Complex Questions: Global Challenges & Social Justice

First Year Inquiry Courses

2022-2023 Course Descriptions

  • A Working Class Hero Is Something To Be

    Or so John Lennon thought in the 1970s. He was in good company: Jesus Christ, Karl Marx, Martin Luther King, and the punk band The Clash, just to name a few, thought the same thing. But the idea of a "working class hero" isn't limited to the political left. Lately right-wing populism, as exemplified in Donald Trump an J.D. Vance, has tried to hijack the working class for its own agenda. So, what exactly IS a "working class hero," and is it "something to be" --or something to be avoided? If ever there were a test of close, critical thinking and its importance, it may be in answering those questions today.

  • 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.

  • Attachment: Humans, Animals & Places

    Guiding questions will include: How does growing up with or without a secure base help or hinder the way human beings navigate through life? What does it mean to be attached to people, places, nonhuman animals, things, ideas? is attachment always beneficial? When might attachment be physically, emotionally, psychically harmful?

    Is detachment healthy? In what ways? What is compassion? Why are some human beings so cruel to other living entities? What does Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging entail? How does one go about accepting diversity, creating equality, including others that may be different, and helping marginalized others feel as though they belong? What does it mean to be different? What is difference? Is difference only about race and ethnicity? How do gender and/or social and economic class create difference? What can you do to create equality?

  • 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.

  • Bodies in Performance

    How do we present our bodies to be read and understood by others? How do we read and understand bodies that are not ours? When crafting and witnessing theatrical performances how do our imaginations work to construct new narratives about bodies in performance? In this course, we will begin our inquiry with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet which poses the question, “To be or not be?” We will reframe this question through a lens of theatrical performance. What does it mean “to be” someone or something? What does it mean “not to be,” or to pretend or seem? Together we will read a selection of literature that feature bodies in performance and engage in designing our own interpretations of one play as we work to answer Hamlet’s question for a 21st-century audience.

  • Born To Be Good

    For thousands of years, philosophers have sought to understand the nature and origin of moral norms. The standard view has been that morality is acquired through learning and education. Recently, however, studies in developmental psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience have brought groundbreaking new data into the discussion, suggesting that we may have innate moral knowledge that allows us to discern what is good from what is bad. In this course, we will analyze how empirical studies, scientific theories, and philosophical arguments have attempted to reveal the origins of morality.

  • College and Social Justice

    Why do colleges and universities exist? Do they exist to serve the public good or personal gain? Are they communities that renew our humanity, moral imagination, and ethical sensibilities? Are they businesses that sell student-customers the credentials for employment in an entrepreneurial economy? Do they perpetuate privilege or create opportunity? Are they schools of democracy or the academies of plutocracy?

    We think these are modern debates, but they are not. For example, ‘getting a job’ after college has always motivated students. Early schools typically trained lawyers or clergy, and civil servants. Later they schooled people to be doctors and nurses, engineers, merchants, teachers, and more. So, education has always valued practical application. Democracy revolutionized education, however. Women and men demanded as their human right what had been reserved for an elite few. Naturally, they demanded access to the practical opportunities of education. But they also demanded that colleges and universities empower them to rethink the world in which they live. They insisted that education aim bigger than being just a credential-job-career pathway.

    Today, the tensions created by democracy often focus on this: are college and universities catalysts of social justice or agents of inequality? We will explore the debates about the purposes of college through this question. This seminar offers an ideal opportunity to ask yourself why you’re here and how you fit within the complex history of higher education. We will critically read important texts, discuss with each other the insights to be found in them, and develop sound evidence-based and aesthetically pleasing written arguments about their meaning and value.

  • College Student Mental Health and the Impact of Social Media / Media

    Guiding questions will include: Do you think that social media/media negatively impacts your mental health? If so, how? If not, why not? How can changing the way you engage with social media and media impact your mental health positively or negatively?

  • Dismantling Inequalities: Unmasking the Culture Industry

    Embracing the negative power of critique, we will investigate the ideological biases in knowledge production and the culture industry. From scientific hypotheses to everyday speech patterns, what we take for granted is fundamentally shaped by relations of domination. The course aims to help you enhance your critical judgment in scholarly and intellectual settings. We will unlearn prejudices, problematize stereotypes, and critically examine the “natural.” Upon the successful completion of the course, you will be able to critically analyze various written, spoken, and visual texts and diagnose their oblique ideological stances.

  • Dreaming

    Many cultures, including our own, have wondered about the nature of dreams and their significance. Key questions that arise are: What is dreaming? Do dreams have a purpose? Do dreams have meaning? How has dreaming been understood historically and cross-culturally? Cognitive Science has emphasized the importance of dreaming, and of sleep more generally, for mental health and wellbeing. But do dreams have a function beyond that? This class examines a variety of classic views on ‘dreams’, considers dreams in historical and cross-cultural perspectives, and reflects on how the modern scientific study of dreaming relates to the study of dreams from historical, psychological, anthropological, and religious perspectives.

  • First-Person Singular

    The section of FY-Inquiry will consider the ways writers have used the memoir or personal essay as a way to inquire into the limits, possibilities, and conditions of freedom. The writers we discuss will include George Orwell, Helen Macdonald, Sally Mann, Nick Hayes, and Oliver Sacks.

  • Humans & Nonhumans

    Since the mid-twentieth century, developments in a range of science and engineering disciplines including genetics and biochemistry, biotechnology and bioinformatics, computer science and engineering, and artificial intelligence have emerged significantly to challenge traditional conceptions and philosophies of humanism. How have shifting ideas pertaining to consciousness, intelligence, sentience, self-awareness, emotionality, affect, and related categories and phenomena issuing from work in these fields dramatically expanded conventional understandings of what we might informally refer to as the margins or limits of “human nature”? This will be a major open-ended question structuring this course.

    In a broader historical context, from the dawn of the technoscientific revolutions of the Romantic period, writers and intellectuals have sought to explore and represent through cultural, philosophical, theoretical, and other forms and methodologies the ways in which developments in modern sciences and technologies have begun to upend anthropocentric accounts of the ostensible uniqueness of “human nature.” In this course you will grapple with these and other related issues both in class discussion and in your writing (and revising) of course papers. More specifically, we will focus our attention on the challenges posed to traditional conceptions of humanism by developments in biotechnology, on the one hand, and artificial intelligence, on the other, and we will do so by contextualizing postwar technoscientific developments within the longer historical arc dating to the scientific and industrial revolutions of the turn of the nineteenth century.

  • King Arthur in the 21st Century

    King Arthur has captured the Western imagination, despite possibly never having existed at all. According to legend, Arthur emerged from the wreckage of the Roman Empire in the late 5th or early 6th century to lead the British defense against Germanic invaders, only to die (or maybe not!) in the noble but doomed endeavor. He appears in no written records until the early 9th century. From that point on, however, this once and future king features prominently in Western culture. According to Arthurian mythology, he will return in our hour of greatest need, but in a way, he's never left. In this course, we will consider why his image has proven so durable and endlessly adaptable, particularly in the contexts of recent films, television series, young adult fantasy novels, and British heritage tourism.

  • 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.

  • Music & Politics

    This course explores the multiple points of contact between music & politics in modern American music (from ragtime to hip hop). Themes include (1) the conception of sound as power; (2) the role of music in social movements, (3) dilemmas involving artistic authenticity vs. commercial imperatives, (4) cultural appropriation, (5) issues of identity, home, & freedom, (6) misogyny in rock & hip hop, and (7) genre transitions.

  • Narrative Medicine: Honoring Stories of Suffering

    What role does the art of storytelling play in the practice of giving and receiving care? What makes one caring? Is it being empathetic? Or being a good listener? As human beings, we often consider ourselves born with the inherent ability to connect with others in their time of need. Many of us, however, listen for the dilemma and strive to “fix” it. We forget to “witness” the person speaking and find it difficult to sit with stories of pain, suffering, and illness. We distance and disconnect ourselves from each other. Such interaction is experienced all too often in medical settings between patients and care providers, as well as between physicians and hospital staff. The emerging field of Narrative Medicine advocates a new mode of communication that privileges the patient’s experience. This course explores the main tenets of Narrative Medicine through works by Rita Charon, Pablo Neruda, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Jesmyn Ward, Saeed Jones, Danez Smith,

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and others in order to strengthen our empathy, critical listening, writing, analytical, and reflections skills, and become better at caring for each others and ourselves.

  • Natural Resources and Environmental Justice

    From water to sunlight, from fossil fuels to mineral deposits, most of our modern world relies on natural resources. Where do the components used to build your cellphone come from? What new issues arise as we build a greener, less hydrocarbon dependent world? In this course, students probe how the uneven global distribution of Earth's natural resources has consistently led to conflict, and how the exploitation of these resources has consequences for those who live and work nearby. As a class we will read and discuss diverse perspectives on environmental justice and study how resource production affects local populations. To accomplish this we will examine both modern and historic case studies in a variety of fields including water resources, hydrocarbon extraction, and the mineral deposits still required to build the green economy.

  • Negotiating Life

    As Simon Horton, author of Negotiation Mastery puts it, “In the end, we all die. That is non-negotiable. Everything else is up for grabs.” As we go through life, every day is filled with different types of negotiations. Our daily interactions are filled with negotiations, often without even knowing. Need to talk to your roommate about cleaning? Ask a neighbor to turn down the music? Or, request an extension on a paper from a professor? In this course, we will explore different types of negotiations from business, politics, and international diplomacy. We will identify specific strategies for success and help develop an approach for negotiating life.

  • Nostalgia and the Usefulness of Longing

    The word “nostalgia” is a modern word created from ancient Greek that means a painful longing for home or for the past. How do we create personal visions of our 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 its 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. We learn about the psychology of nostalgia, read literature that wrestles with this theme, and examine objects and monuments in the world around us.

  • Performing Culture and Nation

    “Art allows us to dream the culture forward,” says performance artist (and recent MacArthur “Genius” grant award-winner) Taylor Mac. Artists and authors have used their mediums not just “to hold the mirror up to nature” and reflect the society and nation they see, but to reshape it. Similarly, Friedrich Schiller writes in “The Stage as a Moral Institution” that art, quite literally, has the power to bring people together and constitute a new nation. In this seminar, we will examine the way artists have engaged with and shaped their (often fractured) societies, from the ancient world through the present moment. We will focus primarily on works of theatre and film as we think broadly about the interactions between culture and nation.

  • Pop-Music's Sacrificial Virgins: What Britney Spears Can Teach Us All

    In 2007, the world viciously laughed at photos of Britney Spears with a shaved head, calling it symptomatic of a broader “meltdown” and “one of the most shocking moments” of the year, but the media dedicated almost no time or energy to uncovering the behind-the-scenes reality of Spears’s life; indeed, speculation surrounding the “scandal” was cruel and mocking and Spears’s own voice was intentionally excluded from dominant media narratives. It’s only through the recent documentary, Framing Britney Spears, and the public outcry that helped catalyze it, that the tone and substance of those narratives about Spears have been challenged. Rather than a singular story specific to Spears, though, what happened to her reveals much more about the pervasiveness of misogyny within popular culture and popular music more broadly. This is particularly significant as we seem intent on repeating the same cycle for other recent female artists.

    Together, this class will work its way through and analyze the personal and professional narratives associated with Britney Spears and others in her position, paying particular attention to their early lives, their music and its evolution, and media coverage of them; this close, critical reading of Spears and others in context will enable us to explore what those narratives reveal about American culture and its values.

  • Pursuing Happiness

    What brings you happiness? How do we create meaning, value, and joy 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 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. If you’re a writer, or if you just want to learn something about writing, this course is for you!

    NOTE: This course will be conducted as a writing workshop. Our special focus will be on collaboration, peer review, and teamwork. You will learn how to give and receive feedback from your peers. Throughout the term, you’ll be encouraged to pursue your own interests in dialogue with your classmates and the guiding questions of the course.

  • Radical Thinkers

    This course surveys engages with the works of some eloquent advocates of ideas that in one way or another challenge the foundations of traditional Western culture. After looking at Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” we will turn to 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 claims that the price of order and civilization is the purposeful mutilation of our instinctual desire. We will conclude with two modern writers: Ta-Nehesi Coates, who offers a stinging indictment of the American Dream and of structural racism in America, and Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, a global feminist icon, who challenges our complacent assumptions about what and who a feminist is.

  • 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?

  • Spaces, Places, and Travel

    This course will explore the concept of travel (broadly conceived) in literature, film, and culture. We will ask how space and place affect experiences and what is the effect of travel on a person. We will consider general themes of belonging, home, space/place, and memory. The course will take us through various genres of media from epic poems to plays to cinema and TV. We will start our wide-ranging journey with Homer’s Odyssey and study abroad with the cast of L’Auberge Espagnole (2002), among others.

  • The Individual Self

    This course engages students in critical thinking as it opens up good essential questions: what does "Home" and "Community" mean ? How do they relate to the "Individual" ? Concepts such as "Self," "Home," "Elsewhere," "Other" are studied in the course in relation to shared memory, history, ideals, laws of the land, language, freedom, fantasy, dreams, etc.

  • 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

  • The Sociological Imagination

    Guiding question—How do we make connections between our personal challenges and larger social issues?

  • Too much of a good thing? The Challenges of Free Speech and Unfettered Media in the 21st Century

    Americans enjoy broad speech and media freedoms under the U.S. Constitution, which have overwhelmingly served our citizens well throughout U.S. history. In the past 10-15 years, however, an explosion of communications technology, the rise of "niche" media, the blurring of "news" vs. "opinion" in the media and the increasing polarization of our populace across many cultural and political issues have given rise to considerable debate of the role of the media and the limits of free speech in this country.

    This First-Year Inquiry will examine this phenomenon from multiple dimensions. Questions to be explored include: What is the role of a free press in today's global society? How do we even define "media" in world where virtually everyone has access to the tools necessary to reach an audience? How has the role of "traditional" media changed with the rise of social media over the past decade? To what extent is the media - defined broadly - responsible for the polarization is today's society vs. simply a reflection and amplifier of existing divisions? Are Americans' free speech rights too broad? What is the proper balance of free expression and protecting privacy or minimizing hate speech?

  • Unnatural Acts

    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.

Honors Course Descriptions

  • Conspiracy Theories and the Politics of Skepicism

    Guiding questions include: How do conspiracy theories emerge, and why people adopt conspiracy explanations in the absence of evidence? What are actors' motivations for perpetuating conspiracy theories? What are demographic, social, and cultural factors that shape vulnerability to believing in conspiracy theories? What role do political and economic forces and social inequality play in advancing conspiracy theories and conspiracy theory belief? How do different disciplines such as sociology, psychology, and political science, economics, and history attempt to understand the emergence and perpetuation of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theory belief?

  • Convince Me: Nature, Ethics, and the 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.

  • On the Arts and the Humanities: Stories of Resilience, Resistance, and Transformation

    This section of the First-Year Inquiry seminar broadly examines the values of the humanities and arts and specifically focuses on their transformative powers. During the pandemic, many colleges and universities facing financial constraints target language, literature, music, and art programs and departments for budgetary cuts. This class is conducted with this context in mind. Specially, we will interrogate ways the arts and humanities help us cope with societal problems such as war, poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, etc. We will also consider the roles the arts and humanities play in our individual lives.

    We will read texts that demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit (e.g. Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle) or the support system of family (e.g. Roland Merullo’s In Revere In Those Days). We will also read texts that bear witness to the atrocities committed by a government or regime (such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats). We have writers like Tim O’Brien who use storytelling to heal a wounded self and help others do the same. Near the end of the term, we will watch the British comedy film Blinded by the Light, about a Pakistani young man in England who finds joy and freedom in the music of Bruce Springsteen. These stories demonstrate the powers of storytelling and more broadly, especially in the case of Blinded by the Light, what the arts and the humanities have to offer: providing us with essential ingredients for survival during this time of political and cultural upheavals.

  • On The Road

    Why do narratives of the road play such a prominent role in American culture? What are their common themes, characteristics, and dilemmas? Over the course of the term we will seek to determine who embarks on such journeys (at once geographical and psychological) and who does not, and ask why. We will consider a variety of representations of the myth of the road, tracing their motivations and ideological implications. Examining such works as Easy Rider, Wizard of Oz, Badlands, Lovecraft Country, and Nomadland, we will speculate on the genre’s enduring appeal.

  • What Remains: Global Waste and the Human Condition

    Can thinking about the ways in which we deal with human waste change our environmental consciousness and improve our societies? This course believes passionately this to be the case. By highlighting and analyzing our complex relationship with waste, we create a renewed consciousness of it and learn to engage creatively and critically, as a result, our desire for transformative action. In order to think about this transformation, we must consider people’s perceptions of and behavior around waste more broadly and through time, within the confines of different cultural representations, and attentive to our own — and our surroundings’ — wasting habits. We will analyze films and art and read texts from literary, philosophical, filmic and artistic, economic, and environmental and sociological/anthropological perspectives. An interdisciplinary course looking at global visual and textual narratives of waste, the course will be a critical opportunity to think and rethink our very humanity.