First-Year Initiatives (FYI) Seminars, Fall 2015
Preparation for FYI
Here is what you need to know—and do—to prepare for the program:
Listed below are the 21 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. 17; this class begins during New Student Days.
The first five FYI seminars listed (marked with an asterisk) are linked courses, and enrolled students will live in either Aldrich Hall or Chapin Hall. They explore individual course themes in relation to one another through common readings, co-curricular events, and community building activities. Students may work in the Beloit Urban Garden, create radio shows for WBCR (the college’s radio station), watch films, or cook/eat together as a means of fully connecting the academic and residential components of the first-year experience in particularly rich and meaningful ways.
Descriptions listed below are subject to minor changes.
07. Just Breathe
09. Games We Play
12. Ponder College
16. By the Numbers
18. Standing Up
19. What Is Natural?
20. Mapping as Art
Is healthy food only for the educated and affluent? Who determines nutrition guidelines? What factors contribute to global and local food disparities? How do we make healthy food choices, and how do those choices affect the local environment and the global economy? Everybody needs to eat. But between the locavore movement, the debate about genetically modified organisms, and the implications of factory farms, discussion about food ranges far beyond what’s on your plate. Beginning with an exploration of food in our local environment, we will eat and act locally as we develop a global perspective on food and health. Through activities including field trips, growing and preparing our own food, classroom discussions, and films, we will expand our understanding of food as a political, social, and health issue. Food activism in the form of working in the student-run Beloit Urban Garden will be a central theme of the course. This seminar will incorporate creative and social justice projects around the personally relevant, interdisciplinary topic of food, and will serve as a foundation for your liberal arts education at Beloit College.
What do we like, and why do we like it? This course takes a look at taste: the sensory perception regarding flavor as well as the broader term that refers to our aesthetic and consumer preferences. While popular discourse would have us focus solely on scientific explanations, this FYI will broaden our lenses to include the roles played by culture, relationships, economic status, and other social phenomena in influencing our preferences for particular foods, aesthetics, and experiences. In this course, we will closely analyze the “social life” behind these preferences. A related topic of inquiry will be investigating the ways that consumer choices can serve to assert identities such as cultural, educational, class, or regional distinctions. Through exercises in critical reading, writing, discussion and observation, we will expand our vocabularies to better describe what we like and don’t like; understand the role of critics, bloggers, and the marketing industry in influencing desire; and learn about events that have altered taste throughout human history.
The samurai have long captured the Western imagination, appearing in everything from Kurosawa films, to popular video games, to a feature-length Scooby-Doo movie. But who were they, and why have they become such mainstays of Japanese (and American) popular culture? Professional warriors who were often at the cutting edge of military, artistic, cultural, and spiritual pursuits, Japanese samurai have been interpreted and/or appropriated in different ways for different purposes over the past 900 years. In this course, we will contextualize the samurai through a study of Japanese history. Using representations of the most famous of them in popular literature and film, we will analyze the ways in which images of the samurai have been mobilized for often contradictory purposes in Japan and the United States. As we come to understand the various discourses surrounding the samurai from the 12th century to the present, we will develop a better understanding of how and why this part of Japan’s past continues to play such an important role in Japanese and American popular imagination.
This course brings together environmentalism, social justice, and activism to help students develop tools to address the environmental challenges of our time. We will explore climate change, deforestation, water pollution, and food security, which, in turn, will require us to analyze how our social, economic, and cultural practices impact the environment. To uncover these complex relationships, the class will investigate everything from international food markets to the various uses of urban gardens. Each student will have an internship with Kallari, an indigenous cooperative in the Amazon that exports chocolate and crafts; this work will help us to see connections between international trade and our role as activist consumers, all the while allowing Kallari to maintain an active presence on the Beloit College campus. Students will also learn about local food production by visiting farms and urban gardens in Beloit. We will see first hand how they not only provide produce to families and local organizations but have become tools for community building and empowerment. Weekly work in the student-run Beloit Urban Garden (BUG) will allow us to practice our own food production and community building. Plan to get your hands dirty!
Have you ever noticed that many of the ways we talk about about knowledge are based on the visual? From “I see!” to “let’s look at this through the lens of…,” we are used to understanding our world through visual evidence. This course asks us to think about questions of sound and meaning: how do we make sense of Beloit’s particular soundscape? When and why does sound become “music,” “evidence,” or “pollution”? This class uses the emerging field of ecomusicology (the study of sound in relation to culture and nature) to consider what it might mean to be aurally “local” in the 2010s, when we can download an MP3 from another hemisphere faster than we can put on shoes to go for a walk across campus. We will explore some of the environmental sounds that constitute “hearing Beloit” through field trips, sound walks, “deep listening” exercises, and engagement with other Beloit residents, including collaborative activities with other FYI seminars. And to connect our local experiences with the wider world, we will read and talk about the diverse ways music and sound operate globally—how they intersect with social identities and patterns of production and consumption, including (post)industrialism, agriculture, and transportation.
Over 100 years ago, Giovanni Schiaparelli reported “channels” on Mars. The Italian canali was soon mistranslated as “canals,” inspiring American astronomer Percival Lowell to speculate on their origin. Could there be intelligent life on the Red Planet? NASA’s earlier landers determined that Mars was a cold, dry, and lifeless planet. But perhaps Mars, in its youthful stages, supported a thicker atmosphere and was warmer and wetter—and was teeming with at least bacteria, if not sentient creatures. Recent data collected by an armada of orbiters and rovers confirm that Mars contains abundant ice just below the surface, and may have hosted liquid water relatively recently (i.e., within the last million years, or maybe even today!). Could the planet yet harbor life in extreme environments? Or could the current Martian environment be transformed—or terraformed—into one hospitable to Earth-based life? In this seminar, we will concentrate on the scientific evidence for the possibility of life on Mars—in the past, present, and future. Establishing the prerequisites for life is not, however, the same as establishing a human presence. Perhaps early microbes colonized Mars, but can we? And if we can, should we?
In this course we will explore together the intersections of stress, mindfulness, mental health, and the creative arts, mainly writing and drawing. Stress is part of everyone’s daily life: from traumatic exposure to unspeakable violence in war, abuse, and assault; to the experiences of persistent poverty and discrimination; to the pressures to conform and perform in high schools and college; to the everyday challenges of work and love. When we manage our stress effectively—through a combination of physical, spiritual, psychological, and artistic practices—the result can be healthy development and well-being. When we manage our stress ineffectively, or when the stress is beyond any hope of effective management, development may be compromised, with potentially severe consequences to mental and physical health. This course will include investigation of stress in its psychological, social, spiritual, and neurophysiological dimensions, accompanied by an introduction to strategies to alleviate stress and increase well-being, including various therapies, mindfulness practices, writing, and drawing.
The “war on terror” has dominated United States foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks, pulling the United States into two lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using primary documents such as the 9/11 report, participant memoirs, scholarly research, and documentaries, we will explore the changing nature of terrorism from the 1970s-1980s to the transnational era of al-Qaida. We will consider a multitude of thorny and hotly contested moral, political, military, and human rights questions such as: What groups should be considered terrorists and who gets to decide? Is terrorism a crime or an act of war? Are the traditional laws of war applicable to terrorists? What are the practical and moral issues surrounding the use of drones? How effective has United States counterinsurgency strategy been in Iraq and Afghanistan? What should be done about Guantanamo Bay? Should United States officials involved in torture be prosecuted?
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 will 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 will 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.
This seminar will explore the complexities of identity politics, drawing particular attention to two marginalized or often overlooked identity markers: race beyond either black or white and religion beyond Christianity or secularism. Students should expect to be challenged and to challenge their peers in regards to preconceived ideas about the relationship between religious and other forms of identity. Throughout the semester, we will examine a number of “microaggressions,” or the subtle ways that racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture. We also will grapple with the extent to which these issues as raised in popular/social media are a useful way of bringing to light often elusive slights, a new form of divisive hypersensitivity, or simply engaging in conversations usually avoided. Students will conclude the FYI by producing a visual or oral project that will be retained within the college’s archives for the use of future generations of students, faculty, and staff.
In this seminar we will analyze the history and development of Russian-American relations, and we will look at different scenarios for the future of both nations. In order to understand what has happened to the relationship between Russia and the United States and what has provoked a possible new “Cold War,” we will first examine the situation inside contemporary Russia, and then compare it to the dystopian society described by George Orwell in his novel, 1984. An interesting—though not new—phenomenon that can be witnessed now in Russia is a kind of doublethink, in which there is an obvious contradiction between what people see and what they actually say. One could argue that Russia is again going through a phase when truth is not needed, similar to Orwell’s notion that “Ignorance is Strength.” Putin’s high approval ratings can be explained by another Orwellian slogan—“Freedom is Slavery,” and the war in Ukraine that triggered this new Cold War in some ways illustrates the slogan “War is Peace.” Yet is Putin’s control absolute and infallible? What role do Russian history and culture play here? And how well does U.S. foreign policy reflect an understanding of that history and culture?
In this seminar, we will explore the changing world of liberal arts education. Beginning with the playful “foundation” of a fictional college created by the instructor, we will examine the role of small colleges in a vast system of American higher education. While learning about classes, academic requirements, and student life at Beloit College (something we share with all FYI students), our seminar will explore the ways that colleges perceive their histories, how they “sell” themselves, and even how they run their business operations. In the process, we will read a wide array of stories, novels, memoirs, financial reports, and educational treatises that speak to the role of education in a rapidly changing 21st century. We will not limit ourselves to the American liberal arts college, either. The idea to put talented students and creative teachers together in small classes has caught on in a few parts of the world, and we will learn how these colleges look and operate in Hong Kong, Japan, India, and several parts of Europe. In the process, students will gain a distinctive perspective on the work that they will be doing right up until their own college graduations in 2019.
Australia is the world’s sixth largest country with a population somewhat less than that of the state of Texas. Despite all this room, however, Australia is one of the world’s most urbanized countries with 90 percent of the population living in cities. What lies in that great wilderness, the mythical “outback” beyond the back of Bourke? Why are the creatures that slither and crawl across the continent so dangerous, and how was the land tamed? Should one take a didgeridoo to a corroboree in Ulladulla? This seminar will explore the history, geography, and diverse biology of Australia, with particular focus on indigenous Australians, native authors and inventors, and the country’s unique flora and fauna. The story of how the nation transitioned from an English penal colony to the vibrant multicultural land it is today is not always a pretty one, but there’s plenty of good reasons why locals call Australia “the lucky country.”
This seminar offers front row center seats to students who are not “theatre people” but who have always wondered about the mysterious world behind the curtain. This general introduction explores questions like why people perform, how long humans have been “doing” theatre, what is involved in the process that leads to opening night, and what is so special about the live actor-audience relationship. Theatre is a complex form that combines literature, physical expression, visual art, business, and entertainment—and people who go to the theatre should explore the ways in which writers, actors, directors, designers, and all the other theatre professionals contribute to the magic that happens when the curtain rises. Students will read approximately a play a week, will attend all campus theatre productions plus other area performances, and will try a little hands-on “work that makes plays.” They should come away not only with a better appreciation for theatre but also perhaps a desire to try theatre out for themselves.
In various literary texts, we’ll examine the ideology and interpersonal dynamics of social systems that identify and bond themselves by exclusion of an “other” or “others.” Such social groups are defined primarily by opposition to whatever (or whomever) they define as “deviant.” We’ll ask how such groups support and sustain themselves and look at the methods by which they enlarge their membership–that is, we’ll watch how they create and exert their power through representations of the “other.” To resist the appeal of that power, we’ll have to recognize how it tries to conscript us. To that end, we’ll look at the ways that different metaphorical patterns in these works expose—and help us to compare–the representations that aid the exercise of social power within communities as different as the American suburbs (Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills or Steven Millhauser’s “Sisterhood of Night”) and autocratic regimes consolidating their influence (Jim Shepard’s Lights Out in the Reptile House). We’ll then try to imagine representing a different model for the bonding the group–a dynamic that doesn’t define by exclusion.
Numbers are a part of our everyday experience. You find out about tuition costs and the size of your student loans. You read polling results for upcoming political primaries and statistics that describe the state of the economy or the relationship between race, crime, and police procedure. You see graphs that convey information about public opinion on issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion. You follow sports statistics on favorite teams and players. But, do you fully understand these numbers? Are you able to think critically about numbers you hear so that you can assess their meaning and their validity? In this course, you will become a better consumer and producer of numbers. When someone rattles off a statistic, you will know to ask questions about definitions, measurement, and sampling. You will learn how to read graphs and tables, and how to create them. You will learn about budgeting, reading quantitative academic articles, and picking better fantasy baseball teams. Are you someone who is math phobic, but wants to overcome that fear? Then this is the class for you. Books include: Best’s Damned Lies and Statistics, Lewis’ Moneyball, and Leicht and Fitzgerald’s Middle Class Meltdown in America.
How risky is it to smoke? To down 10 drinks in one evening? To drive without a seat belt? To have breast implants? To fly or drive back to Beloit from your home? To live 20 miles from a nuclear power plant? To live next to a high-voltage power line? What about air pollution, background radiation, vaccinations, toxins in your food? How can you usefully assess risks you encounter? Risk involves both personal decisions and the uncertainty of chance events. We will delve into the meaning of chance, with its measurement in terms of probability calculations. Leaving aside risks to you, your behavior and decisions may put others at risk. So we will consider the broader cultural context: social, public policy, psychological, and ethical dimensions (e.g., who bears the risk, risk compensation, and the costs and moral hazard of risk mitigation). We will confront problems in everyday life, together with the decision-making, perception, and communication of risk. Case studies will include natural disasters, birth defects, death penalty, radon, cancer clusters, global warming, Ebola, and aircraft safety. We will also devote a little time to financial risk (e.g., gambling), hedging (portfolio management), and risk pooling (insurance).
“Stand up” is associated with comedy. But many performers use the format to wrestle with issues of social justice. The humor may come from a willingness on the part of performers to be honest about themselves, speak frankly about controversial topics, or point out the absurdity of social conventions. Recently, stand up performers have challenged common assumptions about gender, race, and disability, and in turn have started national dialogues about impacts of injustice in our society. This class will look at solo stand up performers. We will watch them on video, attend live performances, read about their lives, and identify the comic theory at work in their performances. Then, through low stakes writing and “open mic” sessions, we will develop our own “stand up” personas. The instructor has been booed off stage in Moscow, Idaho, and was literally pelted with food from angry audience members at the top of the Space Needle. So this class will definitely embrace public failure as a liberating experience. In our performance work, we will strive for introspection, honesty, and social commentary. If people laugh, that’s fine. But we will be less focused on “being funny ” than we are on “standing up.”
This class will use a combination of scientific data analysis, case studies, and project-based inquiry to explore a deep-seated construct of our human experience: that anything human-made is fundamentally separate from nature. Claims such as “all-natural ingredients” and “restoring the natural balance” reflect this construct. This leads us to the question: “Just what is natural?” In this class we will take an interdisciplinary approach (from the sciences to the humanities) to scrutinize the ways in which humans draw distinctions between humankind and nature. We will look at the many ways that the label of “natural” shapes our perceptions and value judgments about urban and rural life, agriculture and biotechnology, ecological restoration and management, justice and law, pristine nature and indigenous peoples, and natural and artificial ingredients. The empirical analysis of these topics will give students an opportunity to explore many ways of knowing, learning, and studying in the liberal arts.
This is an art class that uses mapping as a way to influence and challenge the viewers’ notions of the world around them. Mapmakers (cartographers) have long realized that maps do not necessarily present the world objectively or without some type of interpretation. Maps “re-present” the world by providing an “edited version” of what the map’s creator believes is truth. As such, maps are cognitive devices or artistic creations designed to tell a story, present a particular point of view, or to influence the view and perception of those who use them. Students will be challenged to think of mapping as much more than simply representing geography. With this approach to mapping, students can use almost anything as content for their art making: from mapping peoples’ movements and behavior in a central space to creating a map that notes the integration/segregation of students and ideas on campus. Students could go farther and map kitsch, colors, or even minutia. We will work collaboratively to compile mapping assignments into handmade bound books using a variety of mediums such as photography, embroidery, writing, and drawing.
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.