First-Year Seminar (FP 0003)

Fall 2020

First-Year Seminar fulfills the Seminar in Composition requirement and includes Academic Foundations.  Due to this, additional meetings and activities will occur outside of scheduled class times.  Academic Foundations is designed especially for first-term students as an introduction to the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. Through class work and out-of-class activities, students will gain knowledge of the educational opportunities at the University, the cultural events on and off campus, and an understanding of what it means to be a liberal arts student.  All students who enroll in this course will receive a free academic planner on the first day of class.

Class Number Day(s) Time Topic
31313 Monday & Wednesday 11:00 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. Fun & Games
31312 Monday & Wednesday 3:00 - 4:15 p.m. Capitalism: Do You Buy It?
21608 Monday & Wednesday 4:30 - 5:45 p.m.  The Urban Idea
17866 Tuesday & Thursday 9:30 - 10:45 a.m. Fitness, Nutrition, & Wellness
11296 Tuesday & Thursday 11:00 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. The Body of the World
31425 Tuesday & Thursday 1:00 - 2:15 p.m. Rereading Popular Culture
11295 Tuesday 6:00 - 8:30 p.m. On a Quest
11297 Wednesday 6:00 - 8:30 p.m. Robot Revolution
11446 Thursday 6:00 - 8:30 p.m. Ballot Box Writing, 2020


Fun & Games

What is fun? Why do we play? Is it an escapist distraction? Or is play an important element to development and health? What makes certain types of activities (like counting or problem-solving) fun in the context of a game; but in the context of work, the same activities are considered mind-numbing or drudgery?  Using the twin pillars of theory and experience as our guides, in this course we will write to understand the role of fun and games in our lives. No previous game experience necessary, but students should be game to try new things.


Capitalism: Do You Buy It?

We make choices about what to do with our money every day. Businesses invest millions of dollars every year to gain our money and trust, via advertising and marketing campaigns.  The profits we help generate are then used to make decisions that affect our lives, communities, and planet. How can we be more aware of our role in this process? In this class we will investigate the rhetoric of corporate capitalism through readings, documentaries, and exploration of the ads we see and hear daily. We will also study how activists work to expose and critique the rhetoric of corporate capitalism. Together we will investigate the marketing messages we receive and our responses to them, in order to discover: Why do we buy what we buy?


The Urban Idea

What is a city? This course will explore the many possible answers to that and other questions which investigate the nature of urban places. We will consider the urban idea in its past, present, and future incarnations and take a look at urban issues related to ethnicity/class/culture, gentrification, urban planning and architecture, sustainability and environment, etc. Those questions will be asked through a series of reading/writing assignments paired with experiential explorations of the city of Pittsburgh. Through individual and group research/collaboration, we’ll develop our interests in cities and connect our academic community to the diverse communities around us, giving us the opportunity to understand our city (and others) in potentially novel and enlightening ways.


Fitness, Nutrition, & Wellness

Gyms filled with rows of sweaty bodies pedaling on orange bikes at the commands of a headset-clad trainer. Apps that help us quiet our minds and connect with the present moment. Labels that detail the nutrients of every yogurt and frozen pizza we buy, and memoirs recounting the writer’s journey to qualify for the Olympics. Regardless of our own relationships to the body and mind, we live in a culture preoccupied with health. But how do we reconcile the benefits of attending to our wellness with the obsessions and confusions that this attention so easily morphs into? In this First-Year Seminar, we’ll explore how writers—including students in the course—can engage with our culture of health by addressing issues related to fitness, nutrition, and wellness. Through an intensive series of writing and reading assignments, we’ll consider questions such as: How can we write critically and creatively about health and wellness without falling into the traps of cliché and weak thinking? How does our writing on exercise and diet both reveal and influence our assumptions about the body and mind, about culture, and about the individual? How do different modes of “taking care of ourselves” intertwine with expectations of gender, class, and identity, and how can we use writing to investigate these relationships? We’ll support our primary intellectual work with physical activities appropriate for all skill levels, as well as excursions to events related to fitness and wellness around Pittsburgh.


The Body of the World

“We live in community with all the other lives on earth, whether we acknowledge this or not,” writes Camille T. Dungy. “When we write about our lives, we ought to do so with an awareness of the other lives we encounter as we move through the world.” Editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Dungy both challenges what it means to write about the environment and argues for the importance of doing so. Rather than a praise song of unsullied wilderness, Dungy argues, contemporary nature writing takes as its subject the experience of living on a planet in peril. And whether we live in the city, the suburbs or a rural community, our encounters with the environment—the landscape and other people, plants and animals, rock and asphalt and trash—matter. In this course, we’ll read and write essays that explore our relationship to the natural and human-made world, and in so doing, take up Dungy’s proposition that all writing is environmental writing.


Rereading Popular Culture

This seminar uses contemporary popular culture as its subject matter.  We are all immersed in popular culture, both experiencing it and authoring it.  Through an examination of the history and contexts of popular culture in the United States, we’ll discover how it has been formed into this all-pervasive construct.   We will explore film, television, video games, fashion, food, and other cultural phenomena that tell us a great deal about who we are individually and as a society.  We will also examine the extraordinary impact the digital age is having on our world, even as the Internet and the myriad devices we access it with continue to evolve at a rapid pace.  Through a series of reading and writing assignments, as well as out-of-class explorations, we will develop new lenses and ways of seeing the dynamic world we live in with the aim of becoming more curious, critical, and active participants in culture.


On a Quest

Important quests.  Important questions.  What does it mean to go on a quest? What does it mean to question?  From representations of quests in the earliest recorded myths to contemporary TV and films, quests and the questions they raise are seen as a way humans discover, learn, and find out about themselves and the world around them.  In this seminar we’ll read ancient and modern stories, look at examples from TV and film, including science fiction, and consider what quest narratives in these media are telling us.  You’ll write essays which draw on what is read and watched, the questions they raise and you consider, and think about how quests are relevant in our contemporary world.  This seminar will be a kind of quest in itself, where important questions are asked and perhaps important answers are found through reading, watching, discussing, and writing.


Robot Revolution

If an online service offered the possibility that, for $25 payable by credit card or PayPal, their Artificial-Intelligence software could write you an original, “plagiarism-free” college essay on the topic you request, guaranteed to earn a grade in the B+ to A range, would you be tempted to use it?  Would there be disadvantages to doing so, even if you never got caught?  In the 20th century, machines displaced a great deal of human effort in industrial manufacturing.  In the 21st, technology is replacing human labor fields from cab driving to medicine.  What do you think?  Do we, in our ability to reason, to communicate and convince others through sophisticated language in writing and speech, to make informed and ethical decisions, have abilities that the machines can’t or should not replicate?  Should we still learn to think and write, or should we be eager to pass this work off to our eager servants?  Would you have an intimate relationship with a robot?  In this course, through our own Ballot Box Writing, 2020reading, writing and thinking, we will examine both cultural trends, like the increasing automation of pretty much everything, and cultural products including Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots and the HBO series Westworld.


Ballot Box Writing, 2020

Shortly after midterm, in November, 2020, voters in the US will elect a president. In this class, we will use this election to focus and motivate our writing, reading, and discussions. Rather than debating the merits of this or that candidate, we will zoom out to examine larger questions: What do we gain, if anything, by voting? How do we form our opinions? How do we balance self-interest and the common good? In signing up, bear in mind that this is not a political science class. We will not aim to become experts in anything other than writing. Toward that end, we will write essays that argue, explore, and narrate. In an oral history project, we will interview family members, friends, and strangers about what the election, or democracy more broadly, means to them.