Spring 2025 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 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.

Enrollment Schedule

The enrollment schedule and course meeting times for Spring Writing Seminars will be posted this Fall.

Writing Seminars

Meeting times for the Spring Writing Seminars will be posted in the Fall.

 

Seminar Descriptions

Assigned at Birth

LC Santangelo

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, embodied, resisted, redefined, and policed. First, we explore concepts of visibility, transnormativity, and identity in Alok Vaid-Menon’s primer, Beyond the Gender Binary. Next, we turn to sociology, medicine, and history to examine Christine Jorgensen’s experiences transitioning in the 1950s and the price of public visibility thereafter. For the final project, students write an original research paper about an institution, text, practice, or artifact that defines, reconfigures, or resists gender norms. Sample topics include state laws regulating access to bathrooms, the economics behind the "pink tax" on consumer products like tampons, representations of gender within the TV series Schitt’s Creek, or the historical memory of watershed events, such as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot or Stonewall.

 

Bad Botany

Justin Linds

The Herbarium of the New York Botanical Garden contains approximately 7.8 million specimens of vascular plants, mosses, fungi, and algae. This vast collection supports research in science, medicine, and history, but the collection also represents botany's historic connection to projects of imperialism and natural resource extraction. How might we understand this mixed legacy of botany and the ‘bad’ side of botany? What makes some plants scientific wonders, valuable fortunes, or criminal objects–or all three at once? We begin by going back almost 500 years to analyze how 16th-century European naturalists described the curious plants of the ‘New World’ and renamed the natural world according to their own vision. Next, we turn to Central American bananas and the United Fruit Company as students investigate how biodiversity is impacted when plants become global commodities. For the final project, students will research a plant of their choosing in the context of a specific social or climate justice movement, economic project, or colonial encounter. Possible topics include seventeenth-century tulip mania, the race to develop synthetic rubber during World War II, the grape boycott of 1960s California, shamanic ayahuasca tourism, and taxing marijuana for public education.

 

Body Matters

Sariel Golomb

Bodily controversy is all around us: from legislation on reproductive rights to biohacking, Olympic doping, and human remains put on exhibit. Yet at the same time, people regularly get tattoos and piercings, take supplements, build their muscles, and donate their bodies for science. What are the politics of displaying and manipulating the body– whether one’s own or another’s? What happens when cultural convictions about the sanctity of the body come into conflict with self-actualization or science and innovation? Why do some treatments of the body seem commonplace, while others seem indulgent, sacrilegious, or freakish? This Writing Seminar explores how we observe, treat, and manipulate the human form. We begin by analyzing the social life of anatomy through Gunther Van Hagens’ controversial BODY WORLDS exhibit. Next, we take rhinoplasty (AKA, the “nose job”) as our case study to examine the body’s plasticity through disciplines ranging from medicine, technology, and economics to aesthetics, cultural studies and religion. For the research paper, students choose a phenomenon or controversy involving the body’s physical form and craft an original argument placing it in a cultural, political, or scientific context. Examples may include TSA body scanners, bans on gender-affirming healthcare, vaccine debates, 18th-century grave-robbing, body artists like ORLAN, and Frankenstein. 

 

Changing Times

Alena Wigodner

In our present, LiDAR that can map the jungle floor is changing everything we know about the scale of ancient Maya society, and ideologically motivated alterations to textbooks frame how students contend with challenging aspects of our shared history. But it’s not only the past that’s in flux: fears about emerging technologies like self-driving cars are influencing policy decisions, and speculation about cryptocurrency’s future is already shaping today’s investment portfolios. It’s a given that the present is built on what’s come before, but how do today’s technologies and beliefs cast history in a new light? And to what extent can our visions of tomorrow escape present-day norms and assumptions?  What danger and promise lies in revising the past and in navigating rapidly changing times? We begin by analyzing the relationship between science and imagination in reconstructing the life of a Neolithic shaman. We turn next to Monsanto’s 1957 vision for a “house of the future” as we examine how Americans imagined the role of emergent technologies in their home lives. For the research project, students investigate a specific event, reimagining of the past, or imagining of the future and make a researched argument about its relationship to a community in another time. Examples include the lasting impacts of 1930s redlining maps in Chicago, Manila preparing for rising ocean levels, or contemporary concerns at play in the 2008 reboot of Battlestar Galactica.

 

Constructing Nature

Diana Newby

Food and beverage companies label their products as all-natural. Celebrities like Jamie Lee Curtis are praised for aging naturally. Glamping resorts promise an invigorating retreat to nature. Advocates for artificial intelligence call it the natural progression of human development. Such appeals to nature are ubiquitous and widely variable. But how exactly do we determine whether something—or someone—is “natural”? Who gets to draw the line between natural and unnatural? And what are the consequences? In this Writing Seminar, we investigate the slippery category of nature, a concept that isn’t quite as…well, natural as we might think. We begin by looking for subtle constructions of nature in commercial advertising, legislation, and scientific research, drawing on ecofeminist theory to interrogate unstable binaries like nature v. culture that underpin so much of our understanding. We then take a creative turn, letting students design an object that explores a compelling puzzle in their own thinking about the natural. Finally, each student develops and pursues a research project that investigates a site or object in which nature is constructed. Possible topics could include the entangled production of nationality and race in the 1970 Naturalization Act; the beaver black ops, a rogue rewilding project in Belgium; or virtual simulations designed to provide stress-reducing exposure to nature and green noise.

 

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 making their own craft, investigating the relationship between raw materials, tools and technologies, and techniques. 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 foodie appropriation of non-Western recipes, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s AI generated photographic portraits of people who don’t exist, debates over authorship and ownership in music sampling, and the legacy of craftivism from and criticism of  the pussyhats worn during the 2017 Women’s March.

 

Critical Care

T.K. Dalton

Some 30 years before smartphones bowed our heads and captured our likes, the Sony Walkman gave consumers the first opportunity to put on their music and retreat from the world under headphones. If we imagine attention as a finite resource, how do the ways we use technology shape our capacity to care? How does our relationship with the tools available to us impact our ability to think critically, tinker with new possibilities, and meet today’s demands? Where do we direct the focus of our attention and care? And who gets to decide? We begin this Writing Seminar by reflecting on tools for writers–from pencils and keyboards, to spell check, predictive text, and voice-to-text–as we examine tensions between repair and revision. We turn next to the aftermath of the US Civil War, when a chaplain from Central Park Hospital organized a penmanship contest for disabled veterans: a case study for students to analyze experiences—and challenges—of suddenly living in a body the world wasn’t built for. In the final project, students identify an instance “where stuff goes wrong” and develop a researched argument about the dynamics of critical care. Sample topics include the 2008 collapse of the American housing sector, deferred maintenance of bridges and roadways, international responses to troubled states like Syria or Haiti, or planned obsolescence in manufacturing home goods. 

 

Curiosity

Liora Selinger

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, Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet of curiosities, destinations featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, true crime podcasts, and the fascinations of “mad scientists” like Victor Frankenstein.

 

Disability Justice

Erin Raffety

Autistic, allistic, crip, neurodivergent, and chronically ill: disabled activists are coining new terms, displaying disability pride, and taking the disability rights movement into the 21st century. And yet, as the largest minority group in America, disabled people remain disproportionately disenfranchised, underemployed, and poor. How do theories of disability account for the diversity of disability experiences in America today? When it comes to disability rights and justice, what is the relationship between accessibility, accommodations, and inclusion? And what can disabled experiences teach us about our collective humanity? In this Writing Seminar we begin by analyzing the contentious scholarly debate about medical and social models of disability in light of the historic Disability Rights Movement. Next, we investigate the sprawling Princeton campus, the iconic The Americans with Disabilities Act, and the often elusive concept of disability justice in the context of scholarship on racism, neoliberalism, universal design, and assistive technology. Finally, in the research unit, students expand their study of disability and justice to imminent and global challenges like disaster preparedness and evacuation plans, accessibility issues amid refugee crises, augmented communication and artificial intelligence, COVID vaccinations, crip sexuality, cochlear implants and Deaf culture, and the rise of anxiety disorders among young people.

 

Disrupting Nature

Jessica Jones

“Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis,” warn centuries-old stone tablets along Japan’s coasts. The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster underscored their admonition “do not build” below certain points. An 1878 US government report advised against unrestricted settlement in the arid watershed of the Colorado River. Today 40 million people and 3.2 million acres of farmland depend on its waters. Why do some modern civilizations choose to ignore warnings about nature’s threats? To what extent can human societies built for one image of the world adapt when that understanding fails? This Writing Seminar explores how we might re-imagine our planetary place in the face of climate crisis by transforming the ways we understand and inhabit nature. We’ll spend the first half of the seminar diving deep into the Indigenous-led movement against the Dakota Oil Pipeline, considering how competing worldviews and understandings of nature influence different stakeholders’ relationships to Standing Rock. In the second half of the seminar students conduct their own research, investigating a depiction or re-imagining of the human relationship to the natural world. Potential topics include Ana Mendieta’s art, Disney’s Encanto, the Green New Deal, Svalbard’s seed vault, the Detroit Gardening Angels, or making cows burp less to reduce greenhouse gasses.

 

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 aspirations of equity and possibility, as scholars Paulo Freire and bell hooks remind us when they frame education “as the practice of freedom.” How do our ideas of what education can be shape the ways we as individuals and communities invest—politically, financially, morally—in education? What are the consequences of these investments in the classroom and beyond? We begin this Writing Seminar by examining the purposes and promises of education by putting Princeton admissions into dialogue with sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the forms of capital. Next we turn to the 2023 Supreme Court ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard as we analyze the relationship among diversity, opportunity, and outcomes for college applicants. For the research project, students pursue a question that they craft on their own in order to develop an original argument about equity in education. Possible topics include grading systems, student loans, and digital learning platforms.

 

Expert Opinion

Anna Grant

Apple Music describes its list of the top 100 albums as “human curation at its peak,” proudly citing the judgment of its team of artists and music industry experts. In the medical sector, many health insurance companies cover, and encourage, second opinions. From entertainment to diagnosis and beyond, expertise informs our everyday decisions. What prompts us to turn to others for input? How do we decide who to trust and when? How do different forms of expertise intersect or sometimes clash? And, what happens when the ones who are supposed to know best don’t know what to do? In this Writing Seminar, we investigate the specialization and sharing of knowledge. We begin by analyzing restaurant reviews, considering how cultural critics earn authority to judge culinary art they didn’t create. Next, we go back in time to ancient Athens, examining one of the earliest recorded epidemics and exploring how medical, political, and religious experts navigate unprecedented circumstances. For the final research paper, students will investigate an expert figure whose authority has been questioned. Potential topics may include: the House’s public hearing of Dr. Anthony Fauci, YouTube “beauty gurus,” the controversy surrounding Dr. Henry Lee’s falsified forensic evidence, or robot referees in sports.  

 

Fashioning the Self

Tatiana Nuñez-Bright

We are told not to judge a book by its cover, yet a recent study published in Nature Human Behavior found that we judge a person’s competence in relation to clothing cues within 129 milliseconds of seeing them. How we dress matters, as do related questions like: How have contemporary economic conditions altered the balance of consumer, corporate, environmental, and workers’ interests? How does the mass production of synthetic materials and natural fibers, as well as the disposability of fast fashion, impact the quality, affordability, and range of clothing available? As trends cycle rapidly due to social media, what are the implications for pursuing self-expression through what we wear? In this Writing Seminar, we begin by analyzing Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” alongside the sociological theory of conspicuous consumption. We turn next to preppy style, with its historic roots in the Ivy League and at Princeton in particular, entering scholarly debates about its relationship to race, class, and gender. For the research project, students will make an argument about an item of clothing, a fashion style, or a trend past or present. Topics may be as varied as student interests: the feminist reclamation of corsetry, the environmental effects of increased cashmere production, the class politics of “quiet luxury,” or the health effects of denim sandblasting.

 

Friendship

Annemarie Iker

In 1972, the People’s Republic of China gifted two giant pandas to the United States as a gesture of friendship. A second pair followed in 2000 but was withdrawn in 2023, as Sino-American relations became strained. Only weeks later, however, President Xi Jinping promised to send additional bears, which he described as “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.” In this Writing Seminar, we examine the stuff of friendship, from pandas to Facebook pages. What is friendship? How have friends, whether nations or individuals, used images and objects—including living flora and fauna—to define, strengthen, and showcase their bonds? What can the visual and technological culture of friendship tell us about changing conceptions of friendship itself? We begin the semester in Special Collections at the Princeton University Library, exploring how 19th-century friendship albums allowed their makers to sustain ties across time, space, and shifting identities. Next, we turn to current debates over A.I. companions, analyzing the design of the chatbot Replika in conversation with philosophical, psychological, and biological perspectives on the purpose and meaning of non-kin networks. For their final papers, students will make an original, researched argument about a representation or understanding of friendship. Examples range from early modern libri amicorum (books of friends) and elephant diplomacy to contemporary friendship bracelets, Netflix Teleparties, and the “Find My Friends” app. 

 

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 our current population. At the same time, scientists project climate change will reduce yields of agriculture, livestock, and fisheries, together emitting over 25% of global greenhouse gasses. As food systems become less able to meet need, how will humans nourish an ever-growing population in our lifetimes? What will this mean for established supply chains and production modes? And how can we ensure equitable access? This Writing Seminar begins by examining a weather-induced food-system failure, the 1867-1869 Swedish Famine, to understand how factors like climate, politics, and social norms reinforce each other creating famine conditions. Next, we explore the food infrastructure in Princeton as we draw on sociologist Andrew Deener’s theory of food desert formation to analyze costs and nutritional quality with respect to grocery store locations and their target customers. For the research project, students identify and investigate a food source issue that will affect the food system in the near future, placing that food issue in its ecological, economic, or sociocultural context. Topics could range from vertical farming in Newark, to viability of lab-grown meat, to vegan social-media influencers.

 

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 analyzing Jordan Peele’s representation of the relationship between the mind and the brain in his 2017 horror film Get Out. Next, we critically investigate neuroscientific claims to objectivity, authority, and transparency in the case of amnesiac Henry Molaison—anonymized as “Patient H.M.”—whose 55 years as a research subject led to major shifts in the neuroscience of memory. Finally, students identify and critically analyze a particular way in which the brain participates in the social world: for instance, as a template for Elon Musk’s Neuralink, as a site of therapeutic intervention in personality disorders, or as a casualty of war.

 

Here Be Dragons

Adriana Dropulic

Everything visible – from distant, bespeckled galaxies to the pixels glowing on your screen – comprises just 5% of the known universe. Physicists refer to the other 95% as “dark” because it remains invisible and inscrutable. Vera Rubin, the first astronomer to present evidence of dark matter, wrote that “discoveries come from looking with new eyes.” But how do scholars actually navigate terra incognita – where ancient cartographers depicted dragons and sea monsters – and arrive at what’s new? How do society and culture influence the delineation between known and unknown, observation and theory, curiosity and fear? We begin this Writing Seminar by walking Princeton’s campus, embodying Walter Benjamin’s archetype of the wanderer as we analyze how students come to discover the University. We turn next to cutting-edge research enabled by CRISPR technology, the “genetic scissors” awarded a 2020 Nobel Prize, as students engage with disciplines ranging from engineering and bioethics to gender studies and economics in order to examine the relationship between societal and cultural values and the scientific method. For the final paper, students investigate a current “black box” and craft an original argument about the boundary between the known and unknown. Possible topics include Sgr A*, the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole; enigmatic structures like Egypt’s pyramids or Costa Rica’s stone spheres; the invisible hand of the market; or the architecture of proprietary neural networks.


How to Raise a Machine

Allen Durgin

In 1962, cyberneticist Silvan Tomkins speculated that a truly humanlike machine “would in all probability require a relatively helpless infancy followed by a growing competence through its childhood and adolescence … in which to learn how to learn through making errors and correcting them.” With the rapid advancement of AI systems since 2016, it would seem that humanlike machines have finally begun to grow up. But what does this technological coming of age mean for education, artisanry, and governance? In the era of AI, what does it mean to learn? To create? To make decisions? We begin this Writing Seminar by considering AI’s infancy and childhood as students analyze recent films like I Am Mother and Poor Things in conversation with Alan Turing’s landmark paper on machine intelligence. Next, we interrogate the adolescence of GenAI, examining the GAN artwork of young digital artist Robbie Barrat from diverse disciplinary perspectives such as computer science, cognitive psychology, philosophy, and ecology in order to investigate the complex relationship between imitation, learning, and creativity. Students conclude the seminar by researching an instance, design, or depiction of raising and training a mature AI to become integrated in human affairs. Possible objects of analysis include the short stories of sci-fi author Greg Egan; Grief Tech and ghostbots; Project Cybersyn in 1970s Chile; and Ruha Benjamin’s concept of the New Jim Code.


Imagined Geographies

Osha Smith-Gittelman

In 1947, colonial mapmakers partitioned the British Raj into the countries of Pakistan and India along the hastily drawn Radcliffe Line, leading to mass migration and widespread violence. During the 2000 US presidential election, media outlets popularized the now familiar map of “red states” versus “blue states,” at once illustrating and contributing to deepened partisan polarization. Maps such as these are simplistic representations, yet they have been implicated in conflicts over boundaries, identities, and notions of belonging. Do maps reflect or create our social and political landscapes? How do representations of space--cartographic, artistic, and literary--interact with the construction of our geographic and social lives? We begin this Writing Seminar examining maps of Princeton University, developing a critical evaluation of cartography through our own readings of campus spaces. Next, we turn to the neighborhoods of post-WWII Chicago, analyzing the impact of Home Owners’ Loan Corporation maps and other redlining practices on the dynamics of segregated urban development. For the final project, students will research an effort to map an uncharted domain of their choosing. Sample topics include depictions of theological or secular hellscapes, physicists’ efforts to model quantum entanglement, the implications of mapping the human genome, explorations of the inner self in modernist fiction, crime mapping and predictive policing, or the digital landscapes of TikTok tourism.

 

Let Every Voice Be Heard

Alexander Aguayo

“They took my free, 
My careless ones, and the great sea
Blew back their endless sighs to me.” 

With this personification of Africa, Maria Lowell gives voice to the human cost of the Atlantic slave trade. The architects of Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan personified a 20th-century vision of democratic transportation with sculptures of the Roman gods Hercules, Mercury, and Minerva. What kinds of underlying beliefs do creations like these reveal about voice, personhood, and representation? How do we start to make sense of the new voices that scientists and engineers discover, from dolphin chatter and the ultrasonic hum of trees, to synthetic speech of Alexa, QTRobot, and AI-generated companions? We begin this Writing Seminar by examining the relationship between representation and voice in Kara Walker’s evocative Mammy-Sphinx sculpture, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” We turn next to the human-animal boundary as students investigate the dynamics of voicelessness, advocacy, and sentient rights in the 2015 case of Sandra the orangutan, who was granted “non-human personhood” by an Argentine court. Students conclude the seminar by crafting an original research project on the relationship between voice and identity in a case of their choosing. Sample topics include whale song, the Teen Talk Barbie doll, IBM’s conversational AI technology, the Deaf Rights Movement, and the silence of war memorials. 

 

Making Hard Choices

Avi Alpert

In life we encounter innumerable decisions, from picking an outfit to deciding on a career. We don’t make these choices in a vacuum. Karl Marx said that humans “make their own history, but…not in circumstances of their own choosing.” Just how far does our autonomy extend, and how do we discern the pull of historical conditions or manipulation by outside forces like advertisements? 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? This Writing Seminar examines the complex biological, cultural, and technological dynamics of decision-making. We begin by considering Ruth Chang’s theory of value-based decision-making in light of the Civil Rights film, The Best of Enemies. Next, we  use a case study about fights over trash pickup in New York City to understand the ecology, economics, psychology, technology, and contentiousness of decision-making. For the final essay, students will investigate the power of decision-making in a topic of their choice, such as AGI and hiring decisions, the meaning of the TV series Murder at the End of the World, or analyses of bias in policy choices.

 

Making Up Our Minds

Deborah Levy

From hydraulic pipeline to computational network, hijackable wetware to surrealist dreamscape, the human brain is variably portrayed as mechanical and electrical, organic and ethereal. What are our collective beliefs about this reality-defining meatball? How do scientists and philosophers locate the substrates of our identities in the biostuffs of our anatomies? To what extent do we make up our minds? To what extent do our minds make us up? In this Writing Seminar, we’ll explore the various perspectives that scientists, artists, engineers, and other scholars can bring to our understanding of the human brain and the person it creates. We’ll begin by examining James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), putting it into conversation with modern cognitive scientific viewpoints on the mind-body problem. Next, students will analyze the scientific, sociological, economic, and philosophical underpinnings of amobarbital, a powerful anesthetic alternatively used as a planning tool by neurosurgeons, a “truth serum” by interrogators, or a recreational street drug, depending on who–and at what point in its history–you’re asking. Students conclude the semester by investigating the cultural-scientific significance of a specific discovery about or reimagining of the human brain. Sample topics include the prevalence of phrenology in the aesthetics of the occult, the perceived legitimacy neuroimages lend to news articles, the contribution of the cerebrum to experiences of the divine, and glaring gender gaps among the recipients of mid-20th century lobotomizing procedures.

 

Modern Love

Lynne Feeley

In 2023, the Oxford English Dictionary named “rizz” the word of the year, defining it as “style, charm, or attractiveness” and the ability to “attract a romantic or sexual partner.” To take the title, “rizz” beat out three finalists also associated with relationships: beige flag, situationship, and parasocial. These selections on the part of the OED reflect a changing vernacular when it comes to romantic relationships. They may even reflect a changing culture. How has love–as both a personal experience and a social concept–changed over time? How do technological and cultural innovations reflect, or even usher in, new ideas about love? We begin this Writing Seminar with Weike Wang’s short story about a woman whose boyfriend complains that she is constantly overthinking everything, examining it through the lens of Kate Manne’s philosophy of gaslighting. Then we turn to ELIZA, the world’s first companion chatbot (1966), as students analyze its design and output by engaging with theories of companionship and the social psychology emerging with modern AI. For the research project, students critically investigate an instance or narrative of modern love. Examples include love on the margins as depicted by the TV series Pose, the role of dopamine receptors in the process of falling in love, apps like Nomi or Kindroid, the music of Lana Del Rey, or the discourse of love and war among climate activists.

 

Mythconceptions

Emma Thompson

Pop rocks and soda will make your stomach explode. A penny dropped from the Empire State Building could kill. MythBusters revealed both to be misconceptions, or, as the name of the show suggests, “myths.” This definition of myth as falsehood gets complicated when scholars use “myth” to describe both Homer’s Iliad and the reality of the American dream. Why has the same word come to mean both misconception and a foundational narrative? Who gets to draw distinctions between myth and fact, or decide what counts as myth? What power do myths have to determine the narrative? What nuances may get lost through mythologizing the past? In this Writing Seminar, we draw on science, literature, religion, and psychology to think about how myths are created, maintained, and overthrown. We begin by examining scientific accounts about the origins of the universe to critique and refine historian Bruce Lincoln’s theorization of myth. Next, we turn to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, to analyze the stories we tell about the Earth’s past. Finally, students choose a controversy or social movement and investigate how those seeking change resist, replace, or reinterpret existing myths. Possible topics include George Washington, the Copernican Revolution, coming out narratives, or Sita Sings the Blues.


The Politics of Agency

Shaofei Lu

Barbara and Christine are identical twins raised in the same household. As children they were difficult to tell apart, but their personalities diverged in adolescence as they began making choices according to their own tastes and values. Today Barbara describes herself as confident and outgoing, while Christine admits to feeling self-conscious and suffering from severe depression. How much of life is driven by choice and agency? How much by circumstance and environment? What determines one’s life path, even when nature and nurture work to control so many of the variables? We begin this Writing Seminar by investigating the lives of New York City drug dealers as we evaluate the extent to which individuals are shaped by the people around them. We turn next to the Chinese state’s policy of rehabilitating traditional alleyway communities in Beijing (Hutongs), as students analyze tensions between local advocates for cultural preservation and government designs for urban redevelopment. For the final research project, students identify an institution or demographic and make a researched argument about the place of personal agency within that larger social structure. Potential topics range from women in tech industries and athletes training for the Olympics, to second-generation Americans, Catholic nuns in politics, universal basic income recipients, and homeless encampments in Seattle.


The Politics of Disease

Eli Anders

We often conceptualize diseases strictly as biological phenomena—bodily manifestations of viral encounters or toxic exposures. Yet disease categories are more than neutral descriptions of the natural world; as historian Charles Rosenberg argues, “in some ways disease does not exist until we have agreed that it does, by perceiving, naming, and responding to it.” From asthma to anxiety, the framing of disease categories—and our responses to them—are shaped by contests over experience, expertise, and the political economy of medicine. How do we define and make sense of disease? How do cultural contexts shape treatment and research? How does illness influence identity? We begin this Writing Seminar with the graphic novel Lissa, analyzing its depictions of cancer and chronic illness in light of theories about personhood and genetic risk. Next, we turn to debates over “Long COVID,” investigating how patients and practitioners have shaped biomedical knowledge about the condition, why it has been so challenging to diagnose, and what is at stake in how it is defined. Finally, students will research the representation or conceptualization of a disease or illness experience of their choosing. Possible topics include weight loss drugs and conceptualizations of obesity; “pinkwashing” of breast cancer; “race correction” in diagnostic algorithms; illness in cinema; and the art of the AIDS crisis.

 

Priceless

Bronwen Everill

U.S. News reports that the added value of attending Princeton amounts to a starting salary $20,628 higher than the national average, yet in surveys graduates largely reflect on the value of college in terms of their priceless friendships and formative experiences inside and outside the classroom. What do we mean when we talk about value? And what assumptions go into making valuations? Employers, workers, credit rating agencies, and investors have different opinions about the sources and measures of worth. But how do we account for non-economic measures? In this Writing Seminar we explore debates about where value comes from. First, we will study Adam Smith and crunch data from the International Labor Organization to grapple with the problem of unpaid labor. Next, we turn to cartoons and editorials, banknotes and technology patents, congressional debates and bankruptcy cases to investigate the first major speculative boom and bust in US history, the Panic of 1837. For the research paper, students investigate a case study of their choice that illuminates the contested nature of measuring value. Examples  include the FTX collapse or the GameStop bubble; changing coverage of the Italian, Japanese, South African, or Mexican economy over time; valuations of the Benin Bronzes; or a comparative assessment of national parks and resource value.


Real Fakes

Nina Toft Djanegara

3D-printed meat. Lab grown diamonds. Generative AI crafting folk songs and resumes, while deep-fakes put words into the mouths of presidents, film stars, and CEOs. Technological advances have given rise to products that are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. Some of these creations have been met with wonder, others with dismay. Why are certain replicas considered legitimate substitutes while others are looked upon as shabby imitations? What moral claims are being made when we label something as “real” or “fake”? To what extent are these categories mutually exclusive? In this Writing Seminar, we explore people and artifacts that blur the line between reality and falsity. First, we examine satirical essays like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal and mockumentary-style television shows like Documentary Now! in order to question the interplay of imitation and critique. Next, we consider the genre of the apology speech and analyze the visual and discursive strategies that speakers used to communicate sincerity and authenticity during the 1998 Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. For the final research project, students will investigate a hoax, fabrication, or imposter of their choosing. Potential topics include: advancements in plastic surgery, the economics of counterfeit and dupe products, frauds like Anna Delvey and Elizabeth Holmes, the staying power of conspiracy theories, no-makeup makeup and the clean girl aesthetic, reality television, Münchausen syndrome, and catfishing. 


The Revolution Will [Not] Be Televised

Sakinah Hofler

In 1965, thousands braved beatings to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to fight for civil rights in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” In 2016, thousands boycotted the NFL because Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem to protest police brutality. Recent write-ups on the #MeToo movement have ranged from some calling it a revolution, some calling it an angry mob, and some saying it spurred the #HimToo movement. When does an act of dissent become protest? When does an act become activism? What role does an audience play in the reception of the act? What happens to the message of the protest when the coverage shifts to how someone protests? We begin this Writing Seminar analyzing elements of dissent in music videos by Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. Next, we turn to Princeton campus protests against the Vietnam War as we investigate the relationship between college campuses, student bodies, and protest. For their final research project, students identify a contemporary protest or related art form and develop an original argument about its economic, social, or cultural impact. Sample topics include recent political rhetoric on the term “wokeness,” female autonomy in The Handmaid's Tale, the demographics of the 2019 Hong Kong demonstrations, and the Native American grassroots movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

 

Seeing Is Believing

Thea Goldring

The Hubble Space Telescope captured the “Pillars of Creation” by translating invisible spectra into brilliant colors, bringing into focus a nebula 6,500 light-years beyond our sun. PET scans peer into the brain, using radioactive tracers to map the neurological origins of human emotions, cognition, and dreams. How else do geologists and biologists, paintbrushes and algorithms render the invisible, the fleeting, the unknown and never-before-seen? How do the limitations of human sight influence what science can envision, and how can human imagination, in turn, extend the limits of what can be seen and believed? We begin this Writing Seminar in the University’s special collections as students examine groundbreaking illustrations of the previously hidden realms made visible by the invention of the microscope. We turn next to 19th-century paintings of the lost world of dinosaurs, as students dig into early attempts to reconstruct prehistoric fauna and flora. For the final paper, students identify and investigate an attempt to render the unseeable. Possible topics range from the subatomic to the interstellar, from the deep past to the distant future, including CERN’s artistic residency program, speculative views across the landscape of Proxima Centauri b, exhibits of Paleolithic humans at the American Museum of Natural History, and cover art for the cyperpunk novel Neuromancer.

 

Sexual Revolutions

Alexander Davis

With consent education being added to numerous American public school curricula, ESPN podcasts openly challenging toxic masculinity in professional sports, and the World Health Organization insisting on the importance of gender-affirming care for trans people of all ages, evidence abounds that cultural beliefs about gender and sexuality are moving in an ever-more progressive direction in the second decade of the twenty-first century. But with the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, a surge of library book bans targeting works with queer characters, and the gender pay gap remaining immovable, are those shifts truly as revolutionary as they seem? When—and how—can genuine social change be achieved? In this Writing Seminar, we investigate the perpetual tension between cultural evolution and institutional stasis, and we do so by exploring some of the most cherished parts of our personal lives: gendered identities and sexual intimacies. We start the semester by considering “Sexual Revolutions” in popular media, case law, and scientific research alike, as we uncover the surprising ideological messages embedded in seemingly benign cultural texts. Next, we center your personal interests in “Sexual Revolutions” and pitch research projects that can innovatively add to what scholars already know about those topics. Finally, we see those proposals through—and craft independent research papers that make new and noteworthy contributions to scholarship on your chosen “Sexual Revolution.”


Sound and the City

Christopher Parton

Although New York may be “the city that never sleeps,” its residents certainly would like some. For over a century, New Yorkers have bemoaned the increasing sound levels of the city as a menace to public health. Yet from transport and construction to protests and parties, city life is noisy. This Writing Seminar examines where the boundaries lie between silence, sound, and noise: Who gets to define these boundaries and by what means and metrics? What can we learn about cities—their histories, communities, and politics—from listening to urban environments? How do we make sense of silence in the streets? We begin by analyzing the presentation of silence in pandemic lockdown videos in light of R. Murray Schafer’s foundational book The Soundscape (1977). We then engage with a wide range of disciplines–from history and music, to technology studies and urban planning–to explore the ongoing social, cultural, and political issues of noise for Manhattan’s Chinatown community. Finally, students investigate how institutions, communities, or individuals interact with the soundscape of an urban environment of their own choosing. Possible topics include: sonic strategies used by protesters or the police, analysis of noise complaint data or the history of noise control policies for cities like Boston, and sound design of virtual cities in video games like Grand Theft Auto.


Sustainable Futures

Andrea DiGiorgio

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.


Tale of Two Democracies

Durba Chattaraj

A year after the January 6th attack on the US Capitol, polls reveal that nearly two thirds of Americans believe their democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing,” despite more than a decade of increasing voter participation. In India–the world’s most populous democracy–hundreds of millions continue to cast their vote, yet observers like Freedom House note breakdowns in its courts, legislature, and protection of civil liberties–echoes of American criticisms of their own system of governance. What beyond elections allow democracy to thrive? What can the world’s two largest democracies learn from each other in this moment, and what exchanges have they had in the past? We begin by analyzing the intersection between India’s film industry and the American world of hip-hop in the film Gully Boy. Next, we use the 1970 US Women’s Strike for Equality as a case study for investigating the relationship between conflict and power in protests, social movements, and transcultural democratic practices. Students conclude the semester by making a researched argument about a cultural or political exchange of their choosing. Sample topics might include Gandhi’s civil disobedience as inspiration for Martin Luther King, Jr, John Dewey’s influence on India’s constitution, or the politics of yoga. 


Technogenesis

Marina Fedosik

How can interaction through a VR headset influence the ways you wander, imagine, and fall in love? How does writing with a pen–or banging away at a keyboard–shape your experience of the world? When does a tool become technology? And when does technology give rise to new ways of being? This seminar explores ‘technogenesis’, the idea that humans and technology are constantly co-creating each other, from how we experience thought and emotion to the very fundamentals of human biology. We begin by examining an episode from the TV show Black Mirror in light of philosophical debates over the relationship between physical experience, human understanding, and virtual worlds. Next, students investigate the power of mixed reality environments to activate empathy in case studies of VR journalism and social media accounts across Meta Quest, TikTok, and Instagram. For the research project, students identify an instance of technogenesis–a specific object, trend, or event–and analyze the relationship between technology and individual engagement with the wider world. Examples include the influence of large AI models like GPT-4 on human creativity, expertise, and learning; the role of social networking platforms like X (Twitter) in politics and military conflicts; the impact of reproductive technologies like in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) on human identity and kinship; or the consequences of beauty filters for social media users across different demographics.

 

This Course Is Out to Get You

Ardon Shorr

Stonehenge was built by ancient aliens. COVID-19 was FAKE NEWS. Climate change is a hoax, birds aren’t real, the moon landing was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage — if you even believe in the moon. Why do people believe conspiracy theories? Why does confronting new evidence change some people’s minds, but leave others even more entrenched in their beliefs? At the same time, Wikileaks and whistleblowers have revealed real collusion. How do we know when to trust experts and when to be skeptical of authority? This Writing Seminar explores what we learn about ourselves from the conspiracies we create. We begin with the documentary Behind the Curve, examining how Flat Earthers support their claims using scientific methods. We turn next to academic research into conspiracies: How do they spread? What makes them appealing? What are some of the open problems in studying conspiracy theories — and why haven’t they been solved? In the second half of the seminar, students pursue their own intellectual interests as they craft a research paper investigating a conspiracy theory of their choice, placing it in political, scientific, or cultural context. Potential topics range from doubting Big Pharma to doubting vaccines, from MKULTRA to COINTELPRO. If you’ve read this far, you already know too much. This is the writing seminar THEY don’t want you to take.


The World Turned Upside Down

Hannah Rose Blakeley

Fools crowned king, animals roasting cooks, and fish sprouting wings—motifs of the world turned upside down have a long artistic and political history. Periods of upheaval continue to shape our world, from economic crashes, black swan events, and popular uprisings (celebrated by some, decried by others) to generative AI and catastrophic climate change. These events reorder the status quo and restage relationships of influence and meaning, but why are some reversals liberatory and empowering while others are disastrous? How do revolutions—whether political, cultural, economic, or scientific—shift norms, social structures, and hierarchies? And how does one’s own position and perspective affect interpretation of such events and their place in history? In this Writing Seminar we begin with the films Triangle of Sadness (2022) and Parasite (2019) as students analyze modes of inversion and the grotesque through Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque. Next we turn to the jackpot and selective service lotteries to explore how sudden changes in status, wealth, and opportunity impact both individuals and society. For their final paper, students investigate an inversion, reversal, or revolution in a case study of their choosing. Examples include cross-dressing during Mardi Gras, the art of Wong Ping, The Hunger Games, the morality of the criminal underworld, or reordering caused by an economic, political, or natural crisis, such as an environmental effect of COVID-19’s “anthropause.”