First-Year Seminar

Seminar Summaries


Office of the Dean of the Faculty



Office of the Dean of the Faculty

2020 Seminar Summaries (fall 2020)

Comedy, Politics, and Performance

How does comedy create social change? To explore this question, we will examine genres of comedy, including movies, stand-up, and political comedy, and their contexts. We may also write and perform our own jokes in class, and your professor promises not to heckle you.

Indelible Ink: The Art, History and Culture of Tattoo

What is a tattoo? Why do humans undergo this procedure of permanent marking? From its spiritual and tribal birth to its subversive and often exploitative past to its mainstream acceptance today, “tattooing” has always been a form of expression and a primitive way of decorating the body. But what are the societal and cultural implications of body art? In this seminar, students will explore the cultural significance of tattoos, research history and styles of tattooing, examine and define the differences between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange, keep a visual journal of images and drawings, and design and create their own ideas for tattoos based upon these concepts.

From Poetry Into Song

What do Hank Williams, Katy Perry, and Wolfgang Mozart have in common? Have you read or written a poem that you thought would make great song lyrics? Throughout history, song writers have set poetry to music that explores the human condition. Some songs are written specifically for concert settings and are known as Art Songs. In this seminar, we will explore the connections between poetry and music in a variety of styles, from an historical context and by a wide range of composers from Folk to Country and Pop to Classical Art Songs.

Zombie Ecologies: Monsters at the End of the World

This seminar introduces students to college-level reading, writing and thinking skills by exploring the concept of “humanity” as a complex myth of interiority, psychology, intellectual depth, character and morality.  Zombies, Vampires and other cultural inscriptions of monstrosity are meditations on the limits of the human, and on an abiding cultural anxiety that creative, imaginative human beings are actually tottering skin bags animated by neurons and subroutines. Zombies and other monsters actually allow us to have a very lively conversation about disciplinary thinking, and about education as a liberal project to “animate” the human being.

Healing Women

This seminar is a feminist, interdisciplinary exploration of religious modes of healing employed by women as both healers and patients/clients in different religious traditions in various parts of the world. We will focus on how specific cultural and religious traditions conceptualize gender and gender roles, as well as health and illness. Some of the questions we will investigate are: What kinds of powers are accessed to perform healing rituals? How are healing arts transmitted? Why are women seen as important healers in particular cultures? What is the role of medical science in religious healing? What methods are used to heal trauma?

Outbreak: From Yellow Fever to Today’s Opiate Epidemic

Epidemics encompass more than just the widespread occurrence of an infectious disease such as yellow fever, cholera, AIDS and Ebola (just to mention a few). Other epidemics not associated with a biological pathogen like obesity, opiate and the famine epidemics, sweep through our society and create global repercussions. This seminar will focus on the historical, scientific, environmental, economic, political and social components of a wide range of epidemics.

Art and Activism

How does art play a role in social and political change? From protest signs to graffiti, this seminar introduces students to artistic and creative forms of activism as a means of drawing attention to injustice. Through readings and class discussions, we will examine how artists instigate change on a local, national, and global scale.

Inside Out - Our Bodies on the Inside and Outside to the World

Our body is always with us and is part of the story of who we are. What are we on the inside and how did we get that way? We’ll uncover how our bodies are the legacy of ancient fish, reptiles, and primates from ancient fossils to DNA – the ancestors you never knew. Moving from the inside out, we’ll explore and experience our body’s connections with art and music, with imagery and fashion, the role of our bodies in power differentials among peoples, the association of gender and the body, and spirituality and the human body.

Going to the Dogs

There are 90 million dogs in US homes and, according to the last census, more households have dogs than children. Looking at the historic and important dog-human relationship lends itself to multiple, intersecting perspectives, providing an effective transition for students into the different methods and approaches they will encounter in a liberal arts curriculum.  In this seminar, we will analyze portrayals of dogs in various media, the physiology of dogs, the social implications of dogs, and the broader significance of the human-dog relationship.

A Barrel of Crude: Oil in American Life

This seminar uses a single commodity - petroleum - as a lens through which to study the modern world from multiple viewpoints. It traces the expansion of the industry from a technologically simple, small-scale affair to a quintessentially global enterprise. Grappling with history and mythology, science and engineering, business and politics, it charts the evolution of oil from an incendiary source of heat and light to an absolutely vital fuel. From where we live and how we move to what we eat and why we wage war, much of our society is shaped by our relationship to, and dependence on, oil.

Understanding Race and Racism

This seminar introduces students to college level critical thinking, reading, and writing through looking at what “race” is from several perspectives: the historical development of the idea of race, scientific racism and the current science of human biological diversity, the contemporary forms of institutional racism and racism as a lived experience both in the US and around the world, and scholarly work to make sense of these phenomena.  The seminar also encourages students to bring a critical academic lens to the world around them (eg. current events/news) and to their own everyday lives.

A Place Called School

Teaching is a cultural activity and most US teachers follow a similar “instructional script.”   Designed to appeal to all majors, in this seminar we will reflect on our own experiences as students as we explore the familiar US public school model, some historical underpinnings, and the ongoing socio-political forces that shape it.  The seminar will then segue to the philosophies and theories of non-traditional domestic and international schools, studying a number of school models such as Montessori, Waldorf, forest, micro, play-based, International Baccalaureate, democratic, expeditionary, and religious-affiliated schools.  Students will collaboratively plan and present a play/performance/theater-based science activity to children in a local elementary school.

Somebody’s Always Watching: Surveillance in Modern Society

With the rise of surveillance technologies, there is limitless capacity for watching others, but who is watching, why, and what are they doing with the data they collect? What are these technologies, how are they being used, and importantly, how are they affecting us, our fears, sense of control, perceptions of convenience, and our rights as citizens and consumers? This class will examine the many ways these surveillance technologies, including Ring doorbells, CCTV, big data, and phones and other smart devices, serve as a type of panopticon and influence myriad aspects of contemporary social life in both positive and negative ways.

Food, Health & the Environment

Many Americans are preoccupied with healthy eating, yet are plagued by food related health problems. Concurrently, the industrial agriculture we rely on for most of our food production is undermining our precious environment, which in turn further hurts people’s health. In this seminar, students actively research how unhealthy ingredients found in processed foods affect human health, how industrial agriculture wreaks havoc on ecosystems, and what solutions or alternatives exist.

Running For Your Life!

For some people, running is something to enjoy while others avoid it at all cost. However, recent anthropological evidence suggests that endurance running appears to be a defining evolutionary characteristic of human development. This seminar will explore the social, cultural and physiological roles of physical activity in our society to see whether humans were “born to run.” The seminar will conclude with an examination of the broader implications of maintaining an active lifestyle.

Confucius Says: the Moral Life Examined

What is the best way to live a moral life? How can one best benefit humanity and oneself? How should one make moral choices? How should a state be organized to promote the well-being of its citizens? These questions were addressed by Confucius and other Chinese philosophers thousands of years ago and were recorded in texts that are some of the most powerful and influential texts in human history. This seminar will present an overview of early Chinese thought by reading works of early Chinese thinkers such as Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, Laozi, Xunzi, and more in translation.

Fixing Broken Minds?

The prevalence of mental illness continues to increase with each generation. Its negative impact ranges from staggering economic costs to unparalleled emotional suffering and lost lives.  In the face of this we have the field of mental health - a loosely defined field made up of numerous disciplines all attempting to battle mental illness predominantly by treating it at the individual level. This seminar will explore this battle through open-minded inquiry via readings, discussion, and debate.  We will contemplate the meaning of mental illness and grapple with the weight of a profession that holds lives in its hands.

From Farm to Table: How Food Impacts Our Planet

You may think your meal is worthy of an Instagram photo – but have you considered the complex processes and many people who contribute to the food you eat? This seminar will explore the complicated journey of our food from farm to table. We will discuss modern agriculture as well as issues surrounding our food and how it is produced. We will also compare the ecological footprint and health effects of various foods while investigating the links between our food choices, climate change, and the health of our planet.

Roots and Branches: Finding Family History

Family is everything, or is it?  This seminar is an introduction to basic methods and purposes of genealogy and family history, especially as it relates to essential research methods and organization.  We will explore how to find and verify vital records for building a family tree. (Students can choose between researching their own family or another, by assignment.) But we will also consider why so many are so compelled to spend enormous amounts of time and money finding the traces of their family origins.  What are we looking for? What do we find?

Secret History

How do you “know” what you “know” and what does it mean you do?  What if everything you “know” is wrong…your life profoundly shaped by moments that barely left a trace in History where people  struggled to realize private dreams and desires in public counter-hegemonic space(s) and sought to gain control over the material and ideological conditions of their everyday lives. So what matters are Arabian Assassins, Mediterranean pirate enclaves, the Paris Commune, Dada, tri-racial isolate drop-out communities, Situationists, and “punks”? “Real” (hi)story found in Ginsberg’s “Howl,” 16th century Anabaptists, the Velvet Underground, silent French movie serials, Delta blues singers, Chance the Rapper or Lizzo…

Wake Up! The Science, History and Culture of Coffee

In this seminar, we will explore all things related to coffee, from the cultivation of the bean to how the product ends up in our cups. In efforts to understand the caffeinated culture in which we live, our readings, classroom discussions and writing activities will cross all disciplines. We will explore the molecular structure of caffeine to the impact of the coffee industry on our environment; travel throughout time from its discovery in the 9th century to the rise of a multi-billion dollar industry in the 21st; and contemplate the relationship between coffee, religion and our sense of place.