First-Year Seminar

Seminar Summaries


Office of the Dean of the Faculty

Office of the Dean of the Faculty

Coming Soon - Fall 2024 Seminar Summaries

2023 Seminar Summaries (fall 2023)

Robots in Fact and Fiction

We live in a technological world and technological changes can have social, artistic, economic and political implications. This course 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 students who are taking this class have graduated from Southwestern.

The Games We Play

Have you ever solved a mystery in a game of Clue, had a game of Monopoly end in tears, played Candyland with a child, or teamed up in a cooperative game like Pandemic? What has made some board games popular for thousands of years? Why can you be a professional in games like Scrabble, but seemingly not in others? The seminar will focus on board games, as well as exploring gamification, game theory, and other forms of games. We will investigate the history, psychology, relevance, and impact of games, and consider what constitutes a game.

Underneath the Covers: Songs and Their Stories

From ABBA to ZZ Top, and Afropop to Zydeco; audiences, performers, and songwriters have a rich and complicated history that reveals much about the human experience. By sampling selected works that have been “covered” by multiple artists, we will examine these connected and overlapping groups and the explore what they reveal about artistic expression, commercialism, history, identity, race, and social interaction, among many other concepts. We will consider the art of songwriting and composition, and the role that interpretation plays in changing a given work’s impact and communicative qualities. Let’s see what’s Underneath the Covers.

Comedy, Politics, 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.

Leaving Notes: Intergenerational Communication About Our Climate and Other Issues

How do we communicate effectively about climate change and important social justice issues? What can we learn about intergenerational communication from international climate fiction, from art projects, from science communication, or from case studies across different cultures? We will develop our critical appreciation for how international climate fiction, art, and effective science communication can connect us across generations and cultures. We will explore fascinating “notes” left for future generations and analyze their power to invite audiences to see, to care, and to act. Such notes include a “letter to the future” left on a plaque by Texas anthropologists to commemorate the death of an Icelandic glacier; or the message from an endangered parrot to the humans who destroyed its habitat in Puerto Rico when they built a giant telescope in Arecibo: “Be good. I love you.”

The Future is Now! - Science Fiction’s Fabulations

By telling stories and inventing worlds, science fiction asks questions about what is possible. Sometimes dismissed as a genre of shallow spectacles, this seminar proposes that science fiction is, rather, one of the most vibrant and important forms of writing and thinking today, opening new perspectives on complex issues concerning ecology, gender, race, politics, language, and more. Imagining multiple futures will challenge us to rethink what exists and to think anew about how it might be fundamentally changed. We’ll explore utopias and dystopias, first encounters and novel ecologies, in order to consider the contradictions and possibilities latent in the present.

Taking a Walk in a Painting: Velazquez’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. There is eternally something enigmatic about the painting: What mysterious codes are concealed in the painting’s complicated composition and mathematics? What desires are you possibly harboring, that a semester-long journey will reveal?

Healing Women

This course is a feminist, interdisciplinary exploration of modes of healing employed by women (and others) in different religious and cultural traditions and socio-historical contexts. 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: Who has power and authority to heal? What kinds of powers are accessed? What methods are used to heal trauma? How is individual healing connected to communal transformation? What role does story-telling play in healing? What are the connections between healing and activism?

Just Grow It: Community Gardening

Food is vital for human survival but many people lack consistent access to enough nutritious food. This course will take an experiential, project-based approach to explore the importance of urban community gardens on access and quality of food, physical and mental health, positive environmental impacts, and improved social systems. Using the garden space on campus, students will design their own garden bed and plant, cultivate, and harvest their crops. We will explore the role food and community gardens play in human health, the environment, and society through readings, podcasts, film, field trips and writing.

History of Economic Crises Around the World

The seminar will analyze the most important economic crises around the world, understand their potential causes, study the impacts of the crises, governments’ responses to the crises, and evaluate their effectiveness. Given that we’ve experienced two economic crises within the US alone in the last two decades, the seminar covers a relevant topic and helps students become more informed citizens.

Art and Activism

How do artists and designers instigate change and draw attention to injustice? From graphic posters to public performances, Art and Activism explores the merging of art, politics, and protest. In this seminar, students will delve into creative and artistic forms of activism and discover the signs and symbols that have become indicators of movements within popular culture.

Visions and Virgins: Art Mediating Miracles

Looking at miraculous images and the layers of historical and mythological lore that give them meaning, this course reveals that visions and miracles are more than meets the eye. They are part optical impressions, cognitive processes, religious affiliation, political action, and cultural cohesion, and are mediated to non-visionaries through art and visual culture—the cultural capital we all carry, which modifies and changes through further experiences. Such is the power of images to affect our everyday lives, as witnessed throughout history in moments of iconoclasm (the destruction of images) and iconophilia (the veneration of images).

Healing Cultures and the Modern World

This seminar examines healing cultures around the world. As scientific medicine integrated into modern societies during the last five centuries, traditional knowledges consolidated the identity of different communities around the world. The synchronic development of these healing cultures generated new bodily, disease, and therapeutic experiences integral with, complementary to, and in tension with each other. Together we will explore a few of them, including acupuncture, ayurveda, homeopathy, medicinal herbs, mesmerism, and moxabustion as well as the ways societies perceive, value, and regulate them now and then.

A Barrel of Crude: Oil in American Life

This first-year seminar uses petroleum as a lens to study the modern world. Grappling with history and mythology, science and engineering, business and politics, it traces the evolution of the industry from a technologically simple, small-scale affair to a quintessential global enterprise. From where we live and how we move to what we eat and why we wage war, no one is untouched by oil. It is so inextricably bound up in our gas-guzzling, car-dependent pattern of living that it is nearly impossible to conceive of a world without it—and yet in the 21st century, it is increasingly important that we try! In sum, this seminar will invite you to use the past, present, and future of petroleum to explore the world of liberal arts education—and model the Southwestern experience.

What is Race?

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, and movements for Black life and racial justice that have resurged recently. The course encourages students to bring a critical academic lens to both the world around them (eg. current events/news) and to their own everyday lives.

The Secret Lives of Metaphor

This seminar examines metaphor through a variety of lenses and texts. Although metaphors are typically thought of as decorative bits in poetry or artful prose, scholars from many disciplines argue that metaphors are fundamental to how we understand the world around us. Metaphor—roughly equating or blending two different terms or ideas (e.g., my love is a rose)—enables us to make connections among things, construct categories or groups, contextualize events, and frame courses of action. We will look at and test arguments about metaphor taken from a range of disciplines by applying them to everything from poetry to medical diagnoses.

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 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!

Modern humans evolved as endurance runners yet physical inactivity accounts for 1 in 10 deaths globally, a rate comparable to that of heart disease. This is due to a mismatch between our prehistoric bodies designed for activity and a modern world that values leisure. Therefore, it is somewhat paradoxical that, while modern humans were designed to run, the number of physically inactive people continues to increase. This seminar will explore this paradox from three perspectives; 1) humans as animals that need physical activity to survive; 2) factors that contribute to the pandemic of physical inactivity; and 3) solutions to this problem.

Cheaters Never Win, Or Do They?

What do fishing, chess, ballet, bodybuilding, and softball have in common? Cheaters win and sometimes that’s okay. Cheating is commonplace in nearly every competitive venue from Little League to the Olympics. Sometimes it is ignored and considered ethically ambiguous, while other times it’s considered morally reprehensible and punished harshly. We will explore cheating from the biological, psychological, economic, and cultural perspectives to understand the incentives to cheat in sport and why it matters…or doesn’t.

Confucius Says: Ancient Paths to Happiness & Well-Being

Many self-help books published today promote transformation by searching for an authentic or true version of one’s self. Teachings by Confucius and other thinkers more than two thousand years ago advocated a different approach: assuming the world is unpredictable, embracing possibilities instead of labels, yielding instead of grasping for power, and improving oneself through small daily habits. This seminar will present an overview of these powerful ideas by introducing students to the writings of early Chinese thinkers such as Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, Laozi, Xunzi, and more in translation.

Fixing Broken Minds

The prevalence of mental illness increases with each generation. Its negative effects range from staggering economic costs to unparalleled emotional suffering and lost lives - and these effects have been compounded by the global pandemic. Mental health professionals across a wide variety of disciplines devote their careers to battling mental illness through understanding and treatment. In Fixing Broken Minds, we 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.

Culture Shock: Understanding our Multicultural World

In this course, 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 difference in the world in which we live.

Sharing Holy Land

Our seminar will be a study and discussion about sacred space within the context of Israel and Palestine. We will begin with the perspective of ordinary people, through three films, then through an overview of recent history. We will discuss how people share sacred space, both in our own world and in the Middle East. We will put particular focus on how different populations see identity and history. Finally, students will study a particular site of their own choice, and discuss who shares it, how they do so, and why. The overall theme is to begin with the idea that people should coexist (as the bumper sticker says) and ask, how?

Ni de aquí, ni de allá: Immigration and Identity

Why do people leave the countries they love? Why is immigration a contentious issue? How do the children of immigrants construct their identity, influenced by family, school, the media, and other social forces? Migration has been part of human history as long as history has been documented, orally or written. Through this course, we will examine global histories of immigration, the role of art in immigrant activism, and ethnic/racial identity construction. Through art, literature, and film we will examine immigrant stories, primarily of individuals and families who moved from the global south to the United States, Canada or Europe.

Secret History

How do you know what you know and what does it mean you do? What if much of what you “know” is wrong…your life 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. Iykyk. Arabian Assassins, pirate enclaves, the Paris Commune, Dada, tri-racial isolate drop-out communities, Situationists, and “punks.”“Real” (hi)story found in Ginsberg’s “Howl,” 16th C Anabaptists, the Velvet Underground, silent French film serials, Delta blues singers, PE, Taylor Swift.

September 11, Terrorism, and Response

The shocking event of 9/11 merits attention. Why was the U.S. the target of those attacks? What explains the rise of Al Qaeda, its affiliates like ISIS, and Islamic militancy? How has terrorism in general evolved, particularly with the rise of white nationalist terrorism in the U.S.? How should the US respond to terrorism, whether it originates in another country or from within our own? These are the big questions this seminar will address.