Making Meaning: Local, Global, and Historical Perspectives
This for-credit Residential Program, directed by Annette Yoshiko Reed and Benjamin Fleming, explores the ways in which people around the world make meaning in their lives and communities. We will survey religious, artistic, and philosophical traditions from around the world — drawing especially on the rich resources here in Philadelphia. Field trips will include chances to see ancient artifacts and medieval manuscripts from Asian, European, and Middle Eastern world cultures; visits to local museums, art galleries, temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues; and opportunities to engage the local histories of communities in West Philadelphia. Guest speakers, films, novels, and other readings will cover different cross-cultural and historical approaches to sanctifying time and space, understanding the human condition, and creating meaning as individuals and communities. This course is over two-semesters where students register for .5 cus each term for a total of 1 cu over the entire academic year.
Voyages of Discovery
Across the nineteenth century, voyages of sail and steam made possible the creation of empires and a globalized world, through the transportation of people and commodities. Similarly, this course is a voyage of discovery based on the study of actual ship’s logs held in Penn’s Rare Book collection. We will use these accounts to guide our investigation into the science, technology, medicine, economic and environmental history of life at sea and in the ports of call for these ships around the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Collectively, the seminar will produce an online exhibition built on logs, diaries and other sources held at Penn, in other local collections and gleaned from archives around the world.
Modern Sci-Fi Cinema
Science Fiction has been a cinematic genre for as long as there has been cinema—at least since Georges Melies’s visionary Trip to the Moon in 1902. However, though science fiction films have long been reliable box office earners and cult phenomena, critical acknowledgement and analysis was slow to develop. Still, few genres reflect the sensibility of their age so transparently—if often unconsciously—or provide so many opportunities for filmmakers to simultaneously address social issues and expand the lexicon with new technologies. Given budgetary considerations and the appetite for franchises, science fiction auteurs face a difficult negotiation between artistic expression and lowest common denominator imperatives, the controversy over Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) being perhaps the most infamous example. Nevertheless, many notable filmmakers have done their most perceptive and influential work in the scifi realm, including Gilliam, Ridley Scott, David Cronenberg, Paul Verhoeven, James Cameron and Alfonso Cuaron. This course will survey the scope of contemporary science fiction cinema, after looking first at seminal works like Metropolis (1927) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that continue to cast their shadow over the genre. We will then devote considerable time to a pair of more modern films, Scott’s Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), which drew from earlier movements (German expressionism, noir), influenced new ones (cyberpunk) and inspired a rare wave of academic discourse. Over the course of the term we will sample smaller, more independent-minded projects, such as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) as well as higher profile but much more risky epics from filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan.
Writing About Art
The seminar will engage critical issues related to visual arts, with a focus on writing about contemporary exhibitions. Most weeks there will be both a writing assignment and suggested reading. Members of the seminar will visit and review Philadelphia area exhibitions, including shows at the Institute for Contemporary Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and local galleries. In the seminar, students will be able to practice different descriptive and critical approaches to writing about art works. We will also focus on editing and the role of the editor in creating the final written work. There will be ample time given to discuss a wide range of contemporary visual art. See video description.
Offered in conjunction with Penn's Art and Culture Initiative.
Kerouac in Context
This course will take an in depth look into the life and career of one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century, Jack Kerouac (1922-1969). Born Jean-Louis Kérouac to immigrant parents from north of the border, the famed author of On the Road grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, speaking only French until he was 6 years old, and becoming fully bilingual only in his late teens. And yet, this son of a printer and factory worker, this football player and Ivy Leaguer, this open-road hitchhiker and reclusive hermit, this Proustian Joyce, this Catholic Canuck, this budding Buddhist, somehow ended up labeled “King of the Beats,” and leaving an indelible, transnational impact on literature and culture. Today, all his works are still in print and continue to be translated into new languages around the world. This seminar will explore the historical and cultural context in which Kerouac lived and died—childhood in the Great Depression, the advent & aftermath of World War II, the rise of containment vs counter-culture, the birth of cool, bebop, and rock n’ roll, the highway act of 1956, hippie and drug culture, and so on—as well as that of his immediate counterparts & collaborators like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Amiri Baraka, Diane DiPrima, Robert Frank, and others. Assignments will consist of brief weekly responses to the readings, one or two short essay(s), and will culminate in an oral report on Kerouac’s international reception.
The purpose of this seminar is to provide students with some basic tools with which to understand and evaluate representations of Africa from colonial times to the present. Using a range of sources including early travel accounts, autobiography, fiction, film, visual arts and contemporary media, we will examine various ways in which discourses on "Africa" as a continent have been produced by the West, but also by Africans themselves. We will pay particular attention to how these discourses and representations compete with or echo each other, all the while emphasizing, beyond stereotypical representations, the diverse histories, nations, regions, geographies and peoples that make up this vast continent.Cross-Cultural Analysis
“Beauty is not a quality inherent in things: it only exists in the mind of the beholder.” (David Hume)
“Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” (Pierre Bourdieu)
“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass. The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! The second tear makes kitsch kitsch.” (Milan Kundera)
Most of us can recognize bad taste as soon as we see it: Harlequin romances, Elvis on black velvet, lawn ornaments. But bad taste also has a history, and kitsch has been identified as a peculiarly modern invention related to capitalism and consumerism. Beginning with a discussion of taste in the eighteenth century (Hume, Kant), we will investigate under what conditions good taste can go bad, for example when it is the object of mass reproduction, and, on the other hand, why bad taste in recent times has increasingly been recuperated as an art form. Categories such as the cute, the sentimental, the miniature, kitsch, and camp will be explored. We will also ask what forms of ideological work have been done by this brand of aesthetics, for example in the connection between politics and kitsch, femininity and the low-brow, or camp and queer identity.
Saints and Devils in Russian Literature and Tradition
This course is about Russian literature, which is populated with saints and devils, believers and religious rebels, holy men and sinners. In Russia, where people’s frame of mind had been formed by a mix of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and earlier pagan beliefs, the quest for faith, spirituality, and the meaning of life has invariably been connected with religious matters. How can one find the right path in life? Is humility the way to salvation? Should one live for God or for the people? Does God even exist?
In “Saints and Devils” we will examine Russian literature concerning the holy and the demonic as representations of good and evil, and we will learn about the historic trends that have filled Russia’s national character with religious and mystical spirit. We will start with medieval fanciful stories and legends of crafty demons and all-forbearing saints. The master of Russian fantastic writing, Nikolai Gogol, will teach us how to triumph over the devil, while a great storyteller, Nikolai Leskov, will take us through Russia’s vast expanses. In Romantic and modernist poetry, we will discover the artistic power of the demonic. Together with Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, we will contemplate an ambivalent cultural image of woman as a victim or a sinful agent of the devil. Leo Tolstoy, who founded his own religion, will give us his philosophical and moral lessons. Finally, immersed in the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, we will follow the characters in their search for truth, faith, and love. (All readings are in English.)
Theatre in Philadelphia
The focus of this course will be on investigating and experiencing live theatre in Philadelphia. This semester we will have the opportunity to see numerous plays in production. We will examine the theatre experience in its entirety, considering: place and space of performance; audience; production elements such as directing, acting, and scenic design; as well as the play or performance piece itself. In addition, we will examine the state of the contemporary theatre culture of Philadelphia by looking at: the history of theatre in the city; the theatre buildings themselves; as well as the history, mission, and current state of selected theatre companies. Our readings will include: historical and theoretical context for attending the theatre and viewing plays in production; scripts for plays we will see; and local newspaper coverage of the Philadelphia theatre scene. The course will also include tours of local theatres as well as discussions with local and visiting theatre artists. See video description.
Offered in conjunction with Penn's Art and Culture Initiative.
Cultural Heritage, Politics and War in the Middle East
Political upheaval in the Middle East has brought cultural heritage studies to the forefront. From playing a role in the making of national identity and economy of Middle Eastern countries to falling prey to armed conflicts, cultural heritage remains an important element of the political and social scene. This seminar will examine the relatedness of cultural heritage to questions of identity and politics in the Middle East, and the impact of recent wars on such heritage.
The seminar will start by outlining the ancient and modern history of the Middle East, and reviewing the production of cultural heritage and its contemporary management in several Middle Eastern countries. It will then proceed to discuss the following major topics:
- Cultural diversity of modern Middle Eastern societies, the perception of cultural heritage in these societies, and the survival of long-living historical places, old traditions and material culture of all kinds.
- The influence of ancient cultures on common fixation and beliefs of modern identity in Middle Eastern societies (e.g. particular ethnic and religious groups see themselves as direct descendents of one or a number of ancient groups such as Phoenicians, Israelites, Assyrians).
-The use of archeological and historical data to create narratives of the past that promote specific political ideologies in the modern Middle East and, in some cases, to fabricate novel cultural and political realities.
-The damage to cultural heritage caused by recent wars in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and (i) how these wars are/were the makers of a new time that disrupted the living past through the destruction of cultural landscapes; and (ii) the involvement of cultural heritage institutions and archaeologists in rescuing cultural heritage in the event of war.Cross-Cultural Analysis
Sushi & Ramen: Global Food
Who defines Japanese food? Is it the chef at a top establishment in Tokyo, a home cook in Osaka, a tea master in Kyoto, the ancient capital? Or is it the midwestern American who thinks sushi means raw fish? Is it the person who scarfs cup noodles, or the devotee of artisan ramen stock? Perhaps it is the Japanese government, which in 2006 sent undercover agents abroad to guard against inferior Japanese food outlets. In this class we will consider how Japanese food came to be defined in distinction to Western and Chinese foods beginning in the nineteenth century, and how Japanese food became a global cuisine. Among our questions: What makes a dish Japanese? How did Portuguese or Spanish frying habits (tempura) and Chinese lamian (ramen) become hallmarks? How traditional is the diet of rice and fish, and in what ways does it interact with the environment? How did Buddhist vegetarians justify sukiyaki? What relationship does food have to the longevity of Japanese today? How does gender affect Japanese food cultures? What are the origins of Iron Chef and bento? We will survey the Philadelphia Japanese food scene and learn to make our own sushi. Some controversies we will discuss include the consumption of whale meat in Japan. We will also investigate Japanese government controls of food to combat obesity and to make food safe after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. Materials include essays, films, novellas, menus, cookbooks.Cross-Cultural Analysis
Copyright and Culture
In this seminar, we will look at the history of copyright law and explore the ways that copyright has both responded to new media and driven art and entertainment. How, for example, are new media (books, photography, recorded music, film, video, and the internet) defined in relation to existing media? How does the law accommodate shifting ideas and circumstances of authorship? What are the limits of fair use? And how have writers, artists, engineers, and creative industries responded to various changes in copyright law? A major focus of the course will be the lessons of history for the current copyright debates over such issues as file sharing, the public domain, and fair use.
Writing on the City: Letterforms, Technology, and Philadelphia Culture
This seminar explores the rich history of writing and typography from colonial to contemporary Philadelphia through primary source research at the city’s many libraries and collections and through direct engagement with professional designers, crafts workers, and manufacturers.
The course will be divided into two parts. The first phase will be devoted to information gathering: lectures, readings, and visits, including presentations, demonstrations, and hands-on research. Students will keep a journal of their inquiries and regularly share their insights during class sessions, developing a plan for final documentation.
In the second phase students will synthesize and distill their research, developing theories, defining individual and group projects, and collectively writing, designing, and publishing a public framework (web/print/exhibition, etc.) to chronicle their scholarship. See video description.
Offered in conjunction with Penn's Art and Culture Initiative.
Human Nature and History
In this seminar, we will take up the topic of human nature as a gambit for establishing common ground and stimulating a deeper intellectual community among incoming University Scholars. Or perhaps we will work the other way round. Perhaps we will draw upon that deeper community as a way of enriching our conversation as we take up the perennially challenging topic of human nature. Either way, we will engage in a wide-ranging reconnaissance of major theories on the topic. We will examine conceptions of humankind drawn from such disciplines as economics, psychology, religion, literature, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy. Lurking behind all of our endeavor will be questions of time and place, questions, if you will, of history; is human nature best understood as constant or contingent, stable or changeful with time and circumstance? We should have a lot of fun. (Open only to first year students in the University Scholars Program.)
Music in Urban Spaces
Music in Urban Spaces explores the ways in which individuals use music in their everyday lives and how music is used to construct larger social and economic networks that we call culture. We will read musicologists, cultural theorists, urban geographers, sociologists and educators who work to define urban space and the role of music and sound in urban environments, including through music education. While the readings make up our study of the sociology of urban space and the way we use music in everyday life to inform our conversations and the questions we ask, it is within the context of our personal experiences working with music programs at West Philadelphia High School or Henry C Lea Elementary, both inner city neighborhood schools serving economically disadvantaged students, that we will begin to formulate our theories of the contested musical micro-cultures of West Philadelphia. This course is over two-semesters where students register for .5cus each term (for a total of 1cu over the entire academic year) and is tied to the Music and Social Change Residential Program in Fisher Hassenfeld (http://fh.house.upenn.edu/musicandsocialchange) where most class participants live together. All participants volunteer in music classrooms for 3 hours per week, are expected to go to at least two concerts in the community during the year, attend the seminar weekly and complete all assignments.Cultural Diversity in the U.S.
The Middle East Through Many Lenses
This freshman seminar introduces the contemporary Middle East by drawing upon cutting-edge studies written from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. These include history, political science, and anthropology, as well as studies of mass media, sexuality, religion, urban life, and the environment. We will spend the first few weeks of the semester surveying major trends in modern Middle Eastern history. We will spend subsequent weeks intensively discussing assigned readings along with documentary films that we will watch in class. The semester will leave students with both a foundation in Middle Eastern studies and a sense of current directions in the field.Cross-Cultural Analysis
Scrimmage over Scripture
Course explores the disparate ways in which elements of the Hebrew Bible have been used by faith communities that inhabited the empires of Byzantium, Sassanian Iran, Latin Christendom and Islam, from the 2nd through the 12th centuries. Analysis of literary passages produced by Jews, Christians, and Muslims will problematize the “text vs. interpretation dichotomy,” while occasioning reflections on “canon,” and on modes of transmission. Examination of polemical writings will shed light on the dynamics of “textual communities” and their formation. All readings are in English; no previous knowledge assumed.Cross-Cultural Analysis
Beyond Biology--Enhancing the Human Mind through Technology
Some people have claimed that the prevalence of various information technologies in modern society is triggering a radical alteration to the structure of the human mind. The development of cognitive-enhancing drugs and of devices that interface with nervous systems to restore cognitive functioning in brain-damaged people provides further evidence to some of the transformative potential of technology on the human mind. In this course, we will examine the philosophical hypothesis that the human mind is a product of the interaction between biology, technology (broadly conceived), and culture. We will consider whether technologies that enable or enhance human mental faculties are best viewed as proper parts of the human mind or instead as merely external aids/tools. We will also consider the moral issues surrounding the use and accessibility of such technologies. The questions that we consider in this course will get to the heart of what it means to possess a human mind and indeed to be a human being.
From Darwin to DNA
Very few scientific ideas have been as charged with social and political meanings as "the survival of the fittest." Evolution has provoked social controversy from its earliest elaborations into the present. Critics have objected on religious, moral, ethical and political grounds to the ideas that they associate with Darwinism, including eugenics, social Darwinism, sociobiology, racism, even genocide. Some authors have drawn a direct line from Darwin to Hitler; others have claimed that Darwinism properly understood undermines all morality and religion. Evolution is therefore both a scientific explanation of change through time, and a powerful social and cultural idea with broader implications. In this course, we explore the history of ideas about evolution, heredity, DNA and genomics, attentive to the profound social dimensions of biological ideas.
Introduction to Acting
Rooted in the system devised by Konstantin Stanislavsky, this course takes students step by step through the practical work an actor must do to live and behave truthfully on-stage. Beginning with relaxation and physical exercise, interactive games, and ensemble building, students then learn and put into practice basic acting techniques, including sensory work, the principles of action, objectives, given circumstances, etc. The semester culminates in the performance of a scene or scenes, most often from a modern American play. This course strongly stresses the responsibility of the actor to work and especially to one's fellow actors. Practical work is supplemented by readings from Stanislavsky and a variety of other acting theorists that may include Uta Hagen, Robert Cohen, Stella Adler, among others. Students are required to submit short essays over the course of the semester in response to the readings and in preparation for their final scene project.