First-Year Preceptorial

Course Description Archive 04 - 05

First-Year Seminar Descriptions, 2004-2005

1. Reason, Religion, and Science

We ordinarily assume that we know a great many things about ourselves and about the world. But historical cultures, peoples, and civilizations have differed greatly in their interpretations of human physical, social, spiritual, and moral experience. Through intensive reading of a variety of important and representative texts from diverse points of view, students will be encouraged to evaluate critically not merely their own beliefs (and prejudices) but also those of other places and times. In general, the Preceptorial is intended to help students write and speak carefully and thoughtfully about important intellectual and moral issues. There will be a strong emphasis on argumentation and writing skills. Readings will be from fiction as well as nonfiction, including works by Robert Sawyer, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Sigmund Freud, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill.

2. The Radical Challenge

"Our age," said Immanuel Kant, "is an age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit." That's as true now as it was in 1781; and so this course will survey some of the most powerful radical ideas put forth in recent years by scientists, philosophers, and social critics of every sort. In The spirit in the Gene Reg Morrison argues that humanity's proud illusions have turned it into the ultimate "plague species" that is now destroying the planet. In Writings on an Ethical Life, Peter Singer calls for scrapping the "old commandments," animal liberation, rethinking life and death, and dismantling bourgeois consumerism. In Miriam Schneir's Feminism in Our Time the major feminist voices of the last half-century become a chorus condemning male oppression and affirming downtrodden female values. In How We Die Sherwin Nuland debunks the myth of "death with dignity" and shows how the processes of physical disintegration strongly suggest that the soul dies (forever) with the body. In Faded Mosaic Christopher Clausen claims that we are living in a "post-cultural" America, where most of the talk about "multiculturalism" and getting back to ethnic roots makes no sense. These readings will be supplemented by brief excerpts from other, earlier radical thinkers; and students will be encouraged to measure their own beliefs and assumptions against those of our determined troublemakers.

3. Globalization and Culture

Globalization -- the spread and intensification of worldwide social, political and economic relationships -- has generated unprecedented interdependence among citizens, governments and economies throughout our world. The disparate impact of globalization’s forces on whole cultures as well as individual citizens is the focus of this course. As Benjamin Barber writes in Jihad vs. McWorld, one of the books we will read in the course, a critical examination of how cultures and citizens outside capitalist markets view globalization as an intrusion into their way of life is crucial in understanding the violent resistance in some parts of the world we see today. Just as important is a critical look at how globalization has impacted the goals and priorities of western cultures as well as individual citizens within them in profoundly social and psychological ways.

4. Travel Writing and War Reporting: Exploring the Other

This section of FP explores ways of knowing through travel writing and war reporting. Both the travel writer and the war reporter explore a country, a culture, a society, that is somehow foreign, the Other. Perhaps the place, the Other, is distant physically, but is always distant in terms of its social, religious, political, psychological, and/or cultural values. The travel writer or war reporter is likely to be only superficially knowledgeable about the place, its history, major players, and the current issues. The travel writer might actually be on a trip, interviewing, wandering, but mostly experiencing and observing; or she/he might live in a place (not home) for a period of time, gleaning insights from that experience. Similarly a war reporter views war, revolution, violence, as an outsider looking in, trying to comprehend the intensities, the deaths, but mostly racing from one battle to another, not usually fully cognizant of the bigger picture. Each contends with limited information while writing their essays; we will study their successes and failures, their impact, and what ultimately makes a good travel writer or war reporter.

5. Morality, Religion, Altruism and Justice

Society infuses our minds with widely accepted meanings of morality, religion, altruism and justice. Many extol the experience of spiritual exaltation provided by religion; others see religion as mind numbing the destructive. Many extol altruism as a virtue; others see altruism as detrimental to the individual and to society. Many believe justice is administered by the courts; others find injustice everywhere.

To explore different viewpoints, we begin by reading texts discussing good versus evil and insider of society versus outsider. We continue with readings on altruism versus selfishness, for or against religion and end with a look at various forms of justice. We will read texts of varying length by Anouilh, Bolt, Camus, Garcia Marquez, Gide, Ibsen, Langston Hughes, Maugham, Th. Mann and Sophocles and supplement these with brief excerpts from the writings of Buber, Emerson, Epictetus, Marx, Niebuhr, Nietzsche, Rand, and Rousseau.

6. Objectification: Pornography, Representation, and Culture from Antiquity to the Present

How do people become objects? In this course, students will explore the concept of objectification through the debate over pornography. We will examine the definition and cultural significance of pornography in various historical contexts, ranging from antiquity to the present. How do we define something as pornographic and does pornography by definition objectify people? Can men be objectified or only women? Does pornography blur the boundaries between representation and reality? Why do some societies interpret the effects of objectification and pornography as positive and others negative? Readings will include excerpts from authors such as Livy, Ovid, and Catullus and stretch to the present day in the writings of feminist philosophers such as Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and Susanne Kappeler. We will also consider modern obscenity laws and the First Amendment. Visual media for the course will include ancient wall painting and sculpture, the film The People vs. Larry Flint, excerpts of Woody Allen movies, and the Victoria Secret catalogue.

7. The Nuclear Age

The recent emphasis on "weapons of mass destruction" and nuclear proliferation with regard to terrorism should remind us that we are still in the nuclear age, that period of recent history that began when scientists discovered some of the secrets of atoms and subatomic particles during the very first decades of the twentieth century. Nuclear transmutation and radiation remained scientific curiosities and medical therapy until the discovery of nuclear fission and the second world war facilitated the creation of nuclear weapons, and its follow-on nuclear energy. Both of these were developed in the context of the Cold War, with profound effects on literature, culture and society, and politics. While the Cold War has come to an end, the nuclear age has not. A series of shocks--the fear of nuclear fallout, the Cuban missile crisis, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, serious environmental pollution, the proliferation of nuclear weapons among sometimes unstable and (as far as the United States is concerned) hostile regimes--has rocked the nuclear age, but not brought it to a conclusion. Even if we do not think about it very much anymore, we all still live under the shadow of the mushroom cloud. This class will include readings from science fiction, eyewitness accounts of nuclear weapons both tested and used in combat as well as nuclear power in crisis, prose descriptions of the benefits of the coming "nuclear age" from its advocates and of its dangers from its critics, speeches from politicians, and histories of the science, technology, and the people involved. Books will include John Hersey, Hiroshima, Spencer Weart, Nuclear Fear, and Paul Josephson, Red Atom.

8. Seminar on American Freedom : Beyond the Pentagon Press Release

In The Story of American Freedom, Eric Foner warns against understandings of American freedom that "give it a fixed definition." In fact, he recommends that "rather than seeing freedom as a fixed category or predetermined concept," we consider it "an 'essentially contested concept.'" This process-driven notion of the history of American freedom allows us to see that, rather than challenging a pristine and timeless vision of the founding fathers, dissent over the meaning, range, and experience of American freedom is the force by which it was produced and by which it is sustained, damaged, deepened, and improved. This course will examine the concept and practice of "American Freedom" as it has twisted and turned, expanded & contracted, on its way through history. We'll gather our thoughts in relation to contemporary and historical essays, novels, songs, memoirs, poems, paintings, photographs. This year's course, will devote significant attention on important, would-be international extensions of this troubled, troubling and visionary concept : American Freedom.

9. The Individual

The course will focus on the individual. The first part, which is more personal in nature, will explore one’s progress through life and its stages: the discovery of the self in childhood and through its memories, the family unit, relationships, love, sex, marriage, and finally death. The second will address the confrontation between the individual and the universe as manifested by the Big Bang, faith, reason, randomness, and freedom. These topics will be viewed from several points of reference. Readings include Annie Dillard, An American Childhood, James Baldwin, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief, as well as Freud, the Tao Te Ching, and the Koran.

10. Ways of Knowing and Understanding the World:How We Make Decisions

How does the world work? How is it ordered? Who's in charge? Is the world indifferent to us? On what basis should we make decisions and live our lives? What do we do when things don't go well? How valuable is religion in keeping us from doing wrong? How do we know what the right thing is? How much do reason, personality, and force of will influence our outlook and the decisions we make?

Equiano's Travels, Woody Allen's movie Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hamlet, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Tao Te Ching provide strikingly different answers to these questions. The 18th-century autobiography of the slave Equiano explores how luck, hard work, compromise and religious faith sustained the author through difficult times. Crimes and Misdemeanors follows the lives of characters who embrace either religious orthodoxy or religious skepticism. Hamlet shows what happens when the individual is cut free from the past and must function in a "modern" society that provides neither moral nor religious support. The Bhagavad-Gita teaches us how to discipline our desires and conform our will to divine will in order to become truly free and content. Taoism challenges our western belief that the more we know and the harder we work, the happier we will be. We will also draw on Benjamin Hoff's Tao of Pooh to understand how Winnie the Pooh resembles a Taoist sage while his friends Rabbit and Owl are more like the striving, goal-oriented westerner.

11. Ways of Knowing: The Spirit, the Self, and Society

If God is omnipotent and just, why is there evil in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? Can there be moral order in a world with no God? This course begins by exploring these and other questions about the search for spiritual understanding as we read such works as the Book of Job and Voltaire’s Candide and watch Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. It then turns to the search for self among those whom society has historically considered outsiders. How do “outsiders” understand themselves and their relation to society? For this section we will read such works as Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Azar Nafasi, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and watch Sherman Alexie’s film Smoke Signals. Finally, we will explore attempts to understand the principles upon which society is best organized. Should society be organized to maximize the individual pursuit of happiness? Or should it be organized along principles of justice? Selections from Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose, Thomas More’s Utopia, and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia will guide us through a discussion of this issue.

12. Creativity and Culture

Contemporary artists often cultivate attitudes of detachment from and critique of society. A lingering cliche imagines an artist laboring in obscurity in a garret, but a few achieve the kind of celebrity and notoriety more typically associated with rock stars. This course will look at ways in which artists' roles reflect their times, and ways those roles are defined by different societies and the artists themselves. We will read historical and philosophical documents by Plato, Vasari and Michelangelo; literature reflecting on the experience of making art by the Romantic poets, Henry James, James Joyce and Henry Miller. Journals and criticism by artists like Willelm de Kooning, David Smith and David Wojnarowicz will give a perspective from inside the creative process. By looking at Jackson Pollock's painting, listening to readings of William Burroughs and the music of John Coltrane, we'll explore links between literary, visual and performance arts. In the end we will draw some conclusions regarding creativity and the zeitgeist.

13. Water – Civilization Maker and Breaker

Over recorded time numerous civilizations have developed, have grown into formidable forces that influence the course of history, and then have withered into old age or eventually died. Since water is essential to the survival of man, it is inevitable that water must play a key role in when and where these civilizations can develop. However, how civilizations procure and manage water also can have considerable influence over their growth, and in some instances their eventual decline. We will explore the importance of water to civilizations such as the ancient Babylonians and other peoples of the Fertile Crescent area of the Middle East, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Muslim empire of the middle ages, right up to the modern civilizations in North America and Australia. Readings pertinent to the subject will come from the works of Aristotle, Archimedes, the Bible and Koran, Galileo, Leonardo DaVinci, Osborne Reynolds, Henry Darcy, and others.

14. Lost in The Americas

This section of First Year Preceptorial focuses on the affects of marginalized and counter-cultural segments of our society upon the dominant (white) culture, particularly in terms of the formation of political and social identity in the Americas.

Readings will include The Motorcycle Diaries and Back on the Road by Che Guevara, Tortilla Curtain, Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Death and the Maiden, The Way to Rainy Mountain and On the Road by Kerouac. We will also screen several films including Easy Rider, El Norte, Salvador and Lost in America and some analogues of class readings.

15.Othering Oneself: an Initiation into Theory and Cultural Inquiry

In this course we will utilize literature and film as pretexts to query (meaning to problematize) ideas about self, citizenship and personhood. We will engage long-established and alternative discourses related to culture, gender, and race formation in the context of mythopoetic (literary), filmographic, cultural, and scientific narratives of social identity. By exploring the formation of such discourses and by confronting their historical embeddedness, we will assemble a critical language useful in grasping the informal and formal practices that help to shape and preserve perception and knowledge.

We will map our way through theory by reading satire (Voltaire’s Candide), science fiction (Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz), fiction (Ana Lydia Vega’s True and false romances: stories and a novella, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), and by confronting notions of normalcy and selfhood (films: In the Company of Men, Wrestling with Manhood, Happiness, Bowling for Columbine), among other possible films/texts. The theory text used in this class is The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences.

16.Women and War

Western tradition has constructed a body of myths that assumes an affinity between women and peace, and between men and war. Man has been construed as violent, whether eagerly or reluctantly, and women as nonviolent and compassionate. These tropes on the social identities of men and women, past and present, do not denote what men and women really are in time of war, but function instead to secure women’s location as noncombatants and men’s as warriors. This course will explore not only this tradition but also those other voices and stories, silenced or unheard, which portray pacific males and bellicose women; cruelty incompatible with just-war fighting; martial favor in conflict with maternalism in women. Our readings will include the work of renowned female and male poets, novelists, essayists, journalist and activities, as well as the testimony of ordinary women and men with first-hand experience of armed conflict. These readings, ranging from an ancient verse by Sappho to an essay by Arundhati Roy about the meanings of September 11, will also span across the centuries and originate from countries across the globe.

17. The Seen and the Unseen: Readings in Empiricism and Idealism

This section of the First-Year Preceptorial will survey and explore some of the major philosophical traditions, starting with Plato and ending with early 20th-century works. Following defining and exploring traditions in Idealism and Empiricism, we will look to such thinkers, works and writers as Plato, The Bible, Descartes, Locke, Diderot, Voltaire, Carlyle, Marx, Freud and Veblen.

18. DREAM CAFÉ : Viewing Culture through Dreams

How do we define ourselves through dreams? How do artistic and literary representations of dreams speak to our communal understanding? Are the archetypes of our dreams universal? How do artists shape dreams to reflect culture? We’ll look at dreams through the eyes of writers, artists, playwrights, film makers. We’ll view different cultures through the medium of dreams. We’ll research the science of dream theory and look at how the psychology of dreams has shaped how we view dreams. Course readings and writings will encourage critical evaluation of these questions on a personal, individual basis and on a communal, reflective level. Resources will include Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, the paintings of Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Paul Klee and others, and films of Ingmar Bergman, Peter Weir and others.

19. Gender, Race, and Sexuality

Are men "naturally" more violent than women? Is there any scientific basis for the idea of race? What happens to a child raised by gay parents? These questions and others like them occur when we try to draw the line between human behavior that is "natural" and that which is culturally acquired. In this class, we will track the ways in which ideas about what is "natural" have been used over the centuries to justify Western cultural beliefs and practices. As we explore the history of ideas about gender, race, and sexuality, we will be particularly interested in the influence of philosophical and scientific discourses about what is "natural" on the legal and social practices that regulate our behavior. Readings will include excerpts from texts by Aristotle, Thomas Kuhn, Simone de Beauvoir, Shakespeare, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Thomas Jefferson, and Stephen Jay Gould.

20. Political Opinions for Bright Dummies

The target audience is students majoring in Humanities, the Sciences, and Engineering or students undecided about their major but not likely the Social Sciences; and who have some interest in politics or public affairs, but aren’t sure of their political ideas and feel uncomfortable in expressing their political opinions or “arguing” about politics.

Democracy requires political participation by citizens. But expressing political opinions, arguing about politics, and discussing hot political topics make a lot of people uncomfortable. Some people avoid these because they try to avoid conflict of any sort. Other people avoid them because they think politics is “dirty” or “depressing.” But a lot of very bright people avoid expressing their political opinions or arguing about politics because they are not sure of what their opinions really are. They may not even be sure of why they hold the opinions they do. And many doubt that they know enough to argue effectively, whether putting forward their own positions or arguing against the contentions of others. The goal of this Precept section is to assist students in developing the philosophical, logical, and empirical bases for asserting and defending political opinions. It doesn’t matter if you are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican or Green, or moderate or extreme in your orientation. What matters is that you want to learn how to develop and defend well reasoned, well articulated political opinions. Readings will include Glenn Tinder's "Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions" and Yann Martel's "Life of Pi".

21. The Self -Evident Truth of Inequality

There has never been a society that was free of inequality between its citizens - political, economic, or social. In this seminar we will look at the ways that different people, in different times and places, have understood the causes and consequences of this inequality. Why does it persist? Can it be eliminated, and if so, how? Is a society of true equals possible, or are we destined always to live in a society where some people are more equal than others? Many different answers are possible; the Bible and the Baghavad Gita answer the question in religious terms, Plato and Freidrich Nietzche answer it in philosophical terms, and Karl Marx and Fredrick Douglass answer it in social/historical terms. We will look at the perspectives of those who have found themselves at the top of the structure and those who have found themselves at the bottom, those who have sought to justify it, those who have sought to overthrow it, and those who have sought simply to reconcile themselves to it.

22. Imagining Utopia

Utopia is considered a perfect place in which all of the ills of society have been eradicated. In this class, we will consider the rewards of and challenges to imagining such a place. Readings will include the most famous as well as some eclectic writing on the subject, such as Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1514), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1946), George Orwell’s 1984 (1948), B.F. Skinner’s Walden II (1951) and the recent thriller Utopia (2003). We will watch films during the term, as well, including the documentary Sex, Drugs, and Democracy (1994) and the international collection Shorts #7: Utopia (2000). By carefully analyzing the implications of each of these narratives, we will focus on how imagining utopia aids us in examining our own cultures and communities. Throughout the term, we will pay close attention to race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and other types of diversity that are relevant to understanding our topic.

23. Meanings of Life

Taking for granted that we all live in a real world governed by universal natural laws, we can nonetheless agree that human beings have often differed over how to understand what our senses tell us about that world. Explanations for the way the world works and the meaning of life have differed over time and by place, depending on cultural values and technological abilities to extend our senses.

This section of First Year Precept will explore a variety of perspectives that have been found useful in giving meaning to life, looking first at faith as a source of understanding. We will then examine "truths" to be gained from art and fiction via written, visual, and aural sources. The course will conclude with the insights of reason and science that have transformed the ways we think about life since c. 1600.

Readings will include the Bible, the Tao Te Ching, Freud on religion, Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughter House Five, Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Joseph Amato, Dust: a History of the Small & the Invisible, James Watson, The Double Helix, and Albert Camus, The Plague. We will also make use of visual and aural sources.

24. Our Monsters, Ourselves

Human beings throughout history and in every part of the world have talked about and written about monsters. Some people claim that we need monsters. Why? How have the kinds of monsters we have created changed over time? What do the monsters we create tell us about ourselves? What do they reveal about our nature and our culture--and the debates about each? What do they tell us about our beliefs about good and evil? In this inquiry-based seminar, we will examine some early representations of monsters, including Homer’s Cyclops and Beowulf’s Grendel, well-known 19thCentury literary monsters in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as more recent representations of monsters in literature, film, and life. In addition, we will evaluate some of the explanations offered by different academic disciplines for our need to create monsters and the ways in which they reveal our lives and our selves.

25. Initiations: Discoveries of the Self, Society and the Sacred


How do we come to know who we are and what we believe? How do our families affect our boundaries--what we will and will not do? What does "family" mean? What are the events, both subtle and ritualized, that initiate us into the many societies into which we are born or with which we eventually have significant contact? What does "reality" mean, and how do we construct and determine our own realities based on perceptions of self, society and the sacred (and/or the profane)?

We will explore the development of selfhood and of familial and social relationships in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, sacred texts, and film. Approximately three weeks of the course will be devoted to exploring relationships between the human and the spiritual/ divine, as seen in the Bible, sacred Native American texts, and other works. The film The Matrix and will be considered in relation to Buddhism and Christianity. The Japanese anime Spirited Away will be discussed in the context of the Shinto religion. Students will write several essays and take a final exam.

Possible texts include handouts of poetry; Hawthorne, "Young Goodman Brown"; Kafka, "The Metamorphosis"; Oufkir,Stolen Lives; Morrison, The Bluest Eye; Sophocles, Oedipus the King (trans. Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics); O'Brien, The Things They Carried; Alter, ed., Genesis (Norton); The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (King James Version); and Pima (Native American) Stories of the Creation.

26. Birth and Death in the Era of Biotechnology

Biotechnology has radically altered birth and death in contemporary society. Where once we were born and died in our homes, surrounded by friends and family, we are now born in medical institutions attended by medical staff who electronically monitor and pharmacologically control these processes. The shift from home to hospital, from the natural to technological, has raised a host of social and moral questions. In this class we explore the issues raised by new ways of birth and death including fetal monitoring, sex selection, "test tube babies" (in vitro fertilization), posthumous parenthood (babies conceived from the eggs or sperm of deceased parents), cloning, genetic engineering (genethics) and--turning to the other end of the life cycle--cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR), living wills and other advance directives, physician assisted suicide, and euthanasia. Readings and topics will be "torn from the headlines" and found on the Web, as well as in such books as Sherwin Nuland's National Book Award winning, How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter.