First-Year Seminar

Seminar Summaries


Office of the Dean of the Faculty



Office of the Dean of the Faculty

Summaries for the fall 2020 Seminar offerings will be posted by the first of February 2020. Please check back for more details. Below are summaries of the seminars that were taught in fall 2019.
2019 Seminar Summaries (fall 2019)

Robots in Fact and Fiction

We live in a technological world and technological changes can have social, artistic, economic and political implications. This seminar uses the subject of robotics to explore some of the changes that have happened in the last few years and will attempt to examine some of the changes that are projected to occur by the time the enrolled students have graduated from Southwestern.

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.

Does Chocolate Have a “Dark” Side: Science and Culture of Chocolate

Nearly everyone loves some kind of chocolate. Chocolate’s use 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 for finding connections among multiple disciplines including biology, chemistry, history, psychology, art, business, and anthropology among others. This seminar challenges assumptions of students about what “chocolate” really means. Students learn to critically evaluate the sources of chocolate and discuss texts that shed light on past applications and controversies surrounding chocolate.

Art and Revolution

Do the arts belong to the “real world,” or are they conveniences that provide entertainment in good times, but are irrelevant to the things that really matter? This seminar will explore the proposition that music, painting, poetry, and all the arts are essential to the realities of life – giving voice to the ideas and movements that make up the real world as well as fueling changes that revolutionize life for millions. Readings will discuss the roles of the arts in society and social change (for example, in the French Revolution, the suffrage movement, and the Civil Rights movement).

Taking a Walk In a Painting: Velázquez’s Las Meninas

“A princess, a nun, a dwarf, a dog, and an artist walk into a room.” It could be the beginning of a joke, but these are only some of the strange characters in Diego Velázquez’s famous painting, Las Meninas (1656), considered by many the world’s greatest artwork. The longer one looks at this painting, the more questions emerge: scholars, artists, and art-lovers of painting have been gazing at it for over three centuries. There is eternally something enigmatic about the painting: why has this odd group of characters gathered together? Why are some of them looking at us, the viewers, in an unsettling way? What wondrous worlds are hidden inside the invisible canvas, the mirror, and the luminous open door? What mysterious codes are concealed in the painting’s complicated composition and mathematics? But most importantly, what desires are you possibly harboring, that a semester-long journey will reveal? 

Healing Women

This seminar is a feminist, interdisciplinary exploration of religious modes of healing employed by women 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

This seminar will focus on the historical, scientific, environmental, political and social components of a wide range of epidemics. We will begin by learning the terrifying story of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, including the Constitutional crisis our country faced when President Washington was forced to leave the city to escape the disease. Followed by understanding the crisis-level national opiate epidemic we faced today. Through readings and conversations about epidemics from different perspectives, you will learn how to analyze information and critically think about the many factors that contribute to epidemics around the world.

Gavels and Gowns: Past Precedent in the Present

Article III of the U.S. Constitution gives judicial power to the Supreme Court. Supreme Court rulings have broad implications for society but, outside of a few landmark rulings, most people are unfamiliar with many of the cases that shape our current legal system and social norms. We will explore these cases using the framework of the podcast “More Perfect” from Radiolab. We will learn the background history of cases, learn the process for how cases get to the Supreme Court, listen to oral arguments and read decisions, and discuss the implications and unintended consequences of rulings.

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. We’ll uncover how our bodies are the legacy of ancient fish, reptiles and primates - the ancestors you never knew - and discover some of the remarkable “things” today about our bodies. Moving from the inside to the outside, we’ll explore and experience: where art and music connect with our bodies; whether fashion and imagery define us; the role of our bodies in power differentials among peoples; the association of gender and/or sex and the body; and spirituality and the human body.

What’s Wrong With US?!

More people seem to be asking this question lately than ever before. This seminar will examine why that might be. We will look at large-scale changes that have taken place in the last century that have created the contemporary world in its present form - changes less obvious than the rapid growth of technology and the degradation of the environment. We will investigate a range of ideas about what kind of thing we are, as a collective species, and consider how radical changes in how we communicate and construct identity have affected us - particularly through the birth and growth of marketing, public relations, consumerism and propaganda.

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

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? 

A Barrel of Crude: Oil in American Life

Petroleum fuels modern life, not just our gas-guzzling cars. Our homes and food, clothes and drugs, diplomacy and politics, and even our wars—oil is so essential to daily lives that it is almost impossible to imagine a world without it. How did we get here? What does it mean? Why does it matter? And, perhaps most importantly, is it sustainable? This seminar explores these and other crucial questions through the biography of a barrel of crude oil. Exploring the evolution of the industry from a small-scale affair to the quintessentially global enterprise, it examines history and mythology, science and engineering, business and labor, consumer culture and international relations.

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, contemporary forms of institutional racism, and racism as a lived experience both in the US and around the world. 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.

I Spy With My Little Eye: Surveillance, Digital Media, and Social Life

With the rise of surveillance technologies, there is limitless capacity for watching others, but who is watching us and why? What are these technologies, how are they being used, and importantly, how are they affecting us, our fears, sense of control, and our rights as citizens and consumers? This seminar will examine the many ways these surveillance technologies influence contemporary social life. We will also explore the centrality of race, class, and gender in these surveillance processes and the differential impacts that they have on people of color who are more likely to be perceived as security threats.

Wheels and Deals: A Survey of Television Game Shows

What is a “game show”? What is The $64,000 Question? Who is Monty Hall? The final answers to these and many other questions will be answered in this seminar as we explore the fascinating world of television game shows through a liberal arts lens. Along the way we will spend some time using game theory and probability to understand optimal strategies for winning “big bucks” on various game shows. Other topics we may explore include the history of game shows, the music of game shows, game shows and American culture, the role of women on game shows, and game shows abroad. As a final project, the students will create their very own game shows.

Food, Health & the Environment

Many Americans are obsessed with healthy eating, yet they 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 course, 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 the Broken Mind

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 predominately 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: Food in our Changing Environment

You may think your meal is worthy of an Instagram photo – but have you considered the complex processes and the many people who contributed to the food you consume? This seminar will explore the complicated journey of our food from farm to table. We will discuss historical and modern agriculture as well as the economic, political, racial, and social justice issues surrounding food and how it is produced. We will also compare the ecological footprint and health effects of food grown under different conditions. Additionally, we will investigate how global climate change has already affected, and will continue to impact, our food options.

Roots and Branches – Family History in Williamson County

This seminar is an exploration into the basic resources and methods of family history, with Williamson County, Texas as a topic of focus.  As a class we will all work together on the family history of Dan Moody of Taylor, Texas, who brought the first conviction against the Ku Klux Klan in 1923. Our purpose will be to find available information on his roots, his family, and his extended family, using as many local and online resources as we can find.  These will give us keys for personal family history, training in research for nearly any discipline, and engagement with issues of personal identity in an extended family context.

Culture Shock: Understanding Our Multicultural World

In this seminar, we will explore our multicultural world by defining what culture means and how cultural biases influence our decisions. You will also have the opportunity to make connections between the US and other countries, and you will begin to understand external perspectives on global issues. Together, we will question our place in this world, become better global citizens, and start to make a real difference in the world in which we live.

Getting Schooled: The Promise and Problems of College in America

Americans have long agreed that a college education is key to a good future. But a growing number of critics argue that college is over-rated, too expensive, too exclusive, and teaches the wrong things. What really is the purpose of college? Is it worth the cost, and why is it so expensive? Who should go, and how do we make access fair? And what should students learn there? In this seminar, we will explore histories, documentaries, debates, data, manifestos, and personal stories. In the process, students will develop essential skills as readers, writers, thinkers, researchers, and participants in public conversations.

September 11, Terrorism, and Response

The shocking event of September 11th merits attention beyond what the media have covered. Why was the U.S. the target of those attacks? Who was Osama bin Laden, and what have been the goals and strategies of Al Qaeda? What explains the rise of ISIS and 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 that we will address in this seminar. In addition to discussing September 11th as a case, we will look at terrorism in general and issues related to counterterrorism to a lesser extent.