Spring 2020 Writing Seminars
While Writing Seminars all focus on the skills necessary for effective critical reading and writing, they differ in the topics and texts assigned. Below are topic descriptions of the many different Writing Seminars being offered this term.
As described in How to Enroll, you will rank your top 8 seminar preferences online at any time during the enrollment period. To read a full description of the course, click on the course title. To increase your chances of being assigned to one of your top preferences, choose seminars that meet at a range of times, including morning and evening. Be sure to keep in mind your class schedule and extracurricular commitments.
Thursday, August 1
Students Assigned to a Term for the Writing Seminar
Friday, September 6, 9am - Wednesday, September 11, 9 am
Students may request a term change online.
Wednesday, January 8, 9am - Friday, January 17, 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 21, 5pm
Students notified by email of Writing Seminar assignments.
Tuesday, January 21, 5pm - Tuesday, January 28, 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 3
First day of Monday/Wednesday Writing Seminars.
Tuesday, February 4
First day of Tuesday/Thursday Writing Seminars.
The complete schedule of Spring 2020 Writing Seminars will be posted in early December.
Acting Like Adults
64% of recently surveyed 18- to 34-year-olds feel that financial independence strongly defines adulthood, but 70% also admit receiving financial support from their parents in the previous year. And while neuroscientists find that executive function matures around 25, lawmakers continue to allow 18-year-olds to vote and volunteer for combat missions. How do we make sense of shifting trends around the transition to adulthood? And why does this threshold seem so fraught? We begin this Writing Seminar by examining Princeton alum Ari Satok’s poetic reflections on college life in light of psychological theories of late adolescence. Next, we turn to Common, an online platform for Millennials searching for shared housing that supplies all the essentials—from toilet paper to WiFi, vetted suitemates to cleaning service—as we draw on survey data and industry insights to analyze how co-living relates to growing up in the Digital Age. For the research essay, students investigate how a particular transition to adulthood is represented or understood within a specific historical, demographic, or geographic context. Possible topics include representations of twenty-somethings in shows like Girls, government campaigns to boost reproduction in aging nations, student-loan debt and the American marriage rate, or the appeal of institutions like Portland, Maine’s “Adulting School.”
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 1988 film Akira (set in the future of 2019) in light of Mark Seltzer’s theory of “wound culture.” 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.
Sebastián Rojas Mata
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
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 locked away or systematically slaughtered. How do we explain such complicated, inconsistent attitudes toward animals? How do we draw boundaries between animals and humans? 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 designs, as well as historical documents and financial data, in order to analyze the institution and visitor experiences 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 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 The Lion King on Broadway, or the genetic implications of extreme dog breeding for show purposes.
“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.
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.
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 Brooklyn’s Park Slope and Manhattan’s Upper West Side as we analyze the relationship between access, integration, and outcomes in New York City public schools. 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. Finally, students translate their research findings into pedagogical tools.
The Ends of Decision-Making
Every day we encounter innumerable choices, from which toothpaste 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. 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, and when are we being manipulated by advertisements, big data, or nudges? In what ways do aspects of our identity—such as race, gender, or generation—change how we make and process decisions? What are the emotional, financial, and social benefits—and costs—of these choices? We begin by analyzing Kurosawa’s film No Regrets for Our Youth in conversation with psychologist Barry Schwartz’s theory of the paradox of choice. Next, we investigate the rise of self-driving cars and their implications in fields as varied as philosophy, law, engineering, and computer science. For the final research essay, students will engage a debate about decision-making on a topic of their choice, such as cooperative robots, Hamlet, or implicit bias in facial recognition software.
The Fantastic and the Real
Novelist Ursula Le Guin has argued that “realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence.” If that’s the case, how might the Harry Potter franchise, television shows such as The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, or fiction by writers like Kelly Link and Gabriel García Márquez inform the ways we know about the world? What might fantastical narratives suggest about the borders between ourselves and others? In this Writing Seminar, we turn to the “fantastic,” a space where reality meets the marvelous, allowing us to see anew the world around us. We begin by examining dark cinematic fairy tales, such as Spirited Away and The Shape of Water, that challenge us to reevaluate our understanding of human diversity. Next, we turn to middle-school curricula and school-going characters like Hermione Granger, Percy Jackson, and the X-Men as we question the role of fantastic narratives in the socialization and education of children. Finally, students identify an instance of the fantastic and investigate its social or cultural implications. Potential topics range from the Pokémon bestiary to the science of the warp drive, from the social dynamics of cosplay to the roles of heroes in national myths.
The Fragmented Past
Indiana Jones is adamant: historical objects belong in a museum so we can properly study the past. But that principle isn’t confined to the movies. Thus, the Parthenon frieze finds itself in no fewer than eight European museums, while the Parthenon temple still stands in Athens, separated from the frieze that communicates its meaning. In this Writing Seminar, we interrogate Indiana Jones’s position. What happens to our understanding of the past when its physical remains are removed from their original context? How do we set about making sense of a fragmented past? First, we assess how international charters complicate architectural conservation at sites like Egypt’s Deir el-Hagar. Next, we use the Princeton University Art Museum’s collections to evaluate problems in the trade or display of cultural objects outside their original context. For the research project, students investigate a specific case of their choosing to illuminate a larger debate or puzzle regarding the fragmented past, for example: the Euphronios krater and the repatriation of antiquities, the intentional destruction of heritage sites and the rise of non-state actors like ISIS, or Nazi monuments in contemporary Germany. Finally, students evaluate a fragment of Princeton’s past, or invent a cultural object, with accompanying history, of their own.
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 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.
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.
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. Finally, students will translate their research findings into an op-ed for the general public.
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 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
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, economists, 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 medicine, ecology, ethics, economics, and even politics? We begin by examining contemporary cases for and against Universal Basic Income, an initiative often charged with encouraging a “parasitic” relationship between the individual and the state. Next, we analyze the human microbiome from a range of perspectives—including biology, medicine, postcolonial theory, and the law—to consider the stakes of human intervention in the body’s microbial communities. 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
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 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 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
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.
“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
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.
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.
Last year, 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.
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.” Students conclude the semester by spreading or debunking a conspiracy theory of their own design.
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.”
How far is an hour? Before the invention of the telegraph and steam engine, humans were limited to the speed of nature. Technological speed loosened the relationship between space and time, both shrinking and expanding the world. But these changes also sped up daily life, creating a sense of social acceleration—so much so that Facebook now urges us to “move fast and break things.” What possibilities has speed opened for individuals and societies? What anxieties has it provoked? Who gets to move fast, and why do others get left behind? This Writing Seminar explores the technologies and cultures in motion that make up our speedy world. We start by untangling representations of speed and freedom in the arts, from Italian Futurism to the Broadway musical The Pajama Game to recent television commercials. Next, we excavate the unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway, asking how competing ideas about speed inspired both urban planner Robert Moses and neighborhood activist Jane Jacobs. For the research essay, students develop an original argument about a speed-related public policy or cultural phenomenon. Possible topics include overnight shipping, congestion pricing, fast fashion, the Slow Food movement, livestreaming, jet lag, Elon Musk’s hyperloop project, or highway wildlife crossings.