Spring 2022 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

Please check back in the Fall for the Spring enrollment schedule.

 

Writing Seminar Descriptions

American Dissent

Sean Cashbaugh

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 slave owner and, as president, he tolerated the suppression of legitimate political opposition. This paradox between dissent and conformity is not a bug of American democracy, but a feature: from the Civil Rights Movement’s appeals to nationalism to the Old Left’s frequent focus on the white male worker, it seems that dissent in America often aligns with elements of its opposite. From reform to revolution, what contradictions can opposition reveal? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the achievements—and limits—of ideas and movements that challenge the status quo. First, we analyze speeches by Frederick Douglass and Angela Davis about the politics of abolitionism to refine recent theories of dissent’s political function. Next, we examine historical, anthropological, and economic perspectives on the Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969 to consider the significance 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 antifa, minority Supreme Court positions, and the radical conservatism of the John Birch Society.

 

And the Rest Is Drag

Tyler Baldor

RuPaul Charles, host of the popular TV competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race, famously said, “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” We generally think of drag as a specific kind of transgression––dressing up as the opposite gender––but how might “drag” describe the myriad choices we make each day to be seen and understood? How do we display who we are to the world, and why do we present the way we do? We begin this Writing Seminar by analyzing gender-bending performances from television and music in light of Erving Goffman’s theory of self-presentation in everyday life. Next, we explore New York City during the 1920s and ’30s “Pansy Craze,” as students engage with a range of scholarship—from urban studies and the history of medicine to sociology, visual studies, literary analysis, and the law—to examine how we draw boundaries between what’s considered “deviant” and “normal.” For the research paper, students investigate an aspect of identity and material culture in a case study of their choosing. Sample topics include the depiction of the villain Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the history of the pantsuit in American business and politics, and the use of drag in Princeton Triangle Shows.

 

Apocalypse How?

Nicholas Risteen

“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.

 

Banishing the Dark

Abigail Sargent

Today, when it gets dark, it’s easy to flip a switch and take the resulting light for granted. But for millennia, light demanded steady labor, making illumination less accessible but perhaps more sought after. If we understand “progress” as moving out from the shadows, what mysteries or freedoms do we risk banishing along with the dark? And as technology affords us greater command over the night, whose hands are on the switches? How are human rhythms and behaviors affected? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the meaning of illumination and the power to control the dark. We begin in the gloomy forests of folklore, examining the tale of Vasilisa the Fair alongside research on how humans cope with darkness. Next, we turn to technology’s promise to expel danger from urban spaces as students analyze the interplay of politics, economics, and engineering in late 19th-century initiatives to electrify Philadelphia’s streetlights. Students conclude the semester by investigating the significance of light—or its absence—in a cultural practice, biological process, or technology of their choosing. Sample research topics range from ancient solstice festivals or candles lit at medieval shrines, to the impact of screen time before bed, rolling blackouts in Egypt, and designs for greenhouses in deep space.

 

Captivating Animals

Catherine Young

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. 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 in order to analyze the institution through economic, philosophical, and zoological perspectives. We will explore current exhibits and their design, financial data, and historical documents including the Zoo’s 2020 apology for exhibiting an abducted Congolese man in 1906. 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 impact of pesticides on the food chain.

 

Confessions

Samuel García

“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

Emma Ljung

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.

 

The Craft of Authenticity 

Julianna Visco

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 the relationship between material, maker, and object. 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 pussyhats worn during the 2017 Women’s March, foodie appropriation of non-Western recipes, deepfake dances generated by AI for TikTok, African-American quilting, and the craft beer movement.

 

Educational Equities

Soo-Young Kim

Two centuries ago, public education advocate Horace Mann described education as “the great equalizer.” Today, U.S. student debt exceeds $1.7 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 and equity, 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, movement, or debate through which they develop their own arguments about equity in education. Possible topics include online learning platforms, race-conscious admissions policies, and income-share tuition schemes.

 

Eureka Moments

Katelyn Randazzo

Stories of the world’s greatest discoveries seem to follow a script: A lone genius has a “Eureka!” moment, inaugurating a new chapter of human progress. But to what extent might such tales speak more to the role of egos than to the work of innovators? How might human factors like convention, petty emotions, and cultural and social values all contribute to moments of discovery and invention in ways that go unquestioned? And how do we distinguish genuine breakthroughs from reproductions, coincidences, or even frauds? We begin this Writing Seminar by examining the meaning of discovery and the role of scientific networks in Thomas Jefferson’s self-reported unearthing of the prehistoric Megalonyx. Next, we turn to the 1890s’ “War of the Currents” between rivals Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, as students draw on patent laws, court cases, personal accounts, and laboratory records in order to interrogate the relationship between ownership and invention. For the final project, students identify and investigate an account of creative inspiration, making a researched argument about the roles of individuals and communities in generating new ideas. Possible topics include the founding principles of Montessori schools, improvisation and the origins of jazz, and August Kekulé’s devising the structure of benzene from a dream.

 

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.

 

Gamification

Adrienne Raphel

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.

 

Gray Matter

Jorie Hofstra

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.

 

Imagining Childhood

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

 

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

Nathaniel Mull

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 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

Will Penman

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

Joy Arroyo

Love cannot be killed or swept aside,” said Lin-Manuel Miranda in response to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. His sonnet concluded with the call to "fill the world with music, love, and pride.” 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 at the intersections of gender, race, and culture as we examine shifts in unpaid care work during the COVID-19 pandemic. 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 the “Love Has No Labels” anti-bias campaign, Hillary Clinton’s “Love Trumps Hate” slogan, and South Korean boy band BTS’s “Love Myself” campaign.

 

Monsters in America

Hadiya Jones

From Jaws, stranger danger, and Typhoid Mary, to the Salem witch trials, public lynchings, and Japanese internment camps, frightening tales of the monstrous crowd the American psyche. What do we learn about our social and environmental conflicts from the myriad monsters that haunt us? Who names them? And who comes to their defense--or suggests they’re not monsters at all? In this Writing Seminar, we explore how stories of the monstrous manifest themselves, from the physically inhuman or unclean to the psychologically alien or socially threatening. We begin by examining racial tensions in Julius Onah’s 2019 film Luce in light of sociologist Loic Waquant’s claims about the U.S. caste system. We then turn to New York City in the 1980s as students analyze narrative formation across media, healthcare systems, and lived experiences during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. To conclude, students investigate a representation of the monstrous in a political or fictional narrative of their choosing. Sample topics include Western depictions of Muslims during the War on Terror, the impact of Black filmmakers on the Hollywood horror genre, the staying power of ghosts and legends like the Jersey Devil, and attempts to control--or hijack--official narratives about the spread of COVID-19.

 

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.

 

Outlawed and Infamous

Philip Johnson

Robin Hood famously robbed the rich to feed the poor, while cartel boss Pablo Escobar killed his rivals, built schools, and became so infamous that Netflix continues to profit from his story. Judging by their popularity, it seems many of us feel some fascination for stories about outlaws, but at what point does fascination become celebration? Who decides which crimes we retell and serialize? And if we blur the lines between champion and outlaw, what becomes of the victims? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the contradictions and meaning of criminal infamy. We begin by using historical accounts of social banditry in pre-industrial societies as a lens to analyze recent cyberattacks by the leaderless, borderless hacktivist group Anonymous. Next, we interrogate how and why Australians remember Ned Kelly, the 19th-century bank robber and murderer turned national icon. For the final project, students will develop an argument about perceptions of a specific criminal(ized) figure or event. Possible topics include vigilante justice in the Watchmen universe, the criminalization and prosecution of indigenous protesters near the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, and the mixed legacy of Dr. Timothy Leary, a psychedelic drug advocate who Richard Nixon called “the most dangerous man in America.”

 

The Politics of Intimacy

Alexander K. Davis

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 Posthuman

Marina Fedosik-Long

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.

 

Sexual Revolutions

Alexander K. Davis

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.

 

Speaking American

Shawn Gonzalez

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.

 

Sustainable Futures

Andrea DiGiorgio

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

Ardon Shorr

Stonehenge was built by ancient aliens. COVID-19 was FAKE NEWS. The election is rigged; the economy is rigged. The moon landing was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage — that is, if you even believe in the moon. Why do people believe conspiracy theories? And how do we know when to trust experts 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, examining how Flat Earthers support their claims using scientific methods. We turn next to UFOs, entering the social, cultural, and psychological debates around abduction, probing alien close encounters for what they might reveal about being human. For the final research paper, students choose a conspiracy theory and develop an original argument to help us better understand its influence. Potential topics range from whispers of Illuminati to the prophecies of Q, from FBI misinformation about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to ongoing CIA assassination programs. How far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go?

 

Unlocking the Double Helix

Beth Stroud

Genomes living and extinct--variously described as source code, the “Book of Life,” and the very essence of identity--have never been easier or cheaper to access. From unlocking family secrets and tailoring cancer treatments, to engineering drought-resistant crops and resurrecting the woolly mammoth, how do assumptions about and uses of the double helix impact individuals, communities, and broader ecologies? How does language about lineage and natural selection shape our understanding of DNA and what it can do? To what extent can the human genome reveal who we are and what we’re capable of doing? We begin this Writing Seminar by scrutinizing metaphors of inherited criminality in The Jukes, a landmark family study that contributed to late 19th-century discourses about eugenics. Next, we analyze the marketing of at-home genetic testing kits and what these consumer products promise to reveal about identity and belonging. For the final project, students will make a researched argument about a depiction or use of DNA in contemporary life. Possible topics include the Innocence Project’s reliance on DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, new technologies allowing dog owners to clone their beloved pets, and genetic tests for establishing membership in Native American tribes and First Nations. 

 

Visualizing Mars

Ramyar Rossoukh

Today six national space agencies operate spacecraft on or in orbit around Mars, while private companies like SpaceX are planning to land humans on the Red Planet as soon as 2026. Why has the space frontier moved millions of miles away from the Moon? And how has Mars become the next step in human exploration--and exploitation--of space? What does it mean for our species' expansion into space if we go as both partners and competitors? In this Writing Seminar we draw on film and literary criticism, anthropology and economics, technology studies and planetary sciences to investigate what our fascination with Mars reveals about ourselves and our own Earth. We begin with the films Total Recall and The Martian as students analyze cinematic representations of planetary colonization through the lens of Edward Said. Next, we turn to Martian analog environments on Earth as we examine the relationship between science and the imagination in visualizing human missions to Mars. For the research project, students identify and investigate a technical obstacle or speculative solution for the use of outer space as a resource for human expansion. Possible research topics include the economics of multiplanetary trade, the challenges of space farming, and debates over terraforming worlds or engineering human societies.

 

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.”