First-Year Seminar Descriptions, 2007-2008
Sections offered 2007-2008
1. The Individual –Rudko – F
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.
2. Conflict and Conformity – J. Sargent – F /W
Freud identified three sources of human misery: misery resulting from natural disaster, from the frailty of the human body, and from the failure of humans to regulate their affairs with other humans in a satisfactory manner. We will read several books that provide strikingly different perspectives on the last two problems by weighing the relative merits of conflict and conformity. An old classic and a new one, George Orwell's Animal Farm and Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed, look at the possibility and difficulty of eradicating ingrained social and economic barriers. Ray Bradbury'sFahrenheit 451 and Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death each consider what happens to societies that focus on minimizing conflict and cater to group pleasure and entertainment. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagines a world in which science has eradicated as many sources of human pain, conflict, and unhappiness as it can, and he seems to ask if we are ready for such a pleasure-filled utopia. Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake creates a society not unlike our own in which genetic engineering holds sway and watches it collide with the exigencies of human nature. We will consider whether conflict, suffering, and economic inequality are inevitable; whether it is possible to create an egalitarian society; the nature of happiness; whether conformity leads to happiness; whether uniformity is the price of happiness; the role of technology in promoting happiness; whether human nature is an obstacle to happiness.
3. Water – Civilization Maker and Breaker – Jewell – W
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.
4. Human Rights and Human Wrongs – Mar – F
What are our basic rights as human beings? Are certain human rights universal? Who decides? Can we agree on them? Do we need to? Does it matter? Will it make any difference in reducing the wide-scale abuses of rights? What helps to promote and protect human rights? This course will center on the concept of human rights in a global world. As a class, we will read and discuss various works of fiction and nonfiction related to issues of human rights. Drawing upon these texts, students will enter the debate, making claims about the issues and supporting them with evidence. Topics will include genocide, torture, and modern slavery. Readings will include Primo Levi, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Slavenka Drakulic, Henri Alleg, and Kevin Bales.
5. A Sustainable Union –Doyle – W
Can you calculate your carbon footprint? Where is the food in the college cafeteria grown, and why does it matter? How much trash does the average campus dorm produce? This section of Preceptorial, like all others, will introduce students to college-level thinking, reading, and writing, but our subject matter will be sustainability: the structuring of society and social practices so as to ensure that future generations will have enough of the basic essentials of life. Our course will focus on three main issues: trash, energy, and food. Students will not only study the current controversies about sustainability on the national level, but also examine Union College’s practices (both at the individual and the college-wide level). What are we doing now? What reforms are practical? What stands in the way of reform? Our goal will be to produce a report that identifies current College practices and makes recommendations.
6. Political Opinions for Bright Dummies – Nichols – W
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".
7. Initiations: Discoveries of the Self, Society and the Sacred – Selley – W
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, 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, give at least one oral report, and take a final exam.
Possible texts (one or two might be added) include: Handouts of poetry; Hawthorne, "Young Goodman Brown"; Kafka, "The Metamorphosis"; Morrison, The Bluest Eye (or another of her novels); Sophocles, Oedipus the King (trans. Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics); Vea, Gods Go Begging; Alter, ed., Genesis (Norton); The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (King James Version); and Pima (Native American) Stories of the Creation.
8. Time, Identity, and the Self in Society – Warenski – W
This course examines works of literature that raise questions of philosophical interest. Is time travel possible? Does time have a direction? What is personal identity? Could the self persist after death? How is character formed? What do we value? From Shakespeare to science fiction, from Aristotle to David Lewis, we will read a broad range of literary and philosophical texts that speak to the themes of the course.
9. The Spirit, the Self, and Society – Lawson – F
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 Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and watch Spike Lee’sMalcolm X. 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.
10. Cybercultures – Bracken – W
This course will examine the impact of the Internet, cyberspace and virtual reality on the way the world is inhabited, perceived and represented. Paying attention to issues such as subjectivity and embodiment, we will be considering the transformative effect cyberspace has on conventional readings of the self, as well as traditional understandings of space and time. Questions will be asked concerning operations of power and the ways in which cyberspaces and their cultural representations can operate to both subvert as well as uphold normative structures, looking specifically as issues relating to gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class. We will be looking at a variety of texts throughout this course, online and offline, fiction, non-fiction and film. Readings may include authors such as William Gibson, Donna Haraway, Sherry Turkle and Slavoj Zizek and films such as The Net, Hackers and The Matrix Trilogy.
11. Religious Diversity in America – Boland – F/W
The historian Oscar Handlin noted that the history of immigration to America is the history of America. New patterns of immigration have changed dramatically the religious landscape of the United States in the past half century, with the proverbial town square holding not only Christian and Jewish houses of worship but, increasingly, Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic ones, too. This FYP will seek to understand America’s new-found religious diversity by asking, from a religious perspective, what it means to be “American” and examining U.S. history’s movements of exclusionism, assimilationism, and pluralism. How do Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam in particular change as they take root in America? Just as importantly, how are the notions of “We the people” and E pluribus unum affected by the presence of new religious neighbors? There will be historical, literary, and sociological readings; videos; and guest speakers about Buddhism, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism in the American context along with field visits to local houses of worship.
12. The Horror of Writing – Lewin – F
The Horror of Writing focuses on reading and writing about Gothic Romance and Horror fiction. From the first Gothic novel (Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto) to modern horror “classics” (such as Stoker’s Dracula), we will come to understand how and why these texts “made the cut.” What makes these works so popular? To whom do they appeal and why? If fear and its relation to power (and lack thereof) in women is part of the answer to these questions, we will consider why this is so and how we may continue to live in a culture that fosters and then seeks to neutralize its own fears. In order to address the questions above, we will consider critical material from a variety of disciplines alongside our primary texts. In addition to being a forum for discussion, this course is designed to help you improve your reading, writing, and analytical skills and understand what it means to write three different types of “college-level essays.” We will devote both class time and individual conference sessions to this goal.
13. Refugees – Ricci – F
According to the World Refugee Survey of 2006, 12 million people live as refugees and asylum seekers worldwide, with an additional 21 million classified as internally displaced persons. And while these overwhelming statistics underscore the scale of the current crisis, they also mask millions of individual fates. This course will analyze both fictional and documentary texts and films dealing with individuals from across the globe and through history, giving voice to the refugee and exile experience. Beginning with Biblical and Classical texts that establish a benchmark for notion of exile in Western Culture for periods to come, our course focuses on the twentieth century, tracing the evolving notions of homeland, exile, and displacement as a function of both political circumstances and personal commitments. For example we will consider the phenomenon of the exiled intellectual, alongside that of human trafficking. Text and films will treat experiences from a spectrum of twentieth century refugee-producing nations, including: Franco Spain, Nazi Germany and Austria, Communist Poland and Cuba, as well as Palestine, Burma, Afghanistan, China, Sierra Leone and Somalia.
14. Secular Humanism – Heinegg – F /W
The modern western tradition of rejecting faith in the supernatural and replacing it with "this-worldly" values. Beginning with Immanuel Kant's essay, "What is Enlightenment?" we'll survey the work of some leading figures of the kind of thinking usually called liberal or radical: David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Peter Singer; and we'll reflect on the many social and political implications of their revolutionary ideas.
15. Politics and the Novel – McFadden – F
Stendahl observed in The Charterhouse of Parma that “politics in a work of literature are like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse one’s attention.” Yet one of the most effective ways to trace and analyze forms of political organization and their impact on individuals is through imaginative fiction. In the 20th century in particular, novelists have constructed narratives around the great political themes of our time: communism, fascism, socialism, and democracy. In this Preceptorial we will read, discuss, and write about novels by such authors as Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Robert Penn Warren, and Alan Paton, as well as selected historical and political works that provide necessary background. Several excellent films have also been produced based on some of these novels; we will view and discuss two or three of them. Appropriate attention will be given to the historical background of the novels. There will be special emphasis on writing techniques and skills.
16. Great Ideas – McFadden – W
Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves - and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war, and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked, and comforted. They have enriched lives - and destroyed them. This course will select from important contemporary as well as historical writers in the Western tradition who have remained part of the “great conversation” across time and space that still engages us. The premise of this course was expressed by Robert M. Hutchins, former President of the University of Chicago: “The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined.”
Authors may include: St. Augustine, Swift, Rousseau, Paine, Wollstonecraft, Marx, Freud, Woolf, Hobbes, Plato, Voltaire, Hume, Kierkegaard, and the Bible.
17. I Have a Dream: Visions and Visionaries – Tongue – W
Most communities create and maintain infrastructures within their group of individuals, including people they call leaders. In this course, we will examine vision as one technique that leaders use to influence their constituents in a variety of circumstances. We will explore the cultural meaning and significance of vision, the role of the visionary in creating and forwarding the vision, and factors that influence the interpretation and vitality of the vision. Specifically, we will discuss the visionaries and the content in fictional visions from books such as Moby Dick and The Power of One; historic visions from individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi (who have done great “good”) as well as Jim Jones and Adolf Hitler (who have done great “evil”); and religious visions from Eastern, Western and Native traditions.
18. Personal Mythologies – Constructing the Self – Pease – F/W
This preceptorial will center on the exciting though arduous process of human spiritual growth, coming of age, and building an identity. In the new, globalizing, rapidly changing world, constructing the self is an adventure of inheriting, accumulating, collecting, trying on and keeping or discarding various influences, ideas, and attitudes. Through literary works, music, and films from different countries, we will explore the ways individual humans manage to build their own personal mythologies – narratives that make them who they are. The readings will include works by Salman Rushdie, Ursula K. Le Guin, Vladimir Nabokov, Haruki Murakami, and others.
19. Literature and Environment – Glover – F / Lynes – W / Murphy – W
This course will focus on the intersections of human cultures and environment, with an emphasis on the social and cultural dynamics of the environment and environmental action. Some questions we will consider in the course: What are the ethical questions that we pose and wrestle with as we interact with and within our environment? What is the place of literature in community, literacy, and environmental activism? To what extent does place matter in our conceptions of what nature is? What are the connections between race, class, and environmental degradation and environmental activism? How does gender enter into the nexus of social interactions that shape our environment? We will consider both the concept of “nature” as we consider the concept of human culture. This course is collaborative in nature, and as such students should bring their interests, curiosities, and discoveries to add to the mix. A partial list of readings include those by Terry Tempest Williams, Barbara Kingsolver, Evelyn White, bell hooks, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Luther Standing Bear, Running-Grass, Simon Ortiz, Ana Castillo, Vandana Shiva, Wangari Maathai, Aldo Leopold, Robert Sullivan.
20. Ideas and Culture of the 18th and 19th Centuries – MacDonald – F
This course will survey and discuss some of the major intellectual and cultural movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. We will read from and about 18th century Enlightenment philosophy, music, science and culture; move into early 19th-century Romanticism, with a focus on the artist as hero and loner; consider the rise of 19th-century social thought and changing ideas about religion; and we will consider the rise of science in matters of social and religious writing. Authors will include Locke, Diderot, Franklin, Byron, Shelly, Blake, Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, Freud, and Veblen.
21. Where’d I Come From; Where’d I Go – Smith – F
In this class, we’ll be taking a look at the books writers write to explain how they became who they are by looking back at who they were. Or, in a couple of cases where candor is an issue (Chatwin) or where images have been left to speak for themselves (Arbus), we’ll be using biographical sources to help trace the path from aspiration to something like fulfillment. We will be talking about the authors, about their development of a style suitable to their ambitions, and about the things they have to talk about, from jazz to freedom of speech to Charles Manson to the grotesquerie that is part of everyday life to ancient cultures to parents and children to issues of race, ethnocentrism, and authenticity. Authors will include Joan Didion, Bruce Chatwin, Nat Hentoff, Harry Marten, Patricia Bosworth, James Baldwin, and Nicholas Shakespeare.
22. Poop and Poison: What We Eat and What We Are – Jenkins – F
We may be the first culture ever to destroy itself by what and how we eat. Tomatoes that feel and taste like softballs. Meat marbled with hormones and chemicals. Frozen foods manufactured in factories in the Third World, flavored by chemists in New Jersey, and bulging waistlines and stopping hearts in the suburbs. We’ll read about how Jefferson’s dream of an agrarian republic has turned into a consumer emporium of both abundance and toxicity. We’ll try to be balanced and look at arguments and taste food from both sides, but a fresh, organic meal or two may drive economic logic to the side. Students will also have the opportunity to work on a local organic farm and get their hands really dirty and calloused. All that and learning how to read critically and write well, too.
23. Goodness, Happiness and Truth – Benack – F
We will spend the term looking at several different ways of thinking about three central ideals toward which (I propose) human beings strive: goodness, happiness, and truth. Presumably, we all want to be good, happy, and believe what is true --- and avoid being bad, unhappy, and believing in falsities. Different people, and different cultures, however, give quite different understandings of the nature of goodness, happiness and truth, and different advice on how to achieve them. Does being good make you happy, or is it easier to reach happiness by throwing off moral restrictions? Is there any objective moral truth, and, if not, why be moral? Are these ideals real or, as some claim, are they illusions, which serve only to enslave us. We will examine how some key philosophers, political theorists, and psychologists have answered these questions (e.g., Freud, Plato, postmodernists, Buddhism, evolutionary psychology). For each ideal, we will examine what might be built into our biology (human nature) and also the influence of social organization (culture) on our conceptions of goodness, happiness and truth.
24. Food, Self, and Society – Tierney – F
What is the relationship between food and the body? If eating is the act of taking the world into our bodies, how does this affect our worldviews? What are the boundaries of food and the body? Are you what you eat? Don’t eat? Are you how you eat? Is the act of ingesting inherently a political act? Is McDonald’s really destroying the world? This course will consider these questions by looking at both anthropological approaches to eating, consumption, identity, the body, and food while also examining current controversies such as obesity, genetically modified foods, vegetarianism, and disordered consumption. While much of the course concerns itself with the cultural and historical construction of the American diet, the course will also draw examples from other cultures and societies. The readings include: Micheal Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Peter Singer's The Way We Eat, and Carolyn Knapp's Appetites.
25. The Other: A Stranger Among Us? – Bidoshi – W
In this course we will discuss the concept of the "other" by examining several narratives centered upon the protagonist's search for identity. Invariably authors introduce these quests through the rhetorical device of the stranger. We will consider the image of the stranger in order to confront the estrangement inherent in family origins, gender and literary acceptance, and the author's unresolved feelings about him(her)self. Frequently the associations of a sense of place are bound together with memory, stasis and nostalgia. What gives a place a unique flavor is the fact that it is constructed out of a specific arrangement of social and physical relations that intersect at a particular point. The works selected center on the theme of alienation seen through the eyes of the stranger. We will discuss the function of this trope on three levels - the spatial, temporal and psychological. Of particular interest will be the disturbing 'falling away' from the family or group, and the movement from unity and acceptance to individuality and denial. Through a close reading of works including, but not limited to: Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Woolf's A Room of One's Own, Camus' The Stranger, Morrison's Song of Solomon and Petrushevskaia's The Time Night, we will seek to understand the way one is able to construct and manipulate his/her own sense of place.
26. Growth and the Good Life – Foster – W
In this course, we will use a variety of readings from philosophy and other disciplines as a basis for reflections on the nature of “the good life.” We will then explore issues related to growth and the good life from both economic and environmental perspectives. Some economists point to the dramatic improvements in standard of living made possible by improvements in technology and the operation of free markets as evidence that growth has brought us closer to the good life. Others question whether improvements in material well being mean that we really are better off. (Does having more “stuff” mean that we are happier?) Environmentalists tend to focus on the problems of environmental degradation and natural resource depletion that result from rapid economic growth. According to this perspective, growth brings us closer to disaster, not closer to the good life. We will critically examine claims made by both economists and environmentalists, and try to assess what growth implies for the good life in decades to come.
27. The Marketplace of Ideas: What “The People” Know … or Think They Know – Brennan – W
Information drives today’s society. The vast networks (traditional and electronic) which provide news, intelligence, perspective, and gossip enlighten our lives, and we believe that what we know routinely provides a critical foundation for how we live. While inclined to view this as a modern phenomenon, information’s use (and misuse) has a long and rich lineage. This course will use a variety of texts to study several critical past events and to examine what people knew, how they knew it, and evaluate the reliability of the information on which they depended. I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, offers a rather unsympathetic examination of Socrates as an elitist enemy of the common man’s capacity for self-government and right to free expression. Edmund Burke's widely read and prophetic pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France stands in seeming contradiction to his support for the American Revolution, but reflects his concern about the power of popular opinion to produce mass dislocation. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe created a national sensation that informed millions of Americans about the conditions of slavery (or “life among the lowly”) and will introduce students to the potential power of literature to both educate and persuade. Moving into the 20th century, Edward Bernays’ classic study, Propaganda discusses the means to shape and manipulate public opinion (or the “engineering of consent”), which will be dramatically represented in Propaganda and the Germany Cinema, 1933-1945 by David Welch. Finally, Arthur Miller’s cold-war epic The Crucible vividly mingles history, humanity, morality, drama and mid-20th century themes, the relevance of which to 21st century events cannot be dismissed.