Critical Inquiry Seminars Usher New Students into Academic Life at Pomona

Jonathan Lethem's ID1 class

Pomona College initiates new students into campus life through many beloved traditions: walking through the College Gates, painting Walker Wall, joining a sponsor group. Critical Inquiry seminars are the academic initiation: They prepare students for the educational rigor of Pomona through intensive reading, writing and discussion.

The topics for these required classes, more commonly known as ID1, are chosen by the professors teaching them. This fall, 31 sections are being offered, and the following five are a sample of what students could choose from.

Democracy: What Is It Good For?

What does it mean to be a democracy? How do we know if a country is a democracy or not, and can it be measured? Is representative democracy the best way to govern increasingly diverse modern societies, and what might be the alternative?

As democracies collapse and the U.S. approaches midterm elections, Assistant Professor of Politics Erica Dobbs looks forward to discussing these timely questions with students in her class.

Students will read classic works on democracy as well as newer ones like How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and alumnus Daniel Ziblatt ’95. “Part of the challenge for the students in this class will be to take all these competing arguments and models into consideration,” says Dobbs.

Students’ papers will consider not just theory but data as well. “I’m really big on students doing actual data-driven empirical research,” she says. “Should we be concerned based on what the data tell us?”

Pomona Goes Green

In this class, George Gorse, Viola Horton Professor of Art, plans to have students investigate both how their individual choices in their daily lives affect the Earth’s future as well as how Pomona College can be a sustainable campus.

The class will spend time visiting locales around Pomona College, starting with Marston Quad, the “core” of the campus, and then fanning out to the dormitories, academic buildings and athletic spaces. Students will write a paper analyzing a space on campus of their choosing through a sustainability lens.

“What I can do as an art historian is introduce them to the campus,” says Gorse, and to help students understand “what a wonderful kind of place a campus is as a place of learning and transformation” while simultaneously engaging “the dynamic interdisciplinary field of environmental analysis.”

Animals in Fiction

Jonathan Lethem, Roy Edward Disney ’51 Professor of Creative Writing and professor of English, is teaching his first ID1 class. Students will examine literary methods of allegory, parable and fable, and the class will include sections on domestication vs. wildness, evolution, and animal rights.

“It’s more than a literary subject because to think about the role of animals in human life through novels and stories is to think about all kinds of incredibly important things about bioethics and evolution,” says Lethem. “And it raises philosophical issues about, what does it mean to define the human?”

Lethem, whose award-winning novel Motherless Brooklyn became a 2019 movie starring Edward Norton and Bruce Willis, is recognized as one of the foremost contemporary writers in the U.S. He looks forward to working with incoming students “who have not been college students yet” as well as with students who are not necessarily going to go on to study literature.

Black Mirror

In this class taught by Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies Bilal Nasir, students will examine the rise of surveillance in Western societies through critical readings, popular film and television (including the namesake show Black Mirror) and social media.

Nasir wants students to think critically about surveillance and policing, militarism, race, class and the long history of security in the modern state.

Nasir plans to invite local activists and organizers to talk in his class about the work they are doing. “People are forging really robust social movements to confront the surveillance and the policing that have been targeting their communities,” he says.

Students will also consider the question of ethics. “That’s really the kind of conversation that we need to be having,” says Nasir.

Molecules and the Mind

Karen Parfitt, professor of neuroscience, will have students in her class discuss questions such as: “Are there conditions in which individuals should be medicated against their own wishes?” “Is there an under-use of psychoactive drugs in our society? Or an overuse?” “Is addiction a personal weakness or a disease?”

The class will look at mental health disorders, the neurobiology and psychology of addiction, and neurodegenerative disease. Students will read memoirs from individuals suffering from conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

“One of my goals is to help students understand these conditions, to be compassionate toward people with these extra challenges,” says Parfitt.

In addition to writing an opinion paper and a research paper, students in the class will also write a policy paper that will involve delving into the primary neuroscience literature.

View the full list of Critical Inquiry seminars.