Critical Inquiry Seminars Welcome First-Year Students into Pomona’s Intellectual Community

Peter Flueckiger, professor of Japanese, with his Japan as Utopia and Dystopia class in Mason Hall.

If you ask a Pomona alumnus what their Critical Inquiry seminar was, chances are they can recall the name of the class immediately. That’s because the Critical Inquiry seminar, or ID1, as it’s more commonly known, serves as both a rite of passage for first-year students and an introduction to the intellectual community at Pomona.

Topics vary, but the goal is the same in all 31 sections. Students learn to engage in college-level discussion, writing and reading, in the context of a small seminar. They explore ideas, challenge existing knowledge and question assumptions from an interdisciplinary perspective. 

We spoke to six faculty members about the ID1 sections they are teaching this semester.

Education as Freedom; Education as Capture—Eric Hurley

Eric Hurley, professor of psychological science and Africana studies, acknowledges the provocativeness of the title of his course, especially for students that are just starting their college career. But he believes it’s a tension many students are already experiencing.

Is education truly “the great equalizer?” Hurley asks. Are there ways that systems of education force assimilation and enclosure?

Students will explore works in psychological science and ethnic studies, including writings by Horace Mann, an early advocate for universal education in the U.S., and speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.

Hurley believes that all writing is persuasive and that writing happens best when the motivation is clear. To that end, one of his assignments is for students to write a grant proposal for education research or intervention. Past topics have ranged from the school to prison pipeline to how income disparity in Chinese American communities interacts with the model minority myth. Students will also make their case to a grant review board comprised of classmates.

“The topics can be pretty serious, but we manage to have a good time with it,” says Hurley.

Environmental Justice Futurism: Caring for the Future Now—Guillermo Douglass-Jaimes

Environmental justice futurism imagines a socially and ecologically just future. In his class, Guillermo Douglass-Jaimes, assistant professor of environmental analysis, wants students to see themselves in that future.

Students will be introduced to “a third wave of environmental justice theory” through books and peer-reviewed scholarship. They will also examine popular media—films, YouTube videos and blogs—to learn about “the world around us,” says Douglass-Jaimes.

Journaling will be a regular practice for students to reflect on what they are learning through these various media.

One of Douglass-Jaimes’ primary goals is for students to learn to work together. “We are increasingly in a collaborative world, and the ability to work together is absolutely essential,” he says. Douglass-Jaimes looks forward to students working together to consider how “hope and care can provide paths toward a future that we actually want.”

“Too often, tropes depicting our imaginings of a utopic future conflate Whiteness, able-bodiedness and intersections of privilege,” says Douglass-Jaimes. “I want students to imagine and bring about a future where Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Queer, Trans and disabled selves can also thrive.”

I Disagree—Vin de Silva

As a professor of mathematics and statistics, Vin de Silva relishes teaching a class that is “connected to how we are as people.”

“The most important skills in any relationship—personal, professional, political—is knowing how to disagree,” de Silva writes in the course description. “In this seminar, we will rehabilitate the word and revive the noble art of disagreement.”

The first reading he assigns is an excerpt on marriage guidance. It demonstrates “the inherent conflict between being an individual and being connected,” he says. “How do you honor your conflicting needs?”

But the texts are not the main reason de Silva teaches the class.

Though the title “I Disagree” might imply speaking, de Silva says students’ “primary job in the classroom is to become aware of when someone might have something to say.” He wants students to have “empathy and attention to other people” and to be “invested in everyone having a voice.”

“Learning to be quiet is a huge thing,” de Silva says.

Imagined Cities—Joanne Nucho

Who gets to decide how a city is built? Should it be top down or ground up? How are planners constrained by our political-economic system?

Associate Professor of Anthropology Joanne Nucho’s goal for her students is to think critically and creatively about how cities are built, planned and governed. The class will read works of anthropology as well as fiction and classics of urban studies.

The students’ final project will be a visual essay—a “mini documentary” of sorts—on a city of their choice. They will use the anthropological method of ethnography, “really spending time in a place, paying attention to what they hear and see, how it feels to move around,” says Nucho.

Nucho enjoys the opportunity to teach students how to ask questions anthropologically and hopes the class will be “an introduction, and hopefully an inspiration, for students to think more capaciously about the built environment around them.”

Japan as Utopia and Dystopia—Peter Flueckiger

Peter Flueckiger, professor of Japanese, observes that “Japan somehow seems to inspire very either extreme positive or extreme negative reactions.”

Positive views include being a country of aesthetic refinement and technological advancement, he says. At the same time, Japan is also seen as a country of economic stagnation and social breakdown.

Flueckiger’s goal is not to figure out who’s right or wrong empirically but for students to examine these disparate views. He will approach his class through a multitude of disciplines including economics, political science and anthropology.

Students will read literature and watch several films including Princess Mononoke, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Silence. For a writing assignment, Flueckiger might assign a research paper asking students to look at various articles or reviews on a book or film and why people saw the work in different ways.

In the end, Flueckiger hopes the class will “examine not only what these sources tell us about Japan itself but also what they reveal about how Japan has existed as an object of the imagination.”

Science and Religion: Enemies, Friends, or Strangers?—Thomas Moore

Thomas Moore, professor of physics, draws a triangle to depict for students the three extreme opinions in the relationship between science and religions: 1) they are actively opposed; 2) they are friends; and 3) they are completely independent. In his class, students will read contemporary writers from all three perspectives as well as historical texts.

After each reading, students will write a short reflection, which also serves to prepare them for class discussions.

Personal reflection figures strongly into the class. Students will “gain the tools and background for thoughtfully developing [their] own perspectives on this issue,” Moore writes in the course description. At the beginning of the semester, students compose a short paper on how they define science and religion. At the end of the semester, they will write another paper reflecting on the same questions.

“The real purpose,” Moore says, “is to open their minds to possibilities and a broader range of thinking.”