First-Year Seminar Courses, Fall 2019

All first-year seminars meet Tuesday and Thursday, 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m.

First-year seminars (FYS) are writing-intensive courses of 14-15 students each, as well as forums to introduce students to the academic life of Pitzer College. Students will discuss and write about engaging topics that the faculty have selected. The courses are not part of any major and are not necessarily “introductions” to any given field or major. They are designed to be accessible to all students, regardless of background.

Incoming students will be asked to indicate their preferences for their first-year seminar. The professor teaching a given first-year seminar will also serve as their students’ faculty adviser for the first three or four semesters, until a student declares a major. Students develop strong mentoring relationships with faculty and gain a broad understanding of how the curriculum intersects with their individual educational goals.

In addition, mentorship goes beyond the first semester by providing diverse venues for students to participate early on in community engagement, study abroad, as well as the broader intellectual life of the campus; all hallmarks of a Pitzer education. As part of this, there may also be additional required programming outside of scheduled class time (TBA).

Juanita C. Aristizábal, Assistant Professor of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures


Aristizabal, Juanita
“Life in the Latin American Metropolis”

As cities in Latin America grow from metropolises to megalopolises containing ever larger proportions of the population, attempting to understand the Latin American city has become a necessary aspect of understanding Latin America. This seminar will focus on some of Latin America’s largest urban spaces. Through popular and documentary film, literature, journalism, music, and the visual arts, we will look at multiple facets of urban culture in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Bogotá, and La Habana. We will explore the histories of these cities and the various experiences of their inhabitants, focusing on their intersection with topics such as modernity, urban planning, development, racial, gender and social inequities, resistance, historical memory, environmental justice, and counter-cultural movements.  Through these explorations, we will learn to read, watch, and travel with a more critical eye and a more comprehensive understanding.

Michelle Berenfeld, Associate Professor of Classics


Berenfeld, Michelle
“Not just Gods and Gladiators: Ancient Greeks and Romans as You’ve Never Seen Them Before”

The ancient Mediterranean—famous as the home of the Greeks and Romans—in fact, was inhabited by millions of people who spoke hundreds of languages and worshipped countless gods. This region—encompassing some 40 modern countries—was not monolithic and did not intend to become the “foundation of western civilization.” This course explores this world on its own terms, through texts and objects produced then and there. We will also critically examine the many filters through which this material has been edited, invented, and interpreted ever since, by people including ancient Greeks and Romans themselves, Islamic scholars, medieval kings, Ottoman emperors, the writers of the US constitution, several dictators, Renaissance artists, and Hollywood filmmakers (among others).


Ferree, Elise
“Nutrition in the Modern World”

The study of nutrition and food has arguably never been more interesting than it is today, due to developments in science and the globalization of food markets. In this seminar, we will trace the history of the human diet up to the present time, including an examination of diet across cultures. With this cross-cultural lens, we will then explore some of the multi-faceted issues surrounding nutrition in the modern world. Topics include the human microbiome and ways it could be linked to disease; food allergies and ideas for why they are on the rise in some countries; the epidemic of obesity; inequalities in access to healthy, affordable food; whether current food systems are sustainable; and seemingly odd food choices, such as eating insects in different societies. We will explore these and other ideas through books, film, and the popular press and practice writing for various audiences.

Sarah Gilbert, Assistant Professor of Art


Gilbert, Sarah
“Speculative Feminisms and Sustainable Futures”

The future is female, proclaims a well-worn feminist adage.  Emerging from a circle of radical lesbian intellectuals in 1970s New York City, the statement operates simultaneously as incantation and prediction, synthesizing the voices of all who utter it into something generative, rather than simply descriptive. Yet, it reverberates somewhat dissonantly in our contemporary moment; even the term “female” can evoke the same essentializing tendencies that queer and intersectional feminisms today actively unsettle. Drawing on a range of recent fictional, critical, and localized knowledge, this seminar invites additional speculative futures, exploring interdisciplinary thinking and writing as generative practices.

Sarah Gilman


Gilman, Sarah
“Selective Science”

From Climate Change to Ebola to Frankenfood we are bombarded in our daily lives with scientific (and pseudoscientific) information. Why do some people accept the science on evolution but not vaccines?  Or on climate change but not GMOs.  The goal of this seminar is to explore how we use science in our daily lives.  We will focus on three central questions: How do people assess and assimilate scientific information in the context of daily decision-making? How accurately are scientific controversies presented in the media?  How do the portrayals of science and scientists in fiction and film affect public understanding of science? No prior science experience necessary.

Melinda Herrold-Menzies, Professor of Environmental Analysis


Herrold-Menzies, Melinda
“Environmental Documentaries: Controversy, Evidence, Persuasion & Critical Analysis”

This course introduces students to environmental controversies and the intercultural and social justice issues surrounding them through their documentation in film. Through class discussion and writing assignments, we will analyze the methods of persuasion and types of evidence these documentaries use to examine how effective films are at conveying messages and inciting viewers to action. Readings range from excerpts from Aristotle’s Rhetoric to popular blogs on persuasive writing to scholarly materials that provide background, additional evidence, and counter-arguments on the subjects of the documentaries. Topics include petroleum and environmental justice in the Amazon, Niger Delta, and Louisiana, water and food, and the exploitation of rare species.


Johnson, Carina
“Thinking the Impossible: Gender and Utopia in European and U.S. History”

Writers create utopias, dystopias, and speculative ‘fictions’ to challenge their societies’ ideas of sexuality and gender. Sometimes these visions have galvanized social or political action, sometimes they have been rejected as impossible or dangerous. This course explores speculative thought about gender and sexuality within their historical contexts in Europe and the U.S during the past 500 years. We will focus particularly on periods of great political and social tumult, including post-Interregnum England (1660s), post-World War I Europe (1920s), and the final decade of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. (mid-1960s to mid-1970s).


Jorge, Ethel & Poston, Muriel
“LA: An exploration of the environment and its cultural complexities”

This first-year seminar explores selected aspects of Los Angeles’ contemporary complexities through its socio-cultural history and its environmental problems/history. The course will explore the “becoming” of contemporary Angelinos through the environmental and cultural geography of the region, the urban spaces they inhabit; the city’s historical and present ethnic and racial communities, and their contexts of economic inequalities, frictions, and social struggles. The class will include 5 full-day field trips into Los Angeles as we explore the city and its environment. Many of the class discussions and conversations will occur during these field trips. The class will include a range of readings and video documentaries, in addition to the field trips to various sectors of the city including museums, street art/murals, and environmental problems and habitats. The opportunity to learn about initiatives that bring about change will be central to the course. The structure of this first-year seminar and its assignments will emphasize process in order to foster the interest and reflection to purposeful writing; the class is informed by methods of cooperative learning and principles of critical pedagogy.

Azamat Junisbai, Associate Professor of Sociology


Junisbai, Azamat
“Model Minority/Perpetual Foreigner: Asians in America”

What is the contemporary Asian American experience? How does Asian America look when we take into account differences in ethnicity, class, gender, and generation? This course offers a sociological examination of what it means to be Asian American today. Topics include immigration, assimilation, demographic trends, ethnic identity, discrimination, socioeconomic mobility, gender, and relationships with other groups. By exploring the structures that shape Asian American experiences and Asian American challenges to those forces, the course encourages students to consider their own role in transforming US society.

Jesse Lerner, Professor of Media Studies

FYS 10

Lerner, Jesse
“Experimental Film in Latin America”

Interrogating different expressions of the unstable categories of “avant-garde,” “Latin American,” and “experimental,” subverting and appropriating narrative conventions, Latin American filmmakers have long tested cinematic boundaries with works that integrate rigorous formal experimentation and probing social commentary. Through readings, discussions, and film viewing, this course will explore the long history of experimental media arts by Latin Americans and the Latin American diaspora.

Jessica McCoy, Associate Professor of Art

FYS 11

McCoy, Jessica
“Color: Theory, Perception and Practice”

In this course, you will develop your skills as a writer while gaining a heightened awareness and appreciation of color. The content will focus on color and the way it pervades nearly all aspects of our lives. We will study the basic science of how we perceive color, color theory as it developed through this century, the language of basic design principles, and introduce some of the ways in which our observation of color influences our experiences outside of art. You will be responsible for developing written responses, critiques, and research. You will also be assigned oral presentations and be asked to solve color problems using art media and design. We will use interdisciplinary academic strategies to describe ourselves, and our lives, through a chromatic lens.

FYS 12

Paulse, Shelva
“The History and Psychology of the Sport Cricket”

Associated in the popular imagination with Britain and its former colonies and sometimes baffling to Americans, the 2015 World Cup in cricket was watched by an estimated 1.5 billion viewers worldwide. This course will introduce students to the academic study of the history and psychology of cricket. The main focus of this course is two-fold. First, we will explore the socio-historical evolution of international cricket. Second, students will be introduced to various intra- and inter-personal psychological processes in the sport of cricket.

Susan Phillips, Associate Professor of Environmental Analysis

FYS 13

Phillips, Susan
“Graffiti and Street Art”

Street art and graffiti are interrelated global phenomena that re-write urban landscapes through varying relationships to history, segregation, identity, community, art markets and “legitimate” artistic practice.  This course introduces case studies that help to unpack issues of legitimacy and public space.  Debates around graffiti or street art (“but is it art?” or “is it graffiti if…?”) tend to be instrumental rather than opening a space for critical reflection.  Looking at graffiti through time, we unpack the questions that people ask and the constructs that they are making, and to see what we can learn about connections between expressive culture and the built environment.  Our class takes an ethnographic approach to the study of discourses around street art and graffiti—including those from within the academy as well as from practitioners.

FYS 14

Rodriguez, Marcus

The aim of this course is to introduce students to the key foundations, concepts, evidence and applications of mindfulness. We will consider questions such as: How can we help ourselves and others—individuals, communities and society—increase qualities such as self-compassion, resilience, happiness and empathy? As we explore answers to these questions, we will also consider how to effectively communicate these ideas to a broad audience in simple terms. Students will engage in their learning in a variety of ways throughout the course, including mindfulness practices, student-led discussions, in-class writing, peer-review, a research paper and a capstone project (writing a children’s book).

Norma Rodriguez, Professor of Psychology

FYS 15

Rodriguez, Norma & Maria Torres
La Familia”

This seminar will explore the role of “la familia” (the family) for Latinx people living in the U.S.  We will analyze both commonalities and differences across conceptions and constructions of la familia. We will also examine la familia from a comparative perspective (contemporary, across different Latinx groups, within families, across immigration status, etc.), and will consider the psychological, sociocultural, and political factors that contribute to the complexity and diversity of Latinx families.  Students will read research and narrative accounts of the journeys that Latinx families have undertaken (in some cases, crossing the U.S./Mexico border and being separated from family members) resulting in the development of transnational ties and evolving identities. Students will visit the U.S./Mexico border to further understand and contextualize current issues facing Latinx families and communities.

Sharon Snowiss, Professor of Political Studies

FYS 16

Snowiss, Sharon
“What Is Human?”

The determination of what is particularly or distinctively “human” is a problem for the contemporary world and at present has no definitive or consensual answer.  We will explore how peoples in other eras defined themselves and how those distinctions are being blurred by modern technology and biological research.  Do computers have consciousness? Do clones have souls? Do we think with our heart? Can we communicate with other species? Do we have obligations to others? How do we determine human nature?  Or, does man have a nature?

Claudia Strauss, Professor of Anthropology

FYS 17

Strauss, Claudia
“Understanding change/envisioning the future”

What significant social and cultural changes are underway or soon to come in the 21st century? Possible topics include the effects of automation, new information and communication technologies, economic inequality, and global migration. How do we judge between conflicting analyses and predictions? Are some prognostications more about social anxieties now than about future and if so, are there cultural differences in hopes and fears about the future? Throughout we will compare the ways evidence is assessed and arguments are made in disciplines such as anthropology, philosophy, economics, and studies of literature and media.

Albert Wachtel, Professor of Creative Studies

FYS 18

Wachtel, Albert
“What’s True”

This course—in this time of people in power lying; misguided and intentionally false postings by the ignorant, misguided and evil; and moral corruption at almost every turn—is devoted to ferreting out what is true. Having done so, it is crucial for truth seekers to share what they have learned as cogently as possible. For that reason, a crucial aspect of our studies will be devoted to writing thesis-driven papers about what we have discovered. We will begin writing short thesis-driven papers about a text that lays its truths on the page for us. Then we will apply the techniques we have learned to the ever-changing world in which we now live.

Professor Phil Zuckerman

FYS 19

Zuckerman, Phil
“Atheism and Secularity” 

Over the last several decades, atheism and secularity have been on the rise — most dramatically in North America, Europe, and Asia, but also in South America, Africa, and the Middle East. This course will examine various aspects of atheism and secularity. We will approach these topics historically (looking at evidence of irreligiosity in the past), philosophically (looking at atheism, skepticism, empiricism, naturalism, humanism, and existentialism), and sociologically (analyzing who tends to be secular, the contours of secular culture, what causes secularization, and how secularity is linked to broader social patterns, demographics, politics, etc.). In addition to lectures, discussions, and assigned readings, students will also be expected to conduct in-depth interviews and related qualitative research.

Leah Herman, Instructor in English Language

FYS 20

Herman, Leah (I-Scholars)
“Diversity, Equality & Inequities”

This course will examine questions surrounding ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality and consider how this diversity has been challenged or accepted in the United States. Students will analyze contemporary and historical issues and explore questions of social justice as they read a variety of fiction and non-fiction texts. In discussions and compositions, students will consider the ways that culture and social structures shape the Pitzer experience, as well as imagining their own roles in transforming society.

This course is the designated First-Year Seminar for students in the International Scholars Program and is open to non-native English speakers only.

Michael Ballagh, Associate Vice President, Study Abroad & International Programs

FYS 21

Ballagh, Michael (NRS and transfer students)
“Love and Loathing in Los Angeles” 

Through readings, documentary, cinema, and selected field trips to iconic LA spaces, students will unpack the stereotypes of communities and the natural environment of Los Angeles and come to their own understanding of this enigmatic and deeply flawed city. The course will focus on communities of color within LA and the cultural and environmental “apartheid” that impacts them. Readings—both fiction and non-fiction—movies, and documentaries will reflect Los Angeles in the later part of the 20th century.

This course is the designated First-Year Seminar for transfer students and students in the New Resources Program only.