Spring 2015 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, 9 am
- Students Enroll in a Writing Seminar Online
Wednesday, January 7, 9am - Friday, January 16, 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
Tuesday, January 20, 5pm
- Students May Request a Writing Seminar Change Online
Tuesday, January 20, 5pm - Tuesday, January 27, 5pm
* 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, February 2
- First Day of T/Th Writing Seminars
Tuesday, February 3
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.
“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.
From Watson winning Jeopardy to WALL-E’s finding love in a hopeless place, we’re enthralled by images of futures in which Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity,” the point where the things we’ve made surpass our own intelligence, have come to pass. This Writing Seminar explores our culture’s fascination with artificial intelligence, engaging fictions and films that chronicle its problems and promises. Viewing AI as more than a problem of intellect, we ask what happens when we consider AI as a problem of desire. What do we do–conceptually, socially, affectively–with commodities that want and feel, and not as their owners wish? In this Writing Seminar, we begin with The Evening and the Morning and the Night, Octavia Butler’s sci-fi exploration of the porous boundaries between person and machine through people whose desires seem artificially imposed on them by illness. We then consider two related texts representing desiring machines that destabilize the divisions between commodities and persons: Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott’s film adaptation, Blade Runner. In the second half of the term, students select a text or object and research the ways it reshapes our understanding of desire’s role in negotiating the boundaries between persons and things.
Autobiographical works populate our cultural landscape, from memoirs by politicians running for office to online confession sites such as PostSecret, from comedians revealing intimate information for laughs to everyday people who craft the private details of their lives for public reception. How do we explain our shared desire to have lives remembered, organized, and narrated in artful (or artificial) fashion? What shapes do autobiographies take in our contemporary moment? This Writing Seminar explores how autobiographies establish and question ideas about the self. Work by scholars such as Roland Barthes, Lauren Berlant, and Sidonie Smith will help us analyze the ways in which autobiography forms individual, communal, and historical identities. We first consider modes of rehearsing the self in Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir Fun Home. We then examine the impulse toward self-disclosure on screen in autobiographical documentary video. For the research essay, students investigate an autobiographical work or practice that has been influential in a field such as politics, medicine, or art history. Possible topics include Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, Temple Grandin’s writings about her autism, and photography by artists such as Nan Goldin. We conclude by constructing short pieces of our own autobiographical narration.
Contradictions of Freedom in American Capitalism
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.
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.
The Ethics of Persuasion
“Writers are always selling somebody out,” confessed Joan Didion in the preface to her revolutionary book of journalism Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Centuries before, Aristotle argued that the most important element of persuasion is the writer’s “ethos”: our sense of his or her fair-mindedness and character. If writing nonfiction means selling others out, is ethos always a fake? Or can writing be an ethical act—honest, generous, even redemptive? In this Writing Seminar, we reckon with the problem of ethos and the ethics of representing the self and others in journalistic and academic essays. We study great American nonfiction writers from a range of genres, including Didion, Annie Dillard, Mark Greif, Janet Malcolm, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Richard Rodriguez, and David Foster Wallace. We begin by examining essays that make political or cultural arguments and then turn to essays that depict the experience of others, testing Didion’s critique of writing. In research projects, we craft ethos in academic writing, borrowing from the techniques of literary journalism and drawing on scholarly research from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences to make arguments about current political or cultural events or controversies. Our final essay is a brief creative essay from personal experience.
Fakes, Frauds, and Charlatans
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.