Engaging Minds, Transforming Lives

First-Year Seminar

Seminar Summaries

Proposals are currently being accepted for the 2015 First-Year Seminars. Once the offerings have been announced, the brief summaries will be posted. Until then, please see below for the brief summaries of the 2014 First-Year Seminars.  

A Guide to the Genome: Personal Genetics in the 21st Century (Genome)

Genes are central to each of us: they help determine our physical features, our health, and perhaps even aspects of our personality and intelligence. Advances in technology now create the ability to examine in detail our DNA and provide information about our genetic predisposition to a large number of traits and disorders. Genetics also plays an increasingly important role in many areas of our society, including agriculture, health care, law enforcement, and industry. This seminar will explore new findings in genetics and what they mean for each of us, including the ethical and social implications of these advances.


“A Pirate’s Life for Me:” Pirates, Piracy, and Southwestern (Pirates)

This seminar will use our own swashbuckling university mascot as a lens through which to study history, literature, art, pop culture, the media, law, business, and the environment. We will explore the existence and changing definitions of piracy across time and space, from its ancient roots to its Caribbean golden age, to modern piracy on the high seas and online. From Henry Morgan to Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Jack Sparrow, and Napster, who or what constitutes a pirate, why do they capture our imaginations so, and what does it mean to be one in present-day Georgetown, Texas?


Doctor Who as Social Commentary (Who)

Mixed in with the fanciful fezzes, sonic screwdrivers, and magical blue police box of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Doctor Who are complex critiques of contemporary social issues. In this course, we will delve beneath the iconic images to critically analyze the television show’s social and political commentary on war, intergroup and race relations, the human-alien dichotomy, the media, nationalism, the social consequences of medical technology, gender roles and feminism, and the in/appropriate use of violence. Prior familiarity with Doctor Who is helpful but not required.


French Food Culture: See your Plate with New Eyes (France)

The course examines French history, culture, and health matters using food as a lens to answer such questions as: Why have other cultures long considered the French authorities in the culinary World? Why do the French view their cuisine as a national treasure? What is the relationship of food to culture? In doing so, this seminar will explore the invention of table manners; the codification of cuisine; the invention of the restaurant; the worship of gastronomy; French meals and their successive courses; the French paradox (consuming a diet rich in fat while enjoying a low rate of obesity); artisanal versus industrial food; unhealthy ingredients found in processed food. And of course, we will cook and enjoy French food.


From Stone Tablets to YouTube: How We Read (YouTube)

Students now see a book as an option, and electronic texts are at least as familiar. The purpose of the course is to examine the ways in which forms of text shape ways of understanding the world. We will examine four major groups of text—papyrus, codex, print and digital with particular attention to the three transitions between them. These moments of change, like the one we have just experienced, were not just moments when letters moved from one kind of object to another. They were broad-based transformations of the ways in which people thought and lived.


Funky City: New Orleans from Creoles to Katrina (Creole)

This seminar explores the history of a city that is quintessentially American yet unlike any other place in the United States. The city has been shaped by its role as a port and its precarious environmental position below sea level. New Orleans is also a place where Creole cultures emerged in America from African, French, Spanish, and Anglo-American roots. We look at these processes from French colonial times onward, with a special emphasis on music and popular culture. The events surrounding Hurricane Katrina (2005) frame the course. Students will research a New Orleans topic they choose.


Global Powers: The Rise and Fall of Empires (Great Britain, the U.S., and China) (Empires)

The sun never set on the vast, powerful British Empire. But now its glory days are long over. Will this be the fate of the U. S.? Did Britain and the U.S. possess something special or unique that led to their rise, or could another great power like China, “The Middle Kingdom,” be the next to rise? Is decline inevitable? These and other such questions will guide our seminar and provide us with some perspective with which to examine the present global world order.


How Many God is Too Many?: Multi-Religious Identity in Native American Communities (Gods)

What would it mean to follow more than one organized religion? Where might conflicts arise? What does that even look like!? The reality for contemporary Native Americans is that many are living a multi-religious life, either blending multiple traditions or practicing two wholly different traditions at the same time. Through an examination of literature, art, music and primary writings, this seminar will look at multi-religious identity and practice in the historical and contemporary, and try to understand how, for some people, it is possible to practice and live religious life beyond the scope of a single tradition.


Lies Teachers Tell (Lies)

In this FYS, we will investigate the role of education in our society as a propaganda force and ask a series of questions: Why do we tell the particular stories we tell in our canonic disciplines, such as history and science? How do those stories work to present the world and our place in it? How do they serve to integrate the individual into society according to quite specific ideas of values and order? How are those narratives used in broader political, moral, and institutional rhetoric? What is the status of “truth” in these narratives?


Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Travel, Tourism, and Public Memory (Travel)

Travel can be wonderfully exciting, incredibly uncomfortable, and everything in between. Many of us are fascinated with the idea of visiting the places we have seen or read about. We start with that curiosity and then explore different perspectives on travel and tourism and the role it has in shaping public memory. By examining texts associated with travel, we will discover how the travel experience is framed by communication, and how public memory is created. We will discuss popular travel destinations, notable places of public memory, as well as destinations in our hometowns, Southwestern University, and the greater Georgetown area.


Pop-up Books: Manipulating Life through Discovery and Ingenuity (Pop-Up)

Pop-up books were originally created as an adult novelty. When and why did they become children’s books…or did they? As we explore this topic, we will also discuss the cross-curricular elements of paper engineering as it relates to images revealed in pop-up book illustration and mass production of paper engineering. Advanced paper folding techniques have been manipulated to create a myriad of life changing products which advance our civilization on earth and in space. An example of creative innovation was the 1883 U.S. Patent for the pleated, square bottom, paper bag. The use of this bag skyrocketed with the development of the American supermarket in the 1930’s. The history, innovation, and artistry of paper engineering and pop-up book illustration will be the foundation for research, discussion, problem solving and critical thinking as we analyze paper engineered creations.


Race and Racism in the “Post-Racial” World (Race)

In this seminar, we will review the myth of biological race, learn the biology of human differences, and explore racism and the systems of privilege and oppression it generates. We will pay close attention to how racial privilege and oppression manifest themselves in the 21st century, a time some claim is post-racial. While the seminar will focus primarily on the U.S., we will also consider how race and racism are structured in other parts of the world. The seminar will include a critical examination of how racial privilege and oppression operate in our everyday lives.


Robots in Fact and Fiction (Robots)

What do you think of when you hear the word “robot”? Do you think of a machine that assembles cars, performs surgery on people or a Terminator? We will examine how robots are currently used in a variety of fields and what changes have occurred because of them. We will also explore how robots have been portrayed in literature and on television. Since many of these fictional robots exhibit abilities far beyond those of robots today, we will consider what these characters represent - a simple story telling device or a projection of our hopes/fears – and what this portends for our future.


Running for Your Life (Run)

Exercise is an accessible and inexpensive way to combat a multitude of preventable diseases afflicting our society; so it is paradoxical that we live in a relatively sedentary society. Contributing to this paradox is recent evidence that from an evolutionary perspective, endurance running appears to be a defining characteristic of humans and is one of the keys to their survival. This seminar will consider the exercise-health paradox beginning with an examination of the “mismatch hypothesis.” Social, cultural and physiological aspects of running will then be examined to see whether humans were “born to run.”


Secret History: What if Everything You “Know” is Wrong (Secret)

History, we are taught, puts us where we are. Yet your life has been profoundly shaped by moments that barely left a trace in History, sites where people struggled to realize private dreams and desires in public counter-hegemonic space(s) and gain control over the material and ideological conditions of their everyday lives. 11th century Arabian Assassins, Medieval Mediterranean pirates, the Paris Commune, Dada, tri-racial isolate drop-out communities, Situationists, and “punk” shaped your world and the “real” (hi)story is in Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Velvet Underground songs, silent French movie serials, 16th century Anabaptists, Delta blues singers, Daft Punk or Lorde or Pitbull.


Sex Talk: A First-Year Seminar with Benefits (Sex)

From an early age, we’re bombarded with negative messages about sex and are socialized to be ashamed to talk about it. The taboo surrounding sex is unfortunate because the benefits of increased knowledge and communication about sex are many and the costs of not having these discussions can be dire. Although sexuality is a difficult issue to discuss, it is crucial that we do so in order to promote sexual health and responsible behavior. This seminar will start the dialogue by considering the interplay between human sexuality and science, gender, religion, politics, the media, race, culture, and romantic relationships.


Taking a Walk in a Painting: Velazquez’s Las Meninas (Walk)

Velazquez’s famous painting Las Meninas (1656)–considered by many “the world’s greatest painting”–has become a battlefield for modern investigators, for geometricians, metaphysicians, artist-photographers, semioticians, political and social historians, and lovers of painting. Now, pretend you could shrink yourself and walk into Velazquez’s painting: What would you see there? What would it smell like? What could you feel? What would you ask to the people in the artwork or what would you do together? What exactly does this famous key monument have to offer a person today? What does Velazquez’s Las Meninas actually show?


Talkin’ Trash (Trash)

Are you “trash aware?” Do you know how much trash an average American generates? And where does it all go? Is there big money in garbage? We will explore some practical, ethical, and social implications of resource scarcity, waste and wastefulness, stewardship, and creative re-purposing of materials. Let’s go beyond the usual 3R’s: Reading, wRiting, and ‘Rithmetic — and meld them into the other 3R’s: Reduce, Re-use, and Recycle.


The Science and Art of Play (Play)

This seminar will investigate play from several perspectives. These include the role of play in development and learning for children (with a focus on Vygotskian theory), cultural views of play, shifts in the role of play in contemporary society, and play in animals. The class will read, research, write, observe, experience, and self-reflect on a variety of kinds of play and related topics. The seminar will visit a local school which is a site for research on play and playground equipment. Students will research a topic of interest in the academic literature (research and theory) about play. Some play activities and psychological theater will be incorporated into the seminar.


The Short-Short Story Form as Social Commentary (Short-Short)

This creative writing seminar will introduce students to the form called the “Short-Short,” a story of 250 to 500 words. Although sometimes dismissed as too brief for serious storytelling, a carefully constructed short-short can develop characters, plots, settings, themes, and more, all in a single page. In addition, the short-short is also capable of making powerful social statements with great precision. Writing at this micro-level enables students to address technical, structural, and mechanical issues that are sometimes difficult to identify in longer works. Thus, mastering the short-short can provide a writer with skills necessary for attempting standard-length stories and novels.


Tuning the Hemispheres: Music and the Brain (Brain)

What happens in our brain when we listen to music? What parts of the brain are activated? Have humans been adapted for music? Can music make you smarter? What role does music play in the creation of our personal identities? How have our interactions with music changed over time? This course will examine the psychological and physiological effects that music has on the human brain, and consider it in broad contexts and specific case studies. We will consider how, in the age of the Shazam, Pandora and the iPhone we communicate with one-another at an interpersonal level through music.


Understanding Ourselves Through Storytelling (Story)

This seminar will focus on storytelling and understanding how, as humans, we use stories to understand ourselves. We will learn about some of the underlying theories of storytelling, what makes a good story and how to create a digital story. Course lectures will include oral and visual examples of storytelling from various cultures, with a focus on how people use stories to make sense of important events. We will engage in personal storytelling activities, recreate a “Shoe Burnin’” storytelling festival and research the storytelling practices of peoples across the world.


Visions and Virgins: Art Mediating Miracles (Visions)

Miraculous images have been around for centuries, but why do people believe in them? By examining their accumulated layers of history and myth, this course reveals that miracles are much more than what meets the eye—they are critical to the social fabric of communities, both large and small. We will explore the intersections of art and mystic vision in Byzantine icons, Renaissance paintings, and the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. By examining how art mediates divine experience, we will seek to understand its power on the human psyche, and the social roles of miracles and visionaries in different cultures.


“Waiting for Superman:” Educational Reform in America (Superman)

When John Adams set forth his Thoughts on Government in 1776, he asserted that “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.” Critics of American public education would argue, however, that the goal of providing equal access to a quality education is a dream unfulfilled, a point that is illustrated in the documentary film “Waiting for Superman.” This seminar will seek to provide students with an opportunity to examine and analyze a number of reform efforts related to equal educational opportunity in America.


Your, My, and Our Music (Music)

This seminar will focus upon a few moments in American cultural history through the lens of popular music. Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Willie Nelson, and Madonna will be among those on our soundtrack.  Students will be encouraged to share their favorite music and to link it to the culture.  We will all draw upon the work of historians, sociologists, economists, and theologians to make connections between the music and its cultural context.  Along with these approaches, we will always be reflecting upon our individual responses.