First-Year Seminar Courses, Fall 2024

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

First-year seminars (FYS) are writing-intensive courses of approximately 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.


Acosta, Andrea

Racial Imaginaries: From Shakespeare to the Digital Age

This course will use a combination of literary texts and media to explore issues of race— specifically the way race operates in and through acts of storytelling or fiction-making around bodies that are “read” differently from others. To do this, we will ask a series of related questions: how does race intersect with social constructions of beauty? How do aesthetics mediate the way we think about the human (and even non-human, robotic, or “monstrous”) body? And how can our analysis of Shakespeare, poetry, or digital pop culture help us build a deeper understanding of the politics of race in the modern world?

Andrea Acosta is a digital media and critical race scholar with training in literature and media studies.  Her teaching combines media studies with her training in literary analysis to ask questions about race, inequality, and power in the digital era. Her research focus is digital culture, K-pop/K-media, fan cultures, and amateur content creators.

Ambriz, Denise

Education and Society

The goal of this course is to ask fundamental questions about the relationship between education and society. Using sociological theories and research, we will analyze the education system’s role in reproducing and mitigating inequality. We will consider how schools organize themselves and instruction; how social class, gender, race, and immigration status influence students’ learning experiences and outcomes; and examine the obstacles to achieving educational equity. Throughout, students will reflect on their own experiences in the education system in a sociological way.

Denise Ambriz is an Assistant Professor of Sociology. Her research and teaching interests lie in the areas of sociology of education, immigration, and Latino/a/x sociology. Her current research investigates how educational context matters for the achievement outcomes and schooling experiences of Latinx children. She is also interested in societal attitudes toward immigrants and perceptions of national belonging in the United States.

Anthes, Bill

Animals in the Movies

Since the invention of motion pictures animals have been an essential, if underrecognized, presence. The desire to capture moving images of animals spurred technological innovations and animal products were key ingredients in film stock. Animals have also been compelling for filmmakers as allegories, as narrative subjects, and the focus of documentarians and activists. This class explores how animals have appeared in movies from their origins to the present and in many genres, asking how representations of animals express cultural norms and habits of thought, how representations of animals matter, and to whom?

Bill Anthes is a professor in Pitzer’s Art Field Group and also participates in the Claremont Colleges’ Program in American Studies. He teaches and writes about the art of the United States, Indigenous artists, contemporary socially-engaged and activist art, photography, and animals in art. He is currently researching a history of entangled human and animal lives in the built environments of Los Angeles.

Aristizábal, Juanita

Brazil Beyond Sol, Praia e Futebol

Brazil is Latin America’s largest nation and the only one in which Portuguese is spoken. It is known globally for the Amazon rainforest, Rio de Janeiro’s postcard-perfect landscapes and lavish Carnival, and legendary footballers who play a style of soccer called jogo bonito. It has the largest population of people of African descent outside of Africa; is home to over three hundred indigenous peoples, many of which are uncontacted; and has been shaped by waves of migration from Italy, Germany, and Japan. Brazilian cities are complex: on the one hand, they represent the attempted materialization of modernist ideals such as in its capital city, Brasilia, which was built from scratch in the 1950s; on the other, they host one of the world’s largest experiments in insurgent urbanization, the favelas.  In this seminar we will explore Brazil’s cultural history through its film, literature, music, and visual arts. Our discussions will focus on the country’s rich diversity and turbulent history. We will look back at the past to understand Brazil’s present, including how and why Brazil went from being considered an emergent global power only a decade ago to seeing its democracy threatened and its society deeply polarized.

Juanita Aristizábal is Professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures field group. Her research interests include environmental issues in contemporary Latin American literature and film; violence, representation, peacebuilding, and historical memory in contemporary Colombia; and Innovative approaches to second language acquisition and community-based and experiential learning.

Barndt, Will

The Human Condition

How can one think and write well about political theory in an age of uncertainty – and about the “real-world” consequences of that theory? In pursuit of answers to this question, we will explore Hannah Arendt’s classic The Human Condition. Through careful reading and discussion of this important book, we will evaluate the origins, past and present of our contemporary political and social crises.  Such analysis will allow us to ask: What is our political future together?

Will Barndt teaches and writes on the politics of the Americas. His current interests include the political importance of place, the modern state and its critics, the discipline of political science, and the theory & practice of the small residential liberal arts college. He is writing a book called Political Science for Heretics, which asks: how might political science be different if we took James Joyce as our guide?

Berenfeld, Michelle

The Ancient Mediterranean World—Then and (up to) Now

The ancient Mediterranean—famous as the home of Greeks and Romans—was inhabited by millions of people who spoke hundreds of languages and worshiped countless gods. This course not only explores this world on its own terms, but also considers how ancient Mediterranean cultures have been reconstructed and interpreted ever since. This class pointedly does not trace an arc of “Western civilization.” It explores topics such as how the Greco-Roman past influences modern ideas about race, played a role in the history of slavery and abolition in the US, participates in politics, and shows up in modern art, literature, and pop culture.

Michelle Berenfeld is an archaeologist who works in the ancient Mediterranean. She specializes in urban culture of the Roman empire. She is also interested in how the ancient Greco-Roman world is reinterpreted (and misinterpreted) in modern contexts, including its representation in visual art and literature.

Bhattacharya, Sumangala

Tales of the First Amendment

Do you believe in free speech and the free exercise of religion? What about the right to demonstrate against the government? What forms of protest are acceptable? Where should we draw the line for these rights and the other rights protected under the First Amendment? How did these rights come to exist? The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects five rights that many believe are essential to a democratic society: freedom of expression, a free press, religious freedom, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government to seek redress. However, the boundaries of these rights continue to be questioned and contested. This class explores the evolving landscape of the First Amendment (with a focus on the freedom of expression) in film, literature, nonfiction, as well as some key cases and their contexts.

Sumangala Bhattacharya is a Professor of British literature. She specializes in 19th-century texts and their cultural contexts, including imperialism, gender, law, science, and the supernatural. She is also a practicing attorney specializing in humanitarian immigration law and has an abiding interest in First Amendment issues.

Chadburn, Melissa

Can I Get A Witness? Regarding the Pain of Others

I’ve often struggled with the limitation of what’s deemed a literature of witness. How are we implicated in the aftermath of crimes we did not ourselves witness? How can we best carry their stories forward, without appropriating them, without unduly calling attention to ourselves, and without in turn, having their stories displaced by ours? This class will explore innovative interventions on ways of looking through works by Saidiya Hartman, Cathy Park Hong, Muriel Rukeyser and others. And developing our own witnessing practice—producing original works of nonfiction.

Melissa Chadburn’s writing has appeared in The LA Times, NYT Book Review, NYRB, Paris Review online, and dozens other places. Her debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, was published with Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in April 2022 and was longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Debut Novel Award. She was recently awarded her Ph.D. from USC’s Creative Writing Program. Melissa is a worker lover and through her own work and literary citizenship strives to upend economic violence. Her mother taught her how to sharpen a pencil with a knife and she’s basically been doing that ever since.

Feree, Patrick

Practicing science: chasing knowledge with imperfect tools (and imperfect minds)

The practice of science has given us detailed knowledge about the natural world, providing innumerable discoveries with great societal impact. This fact is particularly intriguing given that the scientific method is an imperfect tool used by imperfect operators. In this course, we will discuss both strengths and limitations of the scientific method through case studies of hallmark scientific endeavors. We will think critically about how the scientific method works, abstractions and complications of the experimental process, influences of the human mind (our cognitive biases) on the scientific process, and how we come to “understand” reality. We also will envision how science might play a role in addressing certain, future human challenges, and whether there are unsurpassable limits to what we can know or achieve. The nature of this course is not philosophical in the strict sense, but instead, of a more empirical nature. Class discussions will provide a platform for assignments that develop analytical, argumentative writing skills.

Patrick Ferree is a scientist and professor of biology in the Department of Natural Sciences.  He investigates how selfish genetic elements evolve and harm other parts of the genome to achieve high inheritance. His current, NSF-funded work focuses on selfish chromosomes that cause alteration of sexual development in insects. He is interested in practical aspects of how students learn to practice scientific inquiry.

Goel, Deepti

Thinking like an Economist

In this seminar we will rationalize real-world observations and events using the tool kit of an economist. For instance, we will understand why despite being essential workers, janitors earn minimum wages, and why life sustaining water is so much cheaper than ornamental diamonds. We will also explore broader policy issues such as the implications of ending race based affirmative action in higher education, and the unintended consequences of enforcing stricter border control. In doing so, we will learn how economists make their arguments by relying on both objective facts as well as subjective value judgements in varying degrees. This makes the discipline of economics as complex and exciting as the real world it seeks to understand.

Deepti Goel joined the Economics group at Pitzer in 2023. Before this, she was teaching Economics in India for about fifteen years. One strand of her research explores how social identities such as gender, caste, and immigrant status, influence economic and non-economic outcomes including notions of self-worth. The other seeks to make public expenditure more effective by measuring the impacts of government interventions and uncovering the mechanisms through which these impacts are mediated.

Grell, Kevin

Sustainable Futures: Exploring Motivations for Change

In this seminar we investigate the intricate motivations behind sustainability initiatives. Through dynamic discussions, hands-on projects, and real-world examples from public policy, corporates, universities, and media, we’ll uncover the diverse reasons driving sustainable practices, from ethical considerations to economic benefits. We discover the interconnectedness of environmental conservation, social responsibility, and economic prosperity, and explore how sustainable solutions can drive positive change. This seminar offers a unique opportunity to delve into sustainability issues and cultivate the knowledge and skills needed to effect positive transformations in communities and beyond… and hone critical thinking of sustainability claims from various stakeholders.

Kevin Berg Grell is an interdisciplinary scholar focusing on sustainable agriculture, agrivoltaics, and impact investing. Through research and teaching, he explores economic solutions to environmental challenges. His work examines the potential of agrivoltaics and impact investing to promote sustainability in food production and renewable energy.

Gutiérrez, Paula

Los Angeles: the City and its People(s)

This seminar will explore the history, socio-cultural fabric, and urban landscapes of the City of Angels, as well as some of its representations on cultural productions locally and globally. Class materials will include academic and literary readings, documentary and fiction films, as well as 3 full-day field trips to explore museums, urban landscapes, street art, restaurants, and other cultural manifestations of its life.

Paula Gutiérrez is Senior Language Lecturer in Spanish in the Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures Field Group. She teaches advanced and multi-level Spanish classes, and has a background in sociology, which she studied at the post-graduate level both in Argentina and the U.S.  She is interested in language pedagogy, heritage language teaching, and in sociological perspectives on Latin American societies and cultures: in particular social agency and political and social movements; human rights, memory and justice; and popular culture.

Herman, Leah

Diversity, Equality & Inequities

This course will examine questions surrounding ethnicity, race, class, and gender to consider how this diversity has been challenged and/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 discussion 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.

Leah Herman specializes in teaching advanced writing, critical analysis of literature and public speaking for international students. She is a Senior Language Lecturer and the  Academic Director of the International Scholars Program.

Herrold-Menzies, Melinda

Environmental Documentaries: Social and Environmental Justice

This course introduces students to environmental and social justice issues by examining how they are explored in environmental documentaries. We examine films not just as a way of exploring environmental problems but also as vehicles for understanding how arguments are made, how audiences are persuaded, and how evidence is used to justify various theses. We also look at films as a vehicle for the exploration of philosophies about the environment. Topics include climate change; health and the environment; petroleum exploitation; and wildlife conservation.

Melinda Herrold-Menzies (she/her) specializes in conflicts over natural resources, gender and the environment, and nature reserve management in China and Russia. Melinda is passionate about social justice and equity in managing natural resources.

Johnson, Amanda Louise 

College Campus Culture in Literature

Historically, the university is a funny place where modern ideas of professional accomplishment collide with medieval philosophies of higher learning. American college campuses, in particular, have also been a petri dish for radical activism and social change in the U.S., even as the institutions themselves operate according to generations-old traditions. It is an intense four years, but most U.S. college graduates still remember their undergraduate days as a uniquely transformative period in their lives and continue to identify with their alma mater decades after their last day of attendance. Together, we will read texts that explore the wonderfully strange experience of college life, use our writing to tease out the significance of college to us, and take stock of how our time at college has transformed us on and off the page.

Professor Johnson (she/her/hers) specializes in American and Atlantic literature before WWI, and loves to talk about Edgar Allan Poe and Sci-Fi. Firmly believing that writing skills are things anyone can acquire, and always improve, she enjoys helping less-confident writers learn to trust themselves, and she enjoys helping already-confident students learn to challenge themselves.

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, the course encourages students to consider their own role in transforming US society.

Azamat Junisbai is a Professor of Sociology. His research interests include public opinion about political and economic inequality in post-Soviet Central Asia and decolonization developments in societies formerly/currently occupied by Russia.

Justus, Timothy

The Aesthetic Mind

What is the mind’s role in creating and appreciating art? This seminar will consider conceptual, empirical, and historical questions at the intersections of psychology, philosophy, art, music, and literature. What are the characteristics of things and experiences we call ‘art’ or ‘aesthetic’? How does music express and evoke emotions? Does reading fiction increase empathy? When do we experience wonder and awe? Alongside careful readings and discussions of the course texts, occasional visits to local galleries and exhibits, and conversations about writing, students will practice developing well-reasoned arguments about the mind’s encounter with the arts and defending them with appropriate evidence.

Professor Timothy Justus is an interdisciplinary scholar with interests ranging from the neuroscience of music to the philosophy of art. Justus serves on the editorial boards of several academic journals including Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts and is the author of a forthcoming book, Cognition and the Arts.

Liu, Hanzhang

Living with Unfreedom

Freedom is essential to human existence. For well over half a century, the West proudly regarded itself as the champion of human liberty and often looked upon unfree societies elsewhere with sympathy and uncomprehending fascination. “It can’t happen here.” So the conventional wisdom went. Sadly, recent political events have demonstrated that no society is immune to authoritarian erosion. In this course, we will read classic works – both fictions and treatises – that depict lives under totalitarianism and ponder how we, as individuals, can best guard against unfreedom in both our action and human consciousness.

Hanzhang Liu is an assistant professor of Political Studies at Pitzer College. Her studies authoritarian politics with a special focus on China. Specifically, her research examines how authoritarian regimes deploy various institutions to mediate state-society relations and maintain survival.

Pantoja, Adrian

The Criminalization of Immigration

How did immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border transform from a low-priority policy issue into one of the most contentious issues in the 20th Century? One of the most important factors shaping the size and composition of authorized and unauthorized immigration is U.S. immigration policy. Indeed, to meet labor demands, U.S. immigration policy initially encouraged immigration from Mexico and other parts of the globe. Although labor demands continued, by the latter part of the 20th Century, some elites saw a political opportunity by constructing immigrants as a threat and the U.S.-Mexico border as dangerous. A major focus of this course examines the process that has led to the criminalization of immigrants and the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Adrian Pantoja is professor of political studies and chicano studies. My courses and research are driven by a desire to challenge conventional stereotypes about immigrants and other minoritized groups in the United States.

Rodriguez, Norma & Torres, Maria

La Familia

This co-taught seminar explores commonalities and differences across conceptions and constructions of “la familia” (the family) for Latinx people living in the U.S.  We will examine la familia from a comparative perspective (contemporary, across different Latinx groups, within families, across immigration status, etc.), and we will consider the psychological, sociocultural, and political factors that contribute to the complexity and diversity of Latinx families.  We 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.

Norma Rodriguez is a professor of Psychology. Her work focuses on Latinx mental health, with a focus on understanding the psycho-socio-cultural influences on psychological well-being. She is also interested in the development and refinement of psychometric measures to assess the cultural changes, adaptations, and mental health outcomes in Latinx and other communities of color.

Maria Torres is emeritus dean of Chicanx/Latinx students at the Claremont Colleges. She was the founding dean of Chicanx/Latinx Student Affairs at the 5Cs. Her research focuses on sociolinguistics, bilingualism, and pathways for success among Latinx students.

Scott, Andrea

Radical Care

The recent pandemic made all the more visible a powerful fact: we are in the midst of a global “crisis of care.” The growing inequalities produced by late capitalism have disrupted our social capacities for everything from birthing and raising children to caring for friends and family to maintaining households and communities. And yet such reproductive labor is essential for the creation and maintenance of social bonds and the functioning of institutions and infrastructures. How are artists and activists pushing back against this crisis, forging collective movements that view “care” for one’s self and one’s community as moral imperatives to act? How might the expression of radical care—in literature, activism, and art—call into being more socially just relations among friends, family, neighborhoods, and transnational communities? We will read recent scholarship on the philosophy, sociology, and politics of care to enter and transform debates on a wide range of issues, including mutual aid, the prison abolition movement, feminism, care work, and public health.

Andrea Scott is Professor of Academic Writing and Director of College Writing in the Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures field group. She’s passionate about teaching academic writing as a form of world-making. In her courses, students use their writing to ask interesting questions, reframe the terms of debates, and test radical rhetorical strategies. She has written over a dozen peer-reviewed articles about writing and its support transnationally and at the small liberal arts college. She’s currently writing a book called The Radical Academic’s Guide to Writing for Social Justice.

Willoughby, Urmi

Histories of Health and the Environment

What is the relationship between health and the environment in human history? How have humans shaped the physical environment, and how have environmental conditions affected human health and well-being? This seminar explores these questions from a historical perspective. We’ll focus on the history of environmental change in North America in the late eighteenth century though the twentieth century, considering historical processes in a global, comparative framework. We will examine the intersection of histories of the environment, health, and disease, with an emphasis on the reciprocal relationship between ecological change and human health outcomes. Human-induced ecological transformations shaped patterns of health and disease, manifested in a multitude of dimensions, influencing cultural, social, economic, and geopolitical developments. In this course, we’ll study the history of anthropogenic environmental impacts alongside non-human, biological processes.

Urmi Engineer Willoughby is an Associate Professor of History at Pitzer College. Her research focuses on histories of disease and medicine from a global and ecological perspective. Her first book, Yellow Fever, Race, and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (Louisiana State University Press, 2017) was awarded the 2017 Williams Prize for the best book in Louisiana history. Her current project, titled Cultivating Malaria: The Historical Ecology of Fever in Early America, is an environmental and cultural history of malaria in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.