Spring 2023 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

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

Writing Seminars

Meeting times for the Spring 2023 Writing Seminars will be posted in the Fall.

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.

 

American Expertise

Patrick Bonczyk

CDC officials encountered intense skepticism and misinformation when they offered guidance on the use of masks to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Historians have faced widespread resistance to correcting whitewashed accounts of slavery in US textbooks. What does it mean to be an expert in American society today? When do we look to experts and why? And to what extent is our acceptance or rejection of them shaped by storytelling, market values, and anything besides the facts? In this Writing Seminar, we explore expertise at a time when public confidence in specialists seems to have hit rock-bottom. We begin by investigating interviews with Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. who parlayed his skills as an electric chair technician into the role of star witness for a trial defense based on Holocaust denial. We next examine American higher education, particularly prestigious universities, and interrogate the formation of hierarchies of knowledge and status. For the final research essay, students will identify a case of contested expertise and investigate the root of the disagreement. Possible topics include the rise and fall of the Silicon Valley biotechnology company, Theranos, the coding decisions embedded in self-driving cars, or the “Do Your Own Research” (D.Y.O.R.) movement about vaccines and climate change. 

 

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.

 

Answering the Call

Chernice Miller

From Superman and Wonder Woman, to first responders, teachers, and grandparents, diverse heroes occupy our hearts and imaginations. Sometimes they’re the irreproachable or historical, while at other times they’re strangers doing their jobs or friends showing simple kindnesses. So what does it mean to be a hero–or to call someone a hero–when anyone can put on their cape? And why might we call someone a hero even when they reject the title or couldn’t foresee their impact? In this Writing Seminar we explore controversies surrounding heroism and those who answer the call. We begin by analyzing stories of everyday heroism through the lens of trauma theory, questioning why and when bystanders take action. We turn next to the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose 1951 biopsy was repurposed without her consent to establish the HeLa human cell line, an invaluable source of medical research that raises ethical questions about agency, power, and heroic memory. For the research project students investigate a contested moment of heroism–a deed, depiction, contest, or discovery–and make an original argument about its social, cultural, or scientific significance. Sample topics include memorials to Christopher Columbus, veneration of healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, Nazi weapons designers building NASA rockets, and the vigilantism of Bruce Wayne.

 

Badlands

Lynne Feeley

Huge bulbous plants. Globular roots. Endless pools of black water. So wrote an 1842 newspaper correspondent of the Great Dismal Swamp, a forbidding marshland on the border of North Carolina and Virginia. She was not alone in her opinion; European-descended colonists had long railed against the swamp’s menacing ecology, and their attempts to develop it into farmland had failed miserably. Yet, where colonists saw only difficulty, enslaved people saw opportunity. Thousands fled slavery for the swamp, transforming it into one of the nation’s largest sites of fugitivity. In this Writing Seminar we explore the histories and futures of bad lands. What makes a place unusable, and what makes it redeemable? Who gets to decide on the shape and purpose of a landscape, and why? We begin by studying David Hanson’s photographs of ravaged landscapes—from coal strip mines to petrochemical complexes—in the context of Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime. Then we dive into the ecology and culture of antebellum swamps. For the research project, students choose a site that might be perceived as a wasteland, placing it in historical, economic, or scientific context. Examples include the Atacama Desert, the Pacific trash vortex, Chernobyl, the abandoned town of Wittenoom, Australia, or one of New Jersey’s 114 Superfund sites.

 

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, who has access to light 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 and illuminate the city streets of Philadelphia. 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, to the impact of screen time before bed, rolling blackouts in Egypt, and designs for greenhouses in deep space.

 

Captivating Animals

Catherine Young

From BBC Earth documentaries and Disney films to pollinator gardens and the dogs of Instagram, animals are captivating figures. Yet they are also captive test subjects in scientific laboratories, pests in human habitats, and raw material in factory farms. How do we explain such complicated, inconsistent attitudes towards animal life? How do we draw boundaries between animals and humans, and how does drawing that boundary guide both fascination and exploitation? This Writing Seminar begins by examining the use of animatronic wildlife cameras in light of roboticist Masahiro Mori’s theory about the uncanny valley effect. We turn next to the Bronx Zoo in order to analyze the institution through economic, philosophical, and zoological perspectives; students 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 invocation of animal guides and totems in spiritual practices, and the relationship between anthropomorphized wildlife and human stereotypes in children’s cartoons.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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 how Deaf and intellectually disabled perspectives in the documentary films Sound and Fury and Including Samuel stretch medical and social models of disability. Next, we investigate the sprawling Princeton campus, and the iconic The Americans with Disabilities Act 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, transforming the ways we inhabit nature. We begin by thinking with Wanuri Kahiu’s futuristic sci-fi film Pumzi about the limits of the anthropocene – a geological epoch marked by human impact on Earth. Next, we consider the Indigenous movement against the Dakota Oil Pipeline and how competing values influence different stakeholders’ relationships to Standing Rock. For the research paper, students investigate 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 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.

 

Fight the Power

Sakinah Hofler

In 1965 thousands braved beatings to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to fight for civil rights. Fifty years later, millions of social media users shared videos of the murders of Eric Garner and George Floyd. In 2021, when NJ high-school basketball star Destiny Adams was denied permission by the board of education to wear a BLM warmup shirt, teammates arrived at the season opener wearing BLM hoodies. When does an act become activism? How many dissenters are needed to start a movement? And how do different avenues of protest follow from new technologies and changes in where people get their information? We begin this Writing Seminar analyzing elements of dissent in music videos by Beyoncé and NWA. Next, we turn to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem in the 2016 NFL season to investigate the relationship between media and activism using statistical, algorithmic, and historical perspectives. For the research project, students identify a contemporary protest or related art form and develop an argument about its economic, social, or cultural impact. Sample topics include LGBTQ-inclusive commercials by Fortune 500 brands, female autonomy in The Handmaid’s Tale, and protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

 

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 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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.”

 

Over the Edge of Disaster

Amit Anshumali

California’s vintners, orchard growers, and vegetable farmers enter a third decade of drought, at the same time surrounded by threat of wildfires and crop-destroying pests. Recent chemical spills risk poisoning the Bay of Bengal and the 1.4 billion people living along its coast. During Hurricane Ida, an unprecedented number of tornadoes tore through New Jersey, with one topping out at winds of 150 mph. As severe weather intensifies, how do communities respond once over the edge of disaster? How does human complicity shape our understanding of natural crises? We begin this Writing Seminar by analyzing the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact through the lens of what economists and ecologists call “the tragedy of the commons,” namely the pursuit of self-interest by those using shared resources. We turn next to the 2014-2016 Flint Water Crisis, as we examine environmental policy and public utility at the intersection of race, gender, and socio-economic class. Finally, students conclude the semester by investigating an ecological disaster–past, present, or looming–and make a researched argument about the significance of anthropogenic impact in a case study of their choosing. Sample topics range from brownfield sites in the Rust Belt to desertification in the tropics, disrupted ocean currents, and ecosystems in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

 

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.

 

Seeking Nature

Sarah Case

Activities like “forest bathing” have taken off among adults seeking to escape from the pressures of modern life. Yet people of color in New York State today are 10x more likely to live in nature-deprived communities. And at a time when human impacts on the environment are driving extinctions, Netflix and Disney are spending billions on new wildlife shows for their subscribers. What determines the value of nature and who can access it? How is that perspective shaped by its experience or loss? This Writing Seminar investigates the relationship between humans and the natural world. We begin by exploring Princeton’s manicured lawns and shaded groves through the lens of biophilia, analyzing the connections between campus life and overlapping ecologies. We turn next to Manhattan’s High Line, a public park built on the site of an abandoned elevated train line, as students examine urban redevelopment in terms of equity and access to green spaces. For the research paper, students choose a natural site, real or imagined, and develop an original argument about the relationship between humanity and that environment. Possible topics include the Galapagos Islands as a destination for ecotourism, projects reintroducing leopards in Mozambique’s Zinave National Park, or landscapes invented by sci-fi authors like Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood.

 

Sexual Revolutions

Alexander K. Davis

Five years ago, National Geographic celebrated the dawn of a global “gender revolution”—a rapid and unprecedented social metamorphosis affecting individual bodies and international politics alike. From efforts at American universities to accommodate non-binary students to ESPN podcasts debating toxic masculinity in professional sports, evidence abounds that traditional beliefs about gender have indeed been upended in the twenty-first century. But with the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, international athletic federations banning trans women from competition, and the gender pay gap remaining resolutely immovable, are those shifts truly as revolutionary as they seem? When—and how—can meaningful social change be achieved? In this Writing Seminar, we investigate the tension between cultural transformation and institutional stasis, using the dynamic social meaning of gender to explore that interplay. To begin the semester, we study social change historically and cross-nationally, analyzing quantitative trends in attitudes toward women, gender, and sexuality around the world. We then turn to the personal side of gendered experience, as we uncover the surprising cultural messages about selfhood and society hidden within neuroscientific studies of puberty and television programs such as Euphoria alike. 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.

 

Sound and the City

Christopher Parton

In his 1916 book The City of Din, Scottish author Dan McKenzie decried the ever-increasing levels of noise in modern cities and its danger to public health. Around a hundred years later, however, many of the world’s metropolises fell quiet as the first round of COVID measures came into effect. So dramatic was the reduction of noise in Tokyo, the difference registered on seismographs. But even in his tirade against city noise, McKenzie admitted that “civilization is noise.” This Writing Seminar asks: What can we learn about cities—their histories, communities, and ecologies—from listening to urban environments? How do we discern a city’s heartbeat from its clamor? How do we make sense of silence in the streets? We begin by analyzing the presentation of silence in pandemic lockdown videos of Paris and Rome through R. Murray Schafer’s work on soundscapes. We then turn to the issue of noise pollution in New York City to explore who gets to decide what is and isn’t noise. Finally, students will write an original paper on an act of listening in a historical, cultural, or biological context. Possible topics include: sound design of open-world video games, sonic crowd control at BLM protests, or music and curated sounds carried into deep space by NASA’s Voyager spacecraft. 

 

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

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

 

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?

 

Time’s Mirror

Alena Wigodner

In 1953, French archaeologists uncovered a 2,500-year-old tomb filled with objects only a great and wealthy leader would have. But the skeleton itself seemed to be female and was wearing women’s jewelry. Was it the wife of a leader, buried with markers of her husband’s status? Or perhaps the skeleton of a small man wearing ritual jewelry? The scientists could not imagine it was in fact a woman who had ruled this ancient society. How do our own experiences of gender, power, or race shape our perspective on the human experience more broadly? When peering back in time–or trying to glimpse the distant future–to what extent do we only see our own reflection? We begin this Writing Seminar by analyzing displays of gender and their significance in ancient burials. We turn next to Monsanto’s 1957 vision for a “house of the future” and examine how Americans imagined the impact of emerging technologies on family dynamics. For the research project, students identify a scholarly or fictional study of a community, investigating how its author puts the present into dialogue with the distant past or future. Examples include the immigrants in ancient Teotihuacán; ancient Scythian warriors and myths of the Amazons; Battlestar Galactica; and Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear.

 

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. 

 

Voice and Voicelessness

Zhuming Yao

Dowager Empress Cixi ruled China for more than four decades from behind a curtain. Prohibited as a woman from attending imperial audiences, she gave voice to her authority without being seen. Siri and Alexa voice the role of personal assistants for their millions of users, offering convenience at the price of privacy. How have our understandings and technologies of voice changed over time? How does voice as a phenomenon intersect with conceptions of power and empowerment, intimacy and publicity, identity and community? What happens when a voice cannot be heard, or is simply ignored? In this Writing Seminar, we investigate what voice–and its silencing–mean for our cultural and sociopolitical lives. We begin by analyzing auditions for the new voice of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. We then turn to Hollywood’s “yellowface” films, in which non-Asian actors play Asian characters, interrogating theories of representation, histories of institutional racism, and film technologies. Students conclude the course by researching a form of voice or voicelessness and placing it in a historical, sociopolitical, or cultural-technological context. Possible topics include divine ventriloquism in the Middle Ages, Voyager’s Golden Records sent to outer space, or the 1917 Silent Protest Parade.

 

Weird Weather

Diana Newby

An unprecedented tornado devastated central London in 1091; temperatures plummeted worldwide following the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815; an extraordinarily dry monsoon season triggered famine throughout India in 1899. Humans have a long history of contending with chaotic weather events. Yet a recent United Nations report warns that weather-related disasters have rapidly accelerated over the last two decades, and climate scientists say that weather will only get stranger in the years ahead. How does “weird weather” shape the stories we tell and predictions we make about the natural world? How do we adapt when the improbable becomes a norm? In this Writing Seminar, we begin by analyzing photographs from the 1930s Dust Bowl in light of Amitav Ghosh’s reflections on turning catastrophe into narrative. Next, we investigate the proposed New York Harbor Storm-Surge Barrier through the lenses of engineering, politics, and environmental impact. For the research project, students identify a past or present community dealing with weird weather’s consequences and place the community’s response in social, scientific, or economic context. Topics might include the apocalyptic British poetry that emerged following the “Year Without a Summer,” the new safety building standard established after the 2011 Joplin tornado disaster, or Morocco’s massive water infrastructure investments in the face of multiplying heatwaves.

 

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.”