First-Year Preceptorial


2020-2021 First Year Preceptorial Course Descriptions

Fall 2020

  • An Appetite for History

    This class examines the historic relationship between food and society. We will focus on several major eras throughout history by observing how culture, religion, gender, economy, technology, morality, and historical events influenced and shaped the acquisition, preparation, and consumption of food. Both primary and secondary sources will be used to create context and allow us to investigate and sometimes re-create the diets of the past. Topics covered may include: Feasting and Fasting: How religion, health, and wealth affected the Medieval Diet; Slavery, Colonialism, and The New World: Exotic foods and how those were acquired during the 16th-18th centuries; Victorian Revolution: Industry, technology, and innovations in the 19th to early 20th centuries; Make Do or Do Without: Austerity, Rationing, Science and Nutrition during the Depression and World War II; A Women’s Place is in the Kitchen, or is it? Societal advances and the change in gendered domesticity after 1950.

  • Art and Politics

    Why do we care so much about art? That we do care, as one author puts it, “is graven in the stones of our museums, theaters, and concert halls, embossed on the pages of novels and volumes of poetry, enshrined in the deference…that the institutions of art command in our society. But why? Art satisfies no practical need; it is not useful in the sense in which a law court or a hospital, a farm or a machinist’s shop is useful. And yet, we invest art and the institutions that represent it with enormous privilege and prestige. Why” (Roger Kimball, “Shiller’s ‘Aesthetic Education’”)?

    From the middle of 18th century to today, philosophers and artists who tackled this difficult question invariably found themselves engaging with the thorny issue of the relationship between art and politics: Do we care about art because it provides us with a kind of civic education? Can art help create morally upright patriotic citizens? Or is it the case that the education that art provides is of a different kind –one that broadens the minds of those who are involved in it in such a way that they can attain critical awareness with regard to their social and political milieu? Can art spur people into action in the face of injustice? Should it even try to do so? Is all art, in some sense, political? If so, what is “political art”? What makes certain artworks political? In what sense, those political works are art and not mere propaganda? And how about the artists? Do their political positions and/or moral failings have any bearing on their works? What do we do with the art of those artists who have despicable political views or happen to be simply horrible human beings?

    This First-year seminar aims to inquire into these fascinating questions through an intellectual journey that focuses on the debates surrounding one particular art form, namely drama, including musical drama, which brings together storytelling, poetry, and musical expression, in various settings ranging from the 18th century France and 19th century Germany to Weimar Republic and Harlem Renaissance.

  • Nostalgia and the Usefulness of Longing

    The word “nostalgia” comes from ancient Greek and means a painful longing for home or for the past. Why do we have such intense yearnings for distant places and times? Do these emotions harm us, or can they be useful in shaping our lives? In this course we explore nostalgia and the usefulness of longing in all their many forms: from simple homesickness to the strange desire to return to a place or time that never truly existed, or that you never experienced yourself. Together we read stirring literature about nostalgia, such as Homer’s Odyssey and works by Orhan Pamuk, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as examine how these issues are treated in film and the visual arts.

  • Decolonizing Knowledge

    This class bears the influence of engagement with epistemological perspectives outside of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, & Democratic) settings. An inescapable feature of work in these settings is a concern with power and (neo)colonialism in knowledge production: how apparently neutral ideas and practices can (inadvertently?) serve to maintain systems of exploitation and domination. Drawing on work in African studies, anthropology, disability studies, environmental studies, feminist studies, geography, Latin American and Caribbean studies, literary studies, philosophy, and psychology, this class illuminates how hegemonic formations of standard knowledge are rooted in the epistemic violence of colonial power and “works out new concepts” (Fanon, 1963) that reflect and promote the interests of broader humanity.

  • The Practical Side of Struggle

    Almost everyone has experienced a major setback in our lives that has disrupted their lives. What determines how we bounce back and get back up versus letting that setback derail progress? There are many factors that play a role in our ability to bounce back, including what we see as a setback or failure.
    This course is designed to examine areas that have been scientifically proven to help people overcome setbacks in their lives. Specifically, this class will explore concepts of: the value of failure, the science of success, growth mindset (knowing that learning from failure is what leads to success), resiliency (the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties), grit (the passion to preserve), the maladaptive cognitive distress that leads to feeling stuck, how demographic factors such as race and class impact resiliency, and how to turn failure into success to lead a happier life.

  • Pursuing Happiness

    What brings you happiness? How do we create meaning and value in our lives? Are we all free to shape our own destiny, to pursue our own happiness, or are there limits to such freedom? What is the role of education—and writing—in the pursuit of a meaningful, purpose-driven life?

    In this seminar, we’ll explore these questions through a combination of reading, classroom discussion, and writing. We’ll share our writing and writing practices, and we’ll provide feedback for our peers. You’ll be encouraged to pursue your own interests throughout the term, in dialogue with your classmates and the guiding questions of the course.

    “A wise writer will feel that the ends of study and composition are best answered by announcing undiscovered regions of thought, and so communicating, through hope, new activity to the torpid spirit.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

  • Radical Thinkers

    This course will consider the works of some eloquent advocates of ideas that in one way or another challenge the foundations of traditional Western culture. We will begin with Machiavelli, who argues that the ethical principles of Christianity and Humanism are incompatible with effective political governance. We will read Rousseau, who argues that civilization has led not to progress but to the moral debasement of the human species; Karl Marx, who attacks capitalism and calls upon the poor to revolt and establish a communist society; Friedrich Nietzsche, who assaults (among other things) Judeo-Christian theology and ethics, rejects every form of metaphysics, and substitutes “perspectivism” for eternal truth; and Sigmund Freud, who argues that the price of order and civilization is the purposeful mutilation of our instinctual desire. We will also read the Marquis de Sade who challenged fundamental social mores in his philosophically grounded pornographic writings. We will then look at Edward Abbey, “the desert anarchist,” who mounts a ferocious assault on “industrial tourism” and the development of the national park system, and is accused by some as advocating “eco-terrorism.” We will conclude with Peter Singer, who champions animal liberation, vegetarianism, and voluntary euthanasia while charging that all excess wealth is criminal.

  • Media FARCE (Fairness, Accuracy, Reliability, Credibility, Ethics)

    The mainstream mass media have been a farce when it comes to informing people about important issues. A Gallup’s study shows that “Americans' Trust in Media Remains at Historical Low”. People who rely on the mainstream mass media, as the only source of information, are at a disadvantage when it comes to important issues that affect their lives, rights, health, and pocketbooks, while they are kept busy with trivial issues. In this course, the students learn how to become critical thinkers who can intelligently analyze the effects of ownership, advertisement, advertisers, logical fallacies, and other tricks of the mass media trade. They will become better informed citizens that won’t be easily bamboozled by the mainstream mass media sound bites.

  • City Spaces: Schenectady and its Architecture

    In the 1920s, Schenectady was the fastest growing city in New York State and is still home to world famous architecture. This course explores Schenectady’s rich history of immigration, education, religion, politics, and business that enabled the deliberate construction of government buildings, theatres, churches, and homes. While looking at the city's historic architecture, we will also examine engineering feats and technological breakthroughs that transformed Schenectady from a town into a city. This course will also explore the identity of modern Schenectady and the catalysts and implications of gentrification. As a class, we will engage directly with the Schenectady Historical Society and will visit specific sites throughout the term.

  • Stories of the Body: Medicine in Literature

    Medicine is often considered the territory of science, but illness, dying, and healing are central to human experience, and from them come some of our most important stories. What similarities and differences arise in the ways we understand and discuss our bodies and our health? What themes and patterns emerge in narratives of illness, aging, death, and recovery? What is the power of such stories, and what are the limits? (How) do these stories differ when told by doctors, patients, or family members? Who has the authority to tell these stories? Who chooses or is forced to remain silent? And what does such literature teach us about human experience? In this class, we will explore poetry, fiction, and essays that attempt to map such experiences, and texts that engage critically with the intersection of humanities and medicine.

  • Performance, Gender, and Narrative: Professional Wrestling

    Through theoretical, historical, and cultural readings, as well as viewing representative performances, television shows, and films, this course will examine how professional wrestling shapes and is shaped by cultural politics. Transdisciplinary course materials will enable us to explore issues including gender/sexuality, race/ethnicity, violence, and the construction of popular culture. We will examine specific wrestlers, styles of wrestling, wrestling organizations, performance and narrative theories in order to understand the evolution and appeal of professional wrestling as a quintessential example of American pop culture.

  • Unnatural Acts

    In this section of the preceptorial, we will explore the complex and elusive zone between nature and artifice. Our routes of access will be texts on a diverse set of themes: art, time, photography, history, and the human body. We will consider what it means to demarcate the boundary between "nature" and "art," and look at the ramifications of both respecting and defying it.

  • German Romanticism in Literature and the Arts

    The German Romantic movement ended as quickly as it began, but its repercussions are still felt to this day. To fully understand it, one must explore the cultural, religious, and historical influences that led to its first stirrings as the Sturm und Drang movement in the 18th century. This class is designed to give students a survey of the German Romantic movement in art, music, literature, painting, and philosophy. It will focus on the figures who spawned the Romantic movement in their respective fields – Goethe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Novalis, Robert Schumann, and Caspar David Friedrich – as well as its later ramifications in the visionary writings of Karl Marx and the operas of Richard Wagner. Through reading, listening, and multi-media assignments, students will emerge from the class more aware of the impact of the German Romantic era on our modern world.

  • Constructing the Self

    Who are you, really? What makes you unique? What do you and all other humans have in common? Do you have a soul? Do you have free will? How do you learn and form judgments? What makes you peaceful or violent, conservative or liberal, competitive or collaborative, truthful or deceitful? What is the nature of friendship, love, and loyalty? How does technology affect your sense of Self? This section of the Preceptorial will address these and many other questions by bringing together the sciences and the humanities to explore the complexity of constructing your Self.

  • On Travel

    This course will explore the concept of travel in literature, film, and culture. We will consider why people travel and the possible effects of encountering difference. We will also discuss what it means to be a reader/watcher of someone else’s travel narrative and what it is like to “travel” the world from the comfort of your sofa. The course will begin with an overview of the concept of travel before setting off on adventures with various people over a range of time periods and locations. We will start our wide-ranging journey with Homer’s Odyssey, consider virtual travel, and study abroad with the cast of L’Auberge Espagnole (2002), among others.

  • Reflections on the Dystopian Future

    Imagine a society in which a powerful and repressive government punishes people for subtle non-conformity, where technological advancements enable authorities to monitor everything you do and control what you read, watch, or hear. Imagine a world so socially atomized that the formation of intimate and loving relations is tantamount to rebellion. In this course, we will survey a body of literature and film that imagines worlds like these. Though notably different from each other, these fictional worlds share remarkable similarities that suggest a common vision of what a dystopian reality might consist of: totalitarian government, violent repression, human alienation, technological surveillance, environmental degradation, and widespread and systematic control of thoughts, actions, and words. In exploring questions about what makes a world dystopian and why, however, we will also highlight the more hopeful themes that seem to inevitably emerge: the durability of love and the human spirit, an almost natural inclination to resist control through small acts of defiance, and the power and possibility of solidarity and social resistance under even the most repressive conditions. Though it goes too far to suggest that the dystopian future has arrived, our discussion will undoubtedly draw on troubling similarities between imagined dystopian futures and the world that appears to be emerging before us today. Thus, in addition to exploring the human imagination to decipher what a dystopian world looks like, we will use these fictional accounts to critically reflect on the present.

  • Documentary Media

    Documentary films and reality television shows have become more prevalent than ever. Documentary images pervade intimate spheres of our lives through cellphones, youtube, and a variety of other screen interfaces, engendering powerful affective forces driving everything from humanitarian aid to global political agendas. Why this increased interest in the documentary form? Traditionally, the documentary has tended to emerge during crisis situations, often reflecting and commenting on past and present social and political unrest. Over the course of the term, we will examine documentarians’ search for appropriate forms to provoke discussion of social content. We will investigate the myth of documentary authenticity as well as controversial ethical claims bound up with the genre. Taking seriously Jean-Luc Godard’s dictum that “all great fiction films tend towards documentary, just as all great documentaries tend towards fiction,” we will devote special attention to manifestations of the genre that blur traditional boundaries between fact and fiction.

  • The Universe, Life, Meaning & God

    For millennia people have been arguing about the meaning of existence, the significance of human life, and the existence of God. The contemporary science-vs-religion debate pitting the New Atheists against advocates of Intelligent Design (ID) is just one of the latest iterations of these seemingly perennial discussions. In her 2010 novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, philosopher Rebecca Goldstein explores these issues through the life and musings of her protagonist, Cass Seltzer, a psychologist of religion who has his own theories about why religion persists despite the advances of science. Along the way Goldstein skewers New Atheism, Intelligent Design, and traditional theism with equal verve. In a very different book published in 2016, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, physicist Sean Carroll explores a similar set of issues but in a very different way. He winsomely introduces readers to his own “scientifically-minded” approach to thinking about the physical world, life, consciousness, meaning, morality, and God. This course examines the various themes developed by Goldstein and Carroll, culminating in a formal debate among class members regarding which of the two writers provides a more effective framework for helping us think clearly and deeply about the universe, life, meaning and God.

Winter 2021

  • Reason and Passion in the Ancient World

    This course is concerned with the archetypal categories of reason and passion. A number of texts crucial to the classical tradition will be analyzed, and for each one we will try to assess how they contributed to the constitution of arguments that are still relevant to the modern discussion of the topic.
    What follows is a partial list of the many issues that will be targeted:

    Reason and emotions are opposite or conciliable categories?
    The creation of orderly systems can be seen as a product of cold reason or is it rather a balanced regimentation of emotions?
    Are passions detrimental or beneficial for the individual? And for the collectivity?
    Is beauty something that can be created and fully experienced by reason, or does it pertain and involve solely our emotions?
    What do atomic theories have to do with fear and emotions?
    What is madness?

    Regular discussions will develop from the problems presented by the texts at hand. Participation and attendance in class are therefore of paramount importance. Participation will be assessed on the basis of reading assignments (with quizzes), in-class discussions and in-class presentations.
    The student will be responsible for writing 4 papers concerned with a range of themes targeted in class. For each paper the student will be provided with extensive feedback.

  • The Power of Literature: Stories of Resilience, Resistance, and Transformation

    This First-Year Preceptorial (FPR) is structured around the idea that the power of literature rests in its transformative properties. Literature and other humanistic endeavors have the potential to change people’s minds and actions. Writers use stories to resist cultural ideas (such as our beliefs about America and the homeless that Jeanette Walls responds to in The Glass Castle) or bear witness to the atrocities committed by a totalitarian government or regime (as is the case with survivors Chanrithy Him and Marjane Satrapi). Writers like Tim O’Brien use storytelling to heal a wounded self and help others do the same. Sometimes writers tell difficult stories to show the resiliency of the human spirit (e.g. Walls) or the kindness of family (e.g. Merullo), providing readers with the essential ingredients for surviving suffering. Thus, we will be reading, discussing, and examining these stories of hurt, loss, and trauma, with the idea that literature can save us or, at the very least, point us in the right direction.

  • Discovering the Political in the Apolitical

    In this course will examine the nuanced ideological ways in which domination, privilege, and hegemony function in relation to gender, class, and race. We will search for what is unspoken and unquestioned in the world around us, and we will subject our findings to rigorous, ongoing critique. For instance, we will analyze the implications of speech patterns in news reports and repetition in popular music. How does the consumption of popular culture affect our critical faculties? What is the relationship between the mental habit of stereotyping and the mass production of commodities? How can we unlearn unintentional sexism and problematize what we have been told is “natural”? Embracing the negative power of critique, we will investigate the ideological aspects of the production of knowledge, cultural commodities, and moral values. The course is grounded in the multidisciplinary Critical Theory of the Frankfort School, and it will introduce you to the works of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse.

  • The Rules of Madness

    You often feel sad – do you suffer from depression? You are obsessed with not eating too much – are you anorexic? You cannot concentrate – do you have ADHD? In the last two centuries, moral flaws, existential difficulties, and idiosyncratic traits have regularly been reinterpreted as psychiatric diseases. But are these diseases real, and in what sense of “real”? Have they been discovered or invented? And how do we draw the line between the normal and the pathological? History shows that this line has been constantly redrawn under the influence of broad cultural changes, business decisions, or personal interests. After a very brief survey of the history of psychiatry followed by a look at some big issues related to psychiatry, this course will focus on a select number of mental disorders and debate the proposition that they are historically constructed.

  • What is College For?

    Why do colleges and universities exist and why do women and men seek them out? Do they exist to nurture our humanity, moral imagination, and ethical sensibilities? Are they businesses that sell student-customers the essential credentials for lucrative employment in an entrepreneurial economy? Are they institutions that protect and renew essential human qualities against the fads, fashions, and fanaticisms of any particular moment in time? Do they exist to provide a 'college experience' in which socializing, career networking, and extracurriculars are really more important than education? Are they the crucial rung on the ladder of social mobility? Do they exist to serve the public good or simply personal gain? We think this is a modern debate, but teachers, students, and citizens have wrestled with similar questions for centuries and they continue to decisively affect colleges and universities around the globe. We can say for certain that the founding principle of colleges and universities concerns education, to teach and learn certain 'ways of knowing'. So, they exist to educate, but precisely what kind of education, for what purpose, for whose benefit, and paid for by whom?

  • Decolonizing Knowledge

    This class bears the influence of engagement with epistemological perspectives outside of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, & Democratic) settings. An inescapable feature of work in these settings is a concern with power and (neo)colonialism in knowledge production: how apparently neutral ideas and practices can (inadvertently?) serve to maintain systems of exploitation and domination. Drawing on work in African studies, anthropology, disability studies, environmental studies, feminist studies, geography, Latin American and Caribbean studies, literary studies, philosophy, and psychology, this class illuminates how hegemonic formations of standard knowledge are rooted in the epistemic violence of colonial power and “works out new concepts” (Fanon, 1963) that reflect and promote the interests of broader humanity.

  • The Homeless Experience

    In this course we will explore the emergence of homelessness in contemporary society and its consequences to human life, well-being, and health. To do this, we will explore the lived experience of homelessness gleaned from observational studies and research on adolescents and adults primarily in the United States but also in other places around the globe. We will do this in an effort to understand the strategies homeless people historically employ to counter situations of alienation, isolation, and deprivation. We will also pay attention to understanding the history of homelessness both in the United States and though representations of homelessness in contemporary literature, film, and culture. Juxtaposing contemporary assessments and portrayals of homeless people’s lives allows us to disentangle fact from fiction and consequently build a more accurate assessment and understanding of this difficult human dilemma.

  • Free Will

    Philosophers, scientists, and artists have been suggesting for ages that free will is just an illusion. In this course we will study a range of philosophical, scientific, and artistic works to critically assess this possibility. We will focus on clarifying just what exactly we mean by ‘free will’ when we wonder about whether or not we have it: is free will an ability to determine the course of the future, or is it simply an ability to choose and act without external constraints? What do our ethical and legal practices imply about our understanding of free will? How do conceptions of free will vary across cultures? Can empirical research into people’s intuitions about free will help us solve the philosophical problems?

  • Science Fiction. What is it? Why read it?

    Science Fiction. What is it? What exactly does "science" plus "fiction" mean? If we take those two elements to be exact opposites then how can anything that puts them together be relevant? It might be entertaining, but is that all it can be? We will be reading different types of texts traditionally included under the category "science fiction", and finding out some surprising things about what is has to say to this post-modern, apocalyptic world of ours.

  • Science in the Public Eye

    Through art, technology, and public policy, scientific discovery affects our lives and cultures whether we are scientific experts or not. This course will follow the history of the dynamic and often revolutionary interactions of science and scientists with the public sphere. From Ancient Greece and Rome to contemporary global society, we will see how bonds of trust between scientists and the public have been forged, strengthened, strained, and broken. We will see how science has been portrayed in art and literature, and how it has been talked about in political and cultural discourse. The first module, the Figure of the Scientist, will look at the scientist as a literary character and public persona, from Socrates to Richard Feynman. The second module, Science and the State, will examine interactions between science and politics, from the trials of Galileo to the atomic bomb. The final module, Science and the Popular Imagination, will explore artistic representations of science, from visual art and the beautification of technology to science fiction in print and on screen.

  • AI in a Human World

    Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to significantly impact our individual lives and society as a whole. In this course we will highlight numerous applications of artificial intelligence and will discuss potential ethical, social, and financial implications in various sectors of society. We will explore how we are introduced to AI through several media outlets and examine how AI might influence our individual lives both positively, and with potential unforeseen outcomes. Included in our discussion will be an examination of how early concepts of AI were depicted in fictional readings and movies, through specific applications of the technology in our world right now.

  • Convince Me: Nature, Ethics, and Nature of Persuasion

    Do literature and art change our minds about social issues; or, do they just express what we already think? Can we persuade people to think and act differently about nature if they think in a way that is radically different from our own? We’ll put these questions into play while we think about the place of literature and art in community and environmental activism, and while we think about the ethical connections between race, class, and gender when it comes to thinking about our interactions with nature. We’ll explore our own local spaces and consider global perspectives, as well, as we explore art and literature about nature.

  • Black to the Future

    Afrofuturism is a speculative movement that uses art, philosophy, film, literature, and a host of other resources to imagine a future in which black bodies and souls confront, challenge, and even change the dominant social paradigms of today. We'll look at some of the classics of Afrofuturism--the novels of Philip Schuyler and W.E.B. Dubois, the films Black Panther and Attack the Block, the music of Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic, and a host of critical essays--to examine this movement and its relevance in the age of Trump and rising white nationalism.

  • Disruptive Thinking and Leadership

    This course explores texts on leadership and the complex dynamics of our changing society. Participants will engage in course work intended to build skills relevant to writing and thinking about their life and how to manifest their goals. Students will practice self reflection, risk taking, facilitating, public speaking, decision-making and group leadership. They will explore how groups of people can come together for intellectual and interpersonal learning and growth within a complex society.