6 Classes That Will Make You Want to Return to the Classroom
Every year in Arts & Sciences, faculty continue to come up with new and interesting courses on pressing global topics to engage and educate their students. Here is a sample of just some of the new and noteworthy undergraduate courses offered in Arts & Sciences this fall that will make you wish you could go back to the classroom!
Obscene as Cancer: Modern War in Art
John Klein, associate professor of art history and archaeology
Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged: Artists in World War I, edited by Gordon Hughes and Philipp Blom
Art and war have always been intertwined, whether in glory or revulsion. But modern art and modern war are qualitatively different from their past counterparts in ways that ensure their relationship is problematic and oppositional. The challenge of finding new artistic languages to express the new conditions of mechanized combat led many artists to explore abstraction, fragmentation, absurdity, or arbitrariness to convey the energy, impersonality, and nihilism of modern war. Special emphasis will be placed on World War I and its artistic legacy owing to the ongoing centenary recognitions of that war, including the special exhibition to be held at WU’s Kemper Art Museum: “World War I: War of Images, Images of War.” When the British soldier and poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) wrote of the human devastation of World War I as “obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud,” he strained for metaphoric language appropriate to its magnitude. We will consider the same challenge to visual artists throughout the modern period.
Klein says he was inspired to start this course by a colleague. “A retired colleague of mine, Professor Sarantis Symeonoglou, taught a course on ancient art and war, and I thought I could do the same for the modern period in European and American art history, generally speaking the last 200 years. This course allows me to reorganize familiar material in a new way, and to introduce aspects of modern and contemporary art that I might not have paid much attention to before now. It’s a very stimulating course to teach and I have great students, a nice mix of graduate students and undergraduates.”
Current Challenges in Energy and the Environment
Sophia Hayes, professor of chemistry
Physics for Future Presidents, by Richard Muller, which inspired the course
This course is designed to provide an overview of chemistry as it relates to problems in environmental science, energy, and related topics. It is constructed such that all students, irrespective of their major area of study, can learn about chemistry in these contexts. The course is intended to be highly interdisciplinary; therefore, it will cover subjects including chemistry, physics, engineering, geology, biology, environmental policy, and others.
About the course, Hayes says, “I was hoping to introduce a course to teach students critical thinking skills, regardless of their eventual major or choice of career. I have been particularly struck by the diversity of opinions that I come across on the topics of energy, climate change, and the environment in the public sphere. The purpose of this class is to make these chemistry-related topics approachable to incoming students (of all types—not necessarily scientists and engineers), while broadening and strengthening scientific understanding of these, in a discussion-based, informal setting. We are tackling topics such as global warming and climate change, the use of fossil fuels, the latest exciting developments in alternative energy sources, and perspectives on environmental effects. I’m hopeful that students will leave with a greater understanding of the scientific basis of all of the subjects, and also know how to read and interpret ‘popular science’ articles, to become well-informed citizens.”
Biomolecular Archaeology: Are You What You Eat?
Xinyi Liu, assistant professor of archaeology
A revolution is underway in archaeology. Working at the cutting edge of isotopic and genetic technologies, researchers have been probing the building blocks of ancient proteins, life-DNA, fats, and microfossils in order to rewrite our understanding of the past. Their discoveries and analyses have helped revise the human genealogical tree and answer such questions as: Are you what you eat? How different are we from the Neanderthals? Who first domesticated plants and animals? What was life like for our ancestors? In this class, students will address those fundamental issues to understanding human nature. Here is science at its most engaging.
About the inspiration behind the course, Liu says: “It is an interesting time for archaeologists. It almost feels like a revolution. In the context of a rapid development of life-science technologies in archaeology, we are now allowed to ask more interesting questions. A major component of this class is to try to understand the relationship between food and our body, as well food and society. In this class, we unfold the question ‘Are you what you eat?’ along both lines of evolutionary biology and the sociology of food. To some extent, the course aims to bridge some gaps between archaeology, cultural anthropology and bio-anthropology.”
Freshman Seminar: Pirates, Explorers and the Frontiers of Empire
Amanda Scott, PhD candidate in history
Shrouded in myth and legend, piracy and exploration are often misunderstood and romanticized. This course places pirates and conquistadores, explorers and colonists, willing participants and victims within their proper social context and, in doing so, introduces students to early modern imperial and Atlantic history. Topics will include: patterns and transpositions of conquest; slavery and the colonial economy; colonial frontiers; scientific exploration; piracy and empire; gender and social control.
Amanda Scott, whose dissertation is on women in early modern Spain, says, “One of the reasons I wanted to do a Freshman Seminar on Iberia’s Atlantic Empires was because I think it works particularly well for getting at the ways individuals experienced early modern Empire, from a variety of angles. The sources I chose for this class help break down a lot of the stereotypes of the Spanish Conquest and the Black Legend, while still giving due consideration to the victims of colonization, empire, piracy, slavery, and early modern warfare. Essentially, the course is an introduction to Atlantic world history. About a third of the course is strictly on piracy, but the beginning part of the class sets up the competition of European powers that played out through commerce, colonization, and exploration in the Atlantic basin.”
The Cultural Lives of Things: An Introduction to American Material Culture
Heidi Kolk, acting director of the American Culture Studies program
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Gail Steketee and Randy Frost
The Comfort of Things, by Daniel Miller
American culture is often defined by its obsessive attachment to material things – the iPhones, coffee cups, and favorite t-shirts that fill our everyday lives. This course will explore our contradictory relationship to such objects – the possessions that serve practical functions and give us a sense of identity, meaning, and power, but just as often come to possess or control us. The course will draw upon work in anthropology, art history, sociology, literature and museum studies, as well as by theorists (Marx, Freud, Baudrillard, and others) who have influenced modern conceptions of material life. Students should also look forward to some in-the-field analysis of different historic, museum, and personal objects around St. Louis.
On the first day of class, Kolk asks student to think about what they packed to bring to college, and why they chose those particular objects. Though seemingly superficial, Kolk says such decisions “tap into fundamental questions of identity and meaning.” Throughout the course, Kolk and her students will “explore various aspects of cultural identity and meaning that are given expression through objects, including our innermost longings and social aspirations, our political views and cultural values, our sense of heritage and history, and – as we see in the temporary memorials that spring up at sites of violent tragedy such as those in Ferguson and Charleston – our sense of common humanity and feelings of loss.”
Laboratory on the Evolution of Animal Behavior
Carlos Botero, assistant professor of biology
This course explores the costs, benefits, and constraints that drive the evolution of animal behavior. It is divided into four modules: a brief overview of basic statistics, a lab on agonistic behavior, a lab on animal communication, and a lab on sexual selection by female choice. Laboratory modules are hands-on and student driven. They begin with an overview of relevant literature and a discussion of key questions that have been addressed experimentally in that field. Students are then encouraged to apply these concepts into the design, execution, and analysis of a research project aimed at answering a question of their own choosing through the use of house crickets as a study system. A majority of class time is devoted to active learning through the collection and analysis of data (each lab module lasts 4 weeks). In addition, the course includes weekly presentations by the instructor and class discussions on topics that help place the students’ work into the broader context of evolutionary theory.
When coming up with this new course, Botero says, “I designed BIOL 373 to provide a space for students to apply their energy and creativity in a learn-by-doing experience that mimics the entire scientific process. The goal of my course is not only to learn about basic principles that drive the evolution of animal behavior but also to experience science from within by generating hypotheses off of prior work, designing experiments to test them, analyzing and writing up our results and finally commenting on each other’s findings.”