Fall 2020 Writing Seminars
Welcome, Class of 2025! Descriptions of the Fall 2021 Writing Seminars will be posted in July. In the meantime, you may review the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 seminars for a sample of our course offerings and learn more about the Writing Seminar enrollment process.
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 three 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.
Our enrollment schedule and the descriptions and meeting times of Fall 2021 Writing Seminars will be posted in July.
Writing Seminar Descriptions (Fall 2020)
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.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Is it the End of Times as well? As historian Saul Friedländer noted during the Cold War arms race, “For the first time in history, the human species now has the capacity for its own immediate, total obliteration.” Aside from technological obliteration, scientists regularly warn us of less dramatic scenarios such as the potential species collapse of pollinating bees or monarch butterflies as possible harbingers of mass extinction; meanwhile, fantastical doomsday predictions go viral, like the supposedly Mayan-predicted apocalypse on December 31, 2012. How have our 21st-century visions of apocalypse been inflected by history? Why do we so insistently plan for the aftermath, and what concrete forms do those plans take? This Writing Seminar explores how humanity lives with the threat—and the aftermath—of apocalypse. We first examine the 1984 film Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind in light of Elizabeth Povinelli’s theory of “nonlife.” Next, we analyze Cold War technologies developed following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Finally, students investigate a particular vision or threat of apocalypse—or of its survival. For example, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, or Gaiman and Pratchett’s Good Omens.
From Disney movies to the pet industry, animals are captivating 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 on pedestals while others are shunned or systematically slaughtered. How do we explain such complicated, inconsistent attitudes toward animals? How do we draw boundaries between animals and humans, and how have such boundaries shaped our conceptions of reason, ethical responsibility, and human identity? This Writing Seminar begins by examining the legal definition of “animal” as provided by the U.S. Animal Welfare Act in light of philosopher Lori Gruen’s claims about human exceptionalism. We turn next to the Bronx Zoo as we explore current exhibits and their design, as well as historical documents and financial data, in order to analyze the institution through economic, philosophical, and zoological perspectives. For the research paper, students identify and investigate a human-animal cultural practice of their choosing. Possible topics range from the international politics of protecting endangered mammals, to the ethics of harvesting pig valves to treat cardiac disease in humans, the transmission of zoonotic diseases in meat industries, the representation of anthropomorphic animals in Pixar films, or the genetic implications of extreme dog breeding.
“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 examine the relationship between confessions and policing, focusing on the infamous case of the Central Park Five while drawing on recent scholarship in criminal law, media studies, and psychology. For the research paper, students develop an original argument about confession and identity. Possible subjects include confessional podcasts such as The Moth Radio Hour, Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix stand-up special “Nanette,” or graphic memoirs such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.
Constructing the Past
Colonial Williamsburg as we know it was created in the 1930s, yet thousands visit the town every year to learn about America’s pre-revolutionary past. Despite the absence of archaeological evidence for druidism at Stonehenge, authorities have granted special access to the ancient site for religious ceremonies. The past, it seems, is not simply over: on the contrary, it is constantly made and remade. But what happens to our knowledge of the past when there is an inconsistency between original and current use of a site or object? What are the consequences of literally constructing a new version of the past? This Writing Seminar investigates the complicated processes by which historic elements are shaped, managed, and revised. First, we assess how the Venice Charter problematizes architectural conservation at sites like Egypt’s Deir el-Hagar. Next, we turn to the Princeton University Art Museum’s collections to explore tribal and indigenous artifacts that have been separated from their original context. How does that separation impact issues like cultural appropriation and heritage preservation? For the research project, students investigate the consequences of constructing the past in a case study of their choice, for example: genealogy and DNA test kits, the renaming of Denali-Mount McKinley, or ruins as warnings in fictional worlds like Hyrule or Middle Earth.
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.”
The Craft of Authenticity
Artisanal chocolate, handcrafted wood furniture, and bespoke tailoring suggest a cultural craving for close physical connection between artisan and object. Multinational corporations like IKEA and H&M are not only partnering with artisans to sell sustainable goods but also producing a “hand-crafted” aesthetic on assembly lines—all attainable through the click of a button. In what ways might the commodification of craftwork challenge our understanding of authenticity? How do we relate to an object when physical interaction is replaced with a virtual showcase? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the complicated relationship between craft and profit, interrogating authenticity and appropriation. Students begin by crafting a woven object or kneading bread, investigating what it means to make something in light of anthropologist Tim Ingold’s theory about material culture. We then shift perspective from maker to consumer as students examine Etsy—an online marketplace for handmade, vintage and custom goods—by exploring the sociology of craft industries, the economics of peer-to-peer platforms, and the colonial legacy of craft in Western cultures. For the research project, students investigate a historical or contemporary making practice of their choice. Sample topics include the pussy hats worn during the 2016 Women’s March, foodie appropriation of non-Western recipes, AI-generated art, African American quilting, and the craft beer movement.
Albert Einstein said, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.” We prize the intellectual curiosity that leads to scientific discovery—and yet we say it was "curiosity that killed the cat." What can we learn from this ambivalence? How does navigating from known to unknown, from familiar to foreign, challenge us as learners, innovators, and social beings? What ethical questions emerge when we label something—or someone—a “curiosity”? We begin by examining curiosity and human development as students analyze children’s books like Curious George and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in light of John Dewey’s theories of education. We turn next to the value of science for its own sake as students engage diverse perspectives—ranging from engineering and exobiology, to economics, cultural studies, and history of science—in order to investigate the relationship between open-ended inquiry and tangible results in NASA’s 2011 launch of the Mars “Curiosity” Rover. For the research project, students will craft an original argument about an object of curiosity and the ways people respond to it. Potential topics include Netflix cliffhangers, YouTube ads tailored to a user’s search history, Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet of curiosities, destinations featured in Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, enigmatic fossil evidence, and publicly funded research expeditions to Antarctica.
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 Writing Seminar analyzes how gender is taught, resisted, redefined, and policed. First, we consider the role of gender and racial stereotypes in Netflix stand-up comedy specials as we investigate how gender norms are reproduced—and resisted—in social spaces. 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 the “pink tax,” the gender ideology of Queer as Folk, or the scientific rationale for gender-segregated youth sports.
Two centuries ago, public education advocate Horace Mann described education as “the great equalizer.” Today, U.S. student debt exceeds $1.5 trillion, and a racial achievement gap persists generations after Brown v. Board of Education ruled school segregation unconstitutional. Yet education remains central to American aspirations of equality, as underscored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she remarked, “The America that we are proud of is one in which all children can access a dignified education.” How does the idea of education as equalizer shape the ways we as individuals and collectives invest—financially, politically, morally—in education? What are the consequences of these investments in the classroom and beyond? We begin examining the purposes and promises of education by putting Princeton recruitment and orientation materials into dialogue with sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the forms of capital. Next, we turn to Public School District 15 in Brooklyn as we analyze the relationship among access, integration, and outcomes for New York City middle schoolers. For the research project, students investigate a program or technology that aims to increase equity in education. Possible topics include the Prison-to-College Pipeline, Khan Academy online lessons, and income-share tuition schemes.
The Ends of Decision-Making
Every day we encounter innumerable choices, from which words we use to how we navigate a career. Yuval Harari has even called the history of humanity a “drama of decision-making.” But, he suggests, the curtain on that drama may be closing as algorithms now compete with the powers of human choice—even as they reproduce human biases. This Writing Seminar examines the complex social, cultural, and technological dynamics of decision-making today. To what extent do we know what we choose when we are choosing? When are we being manipulated by cultural assumptions, aggregated data, or unconscious biases? In what ways do aspects of our identity—including race as well as class, age, and gender—change how we make and process decisions? We begin by analyzing Nella Larsen’s short novel Passing, in light of philosophical frameworks for making decisions authentic to oneself. Next, we examine Google’s Natural Language Processing technologies as students investigate the relationship between algorithms, implicit bias, and AI moderation of the information and voices we find online. For the final paper, students will engage a debate about social influence on decision-making in a topic of their choosing, such as criminal sentencing, rational choice and social welfare, or racial bias in facial recognition software.
The Future of Food
Philip Keel Geheber
The United Nations estimates that in 2050 a global population of 10 billion will require twice as much food as the world does today. At the same time, scientists project climate change will reduce yields of agriculture, livestock, and fisheries. As food systems become less able to meet demand, how will humans continue to nourish an ever-growing population in the long term? What will this mean for established modes of distribution? And how can we ensure equitable access? This Writing Seminar begins by examining the food system infrastructure in Princeton as we draw on sociologist Andrew Deener’s study of food deserts to analyze food costs and quality with respect to grocery store locations and their target customers. Next, we examine a historic example of a food catastrophe, the 1867-1869 Swedish Famine, by attending to its climatic and political causes, effects on emigration and epigenetics, and cultural memory. For the research project, students identify and investigate a food source issue that will affect the food system in the near future, placing its future production and distribution in its ecological, economic, or sociocultural context. Topics could range from vertical farming in Newark, to the ethics of lab-grown meat, to moratoriums on traditional whale hunting.
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 Animal Crossing, from crosswords to Khan Academy, 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. Throughout the semester, students will also invent and pitch games of their own design.
John Adams wrote, “Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government.” But how do we measure a society’s happiness? Why might one government pursue sustained economic growth at all costs, while another assigns greater priority to safeguarding the rights of the individual? How do citizens’ beliefs about prosperity empower their governments to take different actions? In this Writing Seminar, we’ll explore contradictions of governance by examining how different states define happiness for their citizens. We begin by analyzing Robert Dahl’s Democracy and its Critics in light of comparative survey data on citizen satisfaction from China and around the world. Next, we turn to hydroelectric projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and Three Gorges Dam as case studies for examining the politics of displacement and its consequences for communities, industries, and ecosystems. Finally, students will investigate the governance of online spaces in a national or regional context of their choosing. Sample topics might include surveillance of same-sex dating apps in Chechnya, the overturning of net neutrality in the United States, censorship of environmental activism on Chinese social media, or the significance of Bitcoin as an international currency.
Zombies crave them, drugs “fry” them, scientists map them, our hearts’ desires overrule them. How do all these different ways of imagining what a brain is, what it’s capable of, and how it relates to our personhood coexist? And among all the readily available metaphors, diagnostics, and literature used to describe the human brain, how do we come to know who we are in relation to our gray matter? In this Writing Seminar, we encounter artists, neuroscientists, social scientists, engineers, and psychologists who are all trying to understand the brain in relation to our bodies, our selves, and our environments. We begin by questioning different modes of visualizing the brain as we analyze how artist Laura Jacobson uses MRIs in her multimedia “Brain Scapes” exhibition. Next, we examine the transhumanist vision of a world in which consciousness can be uploaded from the “wetware” of our brains to the software of supercomputers, as we explore how human minds relate to material bodies. Finally, students identify and critically analyze a particular way in which the brain participates in the social world: for instance, as the target of Men in Black’s “neuralyzer,” as a site of therapeutic intervention in personality disorders, or as a casualty of modern war.
Patrick W. Moran
Reflecting on a striking range of objects that were specifically designed for children—from bedroom furniture to board games, computer consoles to astronaut suits—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 explore the role of literature and socialization in the elementary school classroom, investigating how books like The Cat in the Hat and Where the Wild Things Are shape a child’s ideas about race and gender. Finally, students identify an event, controversy, or product of their choosing that illuminates a society’s perspective on childhood in a particular era. Potential topics range from Japanese Children’s Day to Pokémon Go, the history of the Scout movement to adult humor in The Muppet Show.
Into the Deep Past
Herodotus may be called the “father of history,” but even his history that begins with the birth of the gods obscures thousands of millennia of the human story. Fossils and folklore, genomic studies and evolutionary psychology, all suggest deeper histories to recover; we find ancestors exchanging chromosomes with Neanderthals, refugees banding together to become nations, and skilled hunters inventing languages and chasing their dreams in sophisticated cave art. Yet how are bones and shale made to tell their tales? This Writing Seminar explores the science and imagination that traces the deep past of genus Homo. We begin by analyzing the relationship between foundation myths and genetic inheritance as we complicate the meaning of ancestry. We turn next to generative adversarial networks (GANs), as we examine connections between machine learning and the evolution of human symbolic expression. For the research project, students identify a scientific or imagined vision of the deep past—or a corresponding deep future—and develop an original argument about how its author understands the human species. Potential topics range from Richard Dawkins’s “selfish gene” to Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, from strategy 4X games like Civilization to competing archaeologies about the first humans to arrive in the Americas.
It’s a Dog’s Life
Li Qi Peh
There are close to a billion dogs on Earth. Not all walk on leashes and play fetch. Some scavenge near garbage dumps, some are worshipped as gods, some are preyed upon, while others are trained to attack on sight. So, what makes a dog a dog, and why have they enjoyed such a privileged place in human culture and society? In this Writing Seminar, we explore how dogs navigate their worlds and express themselves, challenging human perspectives of personhood, kinship, and the wild. We begin by examining My Dog Tulip (2009), a film depicting the most animalistic aspects of a dog’s behavior, in light of Vicki Hearne’s claims about the relationship between dogs and their owners. Next, we investigate how the figure of the pit bull is understood in 21st-century American society by engaging with scholars like anthropologist Donna Haraway, philosopher Peter Singer, and evolutionary biologist Raymond Coppinger. For the research project, students develop an original argument about the relationship between humans and an animal of their choosing. Potential topics include the bonds crocodile owners form with their reptiles, the bioethics of designer fish, cereal mascots like Tony the Tiger, and how cat cemeteries fit into the urban landscape.
Justice Beyond Borders
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 national borders in light of Immanuel Kant’s attempt to resolve the conflict between national and cosmopolitan duties. We then analyze competing models 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.
Living with AI
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 GPT-2, an AI model used to generate human-like text and prose, in order to analyze how human biases become encoded in machine learning and what the implications are for machine-generated stories, news, and other writing. 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.
Love and Social Change
Responding to the 2018 Parkland mass shooting in Florida, a public-school superintendent in Missouri wrote to her community: “It has occurred to me 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 everyday association of love with the intimacy of romance and kinship. What then does it mean to evoke “love” in response to national crises? How does the individual’s experience of love call communities—or nations—to act or think in new ways? This Writing Seminar explores diverse spheres of love, ranging from private interplay to collective, even political practices. We begin by examining the Brazilian film The Second Mother as students weigh the tensions between familial love and paid carework in the childcare industry. Next, students analyze the pageantry and performance of love in the 2018 Royal wedding in relation to British identity, history, and changing demographics. For the research essay, students investigate how love features in a political or commercial campaign of their choosing. Possible topics include Hillary Clinton’s “Love Trumps Hate” campaign slogan, NOW’s Love Your Body campaign, and Ronny Edry’s #IsraelLovesIran movement across social media.
The Meaning of Celebrity
Patrick Luiz Sullivan de Oliveira
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 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. We then turn to Shudu and Lil Miquela, two recent computer-generated celebrities whose popularity raises ethical questions about the commercialization, design, and impact of artificial influencers. For the research paper, students investigate the political, economic, or cultural influence of a celebrity 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.
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.
The Monuments Must Fall
Joseph L. Lewis
Imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. Segregationist Woodrow Wilson at Princeton. The “sons” of UNC-Chapel Hill who fought for the Confederacy. Since 2015 their campus memorials have either been removed, recontextualized, or pulled down as the result of student protests. Now calls for action echo beyond the university as popular protests confront institutions and monuments with origins in an anti-Black, colonial and racist past. What does this reveal about the material significance of bodies—of flesh and bone, granite and bronze—in political movements and social memory? We begin this Writing Seminar by using Judith Butler’s theory of performative assembly to analyze Fred Blackwell’s photograph of student protesters at the 1963 Woolworth Lunch Counter Sit-In. Next, we turn to the University of Cape Town as we investigate how the presence of Black bodies within the student body relates to calls for safe spaces on university campuses. For the final project, students will make a researched argument about the politics of visibility in a local, national, or global movement of their choosing. Possible topics range from Black Lives Matter to the decolonization of university curricula, from the politics of race in American football to the disproportionate impact of climate change on indigenous communities.
The Politics of Intimacy
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 make their own intellectual interests the center of our seminar, as they craft research papers about any topic they choose related to sexual politics.
The Politics of Nostalgia
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 and writings by Audre Lorde. Next, students focus on how the 1950s 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 include 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.”
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.
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. Finally, students make their own intellectual interests the center of our seminar, as they craft research papers about any topic they choose related to gender and social change.
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.
In 2018, Hawaii banned sunscreen for harming Pacific coral reefs, while consumers boycotted Oreos to protect the rainforest. Quarterback Tom Brady joined campaigns against plastic straws to save the sea turtles, yet straws account for just 4% of plastic pollution. Coca-Cola raised $2M dollars to save its iconic polar bears, but by the time you finish this course, 80.3 billion tons of polar ice will have melted into the oceans. In light of the growing evidence of human-induced climate change and the risk of a “sixth extinction,” what tools do we have to make informed decisions about consumption—and who should make these decisions? How do we navigate the tensions between environmental sustainability on the one hand and producing necessities, comforts—and Oreos—on the other? In this Writing Seminar, we first analyze the rhetoric of climate change in the media and World Wildlife Fund conservation campaigns. Next, we evaluate the cultural, ethical, and ecological meanings of sustainability by examining the benefits and costs of palm oil consumption. For the research paper, students will investigate an example of depletion or extinction in its sociocultural or scientific context. Potential topics include the honeybee population crash, America’s new recycling problem, or the plight of the pangolin.
Systems of Play
The dictum “work hard, play hard” suggests that work and play are both opposites and intimates. Play is often seen as an open, creative process that is central to childhood, whereas work is a rigid, structured adult obligation. Yet, many toys, sports, and instruments of play are structured into systems. The nearly ubiquitous LEGO system of play, for instance, engages builders world-wide through both “free play” and prescriptive sets. How and why has play become systematized? What is the role of play in socialization? At what point are toys and play transformed into instruments of work or even social control? In exploring these critical questions, we first analyze data from the American Time Use Survey to refine theoretical understandings of work and play. Next, we build LEGO sets, look at “brick” art, and examine sales, marketing, and survey data to understand the function of play from historical, artistic, literary, educational, biological, and economic perspectives. Finally, students address their own research questions. Possible topics include the pay gap in men’s and women’s professional soccer, structures of humor in Pixar films, the class underpinnings of the early 20th-century playground movement, the productivity implications of Google’s “fun” workplace culture, or the cultural function of Powerball.
This Course is Out to Get You
Alien spacecraft are reverse-engineered at Area 51. Fluoridated drinking water is a communist plot. 9/11 was an inside job. Why do people believe conspiracy theories? And how do we know when to trust science and when to be skeptical of authority? Why does confronting new evidence change some people’s minds but leave others even more entrenched in their beliefs? This Writing Seminar explores how we know what we think we know. We begin with the Netflix documentary Behind the Curve, as students examine how members of the modern flat Earth movement use scientific methods to support their claims. We turn next to the 2013 March Against Monsanto to analyze the real and perceived risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), entering into scientific and cultural debates about new technologies. For the research paper, students identify a conspiracy theory and investigate what it reveals about the role of trust in the construction of knowledge. Potential topics range from whispers of the Illuminati to eyewitness reports of men in black, from Big Pharma coverups to American anxieties about the “deep state.”
Your Life in Numbers
Daniel M. Choi
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.”