Spring 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 19
- Students May Request a Term Change Online
Friday, September 6, 9am - Wednesday, September 11, 9 am
- Students Enroll in a Writing Seminar Online
Wednesday, January 8, 9am - Friday, January 17, 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 21, 5pm
- Students May Request a Writing Seminar Change Online
Tuesday, January 21, 5pm - Tuesday, January 28, 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 3
- First Day of T/Th Writing Seminars
Tuesday, February 4
Karen E. H. Skinazi
In 1916 automobile tycoon Henry Ford staged a pageant for his Americanization School’s graduation ceremony, complete with immigrant factory workers dressed in Old World costumes descending into a 20-foot-tall cauldron only to re-emerge as flag-waving white American entrepreneurs in business suits. Yet the “melting pot” ideology of uniformity dramatized by Ford has never been able to contain the diversity of American citizens, although we continue to suggest it does by calling the era of a biracial, Hawaiian-born, Indonesian-raised president postracial and postethnic. In this Writing Seminar, we examine the ongoing tension between America’s images of itself as a melting pot and as a multicultural society. We begin by putting Israel Zangwill’s iconic play, The Melting Pot, into conversation with intellectual debates about immigration and diversity. We then use theories of “passing” to evaluate representations of assimilation and race in the 1927 films The Jazz Singer and Old San Francisco. For the research paper, students select a cultural production (art, literature, a television show) that represents or illuminates the relationship between American national culture and an American community, such as Nuyoricans, Black Panthers, or LGBT groups. We conclude by reading the graphic novel American Born Chinese and creating our own short graphic texts exploring American melting pot identities.
Dov Weinryb Grohsgal
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 this Writing Seminar as we challenge historical conceptions of revolution. 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 Animal Mind
James L. Gould
When a raven solves a novel food-gathering problem or a dolphin uses language to communicate with its trainers, significant intelligence is at work. The nature of this intelligence, however, is hotly contested. Are humans alone capable of planning and rational thought? Or did the human mind evolve gradually from the animal mind, so that we differ from other species in degree rather than in kind? In this Writing Seminar we take a critical look at how animals organize their behavior, learn, “plan,” and apparently display insight. We begin with early views of the animal mind and the nature-nurture dispute that divided students of behavior into two hostile camps throughout most of the 20th century. We then look at the complexity of behavior and associated evidence for insight and planning. Our next focus is on concept formation and language as windows into the animal mind. Finally, we reflect back on human behavior in an evolutionary and comparative context, using the same critical standards we think appropriate for animals. Readings range from classic work by writers such as Charles Darwin and B.F. Skinner to recent papers on apparent cognition in chimpanzees, monkeys, border collies, dolphins, herons, pigeons, parrots, ravens, and even honey bees and hunting spiders.
Autobiography and Identity
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 seminar explores how autobiographies establish and question ideas about the self. Work by scholars such as Michel Foucault 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 bestselling graphic memoir Fun Home. We then examine the impulse toward self-disclosure on screen in the television show Louie and 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.
Before maps, there were mountains. Before roads, there were rivers, and before Google Earth, there was the ancient concept of geographia—literally the description of the Earth. Why do we feel compelled to “read” the landscape around us? In this Writing Seminar we explore the dynamic intersections of natural landscapes and cultures, ancient and modern. For example, why does Plato refer to the ancient Greeks as frogs around a pond? How do oceans, rivers, mountain ranges, and deserts influence the local inhabitants—and the way outsiders imagine them? We begin by assessing the classical geographer Strabo’s descriptions of Mediterranean landscapes and their features. Next, through the lens of Alexander von Humboldt’s Aspects of Nature and modern scholarship in geography, archaeology, and history, we evaluate the World Heritage Committee’s criteria for a cultural landscape. For the research project, students choose a debate, problem, or puzzle regarding cultural landscapes, for example: the dramatic shift in landscape painting in the 19th century, the WHC delisting of the Dresden Elbe Valley in 2009, landscapes as cultural artifacts in Walden, or the politicization of Mount Ararat. Finally, students evaluate the Princeton campus as a cultural landscape, or nominate a new site for the World Heritage list.
Richard Joseph Martin
Individual autonomy is a fundamental principle of contemporary Western thought. Yet, as the poet John Donne writes, “No man is an island.” Indeed, in many societies, there are no “individuals”; rather, personhood is constituted through family and community relations. And if others influence the people we become, to what extent might social forces complicate the very opposition between individual and society? In this Writing Seminar, we examine individualism as a product of culture. In doing so, we pursue connections among literary imaginings, philosophical ideas, and empirical worlds. We begin by critically engaging Freud’s notion of the oedipal complex, bringing Sophocles’ tragedy into conversation with psychoanalysis and its discontents. Next, we consider competing visions of the state of nature, from Hobbes’s “war of every man against every man,” to Melanesian notions of relational personhood, drawing on these ideas to develop original close readings of William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Coriolanus. In the semester’s second half, students choose their own topics and make researched arguments about the culture of individualism. Samples include works of literature, such as Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, or the Confessions of St. Augustine; or cultural phenomena, such as social media or game show competitions. Finally, students analyze manifestations of modernism’s “myth” of individualism in contemporary cultural artifacts.
“Music is partisan; it is always for someone and against someone else,” writes musicologist Marcello Sorce Keller. Distinguishing our “good” music from others’ “bad” music might seem to be simply a matter of taste, but politicians, theologians, and philosophers have long contended that music can pose real dangers to the mind and body. The ancient Greeks believed the wrong kinds of music warped men’s character and behavior; totalitarian governments often regulate music deemed subversive or degenerate; and doctors today warn that excessive earbud use can cause hearing loss. In this Writing Seminar, we examine how and why music has been reckoned morally, ideologically, and even physically dangerous to listeners. We begin by testing Plato’s ethical theories of music against the ragtime debate that raged in the United States circa 1900. We then examine uses of music as a cultural or psychological weapon in the contexts of Cold War diplomacy and today’s “War on Terror.” For the research essay, students select a debate about dangerous music and contextualize that debate within its specific cultural moment. Potential topics include responses to new genres, censorship, and concerns about music’s use or effects. Students conclude by creating listening guides for curated playlists of dangerous music.
Empire and International Relations
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 course, 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.
The Ethics of Human Experimentation
Every medicine and treatment is first tried on human volunteers before it is widely used. How far should we go to heal the sick, to improve the healthy, to protect the vulnerable? In this Writing Seminar, we examine the ethical questions that surround experimentation on human beings. What does “informed consent” mean? Can a minor participating in an experiment give consent? Who should decide if the benefits outweigh the risks? We begin by examining the international conventions of medical ethics established after World War II, focusing on the ethical issues that surround the definition of disease. Next, we look at the pursuit of human perfection through biotechnology, asking ourselves how far parents should go to “improve” their children and questioning the various problems linked with the quest for superior performance. In the second half of the semester, students research a topic related to an ethical problem of their own choosing, informed by consideration of such issues as embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, the use of placebos, and genetic enhancement. Finally, we use students’ personal experiences and reflections posted throughout the semester to our class blog to grapple with a variety of ethical issues raised by human experimentation.
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 fairmindedness 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, Janet Malcolm, Tim O’Brien, Richard Rodriguez, Gay Talese, 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.
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 Chicago and The Talented Mr. Ripley. 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.
Framing American Art
Edward Hopper unabashedly asserted, "The only real influence I've ever had was myself." While Hopper's vivid depictions of urban spaces in paintings like Nighthawks were certainly original, his work was also deeply influenced by his cultural moment. The ways in which his isolated subjects look at and listen to things that cannot be seen resonate with developments in mass media, like film noir, as well as broader debates about the relationship between the individual and society in mid-century America. This Writing Seminar examines how and why select works of American art from the past three centuries exhibit, shape, and illuminate cultural understandings of the people, places, and things that they represent. Each major assignment is based on work in the Princeton University Art Museum. We begin by examining 18th-century portraits to determine how identity was constructed in the early Republic. Next, with the aid of a geographical survey, short story, and scientific treatise, we examine how 19th-century landscape painters defined nature. For the research project, students study the relationship between art and culture in any 20th- or 21st-century work. Finally, each student curates an imaginary exhibition on a theme of her or his own choosing.
Freaks, Geeks, and Bullies
Jan Marie Alegre
In the hit television show Glee, Kurt Hummel comes out as gay and is regularly bullied at school by his classmates. In the social media campaign It Gets Better, openly gay adults share their own coming-out stories with LGBT youth, conveying that their community’s struggles are pervasive but acceptance and progress is possible. How do these fictional portrayals and personal accounts both complicate and help advance our scientific understanding of the psychology of stigma? How do they map onto the phenomenon of stereotyping as defined—and redefined—by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians? We first evaluate theories of stigma and deviance by sociologist Erving Goffman and others, testing them against fictional depictions of stigma in television and films such as Shallow Hal. Next, we analyze what autobiographical accounts can teach us about stigma in society, using Elyn Sak’s experience of living with schizophrenia as an example. For the research essay, students will select a specific portrayal of a stigma or stigma-related event and develop an argument that situates it in a social, economic, or political context. Possible topics of exploration include portrayals of drug addiction in the TV show The Wire; prostitution in the film Pretty Woman; and homelessness after the 1960s mental health reform movement.
Galileo, da Vinci, Shakespeare; Mozart, Austen, Darwin; Einstein, Picasso, Gandhi: each of these people has been said to possess something that we today call “genius.” This Writing Seminar considers how the invention of the term—as recently as the 18th century—has influenced understandings of creativity in spheres as diverse as art, science, politics, economics, and sports. Why are geniuses so often depicted as antisocial—as misfits, solitaries, or madmen? What cultural uses has “genius” been put to and how have race, class, and gender stereotypes shaped them? First, we analyze recent depictions of Steve Jobs in relation to important theorists of genius like Kant and Agamben. Then we consider how a historical understanding of genius complicates seemingly simple representations of it, using the movies Proof and A Beautiful Mind as case studies. For the research essay, students choose a representation of genius—whether of a real-life figure like Rousseau, Marie Curie, or David Foster Wallace, a fictional character like Dexter or Don Draper, or a tradition like the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grants”—and make an argument about the concept’s social function. We end by exploring what “genius” means in 21st-century Princeton, once home to Albert Einstein, John Nash—and now you.
Patricia "PK" Kennedy
Knowledge and Travel
Richard Joseph Martin
We often think of traveling as a way to acquire knowledge about others: we anticipate that voyagers’ tales will emphasize encounters with distant lands and different peoples. But through these journeys, travelers also make insightful discoveries about themselves. In this Writing Seminar, we explore the kinds of knowledge that journeys and travels produce. We ask: What do we learn when we go abroad, and how might we learn such things without ever leaving our own backyards? First, we examine the role of travel in anthropological writings—from Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa to Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life— as we consider the relationship between leaving home and having a tale worth telling. Next, we engage contemporary debates about knowledge and power, analyzing James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar through the critical lens of Edward Said’s groundbreaking work Orientalism. In the semester’s second half, we each pursue our own travel-related topic, and use research to make arguments about our chosen text or phenomenon. Samples include: a cultural practice like pilgrimage or tourism, a site of social significance, an explorer of historical import, or a work of art or literature. Finally, we draw on personal experiences and encounters in places far—or near—to produce travel writings of our own.
The Language of Love
It’s said that Van Gogh cut off his ear for love and Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for it. From crimes of passion to selfless sacrifices, from clichéd pop songs to the foundational texts of Western civilization––little has inspired as many expressions as love. But what do we really mean when we invoke the word “love”? And why is romantic love often understood as what we must share and yet can never communicate; what is most true about us, but over which we have no control; the ground for ethics and the occasion for brutality? This Writing Seminar examines love’s many languages––considering love as a feeling, structure of relation, political mode, and form of writing. We begin by reading Plato’s famous dialogue on love, The Symposium, alongside 20th-century sociological, psychoanalytic, and linguistic grapples with it. We then consider the curious intertwining of desire and ambivalence in Jean-Luc Godard’s classic crime thriller Breathless, together with modern meditations on love’s potential for nurture and harm. In the second half of the term, students select a text or object and research the ways it reshapes our understanding of love. We end by creating a multimedia representation of our ideas about the work of love.
When tulip mania swept through Holland in the 1630s, many people exchanged their life savings for a single tulip bulb. After the crash of the tulip market plunged the country into famine, the Dutch literally had to eat their precious investments. Tulip mania might seem like a bizarre historical footnote, yet it exemplifies a destructive social dynamic that plagues us to this day. In this course, students attend to the diversity of academic disciplines that have tried to comprehend the forces that cause speculation bubbles. We begin by examining Charles Mackay's classic history of bubble logic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841). Next, students consider a range of disciplinary perspectives in order to evaluate the success of a movie like Margin Call (2011) at making sense of bubble dynamics. In the second half of the semester, students research a market bubble of their choice, exploring one of its key aspects through the lens of their own academic interests. Possible topics include the satirical response to the South Seas Bubble, women’s liberation in the wake of the 1929 crash, and the housing bubble’s impact on ethnic minorities. Finally, students contribute to a blog about market bubbles aimed at a popular audience.
The Meaning of Monsters
In 1735, as the legend goes, a New Jersey woman gave birth to a baby who promptly sprouted bat-wings and a forked tail, ate the midwife, and flew up the chimney. But while monsters like the Jersey Devil may be figments of the popular imagination, there is nothing imaginary about the social and cultural anxieties they embody. So what do these creatures tell us about those who create them? And when we label someone or something a “monster,” what shared fears and fascinations do we betray? In this seminar, students analyze the meanings of monstrousness in literature and society, both ancient and modern. We begin by considering poetic representations of the Cyclops, comparing the heartless flesh-eater in Homer’s Odyssey to his heartsick counterpart known from later Greek tradition. Next, we apply literary, psychological, and anthropological theory to Patrick Ness’s award-winning young adult novel A Monster Calls, in which a boy’s experience of his mother’s terminal illness is explored through the theme of monstrousness. Students then conduct independent research into a monster of their own choosing or “the monstrous” as metaphor. Possible topics include serial killers, dictators, or the freak shows of the 19th century. Finally, we confront the monster in the mirror, contemplating a monstrous aspect of ourselves.
Music and Madness
During a fit of passion, the young Robert Schumann composed his piano masterpiece Kreisleriana (1838), a sonic portrait of the disturbed emotional life of a fictitious musician, Johannes Kreisler. In this Writing Seminar, our purpose is to explore such artistic and often explosive depictions of madness and, more generally, to interrogate the Romantic myth that creative artists, in order to be great, must live and work “on the edge.” Rock musicians Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix are but two real-life examples of artists that reflect our continuing societal obsession with the self-destructive performer whose over-the-top musical style is reflected in a tumultuous life offstage. Throughout the semester we will examine the popular reception of these and other famous composers and musicians who may have experienced mental illness. In addition to analyzing different performances of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, we view several musician biopics—including Shine, about the pianist David Helfgott, and Hilary and Jackie, about the cellist Jacqueline du Pré—and read accounts of various musicians’ struggles with depression, obsession, and mania. We’re aided in our examination of creativity and illness by several cultural theorists and commentators, among them Susan Sontag, Slavoj Žižek, Albert Rothenberg, and Kay Jamison.
The explosion in popularity of mp3 downloads allegedly portends the end of the music industry’s power as we’ve come to know it, while musicians use their compositions to express scathing critique, subtle reinforcement, or outright support of society’s existing power dynamics. How do artists position themselves in relation to the business of music and to the dominant culture as a whole? How does the sound of cultural engagement manifest in music itself? This course explores music’s ability to advocate or question prevailing values and mores. First, we use Radiohead’s In Rainbows as well as its novel distribution scheme to test Walter Benjamin’s provocative assertions on the mechanical reproduction of art. Next, we examine Amiri Baraka’s “The Changing Same (R&B and the New Black Music)” and music criticism by Daphne Brooks in order to evaluate Erykah Badu’s incendiary New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War). Students then choose a long-form musical work and make a researched argument about its relationship to power. Possible topics include The Mingus Big Band’s Blues and Politics, Bikini Kill’s Revolution Girl Style Now!, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. We conclude by creating press kits for imaginary bands relevant to a particular cultural and historical moment.
A Nation of Immigrants
As human beings, we yearn to belong. As nations, we claim the right to choose who can belong with us. The choice, however, is not simple. Whereas the law unambiguously distinguishes among a citizen, an immigrant, and a foreigner, society favors contentious interpretations. How do we choose who is welcomed to join our nation? How and why do these choices shape personal experiences, mobilize communities, and drive policies and politics? This seminar examines the connections between immigration, society, and identity in our global world. We begin by using the documentary Farmingville about a suburban community response to undocumented day laborers to interpret former president Kennedy’s argument about the role of immigration in American national identity. We then turn to immigration-related events to assess the role of ethics in immigration policy, using scholarly texts about race, class, social space, and global economy to frame our arguments. For the research essay, students investigate any issue related to immigration in the migration cultures from around the world. Possible topics include immigrant childhoods, bilingual education, immigrant religions, labor-market competition, return migration, and border security. We conclude by creating op-ed articles inviting the public to reconsider contested issues in immigration.
The Neuroscience of Being Human
The human brain is often said to be the most complex system in the universe, yet on its own, it amounts to approximately three pounds of flesh. Recent research in neuroscience is transforming the way we understand human behavior and raising philosophical questions that affect us all. If the brain is part of the body, how do we define its relationship to the mind? And if our behaviors, emotional states, and personalities are shaped by our neurochemistry, is our brain who we really are? In this Writing Seminar, we investigate how neuroscience is challenging traditional understandings of what it means to be human. We begin by assessing Descartes’s philosophical theory on the mind-body relationship through the lens of new scientific experiments on the brain. We then consider the complex interactions between the brain and behavior that contribute to emotions—from love and attachment to fear and aggression—in humans and other animals through classic and contemporary writing in science. For the research project, students explore any controversial area in neuroscience. Possible topics include the science of addiction, new applications of neuroscience in law, and the neurochemistry of love. Finally, students write opinion pieces that present their research findings to a nonscience audience.
Race in America
“The problem of the color line is the problem of the 20th century,” W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote. A century later, the election of President Barack Obama was greeted as evidence that Americans finally had overcome the divisive scars of slavery, segregation, and racism. Yet how accurate is this popular belief? What costs might be associated with the transition to a post-racial politics? And how might Americans better reckon with the legacy of racial injustice? We begin by assessing the media’s use of the term “post-racial” to describe the Obama era. Next, we move backwards to the work of James Baldwin to investigate the history of race in the lives of white and black Americans. Students use the work of political theorists to make an argument about the rhetorical power of Baldwin’s nonfiction essays. For the research essay, students choose a recent political issue that has its roots in America’s racial history and use research to explore its legal, economic, or cultural implications. Possible subjects include environmental injustice, the prison industrial complex, residential segregation, affirmative action, and claims for slave reparations. We conclude by writing personal reflections about the status of race on Princeton’s campus.
Race, Gender, and Representation
In 1788, Alexander Hamilton wrote: “It is said to be necessary, that all classes of citizens should have some of their own numbers in the representative body, in order that their feelings and interests may be better understood and attended to.” More than two centuries later, women and African-Americans have attained full citizenship and seismic demographic changes have transformed American politics, yet we still debate Hamilton’s premise. How should our political institutions mirror the citizenry at large? What are the consequences of more women and minorities entering office? In this Writing Seminar, we explore the meaning and practice of political representation and how it connects Americans to government, citizenship, identity, and community. We begin with a close analysis of Hanna Pitkin’s work to evaluate the contested meaning of representation.Next we view the documentary Waiting for Superman in light of the political science literature on race and gender to complicate our inherited ideas of democracy.For the research essay, students choose a current policy debate and investigate its implications for women or a minority group. Examples include the Affordable Care Act, universal preschool, The Dream Act, or abortion rights. We conclude with a speech for the Princeton student body, taking a stand on a relevant local policy issue.
Representing American Slavery
Justene G. Hill
“If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains.” How does this line, from the 2013 song “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J, reflect modern opinions of American slavery? How can popular entertainment mold awareness of historical tragedies? Drawing from 20th- and 21st-century literature, film, television, music, and art, this Writing Seminar invites students to question how representations of slavery in modern popular culture shape contemporary discourses about the history of American race relations. We begin by watching the 2012 films Django Unchained and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Using Joseph Roach’s “genealogies of performance,” we will explore how slavery has been represented in these controversial, and popular, films. Next we will examine slave narratives and analyze the literary techniques enslaved people used to define their experiences in bondage and consider how modern artists deploy these devices in novels such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred , television shows including The Chappelle Show, and the exhibitions of artist Kara Walker . In the final research paper, students will choose an artistic depiction that addresses any aspect of American slavery and analyze its historical accuracy and larger sociocultural influence.
Patrick W. Moran
The Social and Political Lives of Humor
In 1968, comedian Pat Paulsen launched his candidacy for president under the Straight Talking American Government Party (S.T.A.G Party). Some 40 years before Stephen Colbert pulled a similar stunt, Paulsen promised on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, “I will not run if nominated and if I’m elected I will not serve.” Beyond their value as entertainment, what can spectacles of parody and satire reveal to us about political discourse and social relations? In this course, we will consider the social and political efficacy of humorous practices and their products. We begin by discussing classic cultural theories from Horkheimer, Adorno, and Bakhtin in order to illuminate the relation between social order and Comedy Central’s hit series South Park. We then turn to recent anthropological theories that can help us understand contemporary examples of political satire and parody including The Daily Show, The Onion, or “protest” groups such as The Billionaires. For the research essay, students choose a humorous performance, text, or practice and investigate how it reflects and shapes human relations. As an example in class, we consider how humor plays a role in processes of identity formation along lines of class and race. Finally, students write their own humorous articles.
A man pokes his eyes out upon realizing he has killed his father and slept with his mother. A king returning from war finds his adulterous wife in a murdering mood, and before long he is dead. A wife betrayed by her philandering husband slaughters her two children as revenge. Tragedies portray human actions and emotions at their most extreme. What have these performances of suffering offered audiences for millennia? What social function does tragedy have? What cultural anxieties are revealed or exorcised by these spectacular representations of acute passion, rage, and pain? We begin by examining Aeschylus’s Agamemnon in its cultural and philosophical context by engaging Aristotle’s and Hegel’s philosophies of tragedy. We next explore what modern tragedy looks like through an analysis of Atom Egoyan’s award-winning film The Sweet Hereafter, a meditation on loss and community in the face of tragedy. For the research paper, students select a contemporary cultural artifact and make an argument about how it represents tragedy. Possible topics range from online communities of mourning or the debate over how to commemorate the Oklahoma City bombing to the continuing influence of classical tragedy on contemporary culture in The Wire or Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.
Transformations of the Self
Neil J. Young
From animal abuser to animal advocate: Is star athlete Michael Vick’s transformation an authentic narrative of redemption or a cynical commercial performance? When Hollywood celebrities go into rehab, how does the public reinvention of their image encourage or interfere with the private possibility of change? And what does the thriving self-help industry tell us about everyday efforts to remake ourselves in our own eyes as well as the eyes of others? In this Writing Seminar, we examine how individuals construct stories of transformation—and how society consumes them. We first consider religious conversions, reading the classic biblical tale of Saul’s conversion, as well as later narratives like those of Joseph Smith and Malcolm X. We then place the movie Eat Pray Love in cultural and theoretical context, analyzing how this chronicle of one woman’s search for spirituality and self-knowledge resonates with the literature of self-help and Carl Jung’s theory of individuation. For the research paper, students investigate an account of political, social, or “lifestyle” transformation, such as Whittaker Chambers leaving Communism, immigrants becoming American, transsexuals changing sexes, or meat eaters turning to veganism. In the final essay, students reflect on a self-transformation of their own.
At the height of Occupy Wall Street, philosopher Slavoj Ž i ž ek 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 the course 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.