Spring 2019 Writing Seminars

Writing Seminars have a common goal—for students, through practice and guidance, to master essential strategies and techniques of academic inquiry and argument. Writing Seminars also have a common structure: unlike most other courses, which are organized around readings, Writing Seminars are organized primarily around writing—specifically, a series of four assignments, totaling about 30 finished pages.

While Writing Seminars all focus on the skills necessary for effective critical reading and writing, they differ in the topics and texts assigned. Below are topic descriptions of the many different Writing Seminars being offered this term.

As described in How to Enroll, you will rank your top 8 seminar preferences online at any time during the enrollment period.  To read a full description of the course, click on the course title.  To increase your chances of being assigned to one of your top preferences, choose seminars that meet at a range of times, including morning and evening. Be sure to keep in mind your class schedule and extracurricular commitments.

Enrollment Schedule

Wednesday, August 1
Students Assigned to a Term for the Writing Seminar

Friday, September 7, 9am - Wednesday, September 12, 9 am
Students may request a term change online.

Wednesday, January 9, 9am - Friday, January 18, 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 22, 5pm
Students notified by email of Writing Seminar assignments.

Tuesday, January 22, 5pm - Tuesday, January 29, 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 4
First day of Monday/Wednesday Writing Seminars.

Tuesday, February 5
First day of Tuesday/Thursday Writing Seminars.

Writing Seminars

The complete schedule of Spring 2019 Writing Seminars will be posted in early December.

Writing Seminar Descriptions

American Dissent
Sean Cashbaugh
WRI 144
WRI 145

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” praising violent dissent by linking it with freedom. Yet Jefferson was a slaveowner and, as president, he tolerated the suppression of legitimate political opposition. This paradox between dissent and conformity isn’t a bug of American democracy, but a feature: from the Civil Rights Movement’s appeals to nationalism to the radical left’s frequent focus on the white male worker, dissent in America is often ironically aligned with elements of its opposite. In this Writing Seminar, we explore the achievements—and limits—of social movements and ideas opposed to the status quo. First, we analyze Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech about the meaning of Independence Day to gain perspective on recent theories of dissent’s democratic function. Next, we examine historical, architectural, even financial perspectives on the Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969 to consider the significance and legacy of this countercultural business venture. For the research project, students investigate an act, movement, or theory of dissent of their own choosing. Possible topics include Occupy Wall Street, minority Supreme Court positions, and the radical conservatism of the John Birch Society.

 

Being and Becoming
Srishti Nayak
WRI 128
WRI 129

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 the ways in which human behavior and biology change in response to specific environmental conditions. Possible topics include the long-term physiological effects of stress, the benefits of bilingualism for brain development, and the lasting impact of inquiry-based learning at Montessori schools or experiential learning through volunteerism abroad.

 

Beyond Earth
Sebastián Rojas Mata
WRI 130

Less than a lifetime passed between the publication of the first scientific paper about space exploration (1903) and the launch of the first satellite into low-Earth orbit (1957). Twelve years later, Apollo astronauts walked on lunar soil. Given the incredible momentum that thrust humans into space in the 20th century, why does humanity remain an earthbound species? How do we confront the obstacles to and consequences of humans reaching beyond Earth? In this Writing Seminar we explore the history, economics, and science behind human endeavors in space. We begin by weighing the complex legacy of Wernher von Braun, an engineer whose work provided Nazi Germany with guided missiles and NASA with rockets capable of reaching the Moon. Next, we turn to current ventures in space-based industries as students draw on economics, engineering, and international studies to analyze the viability and profitability of asteroid mining. For the research project, students investigate the implications of humans engineering their environments—or reengineering themselves—to live off-world in the future. Potential topics range from the application and ethics of genetic engineering, to the restructuring of communities and habitats as envisioned by the Mars Society or in sci-fi like The Expanse.

 

Captivating Animals
Catherine Young
WRI 194
WRI 195

From cat memes to the multi-billion-dollar pet industry, animals are endearing and enthralling figures. Yet they are also captive test subjects in scientific laboratories and raw material in factory farms. Our deep fascination with animals leads us to place some animals on pedestals while others are locked away or systematically slaughtered. How do we explain such complicated, inconsistent attitudes toward animals? This Writing Seminar begins by considering the role of animals in visual culture, using John Berger’s pathbreaking essay “Why Look at Animals?” to analyze Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 film Blackfish. After confronting questions about killer whales in captivity, we turn to a multi-disciplinary study of the Bronx Zoo. By looking at the zoo’s current exhibits, as well as historical documents, and demographic and financial data, we consider the institution from economic, psychological, philosophical, zoological, and design perspectives. For the research paper, students identify and investigate a human-animal cultural practice of their choosing. Possible topics range from the politics of keeping chickens and pigeons in Brooklyn backyards, to the ethics of harvesting pig valves to treat cardiac disease in humans, the representation of animals in Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway, or the genetic implications of extreme dog breeding.

 

Carceral Nation
Leslie Ribovich
WRI 137
WRI 138

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
Priya Chandrasekaran
WRI 102

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.

 

Confessions
Samuel García
WRI 183

“Western man has become a confessing animal.” This famous judgment, made by the French theorist Michel Foucault in 1976, is relevant today in ways Foucault himself likely never imagined. Increasingly, we live in—and often have a hand in creating—a confessional culture, with virtual platforms like Instagram (or Finstagram) and Facebook at our fingertips, where we can divulge our own secrets and consume those of others whenever and wherever we want. How are such virtual confessions related to those made to priests or therapists? How does intimacy or anonymity affect the nature of our confessions? What is the relationship between truth-telling and confessing? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the multiple meanings and media of confession. We begin by analyzing disclosures from campus confession pages in light of Foucault’s influential theory of confession. Next, we explore the phenomenon of false confessions, focusing on the infamous case of the Central Park Five while drawing on recent scholarship in criminal law, media studies, and cognitive science. For the research paper, students develop an original argument about confession and identity. Possible subjects include the podcast “Profession Confession,” Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix stand-up special (“Nanette”), or graphic memoirs like Ellen Forney’s Marbles.

 

Contagion
Carolyn Ureña
WRI 163
WRI 164

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.

 

Contemporary Slavery
Dannelle Gutarra Cordero
WRI 135
WRI 136

“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 we conceptualize, and combat, the phenomenon of human trafficking in the 21st century. We begin by reading the 2000 UN Palermo Protocol and the 1926 Slavery Convention, analyzing contemporary international statements on human rights violations in light of historical definitions of slavery. Students then explore controversial plans for a slavery-themed Disney ride as they question the meaning of “authenticity” in contemporary representations of slavery. In the second half of the semester, students make a researched argument on a specific topic related to contemporary slavery, such as the black market in organs, popular perceptions on the role of consent in human trafficking, or the use of child soldiers in the drug trade. Lastly, students develop a grant proposal inspired by their research.

 

Cultivating Wildness
Jennifer Blake-Mahmud
WRI 104
WRI 105

“In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau in his famous 1862 essay. But at the start of the 21st century, the global population has climbed by over six billion people. What is wildness now? Must humans stay out for an area to stay wild? Or do we have a role to play in cultivating wild nature? This Writing Seminar explores competing values, definitions of wilderness, and how they affect our decisions to preserve, restore, and know the land. We begin by examining the 1964 Wilderness Act in light of recent scientific research on pollution, sprawl, and the impacts of nature recreation. Next, we explore the interactions between wilderness and human ecosystems as we investigate The Wilds, a former strip mine in Ohio that is now home to cheetahs, giraffes, and camels. For the final essay, students write an original argument about a preserved site, restoration goal, or sustainability initiative of their choice. Topics might include tiger preserves in Bangladesh, changing fire regimes in the western U.S., or organic farming in New Jersey. To conclude, students develop a personal theory of nature based on their own experience and present it in a medium of their choosing.

 

Decoding Dress
Erin Vearncombe
WRI 196
WRI 197

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.

 

Deconstructing Gender
Lauren Santangelo
WRI 157
WRI 158

Exploding pink baseballs, a box filled with pink or blue balloons, a blue cake hidden under a thick coat of icing—photographs of and instructions for gender reveal parties fill the social sphere. Even before a child is born, we discuss, celebrate, and make assumptions about the person they will grow into based on their anatomy. What messages are we conveying in doing so? How does gender inform a person’s sense of self? And what are the consequences for those whose gender identity does not align with that assigned at birth? This seminar analyzes how gender is taught, resisted, redefined, and policed. First, we analyze children’s toys through the lens of Sandra Bem’s germinal work to consider how the youngest among us learn about gender. Next, we turn to psychology, history, economics, and geography to examine Christine Jorgensen’s experiences transitioning in the 1950s and the price of public visibility thereafter. For the research paper, students write an original researched paper about an institution, practice, or artifact that defines, reconfigures, and/or resists gender norms; for instance, laws and policies surrounding bathrooms, the economics behind “pink tax,” the gender ideology of Queer as Folk, or the scientific rationale for gender-segregated youth sports.

 

The End of Conversation
Raphael Allison
WRI 126

Authentic conversation is at an end: text threads, Facebook posts, and Instagram “stories” have had debilitating effects on meaningful, face-to-face, empathetic dialogue. Or at least, that’s what critics claim, despite other extraordinary ways digital conversation has reshaped human interaction, linking geographically distant communities, fostering intimacy, and fomenting activism. This Writing Seminar investigates conversation as a social phenomenon. What is its cultural function? How have social media shifted what counts as meaningful exchange? Students begin by examining Louis Malle’s 1981 film My Dinner with Andre, a real-time depiction of friends sharing a meal at a New York restaurant, to appraise essays on conversation’s purposes by Jonathan Swift and H.G. Wells. Next, we turn to “caring robots,” AI conversationalists like Siri and Alexa, and Spike Jonze’s film Her, about a man’s romantic embrace of a simulated voice, asking what role such technologies play in fraying—or reinforcing—the social fabric. We’ll be guided by scholars on conversation, from Sherry Turkle, concerned with “automated psychotherapy,” to Walter J. Ong’s fascination with oral culture. Final projects focus on contemporary or historical—or metaphorical—conversations of students’ choosing. Possible topics: the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the first televised between presidential candidates, or the “conversation” implied in genetic inheritance.

 

The Fantastic and the Real
Andrew Hakim
WRI 173
WRI 174

Novelist Ursula Le Guin has argued that “realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence.” If that’s the case, how might the Harry Potter franchise, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, or fiction by writers such as Kelly Link and Haruki Murakami inform the ways we think about the world? What might they suggest about the complexity of seemingly ordinary life, and the borders between ourselves and others? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the “fantastic,” a space where reality meets the marvelous. 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 enter into interdisciplinary debates about the political and cultural significance of the fantastic in order to consider the ways fiction, film, and video games might speak from and speak to our understanding of human diversity. For the research project, students develop an argument about the implications of an instance of the fantastic. Possible topics include the appeal of the Wizarding World theme park, the social dynamics of cosplay, or the science of time travel. Finally, students reimagine their own lives as fantastic confabulations that address larger social dilemmas.

 

The Fight over Nonviolence
Avi Alpert
WRI 110
WRI 111

Mohandas Gandhi, the foremost exponent of the philosophy of nonviolence, repeatedly stated: “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” Martin Luther King, Jr., meanwhile, was known to travel with a concealed pistol “for self-defense.” How are we to understand these seeming contradictions between philosophy and practice? To what extent may practicalities and even moral imperatives justify the use of violence? In this Writing Seminar we explore the gap between popular representations of nonviolent political movements and the complex realities behind them. We begin by analyzing Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence in light of the realist argument that nonviolence is a tactic and not an ethical stance. Next, we examine the 2014 protests against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, drawing on psychology, political science, and sociology to consider both the efficacy and limits of nonviolence as a strategy of resistance. For their research papers, students investigate the use of nonviolence and/or violence in a social movement of their choosing. Possible topics include historical examples like the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa and Students for a Democratic Society in the United States, or contemporary struggles such as national liberation movements in Tibet and Palestine.

 

The Fragmented Past
Emma Ljung
WRI 146
WRI 147

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.

 

Gamification
Adrienne Raphel
WRI 185
WRI 186

King Tut loved the board game Senet. IBM's supercomputer Deep Blue shocked the world when it defeated chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov. Today, gamification––applying game-design elements in other contexts to boost productivity––is a thriving field. Yet games may also have a dark side to their addictive power, substituting short-term pleasure for long-term fulfillment. How do we reconcile the benefits of gamification with its potential risks? From the stock market to Pokémon Go, from crosswords to Lumosity, this Writing Seminar explores the games we play in our social and imagined lives. We begin by examining Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass alongside Jane McGonigal’s theory that gaming improves reality. Next, we analyze the famous case of Monopoly, drawing on history, economics, psychology, and narrative theory to illuminate everything from the making of its rules to its reception over time and its status as a brand. For the research paper, students identify and investigate a gaming phenomenon and make an argument about its wider cultural, political, or scientific implications. Potential topics include: dating apps, climate change simulations, the Olympics, World of Warcraft, tarot, zero-sum games in international affairs, and cosplay. Students end the semester by inventing and pitching a new game for a competitive market.

 

Human Face of Global Development, The
Kijan Bloomfield
WRI 112
WRI 113

In an increasingly globalized world, terms like “developed” and “developing” are used to distinguish countries according to scales of social and economic progress. But who in the developing world benefits from that distinction? And who determines the scales? In this Writing Seminar we explore the meaning of development as it relates to gender, race, and power in a post-colonial world. We begin by scrutinizing the assumptions Europeans made about the New World as students question how cartographers during the “Age of Discovery” imagined the cultures and geographies of indigenous peoples. Next we examine the experience of women sweatshop workers in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, as students analyze the gendering of economic development initiatives designed by outside international organizations. For the research essay, students investigate how race, gender, and class intersect in a domestic or international development project of their choosing. Potential topics include the planned gentrification of historically African-American or Latino communities in major U.S. cities like Brooklyn or Los Angeles, Chinese infrastructure projects in Nicaragua or Congo-Brazzaville, urban enterprise zones in the American Rust Belt, and micro-lending programs for women in rural India. Students conclude the semester by creating a proposal for a local or international development initiative.

 

Innovate Everything!
Sean Vanatta
WRI 118
WRI 119

Innovation talk surrounds us: Tinker! Hack! Design! Disrupt! Rolling Stone’s 2017 profile of Tesla founder Elon Musk captures this enthusiasm concisely: “If you want to create or innovate, start from a clean slate. Don’t accept any ideas, practices, or standards.” But what tensions arise between this clean-slate philosophy and the value we ascribe to inherited traditions and established routines? How do we understand our motivations to make change, and how do we weigh its consequences—both intended and unintended? In this Writing Seminar, we confront the technological, scientific, and ethical nexus of innovation, interrogating the roles that innovation narratives play in ongoing debates about our social, economic, and environmental well-being. First, we use Joseph Schumpeter’s theories of creative destruction to examine Princeton’s strategic plan, “Entrepreneurship the Princeton Way.” We turn next to Tesla, Inc., one of Forbes’s “most innovative companies.” Looking at annual reports, legal cases, product reviews, and consumer demographics, we analyze Tesla’s practices in relation to scholarship on antitrust law, environmental policy, corporate governance, and social class. In the semester’s second half, students make a researched argument about the impact of an invention in a field of their choosing. Possible topics include drones, CRISPR, Bitcoin, or the futurist art of Umberto Boccioni.

 

iPray
Wasim Shiliwala
WRI 171

Can you swipe right on scripture, or order charisma on demand? What happens when churches go viral and apps aim for transcendence? Whose idea of human salvation is more compelling: tech visionaries like Elon Musk or religious leaders like Pope Francis? In this Writing Seminar, students explore encounters between religion and technology. We begin by examining the impact of new media—from the printing press to Pinterest—on religious belief and practice, analyzing the religious experience cultivated by Suhaib Webb, the “Snapchat Imam.” Next, we draw on sociology, psychology, and media studies as we investigate the transmission and experience of charisma during Billy Graham’s 1957 televised “crusade” to New York City. For the research project, students identify an aspect of life today or in the near future that allows them to investigate an encounter between technology and religion. Possible topics include: the ethics of transhumanism, new-age business models, and works of art such as Deus Ex; the beliefs, practices, and structures of “scientific” religions like Scientology, Teresem, and Urantia; and the implications of biotechnologies like CRISPR (gene-editing) for debates over the inviolability of life. We conclude by scripting a science fiction where belief meets technology in the style of Star Wars or Black Mirror.

 

Justice Beyond Borders
Nathaniel Mull
WRI 167
WRI 168

The 21st century has witnessed a global refugee crisis unprecedented in size and scope. In the last three years alone, poverty, war, and ethnic cleansing have displaced millions of people from Syria, Libya, Somalia, Ukraine, and Myanmar, straining the hospitality and resources of a handful of neighboring countries. With 85% of all refugees hosted by developing countries, critics accuse wealthy nations like the United States of not doing to enough to confront these crises. How should states weigh obligations to their own citizens against obligations to the rest of humanity? We begin this Writing Seminar by questioning the moral significance of state borders, viewing Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow in light of Thomas Hobbes’s claim that justice only exists within the nation-state. We then analyze the practice of humanitarian intervention, drawing on evidence surrounding the Darfur civil war to explore the forces that shape cross-border responses to human suffering. For the research project, students will investigate a specific case study or debate in the global justice literature. Possible topics range from the prosecution of war criminals by the International Criminal Court to the distribution of carbon emissions rights. Finally, students will translate their research findings into an op-ed for the general public.

 

Living with AI
Will Penman
WRI 175
WRI 176

Searching YouTube, unlocking our phones with our faces, seeing advertising on Facebook, asking Siri to turn up the music: we already actively and passively use artificial intelligence (AI) daily. How does AI promise new kinds of interactions? Why are some industries turning to AI while others are not? How are the risks and benefits of AI shaping the future design of these technologies? This Writing Seminar explores the complex dynamics taking shape between humans and artificial intelligence. We begin by examining ImageNet, a dataset used to develop object-recognition software, in order to analyze how human biases become encoded in machine learning. Next, we turn to self-driving cars as we question the economic, ecological, social, political, legal, and moral implications of artificial intelligence in the public sphere. For the research project, students select their own area of AI development and make an argument about its relationship to a specific population that engages with it. Possible topics include: romantic love with Samantha in the film Her; AI’s use in diagnosing skin cancer, people’s relationships with robotic pets, and the use of AI in financial trading. At the end of the semester, students each translate their research findings into a short video to share with nonexperts.

 

Living with Parasites
David Hollingshead
WRI 178

Parasites—the very word makes us squirm. We imagine hostile microbes siphoning vital nutrients and social moochers benefitting from systems to which they contribute nothing. And yet, scientists, artists, and philosophers have begun to rethink the parasite as something that produces and facilitates rather than merely inhibits and steals. In this Writing Seminar we explore the myriad and fascinating effects of living with parasites. How does parasitism generate new forms of life, new kinds of interdependency, and new ways of thinking about ecology, ethics, art, and even politics? We begin in the Roman world where a “professional parasite” makes a case for his essential contributions to society in one of Lucian’s philosophical dialogues. Next, we draw on anthropology, biology, history, and literary studies as we question the meaning of agency in parasitic systems such as Toxoplasmosis or as imagined in Octavia Butler’s science fiction. For the research paper, students identify an instance of parasitism and place it in context. Potential topics range from zombie infections to speculations about parasitic mitochondria, from rhetoric about freeloading millennials to debates over the welfare state. Finally, students have the opportunity to invent a new parasite and announce its discovery to the world.

 

Love and Social Change
Joy Arroyo
WRI 152

“It has occurred to me,” said Joyce Ryerson, superintendent for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, site of a recent mass shooting, “that what our world really needs is a little more love.” This vision of love as a powerfully restorative social act—one that can provide an antidote even to gun violence—contrasts our common association of love with the intimacy of romance, sex, and family life. What then does it mean to evoke “love” in response to national crises? And how do our loving relationships shape our public lives, and vice versa? In this Writing Seminar we explore diverse ways of loving, ranging from private interplay to a collective, even political practice. We begin by examining the 2015 Brazilian film The Second Mother through the lens of affective equality, as students question the relationship between nurturing the individual and achieving social and political parity. Next, students analyze the ritual of British royal weddings as potential sites of transformation for social norms around gender, race, and class. For the research essay, students investigate how love features in a social or commercial campaign of their choosing. Possible topics include #MeToo, nonviolent civil disobedience, and the 2015 Tylenol #HowWeFamily campaign.

 

The Meaning of Celebrity
Patrick Luiz Sullivan de Oliveira
WRI 153

When historian Daniel J. Boorstin noted in 1962 that “a celebrity is a person known for his well-knownness,” he was implying that true fame lacks significant meaning. After decades of following the stars from TV to YouTube, perhaps today we have a different understanding of celebrity’s ability to generate and transmit values, from Lady Diana’s ethical royalty to Beyoncé’s African-American feminism. But how is it that stars like these carry such personal significance in our lives and such influence in the public sphere? And how do celebrities—and fans—negotiate the boundaries between privacy and fame? This Writing Seminar examines the meaning of celebrity and how it relates to our social lives. We begin by using theories about charisma to shed light on Kanye West’s self-fashioning as a hip-hop star and iconoclastic genius. Then, taking Albert Einstein as our case study, we make sense of how public figures can become enduring icons that transcend their initial professional spheres. For the research paper, students investigate the political, economic, or cultural influence of a celebrity figure or phenomenon of their choosing. Possible topics include Oprah Winfrey’s transformation from local talk show host to national icon, animal celebrities like Fiona the Hippo, and Amelia Earhart’s heroic exploits.

 

Miniatures
Shannon K. Winston
WRI 155
WRI 156

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.

 

Politics of Intimacy, The
Alexander Davis
WRI 108

Sexting, BDSM, affirmative consent, online dating, 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 been discussed in state legislatures or the federal courts in the past decade, signifying that intimate decisions are as public as they are private. What are the interconnections between public policy and private desires? How do people sustain intimate practices or family forms that defy existing laws? And under what conditions can collective values and legal structures governing sexuality be transformed? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the social and cultural regulation of intimacy in the United States—and pushback against that regulation. We begin the semester by using national survey data to discover how legislative contexts and ideological beliefs shape personal attitudes toward marriage and the family. Next, we consider the political impact of public rhetoric about sexuality, analyzing texts like the film Her, the Supreme Court’s opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, and Dean Hamer’s research on the genetics of sexual orientation. Finally, students leverage their own intellectual interests in sexual politics to craft a final research paper and an adaptation of that work for a more public audience.

 

The Politics of Nostalgia
Brian Pietras
WRI 181
WRI 182

In 1688, a Swiss medical student 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 an episode of Black Mirror, along with writings by William Faulkner and Audre Lorde. 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 aesthetics of Instagram, the music of Lana Del Rey, plantation weddings, the neurobiology of memory, or the rise of a president who promises to “Make America Great Again.”

 

The Posthuman
Marina Fedosik-Long
WRI 131
WRI 132

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.

 

Property, Wealth, and Equality
Steven Kelts
WRI 123
WRI 124

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.

 

The Question of the Commons
Nicholas Risteen
WRI 199

For two hundred years, you could graze your cow on Boston Common. Banned in 1830, the cows of Boston Common epitomize a much larger debate about the use of mutually held resources. How do we avoid what ecologist Garrett Hardin called “The Tragedy of the Commons”: exploiting those open resources for individual gain until they end up serving no one? If we look beyond landscape to other kinds of spaces, what else can we learn about the complex boundaries between public and private—and who decides them? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the idea of the commons in both its traditional form—anchored in ecology—as well as in less familiar contexts. We begin by analyzing the hugely popular High Line in New York City in light of Hardin’s influential 1968 article. Next, we use the lenses of ecology, urban form, and political geography to investigate the self-governing Kowloon Walled City, once among the most densely populated places on Earth before it was demolished in 1994 to make way for a park. Final research projects could entail more abstract notions of the commons: open-source Linux code, genetic inheritance in the age of 23andMe, or the shifting politics of the 1967 Space Treaty.

 

Reading Minds
Jennifer Schnepf
WRI 192
WRI 193

“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 nonhuman being

 

Sex Changes
Alexander Davis
WRI 109

In January 2017, National Geographic spotlighted a global “gender revolution”—a rapid and unprecedented social development affecting individual bodies and international politics in equal measure. From efforts at American universities to accommodate nonbinary 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 meaningful social transformation? In this Writing Seminar, we investigate the tension between cultural evolution and institutional stasis, using the dynamic social meaning of gender to explore that interplay. To begin the semester, we study change at a global level, analyzing quantitative trends in attitudes toward women’s political and economic equality. We then turn to more local gender transitions, as we uncover the surprising cultural messages hidden within neuroscientific studies of puberty and television programs like Transparent alike. 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.

 

Speaking American
Shawn Gonzalez
WRI 161
WRI 162

A recent Coke commercial that featured “America the Beautiful” in languages including Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic provoked strong reactions from viewers. Critics argued that the use of multiple languages was unpatriotic and divisive, while supporters praised the ad for promoting American ideals and unity. But who gets to decide which ways of speaking are American? And how does the way we speak shape access to opportunity in the United States? In this Writing Seminar, we explore how race, ethnicity, and class influence attitudes about language and belonging. We begin with multilingual children’s books as we analyze how artists reach audiences with different language backgrounds. Next, we turn to a bilingual education program in Philadelphia public schools, drawing on linguistics, sociology, cognitive science, and education studies to explore how language learning relates to academic achievement and social inequalities starting at a young age. For the research project, students investigate a multilingual practice or phenomenon in a community of their choice. Potential topics might include the strategic use of Spanish in U.S. political campaigns, the role of Blackfoot in the film Wonder Woman, the collaboration behind crossover hit “Despacito,” or the controversy surrounding the translation of the Bible into Jamaican Patwa.

 

Your Life in Numbers
Daniel M. Choi
WRI 149
WRI 150

Calorie counts, GPS coordinates, electoral votes, and videogame leaderboards—it seems that we increasingly rely on numbers to understand our lives. And all the data we generate about ourselves—knowingly and unknowingly—allow governments and corporations to profile us according to our health, finances, habits, and tastes. We leave traces of our innermost thoughts for the highest bidder. Yet how much of our lives can numbers truly capture? And why do we obsess over new ways of scoring ourselves? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the mathematical representation of human lives and to what extent we’re more than the numbers we generate. We begin by examining Plato’s understanding of mathematics as both a philosophy and a means for organizing society. We then turn to the SAT and investigate the diverse ways that the College Board claims to measure academic aptitude. For the research essay, students identify and investigate a social practice or technology that is founded on the mathematical representation of human lives. Potential topics range from facial recognition software and dating algorithms to U.S. Census data and Social Security numbers. Finally, having digitally tracked themselves throughout the semester, students conclude by pitching a mobile app to capitalize on their “numerical self.”