Complex Questions: Global Challenges & Social Justice

First Year Inquiry Courses

2023-2024 Course Descriptions

  • 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.

  • Blow Up Your Cell Phone?

    If we knew something was addictive, invaded our privacy, and hampered our cognitive abilities, we'd probably carefully control its use, as we do with alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs. But like guns, cell phones and their attendant apps--social media and games, in particular--are for some reason considered sacrosanct and beyond regulation. So what should we do with the little devices that increasingly invade and control our lives?

  • Coming of Age Narratives

    In this course we will examine coming-of-age stories from a wide variety of perspectives, considering why the transition from childhood to independence is such a timeless topic for literary texts. At the same time that we explore the typical stages in this hero’s journey of sorts, we will also be attuned to differences of perspective, including those of gender, race, and class. Reading stories of girlhood and boyhood, we will pay careful attention to the diversity of personal and social difficulties characters face. Students should expect to encounter absorbing and challenging reading in this course; texts may include such works as Jane Eyre, This Boy’s Life, Factory Girls, or Sag Harbor. Students will also develop independent projects on a coming-of-age text of their choosing.

  • Conspiracy Theories and the Politics of Skepticism

    In recent years, conspiracy theories have entered into popular discourse and pervaded American politics, exploiting particularly vulnerable groups and threatening the integrity of our democracy. In this course we will explore why people believe in conspiracy theories and misinformation, the actors involved, and motivations for perpetuating these beliefs in the absence of evidence. Conspiracy theories attempt to explain a wide variety of events and actions that have occurred throughout our history which call into question generally accepted narratives and explanations (such as the moon landing, the JFK assassination, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and even the COVID pandemic). Conspiracy theories also attempt to create and explain the presence of fictitious, clandestine entities and affairs such as the existence of a “deep state” or a “new world order” or the actions and motivations of these groups and their involvement in nefarious affairs (e.g. QAnon). Each week, students will evaluate selected conspiracy theories and research which attempt to explain the psychology, sociology of conspiracy theory belief, as well as explanations offered by political scientists, economists, and historians. Students will also explore these topics on their own through independent research projects in an effort to disentangle fact from fiction and the rationale for their adoption.

  • Constructing the Self

    This is an interdisciplinary class exploring the questions of personal identity. Besides literature and philosophy, students will get acquainted with recent findings in genetics, epigenetics, biology, anthropology, neuroscience, cognitive science, behavioral economics, psychology, and sociology. Ethics and bioethics will also be a part of the course. This course is intellectually challenging, reading and writing intensive. It is designed to help students hone their critical thinking, reading, and communication skills.

  • Dealing with the Nazis

    Nazism was and remains one of the most important events in recent human history. Who joined or sympathized with the Nazis? Who rejected them? Who suffered at their hands? After the war, how have the victims, bystanders, perpetrators, as well as the descendants of these respective groups, dealt with the legacy of Nazism? You will hear from all of these people in this class through their essays, diaries, books and testimonies.

  • Eco-Critical Perspectives on the Ground

    This course will explore an array of perspectives implied by the term “ground” and how these perspectives define the human relationship to the world. The ground offers a complicated and sometimes controversial focal point for a consideration of human activity. Through the examination of perspectives ranging from metaphorical, to philosophical, to material, we will investigate how the ground functions in diverse contexts, forming at times the basis for human exceptionality, becoming the great unifier of organic and inorganic matter, and finally setting the scene for a decentering of an anthropocentric understanding of the world.

  • Fighting Injustice and Dismantling Caste

    On Feb. 21, 2023, Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban caste-based discrimination by incorporating it into its anti-discrimination laws. Today, human rights activists and lawyers are fighting against caste-based discrimination in the US workforce, particularly in Silicon Valley. What is caste, and how did a form of discrimination historically entrenched in South Asia become urgent in the United States? Embracing the works of anti-caste thinkers in India and in the United States through the twentieth and the twenty-first century, we will understand what caste is, why is it so essential to understand South Asia and the South Asia diaspora, and how colonialism, capitalism, and globalization transform the concept of caste. By the end of the course, you will be able to understand how these anti-caste philosophers defined freedom, equality, and democracy in India, and how their thoughts continue to push the limits of political thought today.

  • Hair to Hedwig to Hamilton

    The course will establish/review a basic musical theatre vocabulary, explore the European and North American precursors of the genre, and focus on the history of twentieth-century Broadway musicals. Students will venture into the cultural context of shows within given periods of unrest or change within the United States. Students will identify moments on or off stage that resulted in shifts in American thought and attitude towards elements of identity such as race, sexuality, and gender expression. In addition to viewing video clips in class, at least one field experience will be a requirement. This class will also promote local theatre, as students will also learn about various houses/venues in the Schenectady area.

  • 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.

  • Humor, Laughter, and Literature at Wit's End

    This class is designed to help students question how the current college student generation looks at and uses media and social media. The class will determine if the impacts of social media are due to the type of social media used, or if "how" students engage with social media is an issue. The class will discuss mental health, social media, media (e.g., music, video games), and develop a thesis on whether they are good for college students or not.

  • 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? How do our religious or philosophical beliefs determine our attitudes about it? 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.

  • 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 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, and YA fantasy novels.

  • Media F.A.R.C.E.

    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.

  • Medieval and Modern Crusades

    In the year 1096, more than 100,000 people walked from their homes in Europe to Jerusalem to kill a people they had never met and likely barely heard of. This journey is commonly known as the beginning of “the Crusades.” In the year 2019, a man shot hundreds of worshipers attending Friday prayers, killing 51, at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Among the multiple references scrawled on his gun was “1189 Acre,” a battle between Muslim and Christian forces setting the stage for the third Crusade. Analyzing a variety of sources including movies, objects, literature, speeches, treaties, letters, newspapers, and music, this class will ask what the Crusades were then and now, and why they remain so powerful in shaping and dividing our world today. What characterizes Muslim-Christian interactions on local levels? How does the meaning of the Crusades change as we shift perspectives from Christian to Muslim primary sources?

  • Monsters and Us

    Why is it that monsters in culture are both feared entities and, simultaneously, something we cannot get enough of? What’s at stake when we read about them, and watch them on our screens? What do they stand for? In this course, we will explore how famous monsters in culture stand for deep social anxieties, but simultaneously also for desires to break the bonds of social norms. We will reconsider monsters through the lenses of race, gender, and class. We will also examine how what we call monstrosity is a way to codify the body and how it allows society to control it. But beyond the use of the monster to vilify others, to control the social, lies its most unsettling aspect: What if the monster is a figure of our desires? What if you could find something about yourself through what the monster makes you feel and what you interpret about it?

  • Monstrous Kinships: Animals, People, Places

    In this course we will consider three interrelated concepts of attachment: human-to-human, human-to-animal, and human-to-place attachments. Alongside several classic literary works, we will read about and discuss a variety of attachment theories and philosophies that also consider modes of detachment. We will then apply those theories to the ways in which attachment bonds inevitably shape human identity, create meaning, and facilitate actions. We will consider disruptions in attachment bonds and how those disruptions affect our trust, security, identity, sense of well-being, and our future interactions with others. We will also discuss the ways in which our attachments to ideas influence our perceptions of self and otherness and what happens when those ideas are challenged. Our course discussions will include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, the Bhagavad Gita, Shena McAuliffe’s The Good Echo, and several essays and book chapters discussing topics such as place identity, neurobiology, cognitive ethology, affective neuroscience, and parental deprivation.

  • Moral and Ethical Dilemmas

    Life would be different from the way we know it if making decisions about issues we face in our daily living was as clear as black and white. A binary choice from two options, one of which is totally right and the other is completely wrong would be extremely easy. With many layers of complexities in our society today, limitless shades of gray are the themes of almost every human interaction. Problems faced by individuals may also have moral or ethical dimensions, which require deeper examination and careful dissection before passing a judgment. Moral and ethical dilemmas arise when reasonable people cannot agree on a singular solution or a sole outcome for a given problem. In such a case, priorities have to be established and compromises have to be made to ameliorate the outcome of the dilemma. Students in this course will be introduced to many such scenarios through actual case studies. Class discussion and listening to various viewpoints will help students develop a sense of appreciation that would ultimately contribute to finding an acceptable resolution to the dilemma at hand.

  • 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.

  • 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 cell phone 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.

  • 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. 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. We learn about the psychology of nostalgia, read literature that wrestles with this theme, and examine objects and monuments around us. Along the way, we will explore answers to these questions: 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? How does nostalgia shape our sense of self and belonging? How does nostalgia influence politics and interpretations of history? How does studying the past help us understand ourselves?

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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?

    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.

  • Rethinking Iran: Images and Realities

    Recent protests in Iran, spearheaded by women, have, once again, placed that country under the international spotlight. How do we understand these events? The relationship between the U.S. and countries in Southwest Asia (the Middle East) and North Africa has been turbulent for several decades. Why? We will argue that one important factor has been the CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Iran in 1953. We will study this event, and the subsequent 25 years of repression and de-democratization in Iran under U.S. influence. We will argue that the 1979 revolution in Iran, and its major ramifications throughout Southwest Asia and North Africa, can be traced to 1953. We will show that a deeper comprehension of these issues will likely lead to a more peaceful world, and save the US trillions of dollars that it badly needs for its domestic needs. We will also situate our analysis in the context of broader geopolitical and geoeconomic dynamics in the world with a focus on China, Russia and the U.S.

    In this course, we will study the economic, political, cultural, historical, and other factors that have shaped today’s Iran. The goal is to enable students to contextualize, and thus better understand, current issues such as the role of petroleum and nuclear energy in Iran’s political economy and in its relationship with the rest of the world, the role of Islam in Iran, the position of women in society, and related issues. In this journey, students will develop an appreciation of Iran as a highly complex, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, modern, vibrant society with an ancient history and a rich cultural heritage.

  • 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.

  • 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 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.

  • Technology and Philosophy

    Can ChatGPT think? Is virtual reality real or fake? Is it possible we're currently living in a computer simulation? Should we be more worried about how AI will treat us, or about how we will treat AI? Is it problematic how social media shapes beauty standards? Does the internet make it harder or easier for us to gain knowledge? How might an algorithm be racist or sexist? Can a human being live after their death by uploading their consciousness to a computer?

    We will explore these questions with the help of philosophical essays, science fiction stories, television, and film.

  • The Cost of Modernity

    What has been the cost of modernity? This FYI seminar looks critically at some of the major transformations in human history that have shaped the world in which we find ourselves today. For much of this history, we have celebrated progress; technological improvements, urban life, greater individualism, accelerated speed of transactions and mobility, and triumphs over nature have all dazzled us. But what is the downside to material and technological progress? We will read, reflect, and discuss the multiple ways in which progress has come at a cost. Topics will range widely to explore the social, environmental, political, and cultural history of the last 250 years, including: the repercussions of the fossil economy, the impact of urbanization on human lives, the problems with agribusiness, the unintended consequences of large-scale planning, and the environmental toll of consumer culture.

  • The Death and Life of Cities

    This seminar uses Jane Jacobs’ classic 1961 text "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" as the starting point for a discussion of the modern city. Robert Caro’s 1975 blockbuster "The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York" examines mid-century New York City while Peter Moskowitz’s 2017 "How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood" offers a timely snapshot into the problems of the city in the twenty-first century. We’re also using a reference text—Hacker/Sommers, "A Pocket Style Manual" [9th edition]—to help us understand grammar, citation, plagiarism, commonly misspelled words, and other language mechanics issues.

  • The Impact of Social Media/Media on College Student Mental Health

    This class is designed to help students question how the current college student generation looks at and uses media and social media. The class will determine if the impacts of social media are due to the type of social media used, or if "how" students engage with social media is an issue. The class will discuss mental health, social media, media (e.g., music, video games), and develop a thesis on whether they are good for college students or not.

  • 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.

  • To Rule and Be Ruled

    History has seen the rise and fall of many different empires: from the Achaemenids of Persia to the British Empire upon which the sun never set. Thus, for many peoples across time and place, imperial rule was a common experience: the names of the ruling powers might differ, but the central goals of expanding their hegemony, enlarging their territory, and extending their sway over other peoples remained consistent. In this course, we will look at a number of empires from the ancient world up to the 20th century to understand how imperial power has been constructed across time and place, and how it was experienced by those over whom it was imposed. We will look not only at how each empire operated and how it legitimized its rule, but also at how that rule was perceived, accepted, and rejected by those subjected to such power.

  • Why Study Arts and Humanities?

    Don’t leave college without the arts and humanities! This is not the advice most often heard among college students. We all know not to leave college without a plan, a skill-set, a career path, but without the arts and humanities? Why not? And who knows what they are anyway? In this course, you will explore what the arts and humanities mean, what they can do, and what role they can play in your education and future profession, no matter which career you want to pursue. This is a student-centered and highly participatory class that focuses on learning writing techniques for public audiences through blogs, daily reactions, and the writing of a publishable Shout Out campaign.