Fall 2014 Writing Seminars
Writing Seminars have a common goal—for students, through practice and guidance, to master essential strategies and techniques of academic inquiry and argument. Writing Seminars also have a common structure: unlike most other courses, which are organized around readings, Writing Seminars are organized primarily around writing—specifically, a series of four assignments, totaling about 30 finished pages.
While Writing Seminars all focus on the skills necessary for effective critical reading and writing, they differ in the topics and texts assigned. Below are topic descriptions of the many different Writing Seminars being offered this term.
As described in How to Enroll, you will enroll in a Writing Seminar by ranking your top 8 choices online at any time during the enrollment period. You can sort the list of Writing Seminars below by title and time to help you find the ones that interest you most and best fit your schedule. To read a full description of the course, click on the course title. To increase your chances of being assigned to one of your top preferences, choose seminars that meet at a range of times, including morning and evening. Be sure to keep in mind your class schedule and extracurricular commitments.
- Students Assigned to a Term for the Writing Seminar
Sent Friday, July 18
- Students May Request a Term Change Online
Friday, September 5, 9am - Wednesday, September 10, 9am
- Students Enroll in a Writing Seminar Online
Monday, September 8, 5pm - Wednesday, September 10, 5pm
* This process is not first come, first served. Enroll anytime during the enrollment period, and your chance of receiving one of your top choices is as good as everyone else's.
- Students Notified by E-mail of Writing Seminar Assignments
Thursday, September 11, 5pm
- Students May Request a Writing Seminar Change Online
Thursday, September 11, 5pm - Saturday, September 13, 12 noon
* No requests to change a Writing Seminar will be accepted after the deadline without the special permission of the Writing Program Director and your Director of Studies.
- First Day of M/W Writing Seminars
Monday, September 15
- First Day of T/Th Writing Seminars
Tuesday, September 16
What constitutes an American revolution? The word means “to murder and create,” as political scientist Louis Hartz wrote, borrowing from T.S. Eliot, “but the American experience has been projected strangely in the realm of creation alone.” Hartz is one voice among many in the scholarly debate that we engage in as we challenge historical conceptions of revolution. In this Writing Seminar we reconsider our own assumptions about the meaning of the word as we ask: How does a movement become a “revolution,” and what is the difference between the two? Who owns the language of revolution, and why does it matter? We begin by analyzing texts by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, as well as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, to develop arguments about the American Revolution. Next, students survey scholarly conceptions of “American exceptionalism” to consider revolution in a global framework, assessing the arguments of Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, and Arthur Schlesinger. In the second half of the semester, students research events with revolutionary characteristics—for instance, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Reagan revolution, the sexual revolution, or September 11th. Finally, students learn how to turn their research into an op-ed.
The second-season opener of Doomsday Preppers was the most-watched premiere in the National Geographic Channel’s history. Survivalism, a movement encouraging active preparation for the end of the world, has been steadily gaining ground in mainstream American culture over the last decade. However, apocalyptic beliefs have shaped debates on art, morality, and politics for centuries. Why does every generation look forward to the apocalypse? How do we define what “the end of the world” means? And how does apocalyptic belief affect our social, moral, or environmental obligations? We begin by reconsidering medieval anticipation of the year 1000, reading a homily from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript in the Princeton collection in light of modern theories of apocalyptic narrative. Next, we investigate post-apocalyptic theories of identity by examining how zombie movies reinterpret medieval anxieties about the fate of the resurrected body. For the research paper, students choose an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic work and make an argument about how it adapts, extends, or reinterprets the apocalyptic tradition to respond to its historical or ideological context. Topics might include disaster films or novels such as The Road, millennialism and revolution, climate change, the 1990s Left Behind book series, Y2K, or the sociology of “prepper” culture.
WRI 151: T/TH 7:30pm-8:50pm
“For an occurrence to become an adventure,” existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it.” In other words, adventures are made in their telling. But if this is so, what sets adventure apart from other forms of narrative and artistic expression? And why are we so drawn to adventures in the first place—in stories and in life? Do adventures take us away from our everyday world or provide insight into it? In this Writing Seminar, we investigate the complex cultural meanings of adventure in literature, film, and everyday life. We begin by using the writings of sociologist Georg Simmel to assess the role of adventure in Miguel de Cervantes’s classic tale of chivalry and fool-heartedness, Don Quixote. Next, we study theories of empire and conquest to offer new interpretations of the politics of adventure in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. For the research paper, students study the cultural meaning of adventure in art or life. Possible topics include summer camp, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, climbing Mount Everest, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. We conclude by creating adventures from our own real-life episodes.
WRI 189: T/TH 7:30pm-8:50pm
Contradictions of Freedom in American Capitalism
WRI 112: M/W 11:00am-12:20pm
WRI 113: M/W 1:30pm-2:50pm
What does capitalism promise us? Can it make good on those promises or might they be undermined by contradictions internal to capitalism itself? This Writing Seminar will pursue these two questions by focusing on the forms of freedom available within and secured by capitalism. We will pay special attention to the role that the idea of free markets has played in the American imagination. We begin with the theories of John Locke, Karl Marx, and Milton Friedman to explore the connections and tensions between private property and personal freedom. Next, we move forward in time to consider the anxieties of workers by examining Jason Reitman’s 2009 film Up In the Air through the lens of cultural theorist Lauren Berlant’s argument about the cruel optimism of the American Dream. For the research unit, students may either examine efforts to alter capitalism––such as financial reform legislation, the passage of living wage laws in Seattle, the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Board, fair trade products––or consider the representations of contemporary capitalism in works such The Wire, Silicon Valley, or the Pixar animated films. The course concludes by having students write opinion pieces for publication in The Economist.
WRI 154: T/TH 7:30pm-8:50pm
Though founded on the principle of liberty, the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, past or present. Why do we punish so much? What roles does punishment play in a society where it unevenly affects some communities more than others? In this Writing Seminar, we examine the concept of punishment and ask what its modes and consequences are as social practice. We begin with images of punishments enacted upon slave rebels in late 18th-century Suriname. Studying these images alongside theories of punishment’s spectacular power, we will consider the ethics of punishment and spectatorship. We turn next to Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin to explore the relationship between legal and extra-legal punishment in the U.S. between Emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement, considering what race, gender, and sexuality have to do with our nation’s vast investment in punishment. In the second half of the course, students research a topic related to punishment inflicted by the state, such as: mass incarceration; solitary confinement; punishment in a cultural work (works as various as Richard Wright’s Native Son and Alyse Emdur’s Prison Landscapes would be appropriate). For our final project, we’ll write op-eds about a contemporary issue in punishment.
WRI 196: T/TH 8:30am-9:50am
Would you wear a sweater that once belonged to Adolf Hitler? What if the sweater had been laundered first, or then been worn by Mother Teresa? Human beings have and are bodies, but more specifically are dressed bodies. Worn garments may contain the vital essence of a person, as they do for the Hua people of New Guinea, or may provide a residence for demons, as televangelist Pat Robertson warns. Employing a variety of disciplinary perspectives including psychology, sociology, religion, and economics, this seminar explores the relationship between dress, social communication, and identity negotiation, defining dress broadly to include any bodily supplementation or modification such as piercings or tattoos. We begin by analyzing the role of dress in reality television using Joanne Entwistle’s theory of dress and embodiment. Next we consider how principles of self and material culture complicate popular representations of dress, using the films Public Enemies and Blue Jasmine as case studies. For the research essay we each choose an item of dress and make an argument about its meaning in a particular cultural context. Finally, we reflect on our own experience of dress on the Princeton campus through short personal essays or contributions to a Princeton “street style” blog.
Fakes, Frauds, and Charlatans
WRI 176: M/W 7:30pm-8:50pm
In 1991, Princeton student Alexi Indris-Santana, track team and Ivy Club member, was exposed as 31-year-old confidence man James Hogue. Although Hogue was expelled from the university, his ability to pass as a student for nearly two years raises questions about the relationship between lying, success, and cultural standards. How do lies inform the ways we think about ourselves? In a world where technology increasingly blurs the lines between life and fiction, is deception ever justified? This Writing Seminar examines the appeal of fakes, frauds, and charlatans to consider how the self and identity have been constructed over the last century. We begin with The Great Gatsby, where Fitzgerald reshapes our understanding of the confidence man by turning him into a cultural icon. We then debate the ethics and morality of deception by testing Nietzsche’s and Freud’s notions of truth against the films Quiz Show and Catch Me If You Can. For the research essay, students choose an instance of imposture in contemporary culture or fiction and make an argument that interprets and assesses its significance . Possible topics include false memoirs, identity theft, and race, class, and gender passing. We conclude by reimagining ourselves as confidence men and women, reflecting on the tensions between telling a good story and telling the truth.
WRI 135: T/TH 8:30am-9:50am
WRI 136: T/TH 11:00am-12:20pm
An avant-garde composer loops, shifts, and multiplies a single spoken phrase out of intelligibility. A hip-hop producer builds an entire album from sampled sound. A practitioner of musique concrete arranges environmental sound—passing train cars, reverberant steps in a hallway, a man singing to himself—into a symphony. How does music made of “sound objects” rather than musical syntax transform our listening, and in what ways must we modulate our expectations when we encounter sampled, collaged, or collected sounds? To what extent does the increasing prevalence of works made of found sound signal a change in listening practices generally? We’ll begin by making original inquiries into minimalist pioneer Steve Reich’s Come Out, discovering how this piece can surprise us despite its transparent compositional process. We’ll then extend scholarly work on sampling through analysis of hip-hop producer and auteur J Dilla’s Donuts. Original research into musical works of our own choosing will then drive an essay situating them in broader social and historical context; possible topics include DJ Shadow’s Endtroducting, Schaeffer and Henry’s Symphonie pour un homme seul, and John Oswald’s Plunderphonics. We’ll close by making original works out of found sound and providing listening context in prose liner notes.
Last year, the Museum of Modern Art called the 20th century “The Century of the Child.” If that’s the case, what was the status of the child previously, and what has happened to it since? How has childhood as a social category been defined and redefined in different times and different cultures? In this Writing Seminar, we consider the constantly changing perceptions of those earliest years of human development. We begin with an examination of how dominant ideas in a society find expression in children’s toys, from the dollhouse to the Rubik’s Cube. We then visit the Cotsen Children’s Library to explore how the mental world of the child has been continually reimagined in literature. What does the success of books like Alice in Wonderland or Where the Wild Things Are tell us, for example, about changing concepts of childhood? Students then make researched arguments about an event, controversy, or product of their choice which illuminates the perspective on childhood in a particular era. Topics could range from Japanese Children’s Day to the banning of violent American video games. Lastly, students propose a new book, toy, or game and theorize how it would influence a child today.
From mountains of salt to lakes of whiskey, sensational rumors lured 19th-century settlers into the untamed vastness of North America. To relaunch her popular book club, Oprah Winfrey picked Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her transformation during a hike of 1,100 miles through the Pacific wilderness. What does our enduring fascination with the wild tell us about human society? How has our relationship to the wild changed as technology has advanced and the global population has risen? We begin by examining Robin Hood and Sir Yvain, adventurers of the medieval forest, in relation to the idea of “rewilding”–or overcoming human domestication–advocated by today’s primitivist movements in Britain. We turn next to maps, illustrations, and eyewitness accounts of the New World as we assess how Europeans imagined the influence of the American wilderness on its native inhabitants. For the research project, students investigate a modern depiction of the wilderness and what it tells us about the relationship between civilization and nature. Possible topics range from wildlife documentaries to survivalist literature, from the emerging science on personal ecosystems to debates over “fracking” in the national parks. Finally, students use Google Earth to create interactive, virtual guidebooks through a wilderness they choose.
In early 2014, the Copenhagen Zoo culled a young giraffe and a family of lions to prevent in-breeding and overpopulation. Although hundreds of thousands of animals are killed quietly on a daily basis, these events provoked international outrage and debate about the biological and ethical responsibilities humans have towards animals. We interact constantly with animals, and they appear all around us: in media representations, in our clothes, on our plates, in our scientific laboratories. How do we relate to animals? How should we relate to them? What do those relations tell us about ourselves and our cultures? This Writing Seminar uses the multidisciplinary field of Animal Studies as a framework for thinking about and producing scholarly writing. Among the primary texts we will engage are J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, Disney’s Finding Nemo, and Jane Goodall’s My Friends The Wild Chimpanzees.Our assignments will include a paper in which students define a key term in Animal Studies; an analysis of a visual representation of animals; and a research project that engages with a debate or problem relating to animals: their artistic and cultural representations; concerns about poultry raising practices and disease; debates about captivity; or animals’ roles in universities such as Princeton.
Sales of the Rubik’s Cube have topped 300 million since its invention in 1974, making it one of the most popular toys of all time, and speedcubing competitions take place worldwide. The Rubik’s Cube would seem to be the quintessential example of puzzle as playful diversion, intended simply to amuse and entertain. But according to its creator, Ernő Rubik, “The problems of puzzles are very near the problems of life; our whole life is solving puzzles,” and indeed scientists, philosophers, and historians have long studied the human urge to bewilder—and be bewildered. In this Writing Seminar, we’ll consider the social purposes and cultural value of puzzles and games, beginning with the film Memento’s challenge to viewers to reconstruct the fragmented pieces of protagonist Leonard Shelby’s life. Next, we test scientific and psychological theories of problem-solving against detective stories, science fiction tales, and literary riddles. For the research project, students select a specific puzzling phenomenon and develop an argument assessing its implications for the culture that produced it. Possible topics include the fascination of crossword puzzles or Sudoku, the social interactions fostered by geocaching, or the popularity of master logicians in House and Sherlock. Finally, we create our own puzzles for the class to solve.
Around the world, concern about global warming is increasing as carbon dioxide emissions accelerate and extreme weather events become more frequent. Climate change, in the words of President Barack Obama, is “the global threat of our time.”Reflecting widespread consensus, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon declared last year, “We know the nature of the problem, and the options for addressing it.” If this is the case, why have efforts to mitigate climate change failed so far? What does this failure say about the nature of the problem? This Writing Seminar will investigate the standard technical and economic approaches to understanding and mitigating climate change. We begin by evaluating the social and political implications of one proposed controversial solution: capturing the carbon dioxide emitted by coal and natural gas plants and burying it underground. Next we critically analyze an economic proposal for mitigating climate change using ethical criteria as well as a theoretical understanding of the properties of the underlying economic system. For the research essay, students will interrogate this ongoing debate about different aspects of climate change using disciplinary lenses or in an interdisciplinary fashion, exploring how the problem or its consequence is conceived or how potential solutions are formulated.
In his seminal essay on Beowulf, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that "myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected." In other words, myth can only be appreciated holistically–any attempt to study the details of the narrative destroys the myth's essence. "Dissection," though, is a prerequisite of analysis, and the academic study of myth depends on the ability to reduce mythic narratives to their component parts. How, then, can scholars develop a rigorous approach to myth without "killing" the very stories they hope to understand? This Writing Seminar investigates myth beginning with Tolkien's own essay, which formulates the problems within the context of the Germanic tradition. We then consider the Franks Casket, a rune-inscribed chest whose juxtaposition of early English myths with stories from the Classical and Christian traditions challenges the viewer to understand how myth functions as a language. The research essay allows students to pursue their own interests in writing about the origin, use, or abuse of myth, from modern adaptations of the Greek gods,to the Confucian rationalization of early Chinese myth, to “myths” (like the American Dream or Manifest Destiny) that shape American political discourse. The final assignment casts students as apprentice mythographers crafting their own mythic narratives.
In 1958, John F. Kennedy celebrated the United States as a “nation of immigrants” in both its past and its imagined future. Today, however, the very idea of an immigrant nation is often viewed with suspicion–both in the United States and around the world. How do we choose who belongs to a nation? How do we distinguish among a citizen, an immigrant, and a foreigner? How and why do these distinctions shape personal experiences, mobilize communities, and drive policies and politics? This Writing Seminar examines the connections among immigration, society, and identity in our interconnected world. We begin by analyzing Georg Simmel's conceptualization of "the stranger" in light of Kennedy's vision of American identity, as well as Farmingville, a documentary about the sharp tensions over immigration in suburban Long Island. We then turn to scholarly texts in history, sociology, and policy to explain immigration-related controversies in the United States and around the world. For the research essay, students investigate any issue related to immigration. Possible topics include immigrant and “normal” childhoods, return migration as reaffirmed loyalties, labor-market competition, and border security. We conclude by writing commentaries inviting the public to reconsider contested issues in immigration.
Why take the stairs when you could whiz down a slide? According to Google, whose offices are outfitted with play equipment, play promotes creative work. If swing sets make us more successful employees, why are other forms of play—such as Candy Crush, gossip, and daydreaming—discouraged in work and school settings? “Play is older than culture,” proclaimed historian Johan Huizinga in his 1938 study Homo Ludens, but debates about the identity, value, and purpose of play suggest its cultural pliancy. This Writing Seminar explores the cultural and biological aspects of play, beginning with the concept of leisure in the 16th and 17th centuries when work and play became exclusive domains. We next analyze the function of social play as represented in 20th-century short fiction, engaging with the theories of sociologist Georg Simmel, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, and economist Thorstein Veblen, among others. For the research paper, students investigate an example of play and its cultural or scientific significance. Possible topics include changing patterns of use of public leisure spaces within New York City; strategies for measuring play in animals and small children; and models of viral social networking within contemporary science fiction.
Thomas Jefferson declared America an “Empire of Liberty,” and today many international relations experts indeed judge the U.S. to be a global imperial power. But what is imperialism? How does military empire as the forcible occupation of territory interrelate with economic empire (as some see the World Bank’s influence over financial policy in the global South) or even cultural empire (as Hollywood dominates media worldwide). In this Writing Seminar, we explore these questions while investigating how 500 years of Euro-American imperialism continue to shape politics today. First questioning how empire has been defined and justified, from the conquistadors to Obama’s drone attacks, we then explore how 20th-century anticolonial actions in Africa and the thinking of Frantz Fanon—a psychologist and militant whose writings inspired numerous resistance movements, including the Black Panthers in the U.S.—can be used to critique the logic of empire. Next, students choose a political issue or event and develop an argument about how it complicates our understanding of the concept of empire. Possible topics range from the Atlantic slave trade to the Iraq War, from the Indian Removal Act to Nollywood. Finally, we examine film and the Internet as platforms for revealing imperialism today and for proposing policy solutions.
Sexting, BDSM, affirmative consent, online dating, cohabitation, and polyamory. Romantic and sexual practices such as these constitute some of the most personal choices we might make. Yet each of these issues has also emerged on state legislative agendas or federal court dockets in the past year, making it clear that intimate decisions are as public as they are private. What are the interconnections between public policy and private desires? How do people sustain sexual practices or family forms that defy existing laws? And under what conditions can the transformation of social mores and legislative dictates around sexuality be accomplished? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the political and cultural regulation of sexuality in the United States––and pushback against that regulation. We first consider how landmark Supreme Court cases such as Loving v. Virginia and Lawrence v. Texas (re)construct the meaning of family and sexual privacy in the law. Next, we analyze the everyday lived experiences of non-normative relationships, using popular depictions like the television program Sister Wives or the film Her. For the research paper, students investigate a historical or contemporary sexual controversy of their choice. We conclude the semester by adapting our research findings for a more public audience.
The past, wrote novelist L. P. Hartley, is a foreign country–one we love visiting. Yet that visit is rarely without consequence. The Parthenon frieze, for example, forcibly removed from the still extant Greek temple in 1800, finds its home in no less than eight international museums, with the majority on display in England, not Greece. But who owns the past? How can we preserve and simultaneously visit that “foreign country”? In this Writing Seminar, we first explore how the restoration of particular historic buildings like Egypt’s Deir el-Hagar complicates the approach to architectural conservation outlined in international charters. Next, through sources in geography, law, and archaeology, we analyze the World Heritage Convention’s practices for assessing world heritage, from the Longmen Grottoes to the Kathmandu Valley, from the Stone Town of Zanzibar to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. For the research project, students investigate a specific case of their choosing to illuminate a larger debate or puzzle about the preservation of the past, for example: Mardi Gras and carnival tradition, the Parthenon frieze and the repatriation of antiquities, or the 9/11 Memorial Museum and the politics of commemoration. Finally, students examine the heritage of Princeton’s campus, or nominate a new site for inscription to the WHC list.
Are "one percenters" entitled to their fortunes? Or should we spread the wealth? The philosopher John Locke famously called for individual rights to “Life, Liberty and Property,” so he is often invoked by the wealthy. But “occupiers” have also claimed him as their own. What gives the concept of property the flexibility to serve free-market libertarians and social egalitarians alike? In this Writing Seminar, we begin with Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, analyzing tensions in the text between the individual right to amass a fortune (or to inherit one) and the equal opportunity of each person to acquire property of his own, on his own. We then assess divergent ideas of property in the supply-side economics of Milton Friedman, the “social business” model of Muhammad Yunus, the U.S. eminent domain case Kelo v. New London, and the documentary film The Garden. In their own research, students will analyze an issue in which property rights are at stake: for instance, water, mineral, and grazing rights in the American West; the protection of property for the poor in the developing world; intellectual property in the era of e-commerce; or the efforts of native American and Canadian nations to allow private ownership on reservations.
Oxford scientist and best-selling atheist Richard Dawkins recently declared that “faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.” By positioning reason and religion as antitheses, Dawkins joined a growing chorus of secularists who deride outspoken religious groups like American evangelical Christians, the Muslim Brotherhood, and India’s Hindu nationalists as “irrational, crazy fundamentalists.” Returning the insult, many religious organizations castigate modern science and reason as fallible, egotistical, and agents of moral decay. In light of this popular polarization between reason and religion, can the two concepts somehow be reconciled? In this Writing Seminar, we examine how scholars across cultures have wrestled with this vexing relationship between reason and religion. We first investigate the role of (un)reason in personal religious radicalism through Deborah Baker’s The Convert and the theories of Michel Foucault. Next, we contribute to an ongoing scholarly debate over secularism versus religion in the public sphere by examining the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and Osama bin Laden. For the research essay, students interrogate the intersection of reason and religion in a controversy of their choosing. We conclude by transforming our research papers into proposals for a public forum at Princeton.
What does it mean to imagine the future? In the decades following World War II, literature and popular culture took pleasure in conjuring the future as a place of possibility, even hope. However, critics argue that contemporary popular culture now gazes backward, recycling the past. It imagines the future only as dystopia. What does this shift say about our changing understandings of time? This Writing Seminar examines the vexed meanings of futurity. We begin with the popular British television program Doctor Who in order to analyze its representation of the future. We turn to controversial plays by Sarah Kane and Adam Rapp, and put these texts into conversation with theories about the literature of utopia and dystopia. As a prelude to the final essay, we consider time in avantpop music, listening to the futurism of Kraftwerk and the haunted techno of Leyland Kirby. Students research a set of texts, cultural objects, phenomena, or data of their choosing in order to create an argument about temporality. Possible topics include the literature of steampunk, the reboot of Star Trek, speculation in global financial markets, or ideas of salvation and redemption in religion. We conclude by writing brief speculative nonfiction imagining life in 2044.
It’s a girl! It’s a boy! He and she, Mr. and Mrs.—I now pronounce you man and wife. From the beginning, the language of sex and gender permeates our social customs, defining our identities and delineating acceptable forms of love and emotion. Historically, these cultural norms of sexuality have been considered natural—established and supported through science and technology. Today, this conception of a natural sexuality is simultaneously contested and maintained, fueling political debate: from the decades-long battle over gay marriage to the current controversy around childhood sex reassignment surgeries. In this Writing Seminar, we investigate how science and technology are used to evaluate, characterize, and politicize notions of sexuality and gender—and how other social institutions like mass media and religion perpetuate, challenge, and complicate these norms. With help from philosopher Michel Foucault, we first consider how a short film represents the use of technology to measure love. We then examine current scientific, anthropological, and literary theories of masculinity and explore how contemporary media responds to these notions of gender. For the research paper, students generate a scholarly argument on an aspect of love, sex, and gender. Finally, students write opinion pieces that disseminate their research beyond academia.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas expressed a common view of humor when she claimed, “whatever the joke, however remote its subject, the telling of it is potentially subversive.” Such understandings of humor’s subversive character assume that power is embodied in repressive formality—the ability to dictate and rigidly enforce a particular order. But can this be true in an American context where the President has invited Alphacat, a Youtube comedian specializing in Obama impersonations, to the White House to encourage enrollment in health care? Or where corporations like GEICO and Dos Equis spend billions on humorous advertising? In this Writing Seminar, we draw on cultural studies and anthropology in order to explore how humorous objects and non-serious practices illuminate the broader logics of neoliberal democracy and capitalist consumption. We begin by considering how shows like South Park and American Dad! contest the legitimacy of the state after 9/11. We then consider how the ironic lifestyles commonly associated with hipsters challenge scholarly understandings of resistance and conformity. For the research essay, students choose a humorous performance, text, or practice—a film like Doctor Strangelove or political campaign humor—and investigate how it reflects and shapes human relations. Finally, students practice humorous subversion by writing articles modeled on The Onion.
Bikers, Goths, and skinheads, hippies, mods, and skaters—typically, we associate late 20th-century subcultures with styles of clothing, hair, and other superficialities. One reason for this is because commodity culture is so adept at recognizing, repackaging, and selling various “looks,” popularizing little beyond a subculture’s visual appeal. Yet a second, lingering glance at many subcultures suggests style is often employed for a variety of purposes: to resist perceived threats to individuality, to create solidarity among the disenfranchised, or even, more conservatively, to ensure the continuation of the status quo. In this course, we examine subcultures to understand their nuanced, complicated, and often surprising meanings. We begin by sharpening our definition of what exactly a subculture is, analyzing the rise of southern California skateboarding through the lens of contrasting theories of subcultural identity. Next, we focus on the music of theSex Pistols to reassess the meaning of British punk in the 1970s, drawing on academic scholarship and the 2000 documentary film The Filth and the Fury. For the research essay, students take on a subculture of their own choosing. Possible topics include Deaf culture, rave, and bodybuilding, Trekkies, Juggalos, and Bronies. We end by composing op-eds.
“Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope.” These famous words frame the serial adventures of Superman, the comic book hero inspired by ancient myths of the natural world and modern concerns about society and technology. What do stories about the supernatural—from magically transformed bodies to telepathic minds—tell us about the aspirations and fears of their audiences? How do representations of popular vigilantes both reinforce and interrogate social assumptions about individuality, gender, race, and sexuality? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the cultural meaning of popular representations of superheroes who dramatize in grand scale contemporary acts of selflessness and sacrifice. We begin by using the theories of Campbell, Turner, and Barthes to offer new interpretations of heroic figures in Superman comics, cartoons, and television shows. We then examine how Batman and a next-generation of heroes—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, X-Men, Power Man, and an Hispanic Spider-Man—re-imagine a public conversation about the multiplicity of American identities. In the semester’s second half, students select a superhero to research and write about in a political, cultural, or mythological context. We conclude by pitching a proposal to a publisher for an original 21st-century superhero who speaks to these human concerns.
WRI 169: T/TH 8:30am-9:50am
WRI 170: T/TH 11:00am-12:20pm
One of the fundamental building blocks of every human society is the shared belief in various cultural taboos: taboos against eating certain things, doing certain things, and saying certain things. As members of our society, we constantly police the line between what we consider acceptable and unacceptable behavior. However, our relationship to the taboo is complicated by the fact that behavior deemed to be intolerable in one era—like interracial marriage or women in the military—can become normal and accepted in another. Ultimately, how can we reconcile our imperatives both to maintain and to transgress social taboos? We begin by examining two texts, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Michel de Montaigne’s “Of cannibals,” in order to make an argument about these overlapping efforts to understand a taboo that is shared by most, but not all, societies: the eating of human flesh. We then turn to recent debates—largely prompted by feminist and LGBT activism—over the advantages and risks of ending the sex-segregation of public restrooms. In the second half of the semester, students research a taboo of their choice through the lens of their own academic interests. Finally, students will draw on their independent research to write an informative blog post aimed at a popular audience.
WRI 134: T/TH 7:30pm-8:50pm
According to a recent survey, only 20% of American citizens think that too little is spent on “welfare,” while 65% think too little is spent on “assistance to the poor.” How can we make sense of these curious responses? One way of approaching this puzzle is to take words seriously and interrogate how language plays a crucial role in how we think and act. If speech is essential to politics, what does this mean for how we should talk to one another? And how do the dynamics of language affect the practice of American democracy? In this Writing Seminar, we study how language shapes the issues, identities, and ideas that constitute the public sphere. We begin by considering Plato and Aristotle’s classic debate regarding the meaning and ethics of persuasion. We next examine political speeches with the aid of theoretical frameworks from rhetorical studies, communication studies, and political science. For the research paper, students investigate an instance of linguistic change in the United States, such as the shift from “employers” to “job creators” or the metaphor of a “war on women.” Students conclude the semester with an editorial in which they challenge or redefine a term in contemporary political language.
Utopias, Dystopias, and Manifestos
WRI 133: T/TH 3:00pm-4:20pm
At the height of Occupy Wall Street, philosopher Slavoj Žižek staked out a bold claim: we today can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of liberal capitalism. Since the French Revolution, utopian visions of ideal societies have given way to a dystopian imagination conjuring various dehumanizing futures. Where have all the utopias gone? What critical resources are lost along with the capacity to envision radical alternatives to the status quo? In this Writing Seminar, we focus on literary genres—utopias, dystopias, and manifestos—that explore and articulate political and social alternatives. All three genres stage the same crucial question: How could we be otherwise? We first investigate two foundational texts in the utopian genre, Thomas More’s eponymous work and Plato’s Republic, in light of recent theories regarding utopian desire. Next, we examine intentional communities and manifestos including, respectively, Hershey, Pennsylvania and The Communist Manifesto, analyzing how they struggle to bridge the radical and the practicable. For the research paper, students select a dystopian text or film, such as The Handmaid’s Tale or Gattaca, and investigate how it intervenes in a historical debate. Students will conclude by producing their own vision of an alternative social world.
As the Pentagon burned and the Twin Towers crashed to the ground on September 11th, millions of spectators across the country and the world watched on live television. While distant viewers of this tragedy were shocked and horrified, many people were nonetheless drawn to the continuous coverage. Why do audiences tend to experience both fascination and despair when viewing disasters from afar? How does such ambivalence complicate our understanding of the viewer’s ethical responsibility to others? And how should audiences cope with the moral and emotional problems associated with watching real-life tragedies unfold? These questions may seem unique to our hyper-mediated age, but scholars have debated them for centuries. In this Writing Seminar, we examine the history of this ongoing debate. We begin by reassessing the sole surviving account of the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius that buried the ancient city of Pompeii, in light of recent theories of witnessing. Next, we contribute to debates about disasters by critiquing media coverage of Hurricane Katrina. For the research essay, students choose a disaster or tragedy and make an argument about how it is mediated and consumed by distant audiences. We end the semester by creating memorial websites devoted to our research topics.