First-Year Writing Seminar Courses
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“There’s no accounting for taste,” the old saying goes, implying that we like our favorite shoes, cars, and paintings for reasons that simply can’t be explained. In this section of Analysis & Expression, we challenge that assumption. Taking contemporary popular culture as a point of departure, we delve into debates from history, sociology, and literary studies in order to better understand the construction of taste, giving special attention to the complex role that “good taste” or “bad taste” can play in perpetuating social hierarchies. You will have the opportunity to further develop your reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills while examining how ideas about “taste” are constructed, interrelated, and how they can inform, limit, or inspire the way we see ourselves in our social worlds. Like all First Year Writing Seminars, this class asks students will to write 3 essays of increasing complexity (in draft and final form) over the course of the term, culminating in a research paper and oral presentation.
We think of locales as something physical, something experienced. We know where we are (and where we are from) partly because we have physical experiences of those places: a grandmother’s kitchen, a smell of the city, the particular light on Scandinavian summer nights, or the sound of the jungle. However, what happens when geographies and their relation to identity — national and/or personal — are merely imagined in a variety of different texts?
In this seminar, we will read a variety of fiction and non-fiction texts in order to investigate how space and national and/or personal identity is imagined. Furthermore, we will investigate how texts open a space for the reader to imagine worlds personally unknown, thereby forcing us to also think about our own lived and imagined geographies.
We set out by thinking about essays, short stories, and poems that all attempt to capture an experience of self in relation to a locale. Writers will include Joan Didion, Richard Blanco, Tony Kushner, and Jamaica Kincaid. For the second paper, we turn our attention to a second set of texts that imagine place differently. We ask how the popular genre of crime fiction functions in the construction of imagined geographies. For the third paper, students choose a cultural artifact (poems, plays, monuments, films, memoires, paintings, newspaper articles etc.) and make an argument about the imagining of place. Finally, students will produce an oral conference presentation of their research. Shared theoretical texts include Edward Said, Benedict Anderson, Judith Butler, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
Scarcely a day goes by without some controversy or critical comment about ‘Islam’, Muslims, and its role and significance in the 21st century. Yet trying to make sense of the sheer volume of information and diversity of opinions about what constitutes ‘Islam’, who speaks for it, what it represents for the modern era, and how it relates to the non-Muslim world can — to the unsuspecting observer — seem an almost impossible task. To complicate matters further, what tends to pass as ‘informed’ commentary on ‘Islam’ often turns out to be colored by competing agendas, experiences, and narratives within and beyond the realms of ‘Islam.’ With these challenges in mind, this Writing Seminar will revisit some of the contemporary debates about the history, society, and culture of Islam.
We begin by grappling with contesting representations of ‘Islam’ by Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, Robert Spencer, and Samuel Huntington. We then delve into some of prominent sites of conflict and tension brought to the fore by such events as the Charlie Hebdo affair and the Burka controversy as well as the rise in Islamophobia in Europe. For the research paper, students will focus on the role of struggle and conflict in ‘Islam.’ Possible topics will revolve around issues of extremism, radicalization, and terrorism. Finally, students will deliver a short presentation on a recent ongoing debate of Islam.
Why do Shakespeare’s tragedies offer us hope? What makes a movie about a drug addicted professional wrestler more a story about love than the violence inherent his life? How does a beautiful painting or song make us cry? Art flourishes in a world of opposites and contradictions. Art is reflective and provocative, reactionary and thoughtful, private and public. As one of our oldest methods of documenting what we see, it also reconfigures and transforms what we imagine.
This freshman writing seminar will serve as an introduction to these tensions, and the social, political and material roles that art plays in our life. It will familiarize you with academic writing, and further develop your critical reading, thinking and writing skills. It will draw from a range of art forms that explore both current social issues, and more enduring questions.
The course texts cover a wide range of artistic culture and practice: from Paleolithic cave painting and sculpture, to contemporary mural painting — including the work of Harring, Rivera, Fazlalizadeh, Banksy, and Zabou. Readings will explore the relationship between art and nature. The paradox of tragic beauty is exemplified in short stories, films, plays, and in the work of Frieda Kahlo, Odd Nerdrum, Evelyn de Morgan, and Sue Coe. Joe Sacco’s, Palestine highlights the inevitable ties that art has to politics and society, and provides an entre into another twofold idea: conflict and resolution. Crucially, they will help facilitate the discussions, writing assignments, and oral presentations in the class.
The universality of Shari‘a is a topic of intense debate in the contemporary world. Some assume the universality of Shari‘a as they outline the necessity of its reform. Other writers regard its universal aspirations as a “threat” to “Western” values. Still others remain skeptical that the Shari‘a was ever meant to be universal. Without answering the question of whether it is, was, or should be “universal,” this writing course investigates the debates that the question has inspired. How do different writers perceive the universality of Shari‘a? What are the political, ethical, or other stakes of arguments about Shari‘a’s universality? Readings connect theoretical approaches to individual case studies in milieus as diverse as Shari‘a courts in Ottoman Turkey, fatwa councils in contemporary Egypt, and divorce proceedings in Iran.
Through creative and critical writing assignments, students explore the contexts, motives, and forms of evidence brought to bear by authors who contribute to ongoing debates about the ways we understand Shari‘a today. In the first essay, students evaluate claims about universality in a text that stages an encounter between the European Enlightenment and a classical conception of Shari‘a. In the second section of the course we proceed to a series of readings in which authors marshal distinctive forms of evidence as they oppose the universality of the Shari‘a to the particularity of time, locale, gender norms, and the individual. Choosing two texts from these readings for their second essay, students examine contrasting motives that animate those texts. In the last portion of the class, students conduct research on a topic of debate about Shari‘a that interests them and then write a research paper that analyzes the stakes for the authors engaged in the debate.
What does it mean to be an “outsider”? Artists, filmmakers, journalists, and activists have described and adopted this position for a range of purposes. In this writing seminar we will discover why outsiders are essential, and how they can be just as dangerous. The figure of “the outsider” is often clueless — or in over his head — or ignorant. But ignorance can be liberating, fostering open-mindedness and a chance to weave complexity back into dead narratives. Crucially, analyzing the role of the outsider across a range of texts and cultures will help us question the act of belonging. Biss’s Notes From No Man’s Land will aid in our investigation, as will essays by Binyavanga Wainaina and Suketu Mehta.
In order to understand outsiders with adopted countries we will consider Katherine Boo’s book about Mumbai’s destitute, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Since “the outsider” is sometimes seen as a master manipulator and exploiter, we will also watch documentaries by Mads Brugger and Joshua Oppenheimer to critique these claims. Then we will ask —who exploits whom?