Engaging Minds, Transforming Lives

First-Year Seminar

2015 Seminar Summaries  


Animation Salvation! - Portraying Religion in Cartoons and Comics

Animation is everywhere, and usually we view it for its humor, wit, and its biting social commentary.  But what if we can actually LEARN something from it as well?  In obvious and sometimes not so obvious ways, animation – comics, graphic novels, animated TV and film – tackles important subjects.  This course looks at all of these types of animation to see how they reflect and interpret ideas/ideologies about religion. What can Ned Flanders, Hank Hill, “Davey and Goliath”, or the kids from “South Park” show us about religion and the world we live in today?  Our goal is to find out. 

“A Pirate’s Life for Me:” Pirates, Piracy, and Southwestern

This seminar will use our own swashbuckling university mascot as a lens through which to study history, literature, art, pop culture, the media, law, business, and the environment.  We will explore the existence and changing definitions of piracy across time and space, from its ancient roots to its Caribbean golden age, to modern piracy on the high seas and online.  From Henry Morgan to Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Jack Sparrow, and Napster, who or what constitutes a pirate, why do they capture our imaginations so, and what does it mean to be one in present-day Georgetown, Texas? 

Crossing Lines: Nations, Races, Borders in a “Global” World

Today, we live in a “global market,” while walls are built between nations; many say they no longer “see color,” while segregation in cities and schools often surpasses levels prior to the 1960s; our ideals celebrate diversity, while our practices suggest a deep suspicion of border crossers and those with different ethnic identities, cultures, or religions.  What new forms are nations, nationalisms, races, racisms, borders, and their policing taking on?  How do they relate to one another?  This seminar will seek to help orient us amidst this confusion and to open new conceptions of struggles for equality and civil rights. 

“Dark” Chocolate: Science & Culture

Nearly everyone loves some kind of chocolate but no one thinks enough about where chocolate comes from or how it gets to the stores’ shelves.  Chocolate’s versatility reaches back centuries, yet emerges routinely in our social lives, our environmental concerns, our health applications and our aesthetic experiences.  This seminar uses chocolate as a context to make connections between the sciences, social sciences, humanities and the fine arts.  This seminar challenges assumptions of students about what “chocolate” really means.  Students will critically evaluate sources of chocolate and discuss texts that shed light on past applications and controversies surrounding this delightful resource. 

“Doctor Who” as Social Commentary

Mixed in with the fanciful fezzes, sonic screwdrivers, and magical blue police box of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s“Doctor Who” are complex critiques of contemporary social issues.  In this seminar, we will delve beneath the iconic images to critically analyze the television show’s social and political commentary on war, intergroup and race relations, the human-alien dichotomy, the media, nationalism, gender roles and feminism, and the in/appropriate use of violence. 

Embiggening Minds through Satire: Lessons from “The Simpsons”

What can Maggie Simpson teach us about personal freedom? How can mathematics explain Homer and Marge’s secret to a happy marriage?  Is alcohol truly “the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems?”  As the longest running television show in American history, “The Simpsons” has tackled myriad political, social, and cultural issues.  Looking through the eyes of the residents of Springfield, we will explore themes associated with numerous academic fields. Topics in mathematics, psychology, politics, and philosophy will be covered with an emphasis on the unique perspective satire provides in explicating these issues. 

French Food Culture: See Your Plate with New Eyes

This seminar deals with French culture and health matters using food as a lens to answer such questions as: Why have other cultures long considered the French authorities in the culinary world? How can food become an art form? How can French people consume a decadent diet while enjoying a low rate of obesity and heart disease? To name just a few topics, this seminar examines the invention of the restaurant; the birth of food critiquing; contemporary French food culture; natural versus industrial food; or unhealthy ingredients found in processed food. Students will contrast concepts and trends of their own everyday life with those of the French cultural model. 

From Christopher Columbus to Jim Crow, Michael Brown, and “Fresh off the Boat”: Rethinking Race and Racism in the 21st Century

In this seminar, we first explore the historical development of the ideas and institutions of race and racism.  We then review the myth of biological race and learn the biology of human difference. The latter weeks of the seminar explore how race and racism, and the systems of privilege and oppression they generate, manifest themselves in the 21st century, a time some claim is post-racial.  While the seminar focuses primarily on the U.S. and looks closely at current events tied to race and racism in the U.S., it also considers how race and racism are structured in other parts of the world. 

Funky City: New Orleans from Creoles to Katrina

This seminar explores a city that is unlike any other place in the U.S.  The differences are partly a matter of the city’s setting, but also come from being a place where new, creole cultures emerged in America from African and European roots.  Through discussion of reading and films, and through students’ own research, we will explore the physical and cultural creation of the city from French colonial times through Hurricane Katrina (2005). In the process we will learn about slavery and race, cultural creativity and interactions, and about the perils of trying to control the natural environment. 

Pop-up Books:  Manipulating Life through Discovery and Ingenuity

Pop-up books are interactive illustrations rooted in the history and expression of discovery.  One of the earliest inventions of interactive illustrations was the volvelle, which was a tool used in astrological calculations.  Volvelles are still used today in the arts and sciences.  We will examine and discuss pop-up books and the cross-curricular nature of paper engineering. Similar paper engineering techniques used in the design of pop up books are used to solve everyday challenges, like the collapsible, paper sack.  What was the rationale for creating a foldable sack?  Advanced folding techniques are used today to create a myriad of life changing products and tools which advance our civilization.  The history, innovation, and artistry of pop-up books will be the foundation for research, discussion, problem solving and critical thinking as we analyze these paper engineered creations. 

Pseudoscience: An Exploration into the Limits of Knowledge

Is science the ultimate tool to explain the world we live in?  If this is so, why then are we surrounded by and perhaps even endorsing practices that others deem as pseudoscientific - to say the least, but also superstitious, or even false?  Historically, science and pseudoscience live together and have mutually helped to develop each other. In this seminar, we will use pseudoscience as an analytical category to understand how what counts as scientific knowledge have shifted over time and how other elements impact on the spread of science within society. 

Roadside America

What images come to mind when you hear someone say “road trip”?  Where did those images come from?  What do they mean?  How is “hitting the open road” different from and similar to being “stuck in traffic,” going to work?  By studying representations of road trips, highway landscapes, traffic, car culture, and “the road” in road movies such as “Thelma & Louise”, road novels such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and in the popular culture of roadside America, this seminar explores how cars, the road, and mobility are central to American cultural ideas about identity, freedom, belonging, and citizenship. 

Robots in Fact and Fiction

We live in a technological world and the machines we interact with (directly and indirectly) influence our lives in many ways - socially, artistically, economically and politically to name just a few.  This seminar uses the subject of robotics to explore how man and machine have changed one another.  We will discuss how robots have been portrayed in literature, on television and in the movies.  Toward the end of the seminar we will examine several technologies that are now being developed and consider how they might change our lives in the near future. 

Run for Your Life!

Exercise is an accessible and inexpensive way to combat a multitude of preventable diseases afflicting our society; so it is paradoxical that we live in a relatively sedentary society.  Contributing to this paradox is recent evidence that from an evolutionary perspective, endurance running appears to be a defining characteristic of humans and is one of the keys to their survival.  This seminar will consider the exercise-health paradox beginning with an examination of the “mismatch hypothesis.”  Social, cultural and physiological aspects of running will then be examined to see whether humans were “born to run.” 

September 11, Terrorism, and Response

The shocking event of September 11 merits attention beyond what the media have covered.  Why was the U.S. the target of those terrible attacks?  Who was Osama bin Laden, and what have been the goals, strategies and tactics, and resources of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups?  What explains the rise of Islamic militancy in the Middle East?  Why and how has terrorism become internationalized?  How should the U.S. respond to terrorism?  These are the major questions we will discuss in this seminar. 

Taking a Walk In a Painting

There is an increasing use of visualization at every level in our daily contemporary life.  Traditional literacy, based on the printed text, is being displaced by a culture of the screen (movies, computers, Ipods, Ipads, videogames, music videos, etc.).  We are confronted on a daily basis with a kaleidoscope of rapidly changing images.  But what would happen if we could reverse this trend and give ourselves the time to stop and look at a single image for an extended period of time?  Velasquez’s famous painting Las Meninas (1656) – considered by many “the world’s greatest painting” – will be the focus of our seminar.  What can we learn by “looking” at this painting for eight entire weeks? 

Talkin’ Trash

Humans have always left behind trash. But can you imagine 64 tons of garbage? including 15 tons of packaging alone?  This is the lifetime amount generated by the average American, and there are over 300 million of us!  Are our current habits and disposal methods sustainable?  Can people make a living from the waste of others?  Is there treasure in trash?  We will explore various facts, philosophies, practices, and multi-faceted implications related to our “throw-away” society. 

The Science of Human Sexuality (Sex Talk)

From an early age, we’re bombarded with negative messages about sex and are taught to be afraid to talk about it.  This taboo is unfortunate because the benefits of increased knowledge and communication about sex are many and the costs of not having these discussions are high.  As a society, it is crucial that we engage in “sex talk” in order to promote sexual health and responsible behavior.  This seminar will start the dialogue by using a scientific framework to examine several core issues in human sexuality, including gender roles and gender identity, sexual orientation, contraception, sexual health, and love and communication in relationships. 

Tuning the Hemispheres: Music and the Brain

What happens in our brain when we listen to music? What parts of the brain are activated? Have humans been adapted for music? Can music make you smarter? What role does music play in the creation of our personal identities? How have our interactions with music changed over time? This seminar will examine the psychological and physiological effects that music has on the human brain, and consider it in broad contexts and specific case studies.  We will consider how, in the age of the Shazam, Pandora and the iPhone we communicate with one-another at an interpersonal level through music. 

Visions and Virgins: Art Mediating Miracles

Miraculous images have been around for centuries, but why do people believe in them? This seminar examines miraculous images and the accumulation of historical and mythological lore that give them meaning, revealing that miracles are much more than what meets the eye. They are critical to the social fabric of communities, both large and small, and they have been the source of great controversies throughout history. We will analyze the intersections of miraculous images and visions, including the optic sciences, human cognition, artistic illusionism, and mystic visionaries. By questioning how and why does art mediate divine experience, we will seek to understand its power on the human psyche and the social roles of miracles and visionaries in different cultures. 

What Are You Saying?: Exploring Language and Communication

Is there a right way and a wrong way to say something?  Do men and women speak differently?  Do the Eskimos really have 50 words for snow?  How does language change over time?  How does the way you speak reveal who you are?  Are humans the only animals with language?  In this seminar, we will explore all things linguistic, starting with the basic question of what exactly language is, and on to issues of language and identity, language and thought, language and evolution, language and society, language and the media, and so on.  This seminar will take us on a thought-provoking journey exploring one of the most unique and fascinating aspects of human knowledge and behavior: language. 

Your, My, and Our Music

We will examine American culture and personal tastes through various works of popular music.  A few of the artists (like Bob Dylan, the Talking Heads, and James Brown) will be selected by the instructor.  Most of them, however, will be generated by the students in the class.  As well as listening to a wide variety of music we will watch a few documentaries and a lot of clips, read across disciplines, and dive into the social, political, economic, and aesthetic force fields out of which our songbook came.  The seminar will culminate in student projects that will be video “biographies” of particular songs.