Complex Questions: Global Challenges & Social Justice

First Year Inquiry Courses

2024-2025 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.

  • 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.

    The goal of this course will also be to teach students how to write academic argumentative essays. For the first essay, we will read Jesse Prinz’s “Against Moral Nativism,” and students will write an essay analyzing Prinz’s article. Next, we’ll read an interview with developmental psychologist Karen Wynn, “Born Good? Babies Help Unlock the Origins of Morality,” in which Wynn argues that babies are born with an innate moral sense. Students will analyze and evaluate Wynn’s argument. Finally we will read Jonathan Haidt’s groundbreaking paper on the role emotions play in moral judgment. Students will develop their own arguments about innate morality based on Haidt’s article and all the other sources we’ve looked at in the course.

  • Confronting Grand Challenges

    Human progress from the Stone Age to the present revolution of information technology required overcoming an extraordinary array of countless grand challenges. The last century alone witnessed unthinkable engineering and scientific achievements that transformed people’s lives in an unimaginable way. The knowledge base presently in place, coupled with powerful computer and communication tools added to the desire to take on even more daunting grand challenges that, if tackled successfully, will have the potential to significantly alter the course of humanity.

    The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) compiled a list of formidable challenges considered to be of great importance to address in the present century. Some of these challenges are enhance virtual reality, reverse-engineer the brain, engineer better medicines, secure cyberspace, manage the nitrogen cycle, and develop carbon sequestration methods. As the world’s only universal global organization, the United Nations (UN) published a list of global issues that transcend national boundaries and cannot be resolved by any country acting alone. Some of these issues are population, poverty, food, health, water, energy, migration, security, and the environment. Despite the sharp contrast between the highly sophisticated list compiled by the NAE and the seemingly conventional list compiled by the UN, challenges remain a serious encounter hindering progress and development in various societies. As the NAE indicated, the ultimate goal of confronting both traditional and spectacular challenges is to improve life through four intersecting themes: sustainability, health, security, and joy of living. Although addressing grand challenges faces numerous roadblocks, the never-yielding and ever-aspiring human spirit has shown throughout.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Finding Perspective Through The Other

    Who is the “other”? Is it someone that has a different identity? Different upbringing? Different family structure? Do differences extend to different rights and privileges based on the characteristics of the “other”? What do the answers to these questions mean for us on a college campus? First year students will identify someone in history perceived as an “other” and explore what is known about this person, reflecting and comparing the person’s journey with their own.

  • Free Will

    We tend to have a powerful and immediate conception of ourselves as free agents. We think we determine the course of our lives. Even mundane everyday actions like getting out of bed in the morning strike us as performed out of our own free will. Our sense of free will is not a trivial phenomenon, but is at the heart of our practices of holding people morally responsible for their actions. And yet, there are also convincing reasons to think that we are moving pieces in a physical system where everything is fully determined by physical laws. Our thoughts and actions are not exceptions to this deterministic order. If so, is our sense of free will simply an illusion, and is nobody actually morally responsible for what they do? In this course, we will explore the rich, millennia-old philosophical debate on this question. We will use the debate as a springboard to intensively practice our reading and writing skills.

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

    German philosopher Helmuth Plessner argues that man's inherently comic nature is the result of his doubled nature; he is entwined in the world, subject to social order, and yet "eccentric" to it, forever seeking freedom and clashing with social norms. In this course we will read selections of twentieth-century literature and theatre in the light of psychoanalytical, physiological, and philosophical observations about humor and laughter. We will ask what special insights might emerge from reading comic portrayals of colliding horizons, identity crises, social disorder, and, of course, people at their wit's end. Literary authors read and comedians watched may include Kurt Vonnegut, Eugène Ionesco, Zora Neale Hurston, Trevor Noah, and Hannah Gadsby.

  • 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.

  • Medi(a)val

    In every media form, the medieval pervades. Our modern fascination with the Middle Ages is peculiar given that this period feels so distant from our contemporary values, morals, and ethics. Yet popular video games like The Witcher and TV shows like Game of Thrones show us that medieval stories have remained a popular source for creative expression even in the 21st century. Examining various media forms—anime, music videos, and movies—this class will consider how and why the Middle Ages are continually reproduced and transformed. Together, we’ll examine how and why artistic representations of this period remain relevant to our individual and collective experiences of the world.

  • 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.

  • 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. Focusing primarily on theatre and performance and examining works from Aristotle, Plato, and Shakespeare to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Liliana Padilla, and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, among others, we will examine the way artists have engaged with and shaped their (often fractured) societies, from the ancient world through the present moment.

  • 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!

  • Religious Violence

    Early Christian communities arguably formed around charismatic figures such as martyrs, ascetics, and monks who demonstrated their closeness to the divine in part through acts of violence. Religious violence continued through the centuries up to the present. In the year 1096, more than 100,000 people walked from their homes in Europe to Jerusalem to kill a group of people they had never met and likely had 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. This course explores causes, justifications, and acts of religious violence in the context of crusading from late antiquity to the present. Among the guiding questions students will explore are how people justified and authorized religious violence in the context of crusades. What motivates someone to engage in violent acts under the pretext of crusading? What is the role of religious belief in the activation of violence? How do economic, political, and legal contexts weigh in a group’s participation in violence? What do Christian-Muslim relationships look like on the local level? Analyzing a variety of sources including movies, objects, literature, speeches, treaties, documents, account books, and letters, this class will study the shapes of violence at the core of crusades in the past and present.

  • 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.

  • Rural Life and the American Dream

    Rural life is a mystery to most Americans now, particularly those at an elite liberal arts college. At best, it’s a paradox, at once the American “heartland,” the Jeffersonian dream, but also a backwater of ignorance, racism, and intolerance. We’ll examine this paradox in a variety of expressions and modes, looking at food production, politics, music, even meth and moonshine. Most importantly, this course will ask you to think and express your thoughts in a persuasive, distinct, and interesting way.

  • 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.

  • Shades of Film Noir

    Over the course of the term, we will study the genre’s emergence from German Expressionism, pre-code gangster movies, screwball comedy, and hard-boiled detective fiction and consider the historical factors that led to the burgeoning of film noir in the 1940s and 50s. In addition to the standard characters (detective, femme fatal, gangsters, “deviants”), we will analyze filmic styles (low-key lighting, voice-over narration, etc.) and themes of alienation, corruption and existential drift that characterize the genre. From its origins in post-World War II America, we will explore film noir’s radical revisions and geographic relocations as it is taken up in such places as France, Hong Kong, Korea, and Mexico.

  • 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 "Real" Me

    What does it mean to be “true” to one’s self? To live an “authentic” life? To “keep it real”? This term, we will explore the complex relationship between subjectivity and authenticity, paying particular attention to how people grapple with conceptions of their selves in relation to broader social and political pressures. We will consider how technology mediates social relationships, how history and identity influence behavior, and how power shapes communication. Throughout the term, we will discuss the importance of being true to one’s self and the inevitable limits of any such effort.

  • 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.

  • The Social Life of Literature

    We often imagine reading as an activity that happens silently, in the privacy of our own heads. Yet the practice of reading is deeply ingrained in the social world around us, from social media and casual conversations to how we conceive of education and the impact of technology on politics. From New York Times bestsellers to BookTok, from Nobel Prize winners to Reese's Book Club, literary texts are both shaped by and shape how we understand society.

    This class explores the ways in which readers discover, engage with, and discuss books in the twenty-first century. It asks how is the practice of reading is shaped by technology: how do Amazon recommendations or social media posts shape who, what, and how people read? What does it mean to listen to an audiobook instead of reading a text? It also asks how the multiple communities in which we read shape the experience of literature whether that is collectively through book clubs or the college classroom, online spaces for the publication of fanfiction, and individually for pleasure or information influence the choices of how, when, and where we read.

    Finally, we will explore how contemporary literary institutions such as libraries, bookstores, and author events influence readers' choices about how literature is consumed and investigate literature's relationship to the marketplace.

  • Zombies: Reflections on the Apocalypse

    This course is conceived as a zone of inquiry in which students will engage with the class topics from diverse academic perspectives. We will study and reflect on the apocalypse from numerous fields of knowledge, from film and literary studies to biology, from politics and national security to philosophy and dance, from disease control and pandemics to economics, from environmental studies to ethics in the health professions. We will explore several aspects related to zombies and their potential cultural and political signification (e.g., xenophobia, consumerism, technology in social dynamics and behavior, global pandemics), but we will also go beyond the literal understanding of a “zombie plague” to approach subjects usually not considered in relation to this cultural lore since scholars are already discussing the zombie apocalypse to tackle myriad subjects: the function of the brain, contestation of traditional masculinity, disaster preparation, immigration detention centers, or the Anthropocene and climate change.