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First-Year Initiatives (FYI) Seminars, Fall 2014

Preparation for FYI

Here is what you need to know—and do—to prepare for the program:

Listed below are the 20 FYI Seminars.* Please read the course descriptions and then submit your top four choices using the online FYI Registration Form. The names of the seminar leaders are not included because we don’t want you to pick your seminar based on what you think your major field of interest at Beloit will be.

This first-semester seminar is the one course required of all first year students—it will be one of the four courses in which you will enroll during the fall semester. You will meet your seminar leader/advisor on Monday, Aug. 18; this class begins during New Student Days.

* Descriptions listed here are subject to minor changes.

01. Copy, Clone, Knockoff

02. The Monkey King

03. Clean Water: A Drop in the Bucket

04. Life's a Drag

05. Global Working Class Literature and Local Labor Conditions

06. Everest: The Pursuit of Glory

07. Seeing is Belieiving?

08. "God's Chinese Son": The Taiping Rebellion in 19th Century China

09. What Is the Meaning of Life?

10. The James Tiptree, Jr. Award Winners

11. Color

12. At the Confluence: Rivers, the Environment, and Beloit

13. The Social Construction of Identity

14. Time in History

15. Mapmakers

16. Familiaris Breeds Content: Dogs and the Liberal Arts

17. Navigating Uncertainty

18. Race, Gender, Sexuality, and the Superhero Comic

19. Text and Context in Tolstoy's War and Peace

20. Games We Play

 

1. Copy, Clone, Knockoff

What is the difference between an original and a copy? Why do human beings seem to need both to make copies and to set safeguards against them? Where do we (re)draw the line on thinking of our work as original? Why and how can copies variously enchant, confuse, and outrage us? What are the patterns and differences involving motives, means, and outcomes that we encounter as we examine different instances of copying? This course explores how concepts such as originality, creativity, authenticity, identity, value, and ownership are influenced by the proliferation of copies in our lives. We address a variety of historical and contemporary contexts of copying; analyze artistic, economic, and intellectual debates about copying; track connections between evolving copy technology and its social impact; and engage in our own production of “original copies.” Topics range from plagiarized papers and cloned pets to Chinese “duplitecture” and musical sampling. This class will take an interdisciplinary approach in order to “sample” a liberal arts curriculum, and the assignments are similarly designed to give students an opportunity to develop a wide range of introductory skills, while simultaneously engaging in a variety of “performative” copying practices—conventional and otherwise.

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2. The Monkey King

We often see life as a quest—for knowledge, wisdom, self-understanding, or, perhaps, acceptance. What are you seeking? And how will your liberal arts education help you in this quest? With these questions in mind, we will read and analyze one of the great quest narratives of world literature: the epic Ming Dynasty novel The Journey to the West (Xiyou ji). Sometimes known as The Monkey King in English, this novel follows a quartet of pilgrims—including a monk, a monkey, a pig, and an ogre-like monster—as they travel through an often-mythical landscape to retrieve Buddhist sutras from India to bring back to China. Tracing the development of The Monkey King story from an amalgamation of historical fact and folkloric legend, to its mature 16th century form, and beyond to its persistence in contemporary popular culture (e.g., movies, TV shows, comic books), we will explore the literary, philosophical, cultural, and historic significances of this enduring classic.

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3. Clean Water: A Drop in the Bucket?

Many people lack water to meet daily needs. Globally, water scarcity affects almost one in five people; the percentage affected will likely rise as population, urbanization, irrigation, and standards of living increase. It also will rise if the predictability of clean water supplies decreases, whether due to natural (e.g., droughts) or human (e.g., pollution) causes. In this seminar, we will explore the physical and sometimes political constraints on adequate clean water supplies. We will discuss case studies of environmental disasters like the Aral Sea, where our thirst for water in arid environments has resulted in catastrophic degradation of regional ecosystems. We also will explore water scarcity in areas with abundant rainfall such as the Mekong River Watershed. You will have the opportunity to research water-scarcity issues in a geographic region of your choice and report your findings to the class. As we investigate water availability at the global scale, we will explore water issues in the Beloit area through visits to local industries and through examining our own water use on campus.

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4. Life's a Drag

Divine. Willi Ninja. RuPaul. These are some of the more mainstream drag performers that have emerged from the underground scene over the past 30 years. Drag is a kind of exaggerated gendered inversion of dress or style highlighting popular notions or stereotypes of a particular gender. In our contemporary culture, Drag Queens (and to a lesser extent Drag Kings) are a revered group of “Glamazons” who inhabit both the underground and mainstream/primetime worlds. This co-habitation has resulted in both the marginalizing and fetishizing of these communities. In this course, we will watch, read, and physically explore—through dress and performance—the current state of drag in American society. How and why has drag managed to break into the mainstream? How mainstream is it? Has the integrity of drag been compromised because it no longer only lives underground? What are the dangers of being part of a marginalized group that becomes revered in popular culture? These are a few of the questions we will examine over the course of the semester.

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5. Global Working Class Literature and Local Labor Conditions

In the November 2013 issue of World Literature Today, guest editor Jeanetta Calhoun Mish examines work by contemporary working class writers in Australia, Ireland, Poland, China, Italy, Pakistan, and the U.S. But what about working class literature in other countries, such as Kenya or South Africa? Even Beloit College made its appearance in a working class novel, Iron City, written in 1919 by one-time English professor Marion Hedges, who saw significant social class disparities that troubled him deeply. The hope for this course is that an investigation into the literature that speaks from a working class perspective ignites a determination to examine the social, political, and economic conditions that contribute to labor inequities. Readings will include writing by Ewa Parma, Michela Murgia, Zheng Xiaoqiong, Ibtisam Barakat, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ha Jong-O, and Alvaro Enrigue. Activities will include discussions about working class literature and projects in the Beloit community, which follow the labor issues of manufacturing firms (e.g., Regal, Fairbanks Morse, or the former Beloit Corps) and the historical migrations of people who made up the local work force.

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6. Everest: The Pursuit of Glory

At 29,029 feet, Mount Everest is the highest mountain on earth. Since first summitted in 1953, thousands have sought glory by climbing to the “top of the world.” Of these, many have suffered the long-term effects of severe frostbite. Thousands more have succumbed to the altitude, weather, and wind before ever reaching the top. More than 200 ultimately lost their lives. In the face of such danger, what drives our pursuit of glory? Where does our pursuit of glory intersect with the physical limitations of human endurance? In this FYI, we will explore glory through the lens of Mount Everest. This interdisciplinary course will center on the multiple meanings of glory and how they manifest themselves within different cultural perspectives. Topics ranging from the moral implications of seeking personal glory, to glory found within the context of war and religion will be interlaced with the study of the psychological, physiological, and biochemical limitations of the human form. In this way, we will develop an understanding of how we perceive glory, to what extremes we will go to obtain glory, and what can ultimately hinder our pursuit of glory.

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7. Seeing is Believing?

“All of us are watchers—of television, of time clocks, of traffic on the freeway—but few are observers. Everyone is looking, not many are seeing.”—Peter M. Leschak

“Seeing is believing” is an old saying. But is it true? Should we believe what our eyes tell us? Are humans good observers? What influences our skills of observation? We will investigate observation by first learning about our visual system. After delving into the nuts and bolts of human vision, we will explore other topics such as the role of expertise in observation, eyewitness testimony, and how we can train ourselves to be better observers. We will encounter topics in biology, psychology, literature, and legal studies, to name a few. We will also consider whether we can “observe” using senses other than vision. Be prepared to learn some anatomy, to work on your own powers of observation, and to investigate topics related to observation with your classmates.

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8. "God's Chinese Son": The Taiping Rebellion in 19th Century China

China’s Taiping rebellion began when Hong Xiuquan, a Chinese peasant from the Hakka minority, had a vision that God had told him he was Jesus’s younger brother and commanded him to fight demons. Given widespread discontent caused by perceived alien minority rule, population pressures, dynastic decline, and Western imperialism, the new religion Hong founded, with its message of economic and social equality, eventually attracted millions of followers and turned into a rebellion against the ruling “barbarian” Manchus. Before their rule degenerated into internecine warfare and corrupt despotism, the Taipings governed nearly the entire Yangzi river valley, coming within a hair of conquering the whole country. After more than 20 years and 20 million deaths, the Taipings were brutally exterminated by new armies led by regional warlords, whose ascendance fatally weakened the Manchus and eventually led to the fall of China’s 2,000-year old empire. This seminar will use readings, films, discussions, role-playing assignments, and guest presentations to examine how, even to this day, people perceive the Taiping rebellion and its legacy differently based on their own diverse and, at times, conflicting identities.

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9. What Is the Meaning of Life?

Gurus on mountaintops, world religions, Wall Street, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—everyone seems to have an answer to this most essential of human questions. And though this class will not provide you with any definitive answers, it will introduce you to a man who had some very interesting ideas about the meaning of life, what the nature of reality might be, and what we mean when we talk about courage, friendship, love, justice, and morality. In this seminar we’ll examine—intensely—several of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s most famous writings from multiple perspectives: rhetorical, literary, philosophical, cultural, and historical. We’ll also devote a considerable amount of time to comparing the ideas in these 2,400-year-old texts with contemporary debates on issues that Plato has deeply influenced (e.g., the best forms of government, the nature and purpose of higher education, the role of civil disobedience). Our ultimate goal, of course, is to critically investigate whether Plato’s ideas can contribute in some way to how we might live a life of meaning and importance.

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10. The James Tiptree, Jr. Award Winners

Do gender roles make a difference in the world? How might gender be different in a different society or with a different history? What if we were not limited by biology but could pick and choose among several genders? For 24 years, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award has been bestowed upon the work of speculative fiction that does the most to “expand or explore our notions of gender.” Speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, horror, etc.), provides an ideal avenue for investigating approaches to gender identity, gender relationships, and sexuality. What in our social structures, our biology, and our history make our gender roles and identities what they are? What if these were somewhat different? Speculative fiction can address such questions by exaggerating certain elements in similar societies, or isolating a particular issue within our society from other factors that complicate that issue. Different award winners find many features of our gender roles to challenge. We will read selections of the short stories and novels that have won this award. Along the way, we will discuss what makes these works “speculative,” what understandings of gender they challenge, and what aspects of gender they accept.

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11. Color

In his ground-breaking text, Interaction of Color, the acclaimed 20th century artist and educator Josef Albers declared: “In order to use color effectively, it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.” Though we often take color as a given, the experience of it exists only in the mind of the beholder. A purely visual phenomenon, color often defies explanation or description, even between sighted individuals witnessing the same subject. Though elusive, color can have great power and influence. Designers build careers around choosing colors that will sell the most laundry detergent, or cause you to drink the most coffee. How does color affect us? Is it direct and physical, or does color pull strings through psychological association? Can a selection of colors communicate content, or impart meaning? Is our perception and understanding of color universal, or culturally constructed? Through studio projects, readings, and discussions, we will sharpen our perceptions and explore communicating with this subtle and mysterious phenomenon

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12. At the Confluence: Rivers, the Environment, and Beloit

Beloit, Wisconsin, is located at the confluence of the Rock River and Turtle Creek. These streams have played a central part in the history and development of the city. They are among the most prominent “natural” features of Beloit, providing diverse habitats for plants and animals. Yet they have long histories of utilization and control by people. In this course, we will study rivers. We will trace their origins and natural history and the geologic ways in which they shape Earth’s surface; evaluate the past, present, and future environmental challenges they face from human use and management (for example dams and flow regulation, recreation, industrialization, urbanization); and consider strategies for a sustainable future. We will get to know the streams of Beloit through field trips, gather and analyze data to assess their current health, and draw parallels between them and rivers across the globe, including those in the part of the world where you come from.

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13. The Social Construction of Identity

How do we know ourselves? What is our relationship to the world? This seminar will explore the various ways that people define themselves and the myriad of social processes that influence these definitions. We will explore how identities are shaped by interactions and investigate how they can be transformed by larger political, economic, and social forces. We will also consider how people navigate various aspects of their identities in their everyday lives. Course materials will include novels, short stories, autobiographies, and essays. Course assignments will include a research project exploring how people convey information and manage impressions of themselves, as well as a weekly journal exploring the various influences on how you construct your own identity.

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14. Time in History

Does punctuality have a moral value? Is time an aspect of the natural world or is it a product of our perceptions and our mental makeup? Does time move in circles or in one single direction? Do human societies have a tendency to improve or decline over time? As this class will show, people in different historical periods, and in different cultures, have answered such questions in diverse ways. Using philosophical texts, historical articles, paintings, and literary works, we will compare modern notions of time to pre-modern ones. The class will focus on Europe, but will also take into account examples from the U.S., Asia, and Africa. Over the course of the semester, we will study the history of clocks and watches, we will analyze how religious beliefs can shape a society’s sense of time, and we will examine the changing ways in which past societies have imagined the future. By addressing a wide array of historical assumptions about time, we will see that our own notions of time are not as self-evident or as “natural” as they might appear to be.

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15. Mapmakers

From treasure maps to road maps, globes to atlases, charts to rutters (ancient navigation diaries), we have sought ways to represent spatial information in written and graphical form. Maps are the key to navigating through space, be it physical or virtual. But the representation of spatial information is often filtered through political and social lenses that can hide subtle agendas. Maps might reflect a desire to minimize the influence of an indigenous peoples, or perhaps support a blatant land grab from a neighboring country. Maps can share information, and they can hide it; maps can be authentic, or they can be false. How we construct a physical map can actually be a secret map of our thoughts, desires, aspirations, and goals. In this course we will engage in a scholarly study of historical and modern maps. We will explore traditional techniques and play with modern mapmaking tools. We will journey across ancient texts and wander through the digital pixels of Google Earth. We will make maps and share those maps with others; we will look at old and new ways of digesting spatial data; and we will enjoy the beauty of representing our spatial universe.

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16. Familiaris Breeds Content: Dogs and the Liberal Arts

Dogs offer a valuable window into human interaction, as we employ them as easy referents for our shared experiences: “top dog,” “dog tired,” “puppy love.” With dogs as our touchstone, we will examine different approaches to knowledge production employed in biology, anthropology, economics, history, literature, and the fine arts. We begin with the biology of Canis lupus familiaris and investigate its anatomical, genetic, and behavioral characteristics. Once domesticated, dogs became valued for hunting, guarding, traction, and even as sources of meat. Over subsequent generations, the selective breeding of dogs resulted in one of the most diverse animal species on the planet—the American Kennel Club currently recognizes some 160 breeds. Dogs and other pets are also big business. Americans now spend more than $40 billion a year on their pets—more than the gross domestic products of two-thirds of the world’s nations. Still for many, the topic of “dog” speaks to a cherished bond. Whether loyal, good humored, or exasperating, our dogs spark strong feelings. Celebrated in novels and art, lending substance to history, mythology, and astrology, the “dog” offers insights into how we make sense of the world around us. 

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17. Navigating Uncertainty

In this seminar, we’ll explore uncertainty, epic failures, and the opportunities they sometimes open up. Let’s face it: humans don’t predict the future very well. Sometimes we underestimate risks; other times we exaggerate them. We ignore key pieces of information that may or may not have been obvious. Often we feel paralyzed by the sheer difficulty of knowing what option is best. Yet all is rarely lost, even when things don’t turn out exactly as planned. Sometimes the best solutions don’t present themselves until they’re demanded, and alternative routes turn out even better than the original plan. Even what feels like a disaster in some ways may feel worth it in others. Through discussion and analysis of literature, philosophy, social psychology, and works from other fields, we will develop a learning stance that allows for critical reflection on threats and opportunities to facilitate ethical and thoughtful action in the world.

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18. Race, Gender, Sexuality, and the Superhero Comic

Reading dozens of critically acclaimed superhero comics by authors ranging from Bendis, Vaughan, and Priest to Fraction, DeConnick, and Liu, we will place 30 years of the ubiquitous pop medium in its real-world historical context. Though our primary focus will involve the ways in which commercial comics have depicted race, gender, and sexuality, discussions will touch on the genre’s shifting definitions of authority, crime, justice, science, Americanness, violence, otherness, and heroism. Ultimately, we will contemplate the links between our national culture and pop culture, thinking about the ways that superhero comics’ evolving ideas about race, gender, and sexuality have served to reflect, reify, and sometimes change ideas during three turbulent decades that included the fall of the Soviet Union, two Gulf Wars, increased social stratification and political bifurcation, the financial crisis, and a variety of ongoing challenges to hegemonic configurations of power and identity. In addition to comic books, we will read comic and pop-culture criticism. Assignments will include seminar presentations, group projects, analytical papers, and a final research project.

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19. Text and Context in Tolstoy's War and Peace

Woody Allen once quipped that thanks to a speed-reading course, he was able to read War and Peace in 20 minutes. His conclusion? “It’s about Russia.” The reputation of Tolstoy’s sprawling historical novel about the Napoleonic wars has earned it a place on many a book lover’s bucket list. In some ways, it’s become a kind of cliché, the epitome of the Russian novel: long, with lots of complicated names. Yet War and Peace is not so much a historical novel as it is a novel about history, about what Tolstoy saw as the problem of history and historical writing in general. For Tolstoy, “histories”—whether they relate the fates of nations, the exploits of so-called “great men,” or the ordinary events of everyday life—are by their very nature distortions because they artificially impose a linear order and causal relationship upon events that are, in reality, far too complex to be described in that way. In this seminar we will explore this concept—and others—through a close, slow read of Tolstoy’s text within the context of other historical accounts of the period.

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20. Games We Play

Under a variety of circumstances, people display strategic behavior as they interact with each other. Using tools from mathematics, game theory provides an organized approach to modeling these strategic interactions. In this course, the mathematics of game theory will permit us to analyze human interactions that are studied in disciplines from social sciences such as international relations and political science, to natural sciences via biology and probability, to the humanities through literature and history. We’ll model what happens when the outcomes that affect our lives depend not only upon our own actions but also upon what others do, either simultaneously with us or sequentially before and after us. We’ll also learn how people revise their notions about the world on the basis of new information, how they evaluate the credibility of claims made by others, and how they adapt to changes in the environments where they live and work.

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