It’s a list of 30 courses so varied and unexpected that it’s always hard to choose.
In a Pomona College rite of passage, first-year students begin their lives on campus with the Critical Inquiry seminar, an introduction to the kind of deep reading, writing and discussion that will be a foundation of their education.
Known as ID1 courses for their interdisciplinary designation in the catalog, the seminars focus on developing writing skills as the students collaborate with peers, professors and other student mentors to refine their drafts. The familiar five-paragraph format and the strict word counts of admissions essays are left behind.
“I try to sell writing as simply another form of thinking,” says Hans Rindisbacher, a professor of German and Russian who is teaching a revised seminar titled Possibilities of Scent: A Cultural History of the Sense of Smell.
Here’s a look at some of the 11 new courses this year:
Lessons from the Mouse
“Disneyland felt to me like a subject that everyone already has a relationship with, whether you’re a local person here who knows someone who works there, or you grew up going there, or you’re an international student who has grown up with Disney movies. I don’t think there is a place it hasn’t touched,” she says. “It provides for me the opportunity to make Disneyland into this lens to look at other kinds of things. We can use Disneyland to look at, for example, race and gender and pop culture. Or we can use Disneyland as an example when talk about labor.”
Labor issues were in the news this summer as Disneyland workers pressed for a “living wage.” Gender issues were at the forefront too, as the Pirates of the Caribbean ride reopened after an update that removed a banner at an auction scene that had read, “Take a wench for a bride.” Yet for all the complicated ways in which nostalgia, utopia, commerce and reality converge in Anaheim, “there is a magical ‘there’ there,” Auerbach says.
And yes, there is a field trip.
The Politics of Protest
The Women’s March. The Arab Spring. The Tea Party protests. Tiananmen Square. And of course, the Civil Rights Movement.
“It’s an ever-evolving class. There’s always something going on somewhere in the world,” says Professor of Politics Erica Dobbs, a new faculty member teaching her first ID1, a course based on a first-year seminar she taught at Swarthmore College.
“Every year, there’s been an ideological mix,” Dobbs says, noting many of her previous students had participated in protests. “Some had gone to the women’s protest. Some had gone to the March for Life.”
Some of the questions considered include what makes a protest a success or a failure, the role of historical memory, and whether social media is a positive.
"Social media and the internet have changed the game when it comes to mobilization, but at the end of the day the powers that be are still more concerned about people taking to the streets than taking to their keyboards,” Dobbs says.
Statistics in the Real World
The full title of Mathematics Professor Jo Hardin’s revised and updated ID1 seminar includes the phrase, “9 out of 10 Seniors Recommend This First Year Seminar.” It’s a play on the old Trident commercial that claimed “four out of five dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum.”
“Every year I have a couple of students who take it because they think the seniors recommended it,” Hardin says. “I think to myself, ‘You’re the person who should be in the class.’”
The continuing explosion of data makes the course more relevant than ever, and the class will consider cases from both the media and scientific studies. It includes a focus on politics, polls and in particular, the 2016 presidential election.
“There’s this whole narrative about how everybody got it wrong. But again, back to the psychology of it, the site FiveThirtyEight was saying Trump had a 1 in 3 chance,” Hardin says.
"A 1 in 3 chance happens all the time – one in three times.”
Other topics include types of bias, including algorithmic bias – a bias that is built into a computer program, unintentionally or not.
“So there are things where you think, ‘oh, it’s all data so it’s very unbiased,’ that have unintended consequences,” Hardin says.
Math + Art: A Secret Affair
Mathematics Professor Gizem Karaali wants to put to rest the idea that everyone is either a math person or an art person. A curving sculpture of the symbol for pi sits on her desk. On her whiteboard are two colorful circular designs that turn out to be geometric art by her husband and 9-year-old daughter.
The textbook is a $49 coffee table book, Mathematics and Art: A Cultural History, by Lynn Gamwell. “If you wanted a calculus textbook, you’d have to pay $150,” Karaali says. “I’m thinking that’s a good deal.”
The book includes the artist M.C. Escher, with his stairways and tessellations. “We find his work fascinating because it’s visually interesting, but also mathematically, what’s happening?” Karaali says. It also explores concepts such as proportion, infinity and symmetry in other less-expected artists, in some cases considering their work in a mathematical context for the first time.
Math and the literary arts are examined as well. Students will engage with authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, whose story The Library of Babel explores the mathematical ideas of large numbers and permutations. They’ll also work with math poetry–a wide-ranging genre that includes the haiku, with its syllabic structure of 5-7-5.
“I think that’s part of why a lot of mathematicians are attracted to poetry. It’s constrained creativity,” Karaali says. “Mathematics is like that too. You have constraints, but then you are free to imagine and see where you can go with it.”
Adventures with Russian Books
Russia is almost constantly in the news, and not much of it positive. In Larissa Rudova’s revised and updated Critical Inquiry class, the professor of German and Russian will lead her students from the 19th century of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky into the 21st century, introducing such contemporary writers as Zakhar Prilepin, who writes about Chechnya.
“What I hope students will get is a different look at Russia, what Russia really was, what it is, what makes it what it is,” Rudova says. “I want students to know Russian writers think about world peace and the world in general. I think it’s important to see a different point of view, beside Facebook and the main news channels.”
To cover so much literary territory, many of the texts will be shorter fiction. “We’re not going to read War and Peace,” Rudova says. Among the readings will be Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich–"a great work, especially for premed students,” Rudova says–and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, about a peasant sent to the gulag.
From the days of the czars to the Russian Revolution, World War II, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union to today, Russian writing often has had a not-so-hidden message for the reader, Rudova says.
“In the 19th century, the reason literature resonated so much was that it was in a sense the only venue from which authors could express points of view that were in opposition to the government. It was the same for Russian writers in the 20th century.”
Governing Climate Change
Acknowledging climate change is one thing. Figuring out what is most likely to happen and what to do about it is another.
Professor of Politics Richard Worthington takes on the complex topic of how local, state, national and international governmental groups are addressing climate change, with a particular focus on climate justice.
“Climate justice is really built off the idea of environmental justice, this aspiration that people have basically equal access to environmental benefits and amenities, and equal protection against environmental hazards,” he says, noting that the countries that have done the most to create the problem, such as the U.S. and China, aren’t necessarily the ones most affected.
“Poor countries, for example,” Worthington says, noting that geography also makes a difference. “Small islands, with sea level rise, are going to be hit harder.”
Students will consider the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as efforts to counter climate change such as the Paris climate accord or California’s automobile emissions regulations, in addition to more local efforts like plans for solar energy in Claremont.
To see the full list of 2018 Critical Inquiry seminars , visit the Pomona College catalog.