between our authentic selves and stories, and those we create for the social stage? We begin the semester by analyzing the relation between authenticity and representation in the 1998 satire film The Truman Show. Next, we examine the digital lives of Katy Perry and social justice activist Alaa Basatneh as we draw on economics, evolutionary biology, and cognitive science to question how authenticity is communicated over social media. For the research essay, students investigate a hoax or “fake news” story, past or present, and develop an argument about its social and cultural significance. Possible topics range from alien autopsies to Balloon Boy, from JFK conspiracy theories to Pizzagate. Students conclude by exploring an aspect of performance from their daily lives.
Being and Becoming
How did you become who you are today? While it has long been recognized that individuals are shaped by both “nature” and “nurture,” recent research across a variety of fields—including psychology, neuroscience, and economics—has deepened and complicated this picture. To what extent are our personal decisions and beliefs guided by social and economic forces invisible to us? And how are our brain functions and genes regulated by the circumstances of our environment? This Writing Seminar explores the many ways people choose, and can’t choose, who they are and who they become. We begin by drawing on recent work in psychology to examine graphic memoirs—including Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Alison Bechdel’s Are you my mother?—as visual narratives of identity and self-discovery. Next, we study family and community structures on Chicago’s South Side to analyze the human capacity for resilience in the face of adversity and systemic inequities. For the research essay, students investigate how an educational system, philosophy, or opportunity has facilitated, or come into conflict with, the aspirations of individuals. Possible topics include after-school arts education, the Montessori method, English-only instruction in public schools, or experiential learning through volunteerism abroad.
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 levels.
The prison population of the United States has increased 700% since 1970. A country comprising 4.4% of the world’s population now detains nearly a quarter of its prisoners, disproportionately imprisoning black and Hispanic Americans. How should we understand this contradiction between America’s promise of freedom and rights and the frequency with which they are taken away? Who gets incarcerated and why? Can incarceration morally transform individuals, and what have people meant when they say it can? In this Writing Seminar, we take a multidisciplinary approach to understanding what mass imprisonment reveals about the U.S., and examine its effects on individuals, society, and the built and natural environment. We begin by interpreting how Alexis de Tocqueville, Angela Davis, and others have characterized incarceration as both discipline and religious reform. Next, we analyze the historical and political roots of mandatory minimum sentencing, its representation on Orange Is the New Black, and debates in psychology relevant to its effects on mental health. For the research paper, students develop an argument about an aspect of incarceration. Possible topics include the environmental impacts of toxic prisons, definitions of religious freedom in faith-based re-entrance programs, and economic debates about prison labor. We conclude by imagining America without incarceration.
Climate Science Fictions
At what point begins the “Anthropocene,” an epoch unremarked in geological strata but manifest by lasting human impact on Earth’s biosphere? In many environmentalist circles, the hypothesis has become a global crisis. But should all the world’s people bear equal responsibility for the problems associated with this human epoch? And to what extent are humans the only protagonists of this multispecies story? In this Writing Seminar, we explore how divergent human experiences produce conflicting truths about climate change, as we examine the power of narratives to mediate between ecological realities and fictions. We begin by analyzing how narratives about the future are created and how forecasts provide tentative certainties for both science fiction and climate science models. We turn next to controversies surrounding Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, as we investigate how personal and institutional narratives can work to transform the built environment, mobilize grassroots movements, and generate—or sometimes challenge—collective truths about our communities. For the research paper, students address a conflict related to climate change in a place or a novel of their choosing. Finally, students reflect on their own socio-environmental experiences in either flash fiction, testimony, a vlog, or a podcast.
Swine flu. Zika. SARS. While these and other communicable diseases are biological phenomena, our efforts to contain them reveal a preoccupation with enforcing literal and metaphorical boundaries. In turn, our fascination with images of infection—from zombie fiction to news about “viral” cyber attacks—highlights a fear of contaminating “us” with “them.” In this Writing Seminar, we explore contagion from a bio-cultural perspective and ask: How is the spread of epidemics influenced by beliefs about race, gender, and culture? What are the limits of biomedical terminology in describing nonbiological threats? First, we read government and media communications about Ebola and Zika to rethink conceptions of health and disease. Next, we examine fiction, film, and television series, like Outbreak and The Walking Dead, which deploy infection as a metaphor for cultural contamination. For the research project, students develop an argument about the spread of an actual outbreak, like cholera, or a cultural or technological phenomenon that evokes contagious imagery. Possible topics include the role of economics in determining the course of scientific research, images of infection in immigration debates, and the rise of fake news going “viral.” We close by recording science news podcasts about a fictional outbreak of the student’s invention.
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 develop a grant proposal inspired by their research.
Would you wear a sweater that had once belonged to Adolf Hitler? What if the sweater had been laundered first, or been worn by Mother Teresa? 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. Clothing is no superficial thing. This Writing Seminar employs a variety of disciplinary perspectives in the exploration of the relationship between social communication, identity formation, and dress, defining dress broadly to include any bodily supplementation or modification such as piercings or tattoos. We begin by analyzing the role of dress in popular media from the perspective of sex and gender. Next, using icons of dress such as blue jeans and the doctor's white coat, we work with key theorists to create a conversation about the ways in which visibility and the visual influence our understanding of identity. For the research essay students will make an argument about how a dress-related item or phenomenon 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.
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 University 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.
Though the word genocide was coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 as Nazi atrocities were coming to light, the record of mass annihilation stretches back millennia. During the obliteration of Carthage in 416 BCE, Roman soldiers slaughtered most inhabitants, sold survivors into slavery, and razed the city; the Albigensian crusades in medieval France entirely wiped out the Christian sect of the Cathars. A roll call of recent genocides—in Turkey, Algeria, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and of course Europe during the Second World War—suggests the practice of mass killing has achieved chilling ubiquity. In this Writing Seminar, we begin to untangle the knot of genocide’s defining features and effects: what is it, exactly? And how can we describe it without diminishing or sentimentalizing its horrors? We begin by testing foundational definitions of genocide against complex cases, including a debate in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and a longstanding disagreement over the post-Columbian treatment of Native Americans. Next, we turn to the Holocaust, focusing on the contested politics of its representation in literature, art, and film. Finally, students make researched arguments about a controversial aspect of a particular event, including questions regarding scale and intent, or issues surrounding genocidal memorialization.
The Global City
Delhi, Jakarta, New York, Shanghai: for the first time, the majority of the world’s population—now 3.2 billion people—lives in cities. Yet in megacities, as centers of wealth and power scrape the sky, those left below sprawl outward in shantytowns where hundreds of millions must dwell. Whose home, then, is the global city? And how do artists, urban planners, and scientists reckon with the issues of identity, wealth inequality, and public health that characterize living in urban spaces? This Writing Seminar examines urbanization at the local and global level, asking how massive population shifts challenge everything from social structures to city infrastructure. We begin by revisiting European theories of the city in light of contemporary novels of urban life in the “Global South” by Teju Cole and Nawal El Saadawi. Next, looking to Lagos and Mumbai as case studies, students explore ways of measuring the environmental, cultural, and economic impact of globalization on urban communities. For the research paper, students investigate the intersection of identities in a city of their choosing. Potential topics include Islamic culture in the bastis of Mumbai; an immigrant enclave in Queens, New York; and gender and microfinance in the Dhaka garment industry.
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.
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.
Justice After Empire
In the latter half of the 20th century, Kenyans, Rwandans, South Africans, and millions more on the continent confronted the legacies of colonial rule in Africa, seeking justice and liberation from structures built on division and pervasive violence. But how can governments founded on subjugation be dismantled and rebuilt to serve? And how do torn communities balance justice, reconciliation, and truth-telling in order to live together again? In this Writing Seminar, we look to Africa as we explore the meanings of justice and reconciliation in the post-colonial world. Students begin by analyzing the tension between local and international justice in the handling of cases from Kenya under British rule and from the Rwandan genocide. Next, we examine courtroom testimonies, survey data, memoirs, and philosophies of law in order to unpack the meaning of “truth” as sought by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the years after apartheid. For the research paper, students investigate a controversy or movement surrounding decolonization or transitional justice in an African context, as they construct an original argument about communities confronting trauma, division, and violence. Students conclude by proposing public memorials for any of the cases explored in class or in their writing.
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 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.
Shannon K. Winston
The cellphone in your pocket is more powerful than the computers that launched the Apollo––and much, much smaller. From dollhouses and model trains to Mini Frappuccinos and tiny PillCams that diagnose digestive disease, miniatures are everywhere around us. How might we explain the complex allure they exert, all out of proportion to their size? In this Writing Seminar, we explore miniatures of the past and present in order to understand the perspective they give on questions of control, nostalgia, privacy, freedom, and the relation of humanness to technology and the natural world. We begin by critiquing and refining Susan Stewart’s definition of the miniature by revisiting the sources she analyzes in her essay, including miniature novels and Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. We then analyze Frances Glessner Lee’s “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”—crime scene dioramas used to train forensic scientists and detectives —through the lenses of architecture studies, criminology, photography, forensics, and theories of the “cute.” Finally, students research a miniature of their choosing. Possibilities include: the Valdivian Rainforest in Chile where small animals live in a closed ecosystem, the miniature food movement, micro-sculptor Willard Wigan, nanotechnology, “coffin homes” in Hong Kong, the Twitter novel, and bonsai plants.
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 Nature of Landscape
From rugged mountains to city skylines, from grassy plains to manicured lawns, the world around us provides examples of both natural landscapes and those shaped by human culture. But as cities sprawl and wilderness becomes more elusive than ever, how is our connection with nature changing? How do the landscapes that surround us define our communities and reflect our desires or anxieties? This Writing Seminar investigates the relationship between nature and culture through the exploration of landscapes like college campuses and urban parks. We begin by analyzing our own setting, Princeton’s campus, in relation to the values of the University community. We then consider the relationship between landscape and urban development through the contested public space of Manhattan’s Central Park. For the research essay, students choose a landscape, real or imagined, and use a range of sources to make an argument about the relationship between humanity and the environment. Possible topics include the Great Pacific garbage patch, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Kenya as a site of ecotourism, or the kingdoms of Westeros in the series Game of Thrones. We conclude by exploring disappearing landscapes in our own lives by creating online entries in Maya Lin’s What Is Missing? project.
On the Move
Patrick L. Sullivan De Oliveira
Mobility manifests itself in myriad forms in our everyday lives: when we walk to class, when we fly back home, and when use Facebook Messenger to communicate across campus or around the globe. But movement and transportation also become the focus of conflict and negotiation: borders disrupt the travel rhythms of nomadic communities, airlines define multiple classes of passengers, and the debate concerning net neutrality may fundamentally shape Internet accessibility. In this Writing Seminar, we explore what mobility can tell us about past and present societies. What effects does increased mobility have on social cohesion? How do different forms of moving through space shape the way we see the world? We begin by analyzing the movements of medieval shepherds in Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s book Montaillou and of corporate travelers in the movie Up in the Air. Next, we explore how the railroad—the 19th century’s quintessential mobile technology—transformed modern America. For the research paper, students develop an original argument about mobility in a discipline of their choosing. Possible topics include travel narratives like the one by the medieval globetrotter Ibn Battutah, the fluidity of transitional spaces like the train station, the advent of technologies like Google Maps, and the contemporary refugee crisis.
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.
The Politics of Nostalgia
In 1688, a Swiss doctor coined a new word to describe the painful symptoms suffered by people displaced from their native lands: nostalgia. Today, most of us have experienced this intense form of longing for places and times past. But what happens when this unattainable personal desire affects whole communities and cultures? What are the social, artistic, and political consequences of wanting to return to the past? And what does it mean to long for a time you never actually experienced? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the power of nostalgia in contemporary America, not only as a lived experience but also as a social phenomenon. We begin by drawing on a major theory of nostalgic remembrance to interpret the film Pleasantville along with works by Katherine Mansfield and the Italian poet Petrarch. Next, students focus on how the decades of the 1950s and 1980s have been remembered and reimagined in American society and culture. We end by making researched arguments about a nostalgic artifact, practice, or movement of our own choosing. Possible topics: the retrospective aesthetics of Instagram, Taylor Swift’s 1989, plantation weddings, the neurobiology of memory, or the rise of a president who promises to “Make America Great Again.”
Eugene Goostman, an artificial intelligence program that passed the Turing Test, and CRISPR-CAS9, a relatively simple bio-technology for gene-editing, are just two harbingers of our posthuman future. Scientists and the public perceive these breakthroughs as simultaneously fascinating and alarming, but what is it, exactly, that’s so unsettling about a machine’s ability to impersonate a human, or our proficiency in manipulating genomes? In this Writing Seminar, we consider the ways new technological possibilities both define and challenge our understanding of ourselves. We begin with reading science fiction by Charles Stross alongside symbiogenesis theory to reexamine the idea of the self-contained human subject in the age of biohacking. Next, we question Cartesian dualism as a framework for human identity by using the theories of Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles to analyze real-world AIs like PARO, the therapeutic seal-robot; Replika, your chatbot doppelganger; and representations of human/technology entanglements in Ex Machina and Black Mirror. For the research project, students analyze a posthuman phenomenon of their choice to make an argument about the ways it is changing our notions of shared humanity. Examples include the cloning of extinct species, art created by AI, and the kind of posthuman intimacy represented by Erika Eiffel, who married the Eiffel Tower.
You’re at Princeton to get an education, but what if we turn the tables and consider Princeton University itself as the object of our research? How might interviews with “insiders” shed light on the cultural practices of their groups? How might a more observant form of participation help us understand everyday, formal, or even sacred activities on campus? What can we learn about ourselves by following the objects that are constantly circulated, consumed, and sought after among us? In this course, we will draw on these questions common to ethnographic research in order to launch our scholarly investigation into Princeton University. In the first unit, students conduct field research among upperclassmen in order to consider how eating at Princeton relates to questions of belonging. Next, students choose an object relevant to daily life at Princeton and consider how it affects and moves us or shapes our relations. In the research unit, students bring other relevant disciplinary perspectives to bear on Princeton-related topics of their choice; for example: environmental sustainability initiatives, the increasing demand for gender-neutral housing, or literary representations of campus affairs in This Side of Paradise or The Accursed. Finally, students write ethnographically informed personal narratives about their own formative experiences on campus.
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.
Why are 78% of Alaskans registered organ donors, whereas only 0.3% of people in Vermont are? Are Alaskans naturally more altruistic or are they victims of the art and science of manipulation? From advertising to political campaigns, we are constantly being bombarded with attempts to influence our thoughts and behavior. How successful are these puppeteers, and where do we draw the line between persuasion and manipulation? To what extent are we really in control of our own decisions? By bringing together research from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics, we investigate the science behind the methods of manipulation and, in turn, consider how we (and our writing) can change others’ behavior. We start by critically analyzing the neuroscience of decision-making, before using the philosophies of John Stuart Mill and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to evaluate examples of government paternalism. For the research essay, students may explore possible influences on our decision-making, including issues as diverse as social media, terrorist propaganda, architecture and design, peer pressure, and internet search personalization. Finally, we put the science into practice by writing to manipulate an audience.
“You read my mind!” Despite the power of the spoken word, we marvel at what novelist Henry James called “mute communication”—the magic of shared thought. From mystical experiences and science fiction, to psychoanalysis and cybernetics, the promise of connecting one mind to another generates bold dreams and deep anxieties, as it challenges our most basic assumptions about privacy, autonomy, and identity. But when does mind reading become reality? And what are its implications for a species evolved to speak? In this Writing Seminar, we investigate the meaning and ethics of knowing other minds through exploration of film and literature, cognitive research, and engineering designs. We begin by using Adam Smith’s notion of sympathetic feeling to analyze depictions of telepathy in Hitchcock’s thriller Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Next, students examine how studies on silent communication are inspiring storytellers and scientists alike to envision artificial intelligences that can read or anticipate what we have in mind. Finally, students investigate a vision for reading minds—fiction like Minority Report, or projects like Princeton’s Engineering Anomalies Research program—as they develop an original argument about its social and ethical implications. Students conclude the semester with creative reflection, as they imagine themselves inhabiting the mind of a non-human being.
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.
When Kodak designed its first color correction card in the 1950s, using a white female model named Shirley, the company created the universal standard used to calibrate color images in photography and television for decades to come. Not until the mid-1990s did photo labs widely adopt multiracial cards, dramatically increasing the range of skin tones, and thus subjects, that could be accurately captured on film. The Shirley cards serve as powerful yet commonplace reminders that in everyday life, the ways in which identities are represented—or misrepresented—can have real, material consequences. In this Writing Seminar, we explore how ways of representing difference shape cultures, communities, and public policies. We begin by interrogating what’s at stake in matters of political representation, as we examine theories of intersectionality in light of recent social protests like the 2017 Women’s March. We then investigate the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male and its aftermath through the lenses of clinical science, sociology, and cultural memory. For the research paper, students analyze an identity issue or controversy related to representation, such as the development of inclusive facial recognition technology, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, or the #OscarsSoWhite movement.
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?
In January 2017, National Geographic spotlighted a global “gender revolution”—a rapid, radical transformation to the social order affecting individual bodies and international politics alike. From efforts at American universities to better accommodate transgender students to ESPN podcasts debating toxic masculinity in professional sports, it appears that traditional beliefs about gender are being upended in the 21st century. But with political activists still confronting the gender wage gap and the United Nations calling attention to women’s continued underrepresentation in elected office, are those shifts truly as revolutionary as they seem? When––and how––can such changes generate lasting social transformation? In this Writing Seminar, we investigate the tension between cultural evolution and institutional stasis, using the dynamic social and political meaning of gender to explore that interplay. We begin the semester by analyzing global trends in attitudes toward women’s political and economic equality. Next, we turn to the science of sex differences, as we uncover the surprising cultural messages embedded within research about changes to gendered brains and behavior over the lifespan. Finally, students leverage their own intellectual interests in gender and social change to craft a final research paper and an adaptation of that work for a more public audience.
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.
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 Music
When the president of Bard College recently claimed that “music is so important because it has no purpose,” he was provocatively overlooking the many purposes, both wondrous and wretched, to which music has been put. Harp therapy, songs to stir political action, the blaring of death metal as a form of torture, jingles hawking everything from chocolate to insurance—music may not always be composed with such practical intentions, but it is routinely put to intentional use. In this Writing Seminar, we listen to music in a variety of social, political, even biomedical contexts, paying particular attention to music’s powerful and inciting effects. Students begin by listening to old spirituals alongside recent hits by Pharell Williams and Mary Mary, questioning Theodor Adorno’s attack on the aesthetics of popular music. Next, we examine the extraordinary role music played in the Civil Rights Movement, when free jazz and the songs of Odetta helped shape the future of race politics in America. For the research paper, students situate a musician, song, or performance in a wider context. Possible topics include the soundtrack of political campaigns, the songs of the Rwandan genocide, and the neuroscience of music’s effects on the human brain.
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.
What We Owe
The caller is thirty-something, well educated, and carries $160K in student debt. “I feel fooled and bamboozled about the American dream—I was told that’s what you’re supposed to do.” Debt’s paradoxes run deep. Debt allows us to grow our wealth. But just as often it can leave us more behind than ahead, and interest compounds with shame. As Americans borrow more and more, how can we evaluate their decision making? And how do moral ideas about debt shape public policy about what we owe? In this Writing Seminar, we will draw on history, sociology, politics, and economics to examine our debts and the structures that lie beneath them. We begin with the economic assumptions that underlie formal debt relationships, examining them in dialogue with sociologist Karl Polanyi’s concept of embeddedness, which posits that economic relationships are always also social. We then turn to student loans, reading the stories of individual borrowers within interdisciplinary academic conversations about choice, stress, and policy. In the semester’s second half, students pursue their own research relating debt and society. Possible topics range from predatory lending to prosperity theology, from national debt to reparations for slavery. Finally, students will write to a member of Congress and convey their findings.